Tag Archives: inspiration

Speaking English

The greatest upside to being English is that no matter where you go in the world, everybody knows the word “toilet”. Whether you find yourself in a large, sprawling city in the heat of Dubai or a remote, deserted village in the cold of Siberia. All you must do to seek relief is utter that magic word and find yourself whisked away to the nearest hole in the ground, porcelain potty or – if you’re lucky – heated Japanese seat.

At its peak the British Empire spread almost entirely over the four corners of the Earth, its language traveling to far away islands via its fearless Navy and to tribes deep in the jungle with its even more fearless explorers. While the British Empire later receded, its words and culture stayed behind and today, all around the world people speak, read and write English. That’s the upside.

The greatest downside to being English is that no matter where you go in the world, nobody knows the word “spelk”. Whether you find yourself in the middle of a large, sprawling bookstore in London or a remote, deserted pub in New York, the people look at you with a strange look and ask “what’s a spelk?”

A “spelk” for those not in the know, is the Geordie word for a splinter. A Geordie – for those who find themselves increasingly not being in the know – is a person born and bred in Newcastle Upon Tyne, a large city in North East England.

Whenever I meet a fellow Englishman abroad a question usually arrives quickly and predictably enough “Where abouts in England are you from?” Once answered the next comment is even more predictable. “You don’t sound like you’re from Newcastle.” England is a melting pot of accents and dialects. By simply traveling 20 miles you can find yourself in a place with a completely new set of words and speech. Some cities are well known around the country for their accents. Birmingham has the brummy accent, east London the cockney and one of the most famous of all is the Geordie.

Other Englishmen gasp in disbelief when they learn I’m a Geordie. My accent doesn’t meet their expectations of what a Geordie should sound like. Imagine you’re talking to a French person. Ow do zay zound? Do zay zound like zis? Probably. Our expectations of people from other places are based on stereotypes and when expectations aren’t met people often won’t reappraise their thoughts and disbelieve those stereotypes, but instead look for loopholes. In my case the loophole being “You’re not a proper Geordie…”

Sadly I’ve even heard this from other Geordies who seem to believe in their own stereotype. These are the people that if they were French would walk around wearing a beret and a string of garlic around their neck, pointing at those that don’t follow suit while snarling “Zoo iz not French.”

Upon arriving in Canada and meeting foreign English speakers people would hear my accent and quickly guess where I was from. Scotland, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, Germany (?!). Rarely do people guess England. In England, people base their expectations on regional stereotypes. Abroad, people base their expectations on national stereotypes. I’m of the opinion that every foreigner expects an Englishman to sound like Hugh Grant or Keira Knightley. Upon learning I’m English, foreigners are usually shocked and there’s no way for them to argue with it, they can hardly say “You’re not a proper Englishman”. The truth of the matter is that we Englishmen come in so many varieties that there is no proper version of us, just the one version we have chosen to export to the world, the version that is the easiest to understand and makes the most sense. Because most English accents make little sense, even to other people in England!

In Canada even the most well traveled of people would find my accent hard to handle due to their being unaccustomed to the variety of British accents. After moving into a new house, my housemate had a few torturous weeks of asking me to repeat everything two or three times until suddenly it clicked and he could understand me. I was speaking English, just not an English he was used to.

When we listen, we don’t listen at all, we just sit back with our brain asleep and we lazily read between the lines based on the context of the conversation. “Would you like a cup of tea?” is simply shortened down by the brain into “Tea?”(Fuck, maybe I am a stereotypical Englishman after all…) “Would you like milk with that?” turns to “Milk?” The brain knows the context so only needs to listen for the important content. The main issue comes when either the context changes quickly or the content needs more focus to understand.

Have you ever been having a conversation with somebody and they’ve said something and you instantly say “Sorry?” But by the time they’ve started to repeat themselves you’ve already figured out what they’ve said? Your brain wasn’t focusing the first time it heard the words and since you weren’t really focusing on the conversation (not really thinking deeply about the topic) you’ve automatically continued the dialogue with a “what?” By the time that word has left your lips a red flag has gone up in your brain saying “ERROR – Didn’t hear” and your brain repeats the words in your head, listening to them carefully the second time and figuring out what has actually been said. A type of instant replay in the brain.

When we speak we build rapport with others, we talk at their volume, at their speed, we almost share the same emotions. Rapport is a key way for the brain to know how to listen (or not listen), it knows how the sound will come so it doesn’t need to focus on those things. This isn’t only shared between two people, but also in groups. We subconsciously build rapport to make communication easier. Ever been in a loud room where everybody is talking loudly having a variety of conversations, then all of a sudden every conversation has gone silent at the exact same moment. That’s a room full of rapport.

But when meeting a person with a strange new accent it can be nigh on impossible to build rapport. The brain wants to be lazy, trying again to work out what is said through context, but without focus the words aren’t words but simply sounds, and those sounds go in one ear and out of the other. It’s a problem I’ve encountered constantly while traveling in Canada and America. Often when a person doesn’t understand what I’m saying they will just smile and nod, we’ve all done it, after all its impolite to ask somebody to constantly repeat themselves.

And so I can find myself in a country where everybody is fluent in English but I am unable to communicate in English. I do everything I can to combat confusion. Speak slowly, try not to use slang, keep it simple. Unfortunately this also takes focus and I can often find myself falling back into my quick, mumbled Geordie accent. Often this can lead to misunderstandings if somebody mishears me. The incorrect order at a cafe or a completely different answer to the question I asked. Sometimes these possible misunderstandings fill me with anxiety, making me fear somebody has heard me say one thing when I’ve said the opposite.

In Vancouver you get on the bus at the front, then get off at the back – this helps to keep the passengers flowing at every stop. Since Canadians are so polite (stereotype?) they will often call a thank you from the back of the bus when they exit. This presents a problem for me. For a start, I’ve never learnt how to pronounced words with a “th” instead opting for “fff”. As an example I say “happy birfday”. Now the problem occurs when calling “Thank you” it becomes “Fank you.” Shout it out loud.

To the untrained ear it could very easily sound like “Fuck you!” Bus drivers across Vancouver would no doubt start to talk about the strange passenger that swears whenever he leaves the bus. I was so mortified about this possible misunderstanding that I decided to not bother with thanks at all, until I came up with a solution. Instead of saying “fanks”, I would say “hanks”. It was genius. The word “hanks” could only ever be mistaken for “thanks” and little else. If anything bus drivers would simply take pity on the young man with the speech impediment. Bless him and his “hanks”.

Now I find myself in Thailand where English is barely understood, but understood enough to be bearable. Problems only arise when you’re met with a situation that is more complex than simply pointing at a food menu. I recently found myself ordering a meal from a street food vendor and as the cook was making it another tourist came along “That looks good.” He pointed at the food “Same same!” I took a seat and watched as moments later the tourist walked away with my meal.

In this situation there was no way for me to find out what was going on. Was my meal coming later? Did the cook think the tourist was me and that was the only meal that was going to get made? How would I communicate all of this? Well I tell you what I did, the next time the waiter passed I tapped him on the shoulder and simply shouted the name of the meal at him, pointed at the cook, pointed at my table. “Pad Thai! Pad Thai! Pad Thai!” I hoped he somehow understood and realised he didn’t when a few minutes later a completely different meal arrived. Only now in retrospect do I realise the absurdity of the situation. How would the waiter have felt in an English restaurant if I had tapped him on the shoulder and shouted randomly over and over. “Beef burger! Beef burger! Beef burger!”

So it seems that the only place in the world I can ever fully be understood is in Newcastle. Where people know what the word “spelk” means and where I can happily stop listening and barely focus on conversations. With this in mind then, it makes no sense why I’ve decided to travel to South Korea to teach English to children. Good luck to those children. Even when you’re raised in England nobody can understand you!

Canoeing

The leaves started to change colour, the trees looking sad and tired after the long warm Summer. The air was growing cooler and the last rays of sunshine were touching the ground. Autumn was teasing its way into the air and we made a decision. One last adventure to celebrate the Summer and regret the oncoming Winter.

We awoke early, packed our bags, strapped our canoe to the van and by lunch time we were on the water, paddling slowly towards a campsite too far away to think about. Other things were on our minds.

After months of tough, uphill jaunts in dark woods, this was the outing I needed. I had become bored with the beauty around me. No longer amazed by the jagged mountain peaks towering above or the islands hazy in the afternoon sun below. Once you see those mountains every day, you just stop looking, you take them for granted. When beauty surrounds you it ceases to surprise you, you get bored – you even start to get a little sick.

I stopped taking photos and started complaining. My argument: every photo I take looks the same. People back home probably think I go on the same damn hike every week. Maybe I do but I just don’t know it? A photo of a mountain. A photo of water. A photo of trees. Mountains, water, trees. Endless trees. As far as the eye can see. Trees. All I ever look at is water, mountains and trees. What I wouldn’t give for a flat desert. No water, mountains or trees. Just nothing but the sand blowing in the wind. Something different, please.

Plunging my paddle into the water lazily, I looked around. Water, mountains, trees. I took a deep breath, feeling the cool fresh air flowing into me. Then I smiled and broke the silence “Man, this is pretty beautiful, isn’t it?” Murmurs of agreement. The water smooth as silk, the mountains sharp as broken glass, the trees tall as giants. All disappearing endlessly into the distance, seemingly infinite. How could this not be beautiful? Sure, I see it every day, but this was different. Moving along the water, actually being in the water was something new, something more natural.

Often while hiking I’m forced to consider my own impact on the environment and the downward spiral hikers often bring to the great outdoors. When we find a place of natural beauty the wheels seem to go into motion immediately. Suddenly we start milking the beauty for all its worth. We find these magical places and we’re so proud to have found them that we shout as loud as possible for others to join us. More people arrive, too many people and to preserve the beauty we build a trail, a line of dirt scraped into the trees. The trail encourages more to arrive, they bring their children, their dogs, their cars and their rubbish. Rich men see the beauty and build houses, poor men want to become rich men so build shops instead. The trail turns into a road, the road into a highway. The trail in the trees is ever expanding, the beauty always shrinking. Eventually development overtakes preservation and little of the old beauty remains. People only come now because other people are there.

It’s hard to see myself as anything other than one of those people sometimes. Part of the problem. But only the smallest part. Yet still a part. And really what can be done about it? Maybe the best solution for preserving natural beauty is to simply ignore it. The most beautiful of trees is a tree that nobody has seen. Once somebody sets eyes on it, realises the beauty in front of them, then the wheels are in motion. The tree is no longer a tree, it is a place. As soon as something becomes a place, it becomes something you can visit and then something that can be spoilt. Maybe it’s better to stay at home, ignore the beauty out there and take solace in the fact that at least it exists, unspoiled by human hands, somewhere, although you’ll never see it. Seeking it spoils it.

With canoeing such feelings are muted. Gliding silently through the water. Not moving along a path created for you, but along channels carved out over thousands of years by wind and water. The feeling is a natural one, built upon history and tradition. You’re not spoiling the world, but working with it together. With each breath the current takes you along, and you feel connected to that water, those mountains, the trees.

As the sun quickly fell in the late afternoon, and the air grew from cool to cold, we moored our boat and set up camp. The land around us silent aside from the rustle of some small animal in the trees. Sipping a warm tea, I wondered how I could ever have taken the beauty around me for granted. I did not make a pledge, or a promise. I merely decided I would try my best to prevent it happening again.

Whole Again

In my dreams I am whole, I am complete, and I run.

I run down unknown streets, feeling the cobbles on my feet. Feeling every touch of glorious pressure as my toes hit the ground. Feeling alive, feeling happy, feeling free.

But even in my dreams, I can’t forget. It sits in the back of my mind – waiting for that perfect moment to strike. Waiting –

(To hit?)

Running down those streets. Those silent, empty streets. Passing by the same grey houses, like a washed out cartoon background, always repeating. No people, no cats, no cars,

(No cars?)

no destination. Nothing. Just me.

And I run.

I run forever. Barely needing to breath, heart barely beating. I run. On and on, I run.

And although I am dreaming. Although part of me knows it’s not real – I taste the cool air as it rushes into me. Feeling alive, feeling happy, feeling free.

(Alive? Happy? Free?)

But even in dreams, I can’t forget. It claws inside my memory, like a lost word on the tip of my tongue – waiting for that perfect moment to strike. Waiting.

(To hit?!)

Running down those streets, those endless blurry streets, fading off long into the distance, no corners to break the flow, no stumbles to stop my movement. Nothing. Just me, the air, my legs,

(My legs?)

my freedom. No sweat on my brow, no tears in my eyes, no pain.

Alive. Happy. Free.

Never forgetting, trying to forget. Haunted, hunted.

Running. The joy within me building slowly, a stir in the stomach. Flowing through my body. Along my arms, up my throat into my head, down my legs

(My legs?!)

into my feet. I feel so alive, so happy, so free.

And just when it feels that joy will overtake me, when it all seems to finally be forgotten, when I almost, finally, thankfully, lose myself. I look up. I see it. Unexpected but at the same time so utterly obvious – the turn in the street.

Immediately the joy escapes me, the stir in my stomach turned to dread. I sense the power around the corner. Always there, always in my dreams.

Every part of me begs that I stop. Now I sweat, now I cry, now I feel the pain. I try to turn, try to escape. But still I run, as I did, as I always will. As it waits for me.

It growls. A pneumatic drill forced into my brain. The sound of a beast.

My eyes wont close, locked open. My legs wont stop, they drag me forward.

Turning the corner – I only have a brief moment to glimpse.

In that moment, if I’m lucky – I awake. My heart racing in sweat covered sheets. That slight glimpse stamped onto the back of my mind. Two giant, dead white eyes in the darkness, bearing down on me, coming to get me, coming to hit me.

Too often I’m not lucky – I continue to dream.

Those eyes. Rushing toward me, pouncing upon me. My heart explodes in my chest, but I am stuck. Paralysed by fear.

I know it will get me, I know it will take me. I know it will hit me.

(Hit me?)

Then it does.

The world is silent but for the snap of my bones. My body is smashed to the ground like a porcelain figurine.

My legs explode beneath me, no longer legs but a mass of pink flesh and rags.

The Beast’s growl disappears into the distance and soon enough is gone. I am left, on the ground, my body broken, a heap of blood and bone.  My legs battered and bloodied, no longer legs but snapped twigs.

I cry. Tears fall down my cheeks. I beg. Nobody helps, nobody hears.

I am alone. In the street. In my dreams. Dying. Slowly fading. Never again to fly down those streets. Never again to enjoy my dreams.

(my dreams?)

Finally I fade back to reality, lying on my bed,  no longer on the road, tears on my cheeks.

I can’t bring myself to look. I have not forgotten. I can never forget. Even in my dreams.

Where for a moment, I feel alive. Happy. Free.

_________________________

Illustration by Agnieszka Wielgorecka of Abnormal Newspaper

Walking Through Vancouver

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Join me as we go for a walk. The walk I take every morning from my house to work.

We start in Strathcona. Historically the first suburb of Vancouver. Colourful, century-old houses stand tall on every block. Each house uniquely painted. Some red, some green. Blue, yellow, purple. The streets are awash with colour, cherry blossom trees standing tall on each corner. They hang over the paths like pink clouds in the sky. The air smells fresh, the sound of children sliding along with the breeze. When the sun shines, it seems to shine a little brighter here.

Next Chinatown.

Old Chinese families open the shutters of their shops. Some placing red lanterns outside their doorways, some assembling tables covered with exotic delicacies looking strange and foreign. The smell of spices fills the air. My nose tingles with pleasure.

But soon, we find ourselves there. In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The change isn’t gradual – it’s sudden. One moment an old Chinese shopkeeper is smiling at us, welcoming us to her store. The next moment a dishevelled man with dirty clothes and long greasy hair whispers in our ear “Marijuana? Cocaine?”

As we plunge deeper, those cherry blossoms seem so far away. The sky grows darker, the streets dirtier. Barely a thing is living here. No trees. No plants. No people. These people aren’t living, they’re surviving, some barely existing. On a street corner a man stands twitching, possessions at his feet waiting to be sold – for food, somewhere to sleep, more often than not drugs.

Dozens of sweaty bodies push together to form a line, waiting for a small cup of soup and a stale bread roll. Just another day in the endless struggle. A routine so far from my own:

Wake up. Survive.

Passing by alleys, I see people huddled in doorways, some selling drugs, some buying. Some using. In one alley, a man lies on the floor, screaming wildly into the air, two police officers stand over him, trying to calm him down. He mumbles at them, incomprehensible. His face is an old weathered ball of flesh, distorted by a long grey beard.

In the alley mouth, a man with a torn sweater and spit running down his cheek shakes an empty cup. He speaks so low that he’s barely audible, his old voice worn and defeated. I don’t hear his words, but I don’t need to. I know what he wants. My reply is a shake of the head and an apology, by this point an automatic reflex, my answer to all of the pan-handlers. Shake and apologise. Shake and apologise. Like I’m sorry.

But I’m not sorry, not really.

As I walk away the man mutters under his breath “fucking asshole.” I walk a little faster.

When I reach the end of the street I turn back to glance at the man, only to find myself walking into another. He wears a business suit and talks into his iPhone. He glares at me, continuing his own walk, muttering those same words “fucking asshole.”

Just as suddenly as we found ourselves in the Downtown Eastside, we have escaped. Skyscrapers shoot upwards piercing the clouds. Men and women hurry along, talking into their phones, sipping their Starbucks coffees, eating their croissants. Everybody has a place to be, some cubicle, on some floor, in some building. They jump off their buses and trains, scurrying like ants towards their buildings. More routines. More lives. So different from those lives a few streets away.

Eventually I find myself in my own cubicle, on my own floor.  I wish I could say my journey ends there, but it doesn’t. I sit, staring out of my window at the street below where another man, almost dressed in rags, holds a cup. He waves it at the business people passing by. Some shake their heads. Most ignore him as though he’s invisible. Nobody gives him any money.

For ten minutes he waves his cup. With each passing minute the feeling in the pit of my stomach grows. The man gives up, leaves. But the feeling doesn’t leave with him. It continues to grow. It comes back stronger every time I walk to work.

Now this is a feeling so complex that I struggle to describe it. Some emotions are easy to explain, we can justify them with some real world evidence, or a little psychological analysis, but this emotion is so intricate that no matter how much I search myself for an answer to its riddles, I can never really conclude anything.

The feeling is a cocktail of guilt, anger, hopelessness, compassion, fear, pity, apathy, frustration and confusion. A mixture of emotions for the mixture of thoughts that pass through my head when I’m honest with myself. When I’m really being honest.

Let me start to be honest:

I’ve also started to ignore the homeless.

It’s all I can do to keep myself sane. I see people on the streets desperate for help and I turn the other way. I’ve seen teenage girls turning tricks and pretended they didn’t exist. I’ve seen half-starving men begging for help and I’ve not even sighed. Just walked on by. Shaking my head, apologising.

Yet, no. I’m not being honest. Not at all. Ignoring these people isn’t even the start of it. I’ve not only started to ignore the homeless but I’ve started to think of them as…well…not human.

The world of the homeless is so far from my own, that there’s no human connection for me to make. I can’t (or wont) empathise with the homeless at all. Not because I’m some massive sociopath, but simply because that’s the easiest way I’ve found of dealing with this strange situation which I can’t understand. I’ve fooled myself into thinking there is no connection between their world and mine. That we aren’t just different people, but a different species. I’m in denial. These people aren’t people, so why should it matter if they suffer to me?

One day as I was walking home, an old Japanese man tried to stop me, I just continued to walk, but he called “EXCUSE ME!” so loudly that I finally had to stop in my tracks. The old man looked up at me, and politely asked the way to the train station. Although the whole exchange only took a matter of seconds, it showed me how mistrustful I had become of people on the street. All people. I’ve become prejudice. Judging people not on who they actually are, but on how they look, or how they act.

Oh. I want to be honest. With myself and with you. I am not a perfect person, nobody is, but I’ve always felt that I was somehow good inside. I always thought that if I saw somebody collapse on the street that I would stop to help, but I’m starting to think that isn’t true. I’m instead starting to think I’m the type of person that would instead keep walking, pretending they saw nothing and fighting back the remorse with the words “somebody else will take care of it.”

Those words are the words that most people in Vancouver must use to sleep at night. “Somebody else will take care of it.” One person ignoring the homeless isn’t a problem, but the majority of the city ignoring it – hoping that something will magically sort it out? Pretending there is no problem. That’s a problem. It scares me shitless. Living in a society where everybody is completely in denial about what is around them.

Still. I try to be honest. Because I feel like honesty is the one thing that can save me. Admitting my faults is the first step towards slowly changing things for the better. Maybe all we need to do is change a little. But I feel that admitting I’m wrong is the smallest step, and every step afterwards is harder, and no matter how many steps I take it wont matter, because no matter how much I change, the world wont change with me.

There’s a hopelessness I feel, knowing I can do almost nothing about this situation. One less person ignoring the problem means nothing if everybody else in the world is pretending nothing is wrong.

People find it so hard to admit they’re wrong. Why can’t we all just say: Yeah, we’ve fucked up, there are people in our city, our community that need our help and we’re turning a blind eye and it’s time to change that.

Maybe it just takes too much courage, to stand up and admit to yourself that you’re not as good a person as you’d like to believe. Maybe it’s just too easy to live in denial, to stay at home in your nice warm house and think “yeah, I donated a little to charity this year, they’ll sort it out…I’m doing my bit.” But all the money in the world can’t solve a problem that’s being ignored.

My dad has a saying he always uses. When it’s especially cold outside he’ll shiver and say “I’d hate to be homeless tonight.” At no point in saying this does he actually consider the words. The implication –  that there’s another human being out there on the streets possibly freezing to death. Instead it’s just a thing he says, never really caring to ponder the full meaning. We all do it.

I feel like I might be coming off as high and mighty. But that’s not my motive. I don’t know what my motive is. When I write, and when I think, I try to come up with some reasonable conclusion. I try to find out why things are as they are. I try to understand.

This time though, I can never understand. No matter how much I search. Why we do what we do. Why we are what we are.

I used to think that the homeless just made a wrong decision at some point. That I could so easily have made the same decision, that I could have ended up in their shoes. I used to think that it was nobody’s fault, that some people just fall through the cracks and we can’t pull them back out again.

But that’s not it. Not it at all. I want to be honest. Those people fall, and they scream. They cry for help and we hear their calls. Yet we ignore them. And we wont pull them back out again.

No matter how loud they scream. We wont pull them back out again.

We just shake our heads and apologise.

____________________
Photo is Cherry Blossom by kiuko on Flickr.

Tasting Garlic Ice Cream


As soon as I heard that there was an ice cream parlour in Vancouver that sold garlic ice cream, I knew I had to go. I’m pretty adventurous in my tastes, and I love to try new crazy foods – even if they do sound disgusting – so off I hopped to La Casa Gelato with a spring in my step.

If Willy Wonka ever decided to expand his candy business to ice cream, he’d have a tough time competing with this place. Upon entering, I let out an immediate groan. There before me were an amazing 218 different flavours of ice cream, all lined up in a row. Some people might think this is a good thing, but personally I think so much choice is a bad thing. It means going through the horrible process of deciding what you want. Who the hell likes deciding stuff?

Often I’ll end up spending 20 minutes looking at a menu in a restaurant, staring at a number of choices, wishing I was a cow with multiple stomachs. “Should I have the steak…or the hamburger. Hmmm. I’ll have the hamburger. But…but…the steak looks sooo good. Ok, I’ll have the steak….but what if that hamburger is juicy and tasty? Ok. I’ll have the hamburger…” Usually, I can never actually decide and I instead have to flip a coin. This is never fool-proof though, and often I’ll still end up changing my mind again. And again. And again. As I said – who the hell likes deciding?

So there I am, trying to decide, strolling along the many flavours (and I mean strolled, 218 flavours in a line last for about half a mile!) noting down the most interesting varieties, trying to make my decision.

First there were the classics of the ice cream world, your Strawberries and Vanillas. Then there were the more modern flavours, your Rocky Roads and Cookie Doughs. After that there were what I’d like to refer to as the “awesome flavours”, the types that make you shout “OH MY GOD! YOU PUT NUTELLA INTO ICE CREAM! I LOVE YOU!” These would be your Nutellas (obviously) and, your Candy Canes.

Then there’s the disturbed ice creams. The types that were clearly thought up by some deranged psychopath, hell bent on making you vomit. The types of ice cream that could barely even be considered ice cream to a sane individual. I’m not lying to you when I say I saw the following flavours: Cheddar Cheese and Apple (really!), Pear and Gorgonzola (honest!), Jalapeno (no lying!), Bacon (seriously!), Dog Poo (ok, that’s a lie). Then, one of my personal favourites. Corn. Yup. Corn. Not Corn and Strawberry. Not Corn and Vanilla. Just Corn. Good old reliable Corn in ice cream… yum.

But let’s not forget the tastiest ice cream of all: Garlic.

With my heart set on the smelly stuff already, my decision was easy. But I also had to decide on a second flavour. Something that complemented Garlic. Hmmm. Strawberry and Garlic? Nope. Liquorice and Garlic? Bleurgh! Corn and Garlic?! Tempting…but…no thanks.

I ran along the flavours, trying desperately to find something to complement Garlic. Then I saw it. Right there in front of me, glistening in the sun. Pineapple. Good old reliable Pineapple. Pineapple goes with EVERYTHING. Pizzas, curries, desserts – pineapple is everywhere. I’d hit the jackpot here. The perfect flavour combination.

With a smile on my face I strutted over to the girl behind the counter. “I’ll have a scoop of Garlic and a scoop of Pineapple, please.” The girl gave me an evil smile. The type of grin that lets you know there’s a joke that you’re not in on. I should have known then that I was in trouble, but I’m never one to back down, so I paid up and she started to scoop my ice cream.

First she placed a scoop of Pineapple on the cone. Then she moved onto the Garlic. The tub was almost entirely full. “It’s probably so full because so many people buy it and you need to replace it all the time, because it’s delicious, right?” I exclaimed. The girl simply replied with her grin, before handing me the ice cream. “Enjoy” she said before cackling wildly into the air. I cowered from the shop, a little scared and as I left I’m pretty sure I saw her turn into a bat. (Which was weird, I thought, why would vampires be selling garlic ice cream?)

As I exited the shop, I realised the time to taste my glorious concoction was at hand. I brought my tongue up to the garlic ice cream, closing my eyes to increase my sense of taste. In slow motion, the creamy scoop touched my tongue and it was then, that I knew.

I had been duped

It tasted DISGUSTING. Imagine, if you will, that you are licking a giant wet garlic clove! Not the most tasty of things, I assure you. It tastes almost like a sweaty shoe (which funnily enough is the next flavour they’re going to make…)

Realisation quick set in, I was just another stupid tourist. Trying disgusting foods, just to say I’ve tried them! I felt pathetic. But that’s ok, I thought, the pineapple will still be enjoyable. But no, I’d been duped again! Now I knew, why the girl grinned so evilly. Now I knew the joke. To get to the pineapple, I had to make my way through the entire scoop of garlic. I cringed my way through it, belittling myself for being such a moron.

Thankfully the pineapple ice cream was almost good enough to make up for the punishment. But all day afterwards the smelly taste of garlic lingered in my mouth, reminding me that sometimes you shouldn’t do things for the sake of doing them. Especially if you know you wont like them. And especially if they take a whole packet of Tic Tacs to relieve.

Dealing With Culture Shock

Train arriving at Cairo's Sadat station

To visit a country is only to skim the surface.

You can never truly grasp a place in a few days. Sometimes understanding can take months, even years. When visiting a new country, the differences are something you appreciate, the differences are why you’re there, they’re part of the experience, you may even say they are the experience. Staring at the queer fruits and vegetables in a market you say, “Wow, we don’t get these back home!” It excites you. Everything excites you. The voices, the people, the food, the streets, the sky, the mountains. Everything.

Later, you leave, go back to the comfort of your own fruits and vegetables. Back to your own voices, your own people. Back home, to what you know and love. Back to comfort.

Culture shock happens when you try to change that home, even temporarily. When you try to make a transition between the new life you’ve started and the old life you’ve left behind. You can visit a country for a week and believe it’s the greatest place on earth. You can stay another week and the cracks might start to form. You can stay for a month and you’ll go crazy.

Those fruits and vegetables that were once so exciting fill you with resentment. Your mind struggles with the way things work in this new place. You don’t know the new systems. The magic has worn off. Nothing excites you. Everything around you is just a reminder of your old home, everything you are used to. You miss the way things were. You miss your familiar life. You miss your fruits and vegetables. You’re homesick.

In the past I worked with the notion that culture shock didn’t exist when going to a country much like your own. I’ve been to America a few times. People spoke the same language, ate the same vegetables and acted in much the same way. Their culture is the same, I thought. But, I was naive.

A culture is more than what’s on the surface, a culture runs deep. Even when the language is the same, the systems are different.

Chances are you’ve never noticed there are systems at all. Everything around you has always been there, you’ve lived in a place so long that you subconsciously know how things work. You instinctively know what to do in any situation. You understand your world.

Culture shock is understanding nothing. It’s being blind in a world where everybody around you can see. Life becomes a challenge. Riding the bus becomes a scary experience. How do you pay the driver? How do you queue? How do you get off the bus? How do you stop the bus (do you put your hand out, or does it just stop?) Everyday situations, in a new country, become obstacles, something you must overcome.

When you are faced with hundreds of new challenges each day, when buying a pint of milk becomes a task which you must consciously think about, that’s when you get frustrated, and culture shock sets in. But you can learn.

Here’s a skill you probably take for granted. If you have coins in your pocket, you can look at them in your hand and within a moment you will know roughly how much money you have. It’s something you’ve learnt at one point or another, but you never think about it. It’s almost always been there. But you must learn it again. You have to learn it all again.

The easiest way to get from A to B, where to go if you need toothpaste, who to ring if your car breaks down, what brand of tea is best to drink, where to go if you break your tooth, how to haggle at the local market.

Guides can tell you where to go, maps can show you how to get there. But there is no map to use for living. The smallest details are the most important and those are the details people never mention, because they never seem noticeable. But you will learn.

Some things come quickly – learning how to cross the street, mastering the bus, finding out how much those coins are worth. Other things come slowly – learning to talk like the locals, mastering your routine, finding out how to cook with those crazy fruits and vegetables.

Eventually though, there’s nothing more to learn. Life is no longer a challenge. Every little skill you’ve mastered is pushed back into your subconscious. You can look at the money in your hand and know what you have. You can feel comfortable knowing where you are.

Home.

——————

Photo is “Train arriving at Cairo’s Sadat station” by modenadude. Published under the Creative Commons license.

An Email Back Home (E-mail #1)

Hi guys,

So I’ve decided to send a group email out from time to time, as I think it’ll be a lot easier for me to do that than to talk with you all individually about the same things. If you’re not interested in receiving said emails, tell me so, or I’ll just keep sending them.

Anyway, on to business.

I had the best time over Christmas in Portland and was incredibly sad to leave it behind as after 3 weeks or so it was starting to feel like home. I had so much spending money that I could basically live like a king, and I spent a lot of my time walking around, finding nice places to eat, then walking around some more until I found another nice place to eat. I’ve searched my mind for a way to make money out of walking and eating, as it’d probably be my dream job, but the best I can come up with is a food critic and I don’t think that’s going to cut the mustard really.

Fortunately due to all of the walking I haven’t gained any weight. Unfortunately now that I’m in Vancouver my budget is much tighter and I’ll probably end up losing weight due to malnutrition. Have you realised how expensive meat is? (Hint: really fucking expensive!) Do you know how much bread costs? (Hint: A lot.)

I’ve already taken to shopping at the Canadian equivalent of Netto (Netto being a cheap British supermarket) and buying the cheapest unbranded goods. I no longer drink Dr Pepper, I drink Mr Popper. I no longer eat Cheerios, I eat Cheery-WOAHS. I no longer eat prime sirloin steak, I lay traps to catch squirrels in the nearby park.

Actually this is mostly a lie, I don’t buy pop (soda) because it’s too expensive.  I drink water. I haven’t eaten meat since I arrived because that too seems expensive. Possibly I’m just being really cheap, but I’m now almost a vegetarian. I look back fondly on the days when my parents bought all that yummy food for the house. Times are tough – and I’ve only been here a week.

Apart from the malnutrition, things are good. I’m currently living in the basement of a house in Kitsilano, a nice suburb of Vancouver. In the afternoon I can look out of our back window and see mountains across the water. At night (due to living near the top of a hill) you can see the city lights in the distance. The neighbourhood is lovely and my impression so far of Vancouver is that the further you get from downtown, the nicer it becomes. Downtown is all hustle and bustle, tooting horns and people – not my type of thing.

Today I accidentally found myself walking into (what I have now learnt) is the notorious Downtown Eastside. Imagine a place where dozens of prostitutes, crack addicts and the crazy loiter all day on the street – that’s the Downtown Eastside. I walked out of there pretty sharpish and met a Couchsurfer in the nearby park . I attach a photo I took in the park to give you an idea of the type of place the area clearly is.

In other news, I’m currently looking for jobs in the city. At the moment I’m just searching for office jobs, but in a month or so (or perhaps sooner once I really start to crave meat) I’ll start looking for other jobs. I’ve already contemplated a dish-washing job, that’s how much I want to buy steak and Dr Pepper.

That’s enough from me for now, hope you’re all doing alright.

Dan

Fear of Freedom

Skydiving

My flights are booked. My visa approved. It was the easiest-tough decision of my life. In 9 weeks, 1 day and 14 hours, I will begin a journey, turning over a new page in my life.

At 25 years of age, I will move to Canada. For 8 months, maybe longer, I will move to Canada. Alone.

I have no real plan. Nowhere to stay. No job. No friends. Just a vague itinerary and the ability to put off thinking about most problems until they face me.

Yet, still, I am shitting myself.

It’s strange how our first reaction to freedom is to be scared. People are planners. We love to be comfortable with our tomorrows – we love to see around the next corner – we love to know.

A fear of the unknown is something most people share. We hate mystery, it pulls at our stomach and wont let go. If something is unknown to us, our imaginations can take over, and nothing can be more damaging than our brain on the loose. We can think up such terrible situations that could never possibly happen in real-life, yet we convince ourselves they could.

The best horror movies play on that fear – involving monsters that we never fully see, only glimpsing the features, making up the horror with our minds. When we do eventually see the monster, usually the movie stops being scary. Once you know what that great horror really is, once it can be understood, it’s no longer a threat. When we can compare the reality to what we imagine, we realise that our imagination was far scarier.

This fear of an unknown future is what stops most people from making drastic changes in their life, even when the changes will eventually be better for them.  When the future becomes a blank void, everything becomes scary. We look forward and all we can see is series of ‘what-ifs’ with no pre-determined path. Anything could go wrong. Anything could go right. We can see no reality, only the imagined. We never know what will happen. Scary.

Most people don’t take the leap. They just stay in a comfortable bubble, they know what will happen tomorrow, some know what will happen in 10 years, some have their whole lives planned til their death. There’s no problem with that, but to me there’s something boring in that inevitability.

A book is no longer fun to me when I can tell what’s going to happen. It feels like I’m just going through the motions, reading for the sake of reading. Life with a huge plan is like living for the sake of living. You already know what will happen, so why bother at all?

I’d rather live for the unknown plot-twist. But to do that I will have to conquer that fear. I will have to jump head first into the unknown, with nothing to protect me but the briefest of hopes that everything will turn out good. Knowing that the future is a blank canvas, that I can do anything with it.

Knowing that I am truly, completely free.

——

Photo is titled Skydiving by Kaipullai(கைப்புள்ள)

I Was A Superhero

For the past 6 months I have been leading a secret double life. I am a superhero.

I wake in the early hours of the morning, while the world sleeps, while evil stirs. I stand before my mirror, slip on my costume – a sleek fitted red shirt, blue tights, a cape. I stretch my muscles, ready to roam the streets.

My super-powers?

The power to make dogs go wild on sight. The power to make small children jump up and down with delight. The power to quietly sneak onto private property with stealth. The power of above average-health.

My friends know me as Daniel Baird. But when I suit up, when I put on that red shirt. When I don that cape. I am no longer Daniel Baird. I am no longer weak – I gain the strength of at least TWO 9 year old boys. I am no longer an idiot – I gain intelligence at least comparable to that of a dolphin. I become my alter-ego. I become…

Postman

Do you need a letter delivered apathetically by somebody that doesn’t give a damn? Postman is there!! Do you need a large package delivered sometime between 7am and 5pm, but probably at the exact moment you step into the shower? Postman is there!! Do you need somebody to wake you up at 8am on a Saturday morning because a packet wont fit through your letter box? Do you need junk mail? Shopping catalogues? Pizza menus? Do you need a torn birthday card? Postman is there!!

Whether rain, snow, heat or gale. Postman is there!!

Or rather. I would have been there, because eventually reality set in. I realised I wasn’t a superhero. I wasn’t Postman (upper-case “P”), I was a postman (lower-case “P”). I didn’t have any super powers. I didn’t have a costume. I had an uninspiring job delivering mail.

The word uninspiring is apt. Inspiration has to come from somewhere, and posting mail through doors for 4 hours each day isn’t that somwhere. Monotony destroys creativity. The more monotonous your life, the less your need to think. The less you think, the more challenging it becomes to do those things that require thinking. Thinking becomes tough.

From the moment I started the job I stopped thinking. My enthusiasm for pretty much everything started to wane. I was Lazyman. My superpower was laziness. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t want to go out with friends, I stopped doing all of the enjoyable things I liked to do. I didn’t read a book in months. My attention span was at an all time low. My energy was gone.

I only had enough energy for miniscule tasks, like posting mail. Anything else was too much, making a full meal was too much, I ate nothing but sandwiches for months. I didn’t think all day at work, so my mind wasn’t ready to think afterwards. Worst of all I stopped writing – you possibly noticed – because writing was too taxing, too much work. I became a zombie. I clicked into my routine, my life was barely conscious. I would drift to work, drift through my day, drift home, drift to sleep. Everything I did was subconscious. My life was a one without thought.

Then one day I ran out of elastic [rubber] bands.

Rubber Bands

To a postman, the elastic band is more than a simple piece of stationery. Each day the Royal Mail goes through 2 million red elastic bands, all used to bundle up mail. But despite this they are still a rare commodity. Postal workers hoard the bands in secret stashes to ensure there’s always a steady supply so that they never run out. I started my own stash. Elastic bands became valuable to me. I always had one eye on my bands. I started to cup them in my hands and purr the words “my preciousssss.” Until the day I snapped too many and I ran out.

Now the only way to get more elastic bands if you’re a postman, is to steal them off somebody else. While a co-worker is away from his desk, you need to sneak over, grab as many bands from his stash as possible, then run back to your own desk.

It was still early in my elastic band stealing career. I didn’t know the tricks. So I watched as a co-worker beside me walked away from his own fitting. I snuck over. I quickly started to search for his bands, and when I couldn’t see any in immediate sight I started to deepen my investigation. Each desk had one drawer, I opened his and started to rifling through it, finally finding the treasure: hidden under a piece of paper, the largest collection of elastic bands in the world. I wanted to jump into the bands and swim in them. But no time! I filled my hands as quickly as possible, then I heard a loud voice behind me.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!?”

I turned around. My co-worker was standing in front of me, a thin middle-aged man with thick glasses and a buzz cut. The type of guy that looks like he was once in the army but got kicked out for being too crazy (which is pretty crazy). He pushed himself right up into my face. I was scared and I fumbled an excuse “I – um, I just, I needed some elastic bands…” He sneered at me “WELL YOU’RE NOT TAKING ANY ELASTIC BANDS OFF MY FUCKING DESK! THOSE ARE MY FUCKING ELASTIC BANDS! FIND YOUR OWN ELASTIC BANDS SOMEWHERE ELSE! YOU’RE NOT HAVING MINE!!!”

I squeaked an apology, putting the bands back on his desk and slumping away. For a few moments I filled completely with rage. I swore at my co-worker in my mind. Why should he have all the fucking elastic bands? What the fuck was I supposed to do? Why did he have to be so fucking mean? Fuck him. I called him everything I could think of. Fucking this, fucking that.

Then I caught myself in the anger, a short moment of self-realisation. I was shocked at what I could see. My life had degenerated to the point that I was feeling genuine, deep anger over elastic bands. I started to laugh to myself. The whole thing was absurd. They were just elastic bands.

I realised I was no longer in control of myself, I had subconsciously just become like everybody around me. Not focusing or thinking. I was becoming petty, mean and angry about insignificant things. Soon I wouldn’t want to share my own bands. My preciouses.

As the days went by I started to really look around me at my co-workers. I realised that the longer they had been working there, the more they had lost sight of reality. They no longer knew what was and wasn’t of importance. They had stopped thinking of elastic bands as something to tie up mail. They thought of these little pieces of rubber as a sign of power and authority. If you had the most bands, if you could protect your bands against everybody else, then you had some small piece of power. Nobody else.

None of this was conscious, no thinking was involved, it just happened. Like the children in Lord of the Flies, we didn’t become crazed elastic band hoarders overnight. It was gradual. Slowly creeping onto you until it seemed like normal behaviour.

I have seen grown men swear, out-loud, in a rage, because somebody else has told them they have to deliver one more package. I have seen postmen throwing packages against the wall because their elastic bands kept snapping. I have seen men – actual adults, with children – almost get into fist fights over having to deliver a few more letters. And I have seen how the majority of people I was working with thought this was all normal behaviour, I even thought it was normal behaviour myself for a while.

But it’s only normal when you don’t think about it, when you lose your life to a sub-conscious routine. When you no see the world rationally, and you give importance to unimportant things, like elastic bands.

Millions of people do this their whole life. Drift through life subconsciously. Never thinking. Never knowing they aren’t thinking. Losing sight of so many important things. Becoming attached to so many insignificant things without knowing why.

Then one day they hang up their cape. They look around them. They look at themselves. They wonder why those rubber bands were so important. And they quit.

_______________________

Photo 1 is titled Now All I need is a Cape by Zach Disner on Flickr.
Photo 2 is titled Rubber Bands by mattscoggin on Flickr.

A Hoodlum Spat In My Face

Yesterday a stranger spat in my face. Literally, not metaphorically.

I was sitting with a friend at the time – waiting for the bus – when a group of hoodlums walked by. One of these ruffians turned to me, shouted the word “BISCUITS” and spat in my face.

I don’t know why he shouted “BISCUITS”, possibly because he knew that I would go back to this word in an attempt to find some meaning within it. Perhaps he knew that word would keep me up at night, constantly questioning me, forever making me wonder “Why?! Why did he say biscuits?! What does it all mean?!”

Immediately after the spittle hit my face, I felt nothing. I did not feel angry or sad, just apathetic. I was apathetic, precisely because the entire scene didn’t mean anything. He didn’t do it for any reason I could fathom and without a reason, how could I have a reaction?

Later, I searched for meaning, part of me wishing that there was a little drama to the event. That I had somehow wronged this man in some way. That we were part of some tragic Shakespearen tale. I’m not completely against spitting if the scene calls for it. If the spitter minces their way over dramatically, shouting the words “I spit on thee and thy house for the wrongs thou hath done me *hawk-spit*” At least that spitting means something. Spitting in disgust. But I’m not disgusting. Give me some meaning if you’re going to spit on me dammit!

But NO, this spit meant nothing. Not spitting for feminism, or spitting for socialism. Just spitting for the sake of it.  What a waste of spit. Spit that was on my face. Spit that I barely cared enough about to wipe away.

Yet, I must confess, I am perhaps being a little misleading. When I say he spat on me, I know what you’re thinking:

You’re thinking it was in slow-motion. (Such things always happen in slow-motion.) A weasel-looking youth, with a small moustache, looking down on me with a crafty flash in his eyes.

You’re thinking of the sound he made as he built up the spit. A low rumble of phlegm in the throat.

You’re thinking of the quick instant when he shot the saliva out of his mouth. You’re thinking that I watched it slowly gliding through the air towards me as I screamed one long “NOOOOOOOOOO!”

You’re thinking the spit hit me on the eyebrow, my head kicking backwards like I’d been hit by a gun. You’re thinking the ruffian smiled slyly in my direction, so happy with all he’d accomplished.

But let me tell you, you’re thinking is wrong.

It all happened so quickly that I barely had time to realise it was happening. It wasn’t slow-motion, it was fast-motion. Suddenly this man was in front of me, he was shouting “BISCUITS!”, he was spitting.

And the spit was weak. There was no conviction behind it. It was apathetic spit. It was spit that said “meh, I don’t really feel like doing this, but I’ve got to.” It was like the piece of homework you leave until the night before deadline. Lousy, half-hearted and lazy. Just plain rubbish. I was the teacher that received that lousy homework, shaking my head and thinking “come on now, we both know you can do better than this! You’re underachieving. You’ll never make anything of yourself if you go through life like this.”

There was no build up of phlegm, there was no force behind the release. In fact, the lousy little shit didn’t even have the common decency to open his mouth! He instead spat through his lips. It was half spit, half accidental raspberry. His spit dispersed into a number of minute, micro-spittles. It was like when somebody tells you a funny joke, just at the moment you’ve taken a swig of cola. We’ve all been there right? The instinctive laugh that we try to hold in at the last second, which shoots a mist of cola onto our friend. (Or in my case, laptop, because I have no friends.)

That’s how his spit was. A short, shallow mist. If spitting were a sport, then my grandma could have beaten this guy. When the spit hit me I was barely aware that it actually had. When my friend asked seconds later “did that guy just spit on you?” I suddenly started to wonder whether he actually had or not. Had he just spat on me? I felt like running down the street after him. “Erm, excuse me, sorry to bother you, I was just wondering… did you spit on me back there? Just, I’m not sure if you did, which means I don’t really know how to feel about the whole thing. Oh. Oh, right. Oh, you did just spit on me. My mistake. Didn’t mean to trouble you. Oh, wait. Wait, wait, wait! Just one more question before you leave. Uh, soooo… what was that you were saying about biscuits?”

Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong though. Perhaps his friend had just told him a hilarious, long-winded joke. The type of joke that goes on and on, and is all building up to one, perfect punch-line. A punch-line like “BISCUITS!” Perhaps upon hearing this punch-line the ruffian was forced to also exclaim “BISCUITS!” Because after that long build-up the punch-line was so obvious, but also so hilarious. “BISCUITS! HAHAHAHA! MAN THAT’S GOOD!” But maybe all he could do was exclaim “BISCUITS” before trying to hold in his laugh. And maybe that laugh turned into an inadvertent raspberry of spittle in my direction. Maybe he didn’t spit at me. Maybe he just accidentally spat in my direction. Maybe he felt really bad about it, but he didn’t apologise because, well, that’d have been really awkward, wouldn’t it? Apologising to the stranger you just accidentally spat on. Maybe he was just being polite by not bringing me into an already awkward situation. How kind of him.

Maybe he had a medical condition that prevented him from controlling his lips? Maybe he thought I was on fire and was trying to put me out? Maybe he didn’t like my jacket? Maybe, he spat on me for no reason at all. No no. That can’t be right. Ridiculous! It must have meant something! Surely!

Maybe. Just maybe, I reminded him of one thing. The one thing he hated more than anything else in this rotten world. A thing that had haunted him since the day he’d been born. A thing that chased him down long corridors in his nightmares. A thing that had killed his mother, his father, and his pet goldfish. A thing he feared, but a thing he also one day vowed to destroy:

BISCUITS.

__________________________

Photo titled Hoodlum by carbonnyc.