My mind wanders when attempting to present interesting stories about my life in 2012. Instead it came up with the memories of arriving in England 20 years ago. I had managed to get a scholarship under the Erasmus programme to study at Warwick University for a year. In return a student from Warwick would spend one year at Leuven university, my base. I was 20 and craving a break from the path I had been laying out for myself. I had no idea how much that would change me, and I am so glad I took that leap.
At Warwick I found myself falling into a crowd of foreign students, who were all trying to get to grips with the specifics of living and working in England and relishing being different, in equal measure. We wanted to get under the skin of Englishness, but we would not be mistaken for being English, oh no! We would do things that we wouldn’t have back home so we would stand out as Norwegian / Israeli / American / Dutch / Greek / Flemish or whatever we all were. The key was that we all expected to go back home again after our English adventure; we weren’t really trying to integrate, merely understand to better utilise for our own purpose. We learnt that:
There are squirrels everywhere. Funny at first, then you see them for what they really are: furry rats.
English humour is very dry indeed. It suits me.
The word “interesting” is often used to mean the opposite: when people say it in a trailing-off tone, their attention clearly wandering, you know you’ve been boring your audience witless.
English people really do queue in a disciplined line and stand on one side of the escalators. Everyone does it, so you join them.
English people are not really more polite than the rest of us, they only say “sorry” as they bump their way through and use polished words with sharp meanings you only understand once your English skills reach a certain level.
You could not find decent coffee anywhere near Warwick in those days. I had to go all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon, which caters for Shakespeare tourists, to get coffee. Of course one could drink a perfectly good tea, but tea just doesn’t always cut it does it.
I also learnt that I did not miss my boyfriend and told him so during a visit back home.
In hindsight I have never felt as free and rich in options as I did then. Even if I went back to Belgium I know that my year in England has been decisive for my later choices in life. Up until then I had completed school and gone to university as expected and dated a decent but uninspiring boyfriend for years whom I might have ended up marrying because there wasn’t anything wrong with him. Except that, when pulled out of my comfort zone, I unearthed more selves who all wanted things he could not have provided. Unfortunately for me the process of finding more layers to myself continued, so I still ended up making a decision that did not work out on the long term.
Eventually I ended up back here in England less than 10 years later. Another decade on and my children have gone native, and I found myself struggling to find the right words in my own language. I’m not even sure what language I dream in.
You can get good coffee in the shops now, just not in offices – you still get nescafe when you ask for a coffee.
I feel much more a part of England now, I have a stake in it. Not sure which, but I live here so I am entitled to an opinion. I no longer consider myself a passing visitor. I am settled. Man, did I just hear myself say that? It may be time to move on. Where shall I go? Let me think; definitely somewhere the sun shines…
Shelves full of books have been written and many movies made on dilemmas and how people handle them. They typically describe BIG issues, about whether or not to save someone’s life for example – Schindler’s list, The Pianist, … The Deer Hunter, dealing with the aftermath of the war, or stories about loss like My Sister’s Keeper. I faced a dilemma a couple of days ago that I still feel the tiniest bit bad about, deep down. Silly really, because it was not a BIG issue and the outcome was overtaken by events. Here’s what happened:
Airport, gate D7. We were all waiting for an evening flight back to London, tired after several long days’ work. Looking forward to coming home again. Then came the dreaded announcement that our aircraft was still in London “with technical difficulties”. Eventually the flight got cancelled and we were instructed to queue for a rebooking, from VIP loyalty card holders down to standard card holders and then the plebs. Nice touch, that. I guess they have to make it worth our while to pursue their wretched cards. By the time they got down to my level they had just given away the last seat on the next plane. There were two of us, an American suit and me, narrowly missing out. Not to worry, said the airline lady brightly, I can put you both on the waiting list. Then she paused, and added: “What if there is only 1 seat?” I mean, what was she hoping for? A fight? We just sighed and looked at each other, our minds whirring. Well mine was, anyway. This was my Moral Moment: I really wanted to be nice and courteous, this man looked as tired as I felt; why would I take precedence; it was the right thing to do. Another voice in my head screamed NOOOOOO I WANT TO GO HOME!!! It took me longer to resolve my inner conflict than it did the other traveler, who pulled the gallant card and “in that case offered the seat to the lady”. I was obviously delighted and thanked him appropriately – not too profusely, just showing appreciation -, but I couldn’t shake the hint of disappointment at my cowardice.
That guilt made me feel relief alongside disappointment when it turned out neither of us got on the next flight home, and we both were put on the same even later one. I am comforted by the thought that I did not cause the gallant American any avoidable delays, but I am now carrying the knowledge that I am a coward. If only he’d been a rude ass. That would have evaporated my dilemma in an instant. I am a coward…
Long time no hear, I know. Been busy. I spent the summer in Paris. You know, those few days this past week. Always a treat, even if it meant I missed summer in England. There is something irresistibly careless about Parisians in summer mode. They seem more forgiving, less urgent. The cafes and restaurants open up and the streets fill with people relaxing after work. Sitting among them with a glass of chilled Saint-Veran in good company makes you forget you got up at 5 in the morning and had a long and productive day.
Eventually of course summer had to be washed away in almighty thunderstorms and floods. Leaving the city in a morning-after mood, full of the memory but a touch deflated. And Parisians counting down to their summer trek to the south coast, where the sun shines, even this year. And me? Back to the rainy isle, keeping myself going with these morsels of summer as it should be. Once I’ve shaken the memory I’ll kick it up a gear, I tell myself. For now I’ll pour myself another glass of wine and sit back. Worth it, I might produce a fabulous idea. You have to make time for that.
We are planning a trip to Belgium in a couple of weeks. Spending time with family and hanging around, enjoying the company and the things I miss back home. Actually, there’s been a major improvement on the “goodies I miss” front since last week: Sainsbury’s supermarket now stocks grey shrimps! I love them! Now I don’t have to take a car fridge anymore to bring some back. But I digress. Husband can feel a bit bored, as he doesn’t understand everything that is going on. He wants to play tourist sometimes. It is more difficult than you’d think to keep coming up with places an outsider might find interesting. I have told him I think we’ve pretty much covered the tourist hotspots. Belgium is about the size of a stamp, remember. Husband changes tack. He wants me to take him around where I grew up. He has been asking for years and I have managed to divert his attention to touristy things so far. What do I do now?
It is not that I have anything to hide. I have not run away from anything particularly, nor am I wanted for some ancient misdemeanor. And yet I have not been back to the town where I grew up for 20 odd years and am still reluctant to do so. I have been musing over what exactly I don’t want to face up to, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I am probably not being honest with myself. Maybe I should schedule a night time session with myself to get some true answers. One thing I am clear about is that seeing our former home again, my home for the first 22 years of my life, passed down seven generations in the family and now some stranger’s home, is going to be emotional. A tangle of emotions at the memories of growing up there and the loss of it all. I am just not sure I want to open that box again. I have managed to move on by looking ahead, not back. I also worry about the impact it might have on my parents if I told them we were going there. I probably wouldn’t tell them. Husband understands, even if he doesn’t know every detail. Things have happened in his life too. But I also understand he would like to fill in the blanks in my history. He won’t force me; I’ll have to make my own decision.
The simpler but still unresolved decision is whether I should contact some of the people from way back then. There are some I hope I won’t run into in town, and if I do, I might pretend I don’t recognize them; there are also a few people it might be nice to reconnect with. At times it seems as if my history only goes about ten years back. I do feel home where I have decided to peg my tent. But maybe it is time to reconnect with older, deeper roots to find a more comfortable way of living with those closed boxes.
For now I’ll promise husband to show him the town, and I’ll decide on the day whether to go to the house. Depending on how strong I feel. I have another two weeks to reach out to people I may or may not like to see again – plenty of time for night time resolution.
I interviewed with chocolate on my face today. In a cafe in Paris. One more entry on my list of embarrassing things I’ve done. I did suspect for a fleeting moment I might have smeared chocolate on my cheek but then forgot about it, absorbed in the conversation. The guy was interesting and seemed a good fit. One problem solved. It was a couple of hours later, having finished the interview, debriefed with my colleague, walked back through Paris Nord station and made my way back to the airport that the unkind lighting in the ladies’ confirmed I did have chocolate on my face. In my defense, I had been ravenous: I had not had time to eat anything since breakfast other than the miniature galettes the Air France people gave me on the flight out to Paris. The coffee we all ordered to grant us leave to use the cafe as a meeting room came with a sliver of dark chocolate wrapped in foil, perched precariously on the saucer. My chocolate had been leaning into the coffee and half melted away. In my desperation for an energy boost (and my craving for dark chocolate, fine) I tried to eat it anyway, getting the goo all over my fingers. No napkins. I could either put on a show by trying to fish for a tissue in my handbag without getting that coated in chocolate too, or pretend it never happened and hope the chocolate would just dry and peel off or something. No-brainer, I am a professional. The thing is, my fingers must have had the right temperature to keep the chocolate smooth, for a really long time. Long enough for me to forget it was there. Judging by the smears on my face I must have swept my hair out of my face at least twice.
I am grateful to the interviewee and my colleague for being just as professional: they never once looked at me funny. I guess it would have been gracious of my colleague to alert me once the interviewee was gone to spare me the embarrassment of travelling through crowded public places in my decorated state. I can’t decide whether he is ultra shy or a tiny bit evil.
It could have been worse though. I could have been the interviewee, vying for my dream job.
I have not traveled for a month now, and I am getting itchy feet. The thing is, business travel is a drag: get up at stupid in the morning, schlep to the airport, dissemble luggage and get half undressed in a public place, re-assemble luggage, get dressed again in a public place, trying to ignore the feeling of being sneakily watched; find breakfast and try not to get it on your clothes; walk and walk some more, fight for a place to store your compliant little suitcase on the plane, find a taxi that will take credit cards, and finally make it to the office. Everyone there aspires to my life and wants to breeze in just before lunch time like I do. If I am lucky I get to have lunch, with people who have all sorts to discuss because they don’t see me often enough. The rest of the people are waiting for something bad to happen because they hardly ever see me. There must be a very good reason for my visit, and it can’t be good news. Umpteen meetings and conversations later I get to make my way to a hotel halfway across the city and look forward to a dinner by myself. Sometimes I get company, which can truly be that but just as often turns into another work meeting. I am really really tired by then.
And yet here I am, wondering when my next trip is going to be. I love being home, but routine bores me. I crave input from other people than those who surround me every day, and enjoy being in different places. For all my whingeing about the drag of business travel, there often is a brief window when I can appreciate my surroundings. I like to walk to and from my hotels, if at all feasible (mostly in Europe, to be honest). I discovered how nice that was once I was forced to, having waited for 20 minutes for a taxi that just wasn’t getting through traffic in Paris. In the end I assured the hotel reception staff I would be fine, and started walking. I checked the city maps on my way to keep myself on track but any other human would not even have to do that – I just have a formidably lacking sense of direction. And even I got to the office without getting lost. Since Hausmann Paris has a backbone of wide boulevards and follow-on arteries that take you effortlessly through the city. I noticed how recently a lot more people are cycling to work or college there. People also dress differently than they do in the UK.
Smells play a key role in experiencing the environment, I noticed while walking. Paris in the morning smells of the cigarettes of the many pedestrians smoking, with a dash of croissant and bitter coffee wafting out from coffee bars. One July morning, after a violent thunderstorm, it smelt freshly laundered.
And then there was that time I had a hotel room with a view out to the Atlantic in North Carolina. I watched the sun rise, pouring watercolours over the ocean in ever changing shades. It was so mild I threw the doors open so I could smell the salt on the air. That was terrific.
When is my next trip again?