When I tell people about my flatmate, the word flatmate really doesn’t do her justice. She also happens to be my best friend.

I have known her since my very first day in the UK, nearly eight years ago, when I was a mere 17 year old full of passion and invincibility. The latter crumbled to ashes day two, week one in our uni halls, when she found me (her room was the only door open…that was a mistake!) sobbing on her bed. Over the years we have been living in close proximity to each other, if not in the same house, next door.

Being friends and being able to live with someone is not the same thing, as anyone who has been through the same thing will confirm. On paper, we should not be compatible: she likes lists (admit it – you do!), is quiet and has a habit of battling stress with cleaning. (one day, shortly before a significant birthday we found her polishing the front door…). My life pretty much resembles my room: it is a mess and I am emotional and temperamental.  Recently when she went through a teeny crisis and connected to her extrovert emotional side she never knew she had, she quipped she now knew what it was be like to be me and it was tiring! (IT IS! IT IS!) Her quiet inward worrying can drive me insane, as does I’m sure my hair that I seem to lose everywhere around the flat drive her mad   (I don’t know why that happens!) or my inability to keep things tidy.

To live with someone gives you a different friendship, you kind of get the full picture when you have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. In the eight years that we’ve known each other loads of things have happened (most of them we will use as ammunition on each other’s future children, others we will have to take to the grave) and to share the same memories with someone is amazing. Same goes for being able to live with your best friend thanks to her generosity, for knowing there is always someone to call, for knowing there is at least one person who will take notice when you don’t make it home at night .

Why we get along I don’t know. Maybe because when you strip away the differences, we are pretty much the same; or at least understand each other; or maybe at least we understand where the other comes from. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we are not actually married: usually when we start consulting the other on the decision we really ought to make by ourselves, or when we’re apologising for being away so much and having our own life. 

Last night when I came home tired from the coachtrip from the homeland, she was away;  I realised we hadn’t seen each other for about 12 days. Is it a little mad that we then had an hour long phone conversation to catch up (even though her room is next to mine, and she was only down the road)? Once again maybe… but I’m  very excited to finally see her again tonight as we are going watch the film so wrong-it’s good.  

It might take you eight years, hundreds of good and bad experiences that turned into memories but at least you have someone to go to bad films with: priceless.

Love Friendship and Death (2)

When I saw my friend’s textmessage to call him back, I knew the inevitable had happened. It had taken precisely 5 months.

Forget silly stories and local writing competitions, there are few reasons why I would step onto a coach for 8 hours and cross countries in the middle of the night. I had contacted my friend last week whether I could see him and his dad this weekend. He had answered he really wouldn’t know how long it would still take, but to call him when I got home. I never got to make the call, because the news of his father’s death reached me on the day I got off the bus.

Flashforward 12 hours and my friend R. and I open the gardengate and walk through the backdoor into H. dad’s house. The door is open of course: one of the many small-town traditions. We hug our friend H, his girlfriend and his sister. I put my silly gift of  Family box M&S biscuits on the table, well they are going to get enough visitors the next few days. His sister has her girl friends over, we decide to leave them to it in the living room and retreat to the kitchen. We are sitting around the kitchen table and hear the occasional giggle coming out of the other room. Yes the mood is not just sad,  everyone had been prepared for weeks and the inital shock has waned.

We talk about what happened, how it happened and what’s going to happen now. We discuss what we can do for them. We see initial drafts of the funeral card, I make a quick translation for any foreign colleagues and clients his dad might have had. I’m glad I can at least help a little bit.

There are so many things you need to organise when someone dies: paperwork, logistics, family-politics. The neighbours pop in, his mother phones from her place to remind him of other relatives to call. H. has everything under control. Two more friends join us all dressed up: his god-daughter has just done her Confirmation. His god-daughter, born when he was /we were fifteen and we were all impressed he had been chosen to be god-father. The fact she’s done her Confirmation must mean she’s twelve now…

We go upstairs and I say my goodbyes to H’s dad. It is easy, he is the shadow of the man he once was. Only H’s warning has prepared me for the fragile skeletal body displayed on the bed. It is easy: his dad is most definitely gone.

Back in the kitchen we open a bottle of wine, bottles of beer and drink to his life. Whilst conversation flows and laughter rings around the kitchentable I know there are only a few reasons why I wander the world for hours/days/weeks/years on end: because no one bats an eye-lid to see me in that kitchen, because the conversation and the banter stay the same, because the hugs are as warm as ever. In a house filled with death and friendship, the love is once more confirmed: I travel because I can come home.

Epilogue: On the very last day his dad was awake and had a sudden clear moment he requested, despite not having eaten anything for nearly two weeks, two things: a cigarette and a drink. They all had a drink with him, on an empty stomach before noon. Apart from a toast to his life, he had one more simple message:

Be good to each other kids. Be good to each other.

On the Villa Aston Coach

The closer the date came, the more insane the idea seemed to me. Let me explain: a little last minute I got an e-mail  inviting me to a book-presentation. The booklet is made up of 10 short stories, one of them being mine.  The presentation was back in the home-land however and though my parents were kind enough to offer me a ticket (I told you they were great.) I decided to find out the most economical route myself: by coach.

So there I was 9pm at Victoria Coach Station which, should you ever wish to visit it, is not that close to the Tube station. The check-in counter is even further down from the entrance, so my ‘at least 60 min before departure’ check-in became a mere 20min. Ah well, nobody really seemed to mind: the clerk behind the desk was going so slowly it probably wouldn’t have made a difference if I had shown up with oceans of time to spare.

The coach driver was our guide and explained our route with the included mandatory stops. The vehicle was packed. I am short, so I don’t really mind, I can even stretch my legs (hoorah!); for others the 8 hour ordeal was a bigger issue. Let me introduce the Croydon Posse behind me. Ah yes, so nothing against Croydon people (very lovely) yet sometimes very particular. Here a couple of snippets of my night, courtesy of one individual at the back of the bus:

” Bruv, there aint no space man! Why are we going that slow bruv?” no answer of his mate who is trying to sleep. He then calls to  the busdriver: “Boss! Boss! Why so slow man?!” upon no response of driver to his mate: “Why so slow?” Mate turns around: “We are waiting for the train, we missed the first one, he just said man.” “I don’t understan what he’s sayin man. Jeee if this was an Villa Aston Coach: we’d be flyin bruv.”

That’s right: if only it was a Villa Aston Coach. I’d imagine the driver to be a cross between James Bond and Steve Walford. Hopefully a bit more James Bond…

The only uncomfortable bit was on the train through the tunnel when the driver had to turn the engine off. He invited people to come off the coach if you wanted to. But it is the middle of the night and if you stay on the bus, well you are trying to sleep despite the air-con not working. Yes it is hot, but it’s also half three in the morning… Enter our friend from outside.

“Bruv WOOOOHOOO IT’S HOT! How can you sleep like that man? Come outside? At least it is cool out. What? Mate? Were you asleep? I don’t get it man. How can you sleep I mean it’s HOT! I can HARDLY BREATHE.” to driver “BOSS! BOSS! What’s going on man?! We are dying here.WHOOO.”

His mate obviously gives up at sleeping and they have a long chat. I must have fallen asleep, but I woke up as soon as the engine started to leave the train and the air-con thank god came on….

“So I says yeah…whats ya gettin married for yeah? And yeah so it’s like all like arranged like. So her parents like have so I says like that is so fucked up yeah. And so I don’t know what to do bruv, I mean I spoke to her friends and all, but it’s insane yeah getting married to this guy she ain’t met. I’m upset. I jus don’t know what to do bruv. Yeah I mean the family man… I means we were always together man. I mean I don’t know why I’m so upset you know what I’m saying. I mean she was only like a 7 out of 10 but yeah you  so used to have her around you know. It’s like insane man. INSANE! you know”

At this point I know: Insane. It’s 5am. Insane.

When we finally near my end destination at 6.30am, I hear my new friend remark:

“Ah man people here they ride those bikes like Mario Carts bruv! WHEEEHEEEE Insane like! I nearly got hit last time. Like they have like no fear!”

When I get off, I cannot help but smile, I have made it through the night: fearless on the Villa Aston Coach. INSANE!

The USA of America

Every country has its prejudices against other nations. For example: I was told several times last weekend that the Belgians think the Dutch arrogant and loud. (Which in all honesty we might just be – a little. Loud that is.) Then again: the British reserve and understatements find their soul in the coffee shops in Amsterdam: which are filled with British English tourists (let’s go for English as no one knows who the Scottish or the Welsh are anyway) The Italians are passionately loud and accentuate words with large handgestures, and still live with their mothers. The French hate anything foreign that doesn’t speak French. We still don’t mention the war in Germany. The Scandinavian countries we can never tell apart but they are all tall, blond, beautiful ice king and queen with an alcohol problem inherited from the old USSR.  These views exist and in turn all these countries have an opinion on the Western Super power: America.

I watched Crazy Heart yesterday about this washed-up country musician, played by Jeff Bridges. I get why the man got an Oscar for it because his portrayal of this red-neck alcoholic was endearing… as well as infuriatingly annoying. All of a sudden I got confronted with my own sense of a certain kind of American who I just think is challenging. See how I have qualified ‘certain kind’ of American? It’s because I have also met very cool and intelligent kinds of Americans. They still seem to be aware of how they are perceived though, one adding to it and I quote: ” Why do route 66? You only have LA and New York and nothing much in between.”

How come I have this warped view of Americans? I’m not sure.  I do know I am not the only one, once a British friend did Camp America for three summers in a row and I was highly suspicious no summer-romance was ever shared. When asked to spill the beans, she looked at me in what can only be described as disbelieve and said: “The only guys there are Yanks.”  End of conversation.

Maybe it’s because I once spent a summer in France attempting to learn French and failing miserably but making amazing friends – all but one non-American. The one also lived in Germany so that doesn’t really count, she was bilingual, as were all of us: French would be our third language if only we had studied. (Oh except for Doc who was an Aussie, but his attempt at French was so funny we had to include him for entertainment value.) Apart from us, there were also two American classes whose attendance was compulsory. The girls kept giggling, kept asking stupid questions usually starting with: ” Dans les Etats-Unis….” ending with Non Merci, always pronounced as No Mercy, which just killed me.

Maybe it’s because I once sat on a coach going from Victoria to Heathrow and an American family had a very animated conversation with the driver. They were surprised at how small everything was in particular the Smart-cars. When the driver said we bought those cars in flatpacks in  local supermarkets and assembled them ourselves, American Dad got very enthusiastic and would love to see something like that build. I and the rest of the passengers agreed.

Maybe because we use the phrase Only in America when quirky stories break in the news. From religious nuts with multiple wives and promise rings, to people without health insurance having to give up their home and then winning the lottery with a lot found in the street.

Maybe it’s because they are Americans but still insist they are Dutch/Italian/Scottish. Listen up: if you weren’t born there, if your family hasn’t touched the soil of your ancestors birthland for at least 2 centuries, you cannot claim it as your own. No matter how many chains you build there!  And whilst we are on the topic of chains: what is up with Hollywood endings? Come on, life is not all happy endings – people do die sometimes! (Don’t get me wrong I am not a hidden social revolutionist, there is no hidden message in this blog. You will not see me on the barricades denouncing capitalism: it only chips your nailvarnish.)

Writing this I realise it  makes me sound like an American hater, which I didn’t think I was. I am surprised by my own prejudice and I even know that should an American boy ever be in the picture the threshold for him to impress me would be (to my shameful admittance) be higher than any other man. This might also be because of a really bad experience with an  example of American  boy in the  past… I cannot share too much but it involved something disgusting and my curtains…(of the window – no euphemism you dirty sods.)

I don’t know, maybe it’s because the first American president I can kind of remember was Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Followed by two terms, eight years!, of George W Bush. The man who shouldn’t have won the first time around anyway. Eight years. Perhaps this is when I started losing faith in Americans a little: one term could have been a mistake, but to vote him in a second time was just unbelievable.  To have seen them lead the world into a highly controversial war, to have seen them veto against climate change prevention, to know about Guantanamo Bay…

Though there is hope: I for one had my laptop on all night, just to witness a near miracle that night in November. Yes who knows, during the new decade: America might just show me wrong.

Equality schmality

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. George Orwell.

Equality. A concept which usually starts from the best intentions but in the hands of the moronic can go so wrong: a beautiful example was this article in the Metro this morning.

This school has decided that pupils aren’t allowed to have hair shorter than a clippered ‘number two’ – not being familiar with clippers but I can take a hazardous guess this means hair is not totally short. Why a school decides on this, is absolutely beyond me: I understand the thought behind school-uniforms or even hair no longer than x, or having to tie it back when it comes to PE, science project etc – anywhere where hair can be caught in machinery, fire etc etc – but why hair cannot be shorter?

Apparently students with shorter hair than the aforementioned clippered number two need to wear a sunhat – so perhaps the school is worried pupils getting sunstroke. In March. In Britain. When the weather is reaching maximums of 15 degrees Celcius. I personally would be more worried whether they’d be wearing a coat.

To get to the  crux of the problem:  the majority of the pupils is black and parents claim they need shorter hair because otherwise their hair gets messy. They are unhappy their children need to wear special caps and feel they are being singled out. The school’s reaction to this is that the hair rule is school policy and all students are treated the same.

Ah Equality: when we ignore racial and gender differences; it works so well… until the rules don’t apply because of the difference.

Troiseaux/ It’s the jazz

Last night I saw a one-woman musical mystery Troiseaux by the very talented Maya Levy. (generously assisted by director Seonaid Goody and dramaturge Emily Murphy) It was cleverly written and the songs brilliantly chosen. The story-line built up tension well and the sense of humour can only be described as on the edge of absurd! (Think a one-woman Alice in Wonderland like story but then more like a detective – with all the characters played by Maya) The story was told by Maya and interlaced with traditional songs as well as her own.

It was performed at the West London Synagogue and we were served a supper of hot soup and pies. The space in which we ate, had projections of the three birds of the play. (Trois being three and l’oiseau being bird, should any non-francophile enquire) It all made it very much part of the performance. To my delight the performance space had changed  in our absence, adding to the Wonderland feel as we watched the rest of the performance from another angle. For those who were invited but missed it: next time I really do suggest you get your RSVP in asap!

Afterwards in the pub, I was flattered by the question when my next project was going to be… Not even considering myself in the same league (Let’s face it: Maya is classically trained in music and I am an autodidact 3 chord guitar wannabe) but yes perhaps something might have been set in motion. I don’t know how to describe it and I cannot give you a timeline on whatever it is that is happening.  Something is happening though… Like… Like…  

Remember when John ‘Hannibal’ Smith walks away from a blown-up shed with a massive grin on his face and the pretty lady with massive Eighties hair and high-waisted jeans that only she can make look good, asks why he is smiling? The feeling can only be described as the answer that BA or Face inevitably gives: It’s the Jazz, man. It’s the Jazz!

To be continued…

Smoking kills

Antwerp – Take 2.

It is sundaymorning and I wake up in a lovely warm doublebed which I shared with Sura. (I realise that this is the dream of many a man – I can only apologise.)  We get up and walk around in our PJs, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend are already in the kitchen. Her aunt drops off fresh croissants and bread for breakfast. Tea and coffees are made, we all sit down and reflect on the night before.

It was Sura’s last performance of her theater show – the reason I came over and I was glad to have made it after the small incident before. Though not completely smooth running (the projector died in the beginning and had to be replaced- poor Mrs Technician who seemed to die of panic trying to fix it.) the show was done well and very entertaining, I cannot really comment as I am biased!

Afterwards people decided to find a place for a drink  and I learned you need to specify your drink by name here: ‘ just beer’ will just not do. On the subject of names: all the guys here seem to be named Tom. All of them.  Antwerp was hip and happening on a Saturday night – the first pub was closed and the second and third alternatives where closed. I was assured this doesn’t usually happen. Of course.

In the end we ended up in a place, which had a beautifully flamboyant bartender: an older  man who was ironically wearing wife-beaters vest with stars – the latter in combination with his behaviour indicated he wouldn’t be bothered too much with women in the first place. Belgium also hasn’t fully implemented the smoking ban yet, and even as a non-smoker I have to admit: the smoke it adds charm to little places like the one we were in.

After having found some chalk someone (Sura’s sister) decides to make rude pictures on the blackboard. This then evolved into full blown competitive pictionary. With timer. It is Tom and me vs Tom and Sura’s Sister. Our team is winning, which is a something close to a miracle as my team’s Tom isn’t exactly Van Gogh…(haha or I am just great at guessing;-)) In any case we win and that is the most important thing:  of all the spirits flowing last night, the Olympic one wasn’t one of them!

The night ended with a nighttime cycle ride through Antwerp, such a shame you won’t remember how to get where the next morning, picking up great Belgian fries, eating them in the comfort of a family home.

Back at the breakfast table, we eat, chat more, listen to music, have more tea and I just listen to them talk Flemish which is just enjoyably different to my native Dutch.

It is one of those sundaymornings I would like to bottle to keep forever.