The Good Souls

This Christmas and New Year are game-changers for me. For once I haven’t fled the country, or stayed in a place I don’t want to be with people I don’t like, or roamed moodily around my own home, feeling a bit sorry for myself.

I left the decision whether or not to fly away until pretty much the last moment. I knew the guy I’m seeing would be working most of the time and only free on Christmas Day. I knew that people were saying they’d be around (those that weren’t going away) but I also knew that when it came to it, I probably wouldn’t see any of them.

People are funny about going into hiding during the Christmas holidays. They disappear from Twitter – announcing that they’re ‘taking a break’ to be with family – then suddenly they’re back, taking a break from their families…

Anyway, this year there has been no break or flight from anything for me, except the office. I know enough about Christmas now to realise that the best bit is the run-up to it. I started enjoying the party season from December 1, knowing that come the 25th it’s going to be a bit of an anti-climax, or at least a post-party chill-out (this is precisely why I start enjoying summer on June 1 – if you wait for the ‘big day’ when the sun is at its hottest, you’ve missed out on all the fun. And the big day may never arrive…)

It was a very Christmas different for me. My guy is Muslim so it was a no-booze zone and I made a halal lamb dish for us both. It was quite liberating, heading into Sainsbury’s on Christmas Eve, hearing people shouting, “WHERE ARE THE BLOODY PARSNIPS??”, knowing I wouldn’t be buying anything remotely involved in a traditional Christmas dinner.

The world didn’t end because I didn’t observe a single tradition, apart from present-opening and a pre-dinner walk. The biggest surprises of the day were finding out that my guy likes Rick Stein documentaries, animated children’s films and Gladiator. We ended up watching The Revenant, hardly joyful Christmas viewing, but at least it was set in a wintery landscape. It wasn’t White Christmas, but I enjoyed it anyway.

My guy had had his birthday a week earlier, and made it feel like my birthday by bringing around an enormous cake for me. For me! I was struck by the generosity of it. The generosity of spirit which escaped me for years, when I was with someone incredibly mean-spirited. No completely unselfish acts, no celebration of anything good (unless initiated by me), no joy in sharing a life with another person. Just being frogmarched around a shopping mall to select my own gift, which was inevitably a high-ticket consumer good because it was easy and required little thought.

Two of my best friends are Jewish and do a sort of ‘Chrismukkah’ which I rather love. We joke that they have become my ‘Jewish mothers’ but I’ve realised that they have actually become my family here in north-west London. They phone me to catch up, even though I hate phones, and I love it. They sought me out this year, separately, to arrange to meet for gift-giving and pre-Christmas cheer. I love them dearly for that. Please keep phoning me, ladies. I love it, honestly.

The week before Christmas, one of my oldest friends arrived in the country from Qatar and arranged to meet me in Kensal Rise, where I live. It had been a difficult day, because what is left of my actual family were meeting in Wales for a Christmas dinner and for reasons I won’t go into here, I couldn’t attend.

Kensal put on a show as though I’d been rehearsing it for months. The chatty barman, the friends popping past to say ‘hi’, the local pub quiz we entered into with gusto, the knowledge that these smiling friends were here to see me and that they are a big part of my life and history. The universe spoke to me loud and clear: this is my home and these people are my family.

In between Christmas and New Year I arranged to see another old friend (we date back to university), who is the mother of my godson. Thanks to the generosity of yet another one of my London Jewish framily we got free tickets to a Christmas show in Manchester and a backstage tour afterwards. I introduced my old friend to my London friend and felt grateful to have both of them in my life.

I started to think about all the good souls – the people who really matter. They are marked by their kindness and generosity. They are consistent and don’t have any agenda. They like to see me and I like to see them. It’s so beautifully simple.

My northern odyssey continued with a night out with my brother, ending up in a bar on the infamous Canal Street. Much fun was had. Over dinner I told him that the thing that most impressed me at his 60th birthday party was a) that he’d served the guests dinner himself, and b) friends of his that I’d never met came up to me and told me how kind he is to them and their families. We’re not the closest of siblings, but I am proud of who he is. And now I wonder why we’ve waited so long to have a night out in Manchester…

Finally I met up with my mum’s sister for a hug, a cup of tea and a chat. Like my mum and nan before her, she is wiser than wise. “Take each day one at a time,” were her parting words to me, and I shall. I shall.

The person who drove me to my aunt’s and came back and took me to the station at the end of the day was someone I know professionally: an illustrator. He’d also picked me up earlier, and cooked lunch for me and his family. Again, I was blown away by the generosity. The universe is literally throwing good souls at me right now.

So much crap has happened this year, I can’t wait to leave it behind and start a fresh new one. I’m not naive enough to think 2017 is going to be a bed of roses, but I’m going to be fifty, and I’m going to celebrate that with people that matter.

And in the words of Starsailor:

As I turn to you and I say
Thank goodness for the good souls
That make life better
As I turn to you and I say
If it wasn’t for the good souls
Life would not matter

Happy New Year!

Dedicated to: Justine, Chelsea, Neal, Helen(s), Jess, Phil, Sam, Jonny, Kay, Woody, James, Lucinda, Sidali, Ben, Coreen, and the people of Kensal Rise and Canal Street.

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The Kaleidoscope Effect

I knew I’d be writing a post about this topic at some point and I’ve been waiting quite some time to write it. I’ve just got back from a business-and-pleasure trip to the Middle East, and I knew I had preconceptions of what it might be like, and I knew they’d be challenged.

Over recent years, I have found that I have often carried a hotchpotch of preconceptions, misconceptions and travel-guide images of a place in my head when I go abroad. It takes days or even weeks for the reality to emerge and I call this the Kaleidoscope Effect. Like those childhood toys that contained tiny colourful beads, which you’d shake and see a clear pattern emerge through the eyepiece, I realise that my first impressions of a place are always way off and I have to shake them hard to discover what is really there.

I first noticed this effect when I went on a trip to Poland to visit a friend who was teaching English in Warsaw. I remember thinking, ‘bread queues and headscarves’ as I packed my bag, but how wrong I was. In the early 1990s the country was just emerging from its communist years and whilst the first thing I saw in the city was a load of soldiers parading around in the huge Soviet-style plaza, some of them with Lech Walesa moustaches, the thing that most struck me over the course of the trip was the youth, beauty and vitality of the place. Incredibly handsome, be-cheekboned university students were striding around everywhere in greatcoats, heading to cafes on the Nowi Świat (New World Street) to presumably talk about politics and philosophy (or is that another preconception?). I’d thought that Poland would be cold and uninviting, even in summer, so then spent a happy day sweltering in a chunky jumper at Chopin’s house in the countryside, listening to a world-renowned pianist being accompanied by a pondful of singing frogs.

Then came Kenya – possibly the biggest Kaleidoscope moment of all. I stayed in a coastal town near Mombasa called Watamu. Each day I went back and forth along the road between the house I was staying in and the bustling town. Sometimes I was driving, sometimes running. At first I saw poverty, dirt and latent danger in the shambas along the road. I’d run every day in the early hours up to a certain point and turn back. There’d be a gaggle of men on motorbikes under some trees, just staring at me. I had The Fear and could never get past them. That is, until, a Kenyan guy in the house explained that this was the local taxi rank. I felt ashamed that I had assumed they meant me harm.

One day, I ran past a shamba with a dog and it chased me. A woman, who was looking after her kids started laughing her head off at me, as I flailed around, the dog merely playing with me. Other villagers, and the taxi drivers, joined in and soon we were all laughing. How odd I must have looked among this nation of professional runners, white-skinned, red-haired and sweaty, not to mention wide-eyed from my encounter with the dog.

It wasn’t until a tourist remarked to me that he thought the level of poverty and lack of hygiene was so dreadful, and how awful it must be to live there, that I found myself violently disagreeing with him (inside my head). I had started to see smiling faces, happy babies, cleanly swept shambas, well-fed goats and laid-back taxi drivers. I’d said ‘jambo’ (hello) every morning to the group of tall Maasai living in a shamba outside the house – they were working as security guards at the local hotels and sending home money to their families in the Mara. I’d got to know the Kenyans in the house where I was staying, who had never been to Tsavo (the park nearest to them which cost too much for them to enter) and crowded round to see the pictures of animals on my camera, the youngest woman cuddling up to me, smiling.

And oh, that trip to Tsavo. We’d been warned of the Somali terrorist threat, which was very real, and were forced to drive there in a tourist convoy for safety. Before long the safari guys had left us behind but what remained were streams of kids going to school and adults going to work, smiling and shouting ‘jambo!’ as we passed. By the time we arrived at the gates of Tsavo my face was stuck in a smiling rictus and the effect of all that happiness stayed with me for weeks afterwards. It was better than the equatorial sunshine (which incidentally burnt me to a crisp when I was in the shade by the pool not wearing any sun factor).

And so to the United Arab Emirates. As a self-identified feminist I knew I was going to have some opinions about it. I already holiday in countries with Muslim populations – Egypt and Turkey are favourites – but in a sense, these tourist destinations don’t count because the locals are used to foreigners turning up and ignoring their cultural ‘rules’. But I enjoy respecting local culture so have already built up a bank of appropriate clothing and knowledge about what is considered respectful behaviour. I’d had encounters I didn’t enjoy (a man spiking my tea in a shop in Dahab, for instance, or seeing man in shorts and t-shirt walking next to his fully covered wife in the blazing Turkish heat) but have largely been left alone – Bodrum in Turkey is particularly liberal because it has a large gay population.

But I knew that in the UAE I was going to encounter a different level of all of this. Not a tourist destination, a dry state (and not just in a desert way), Sharjah operates under Sharia law with particular restrictions on clothing. This was going to be interesting. I decided to push any preconceptions aside and just experience it. What emerged in the Kaleidoscope was a hugely respectful scene. I already knew that Muslim communities are famed for their incredible hospitality and friendliness, so to experience that was less of a surprise. But watching men and women quietly make their way into the mosque near the hotel, under the hypnotic call of the Muezzin, made me realise that these are just people living their lives, respectful of each other and the code they choose to live by. The men here were mostly as covered up as the women (men cannot wear shorts), and the only surprise encounter I had was to see a Western couple in short shorts striding through the town. To me, they were the odd ones out and appeared so disrespectful – I started to wonder why we feel the need to disrobe so much in the west. My mother had always said that she’d covered up more in Kenya, to keep cool, and I could see the sense in the flowing white and black robes of the locals as they swished round the corniche. I had brought my long, cool, flowing clothing and was happy to wear it out and about. Why are we so hell bent on getting our bodies out? For me it makes no sense, as I don’t tan. I’m happy to preserve my skin in the sun and I always sit in the shade on holiday. With Factor 50 on.

I suppose it comes down to having a choice and being free. If you were forced to shroud yourself in fabric by law, then there would be cause for revolution, as we’ve seen in Iran with the emergence of the My Stealthy Freedom women, determined to let their hair flow free with no enforced hijab: https://www.facebook.com/StealthyFreedom?fref=ts. I saw many variations of clothing for women in Sharjah, from skinny jeans and a shela (head wrap), to a full flowing chiffon abaya, just covering designer jeans and heels, and framing a beautifully made-up face. And some women just wore what they want, with as much skin as possible covered up. (This is a useful guide to appropriate clothing for visitors: http://www.grapeshisha.com/about-uae/uae-clothing.html).

Before we pronounce on anyone else’s culture or way of life, I think it’s useful to take a Kaleidoscope moment. Our preconceptions are built on years of false information mixed with truth and we don’t know what the reality is until we’ve witnessed it first-hand at close quarters and let it slowly reveal itself. There will still be things we don’t agree with or don’t sit well with us, but that view is often reciprocated by the people we’re judging. Before we pronounce on the policing of people’s clothing we should take a moment to consider how much our own clothing is policed by our own gender, by fashion, by our social groups. Same, same, but different, my friends.

When I exchanged a smile with a woman in a full black abaya in Dubai airport who was late for her flight, and she made the international sign for ‘phew!’ at the check-in desk, I just thought, ‘we’re just two women, flying somewhere, each with our own lives and wardrobes. And we still recognise a kindred spirit.’

Because we should.