Ramblings: Christmas Time


Christmas has always my favourite time of the year – ever since I was a child where there were all of the joys of decorating a Christmas tree, watching Mary Poppins and Oliver!; the anticipation of Father Christmas coming down our chimney after midnight and trying to stay away to hear him, but always suddenly waking up at dawn and running downstairs to see what presents lie waiting for us under the stairs. School plays and The Snowman, two weeks off school and the time to read and write and relax… Then later, Christmas parties and shopping for gifts, midnight mass and the smiles of goodwill from even the grumpiest of people; the smell of pine and vanilla and gingerbread and the excitement of a snowfall on Christmas Day. Searching for childhood Christmas movies in France and the delight of finally finding Scrooge on VHS, making Christmas playlists and wearing Santa hats outside; Christmasses spent away from family, trying to recreate the same atmosphere and happiness and never actually making it work; Christmasses spent traveling to be with family because that is the only place where it feels right. Christmasses in England, in the Netherlands, in France, in Israel, in California, in New York… 


Last year I failed at Christmas. I didn’t plan anything properly and ended up staying in New York, alone, with no real plans except for maybe cooking a meal for everyone who didn’t have a place to go. I put the old fake Christmas tree up on Christmas Eve, spent the weeks before trying to get into a Christmas spirit by playing my favourite Christmas songs everywhere (and making everyone else play them too), drinking many a Christmas shot of Powers and buying gifts and sometimes losing them along the way. Christmas Eve was lovely, spent baking cookies and watching movies with a friend… Christmas Day came with people too hungover to come over for dinner, so luckily my friend invited me to other friends’ house, people who just added a chair to the table and made me feel welcome. Even though all ended well, I was determined to never spend Christmas in New York without my family again.


Fast forward to today, a year later, a year full of ups and downs and big surprises, and I am spending Christmas here, this time planned and with the same anticipation that I had when I was younger. Next year C. and I will be celebrating our baby’s first Christmas – this year we are celebrating together as a family for the first time. There is something really, really special about showing the one you love all of the different traditions you have at Christmas… Starting with the Christmas tree. I was really intent on getting a real tree this year. I’ve tried to do it over the past few years, and have always failed for some reason, but this year I was determined it would happen. On Tuesday night C. came home from work brandishing a beautiful Christmas tree (at 2am – because tree stands are open 24 hours in this city), and we spent Wednesday decorating the apartment and the tree with lights and baubles and Christmas music. This will be my last Christmas in this apartment with B, so we are planning on spending it all together, cooking and watching movies and relaxing, and just being cozy while it is probably going to be freezing and snowing outside. Remember that blizzard that started on December 26th a few years ago? Bring it on!!! Snow angels and snow men and snowball fights! Although I should probably find another winter coat soon, as this one isn’t going to close for much longer…


And once Christmas is over and the New Year has been rung in it will be time to seriously relax, save as much money as possible, find a new apartment, and finally welcome our little girl into this world… All part of this new adventure that is honestly the most amazing one that I have been on in my life.

Adventures: Memphis and Nashville




There honestly is nothing better than taking a few days off, packing a small bag and flying out to a different city, not knowing what to expect except that it is all going to be an adventure. The two and a half days I spent in Memphis deserve a short story in themselves, one that I need to spend more time writing based on all of the random notes and photos that I took, and all of the impressions that I came away with. In the meantime the photos are all up (see full set HERE) and continue to crack me up every time I look at them because they pretty much all have a story behind them. I absolutely adored Nashville and definitely need to go back and spend a lot more time there. There is no way that you can go to all of the honky tonks and listen to all of the music in a night and half a day. Outside of NYC it is definitely a place I could consider living (although the lack of an ocean nearby could be a problem).


Anyway, I feel like we did so much in so little time... Found an Irish pub two steps away from the hostel in midtown Memphis, befriended the bartender Alan, whose phrase "you guys don't exist outside of here, but in here you exist" pretty much said it all. Powers and Guinness and Magners and a photography tour along the empty Sunday night streets of Memphis... Assigned hostel chores and milk that we were not allowed to touch because it "belonged to Brad", a cab driver who not only offered to find us any drug or alcohol we wanted but also invited us to eat telapia at his house... An amazing tour of Graceland followed by a spontaneous decision to rent a car and drive the 200+ miles to Nashville... Country music radio stations and truck rest stops and finally Nashville, where music reigns everywhere. A room in the wonderful Downtown Hostel, drinks in different bars, bands playing everywhere you go... A 90's grunge cover band who totally looked and sounded the part, country singers, one brilliant guy on a street corner, making up songs as he played, a shot glass snuck out of the bar in the hostel and left undrunk... Empty bars with musicians playing at noon (do they ever really stop?), more street musicians, cowboy boots for sale, blossoming trees, lunch in a New Orleans bar where a man named Fritz played a beautiful rendition of Fire and Rain... Back to Memphis on stand by after missing my flight, making it back to New York at 11pm, wishing I could hop straight back on a plane back to Memphis. There is so much more to it than all of the above though...

Oh... And you can still smoke in bars in Tennessee. Brilliant.

Another link to all of the photos I took below.

In the GhettoNo idea what was for saleMemphis Drum ShopSoul Fish CafeMidtown Memphis cross streetsThe place where murder may happen
Tadhg in MemphisBig BirdThe CountSchool wall paintingsChoicesClimbing up the bridge
Photographing the fake buildingsFake bridge buildingsTadhgI love MemphisDeserted Memphis streetToad Hall Antiques
Skid marks on the roadXanadu guitar stuffCar tableI ate lunch in this carGraceland shopRandom Graceland visitors
Memphis & Nashville, a set on Flickr.

Short Story/Essay: Paradise Within


I actually wrote this for something else, in the hopes that it may be published there, but once I had sent it realised that I just wanted to post it on here too. So I waited a while and am just going to post here anyway, while I am sitting in my Mum's house in California on vacation, another spot in this world that I consider as slightly paradisaical in itself... Sunshine, palm trees, pure calm and relaxation, food directly picked from the garden and thrown into a salad or onto the barbeque... The theme I was writing for was Paradise, and this is what I was immediately inspired to write.



Paradise Within
I used to live in Paradise. But before I arrived in Paradise I lived in a place I can only consider as Hell, created by the people living on this planet around me and by the pitfalls of my own mind. I don’t live in Paradise anymore, but I live in a world that I have created for myself, part beauty and part darkness, part love and part evil. I call this my real world, and hope that I was able to bring some of my learnings from Paradise back to this world of mine.

Hell was the place I lived in just after 9/11. Watching the planes crash, the buildings plummet to the ground and imagining the horrific death of all of those people shifted my once idealistic approach of the world to one of terror and doom. How could I make any type of difference against a big machine of war that our planet was gearing up towards? Growing up at the tail end of the Cold War had been bad enough, but the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of nuclear threats gave us all hope that this world could become a better place if we tried. That is, until other forms of terror appeared, from both sides of the spectrum. 9/11, cumulated with the fact that I was writing my MA thesis on Sylvia Plath, led me to believe that Plath had had it all sorted and life under a Bell Jar was the only option for survival.

Hell was being scared to leave the house, panic attacks and acute weight loss, days of not being able to get out of bed, and nights of leaving my phone off the hook to avoid the constant phone calls and messages from my friends, worried why they hadn’t seen me and why I wasn’t out with them. Hell was a constant underlying anxiety of the unknown, and fear of never being able to rid myself of these feelings and feel happy again. Then Hell just became numbness. I came upon a crossroads: either I continued along this road or I chose to make a change, rip myself away from familiarity and throw myself into the unknown, where I would be able to lose myself, and where nobody knew me.

The flight to Paradise was long, and the first few days I was there were ones of complete panic, hidden by my creative ability to appear as calm as possible while my insides were churning. How would I ever be able to communicate with the people when I couldn’t even read their alphabet? Where would I know to stop on the bus in the middle of the desert where everything looks the same and different at the same time? How could I make sure that the food I was eating was really vegetarian? Who could I trust and who should I watch out for? And then I just let go. We humans have many a survival instinct, and I just let mine take over, in essence freeing myself from everything that was holding me back, and opening myself up to a brand new experience that would ultimately change my world.

Paradise was a country built on war, pain, love and passion. A place where the south was mainly desert and the north mainly green, where the sun would beat down on you during the day and the stars would shine brighter than I had ever seen them during the night. Paradise was where I lived among free spirits by the sea, working hard during the day, planting food that would be sold abroad once it was ready, making irrigation pipes for export in the factory, cooking food for over 500 people, serving it up and cleaning up after everyone. Paradise was where we would sit down after work and talk about our lives, a group of people from many different countries and cultures, brought together for different reasons, living together and coping together. No one goes to Paradise without their own personal reasons and expectations, and everyone leaves with some questions answered and new feelings that they never thought existed.

Paradise was the home that I made for myself among these people. Paradise was the ability to be myself and learn that I was a natural leader among others. Paradise helped me discover so many things about myself, helped me discard some of them and cherish others. Paradise taught me that it was OK to love, and that it was OK to get upset. If you don’t talk about what you feel and keep it all bottled up inside, it will only lead to explosion and damage. Paradise was the place where I learned that I could be passionate and that I could believe in a better world. Paradise helped me become the person I am today. I will always remember standing on the beach, with the little waves touching my toes, holding hands with the person I loved and imagining a future that would be full of warmth and sunshine. I let go and at the same time finally let people in.

I always knew Paradise couldn’t last forever, and when I had to leave I had already made up my mind to bring it back with me and plant those roots wherever I ended up. Seven years ago I packed my bags again and went off into the unknown and never left. I knew I had nothing to fear anymore. I planted my little roots here in the city, and let them grow deep. Every time I meet with fear, loneliness, pain and heartbreak I walk to the ocean and wash away the intense need to rip up my roots and run away. I let the ocean remind me of the days I spent in Paradise and the times that I learnt to trust myself and others, and go back to my real world revived and ready to fight any more battles that come my way. Life is a constant challenge and battle between highs and lows, pain and happiness and choices. The important part is to remember to be strong and to find the happy medium between the extremes.

Paradise does exist, and I will always carry a piece of my Paradise around with me, wherever I go. Whatever your paradise is, I promise that you will find it one day, maybe even create it for yourself. I’m happy in my real world nowadays, and always know that I can return to Paradise if I ever need to.

Rant: Tourists who forget to tip

Warning: this is not going to be a rant about a major issue in this country or this world right now, but just a rant about some certain types of customers I have had in the bar over the past week. Writing about it isn’t going to change anything, but at least I am going to be able to get it off my chest and move on to bigger and better rants.

I’m sure most foreigners who come to the States peruse a guide book or two, look online for tips, good places to go, where to eat, where to drink and all of that. Even if I like an adventure when I go off to explore a new country I always look up what the customs are and if there is anything I should know (for example, taxis charge tourists triple in Egypt so you should avoid them if you are broke). Every single guide book on the US tells you that service is NOT included in restaurants and bars. Yes, NOT included. This means that you leave a tip. Customary tips are 15-20% after tax in restaurants, 15%-20% for cab rides and probably a dollar or two per drink in a bar. If you don’t tip you are either extremely rude and/or you are unhappy with the service, and if it’s the latter should explain why to a manager so that they can put it right. Most people who work in the service industry get an extremely low hourly wage or shift pay, or none at all, so they literally LIVE OFF the money they make in tips. These tips don’t go towards new shoes, dresses, expensive and frivolous items. They go towards rent, bills and food to survive. Most people I have encountered are good tippers, they know the rules and to be honest for every bad tipper there are always at least 2 good tippers, so I don’t ever really complain about it. Until you get multiple different groups of foreigners in the bar at different times in the space of a few days, ALL of whom acted in the same way.

The first group of four Polish people (I think – they were speaking some type of Slavic language) got 5 drinks (after tasting a couple of beers and deciding on a local draft beer). They paid, didn’t tip and went to the back room where they lingered over their drinks for a while. Once they had gone I went to clear their glasses… And they had STOLEN one. Yes, I know the Coney Island beer pint glass is kind of quirky and cute, but come on!! If they had asked I would have sold them one!! Just after they left a couple of Brazilians walked in and sat at the end of the bar. They had three rum and cokes, paid for them, entertained themselves with extravagant public displays of affection and then left, without tipping of course. One of my friends told me to tell people that it is customary to tip in this county, but I can’t get over my British politeness and say it outright. So I suppose it’s my own problem in the end. Then a bunch of Brits came in, ordered a round and gave me a dollar tip, with a big smile on their faces like they were doing me a huge favour. Thanks. The next one of them to order a round had obviously been in the US before and made up for it when he paid for their round, so I didn’t get too annoyed about it. The thing is, I was in one of my friend’s bars last night and a different group of Brits did the SAME THING with the dollar tip, making it out to be a huge deal that they were leaving it as a tip. It’s common knowledge in England that service is not included here in the US, so they don’t get to hide behind the whole “well we didn’t know!” lie. And if you don’t know what you should leave, then just ask! I’ve had people who have asked before and I let them know. Then it’s up to them to decide!

I think it all boils down to being a little bit more knowledgeable about the location that you are going to. When I’m abroad I don’t remove the service charge from the bill and just pay for the food and/or drinks!!

OK, rant over. Come and watch real football at the bar with me tomorrow from 11am and I promise not to start ranting about people who write really mean reviews on Yelp.

Here’s a lovely page on Wikipedia that explains tipping customs all over the world: HERE

For a larger version of the image above go HERE

Now you will never need to worry about being the object of a bartender or servers rant on their blog ;)

The long 10 year wait...

In March 2003 I entered the US on the usual visa waiver progamme thing, up to 3 months stay in the US, no right to work etc. This was after I had requested a 6 month tourist visa in London so that I could actually stay longer with my family and it was refused. Bear in mind, I had been to the US twice that year and had stayed for 3 months at a time… I was taken to the side office at Immigration in SFO, held there for over an hour without being able to contact anyone, yelled at, and then told that this was the last time I would be granted entrance into the US for at least a year, and if I tried again within that period of time I would be deported.

Nice.

My mother and sister moved to California in 2000, and thanks to my mother’s job got their green cards pretty much straight away. So did my little brother, even though he moved there later. But I happened to be 22, and therefore not legally a child anymore, and therefore not eligible to get my green card like my sister and brother. So my mother applied for one for me, and we waited.

And waited. I finished my MA in France in 2002 and decided I didn’t want to live there anymore. But I didn’t want to live in England either. So travelled back and forth to California, getting more and more depressed and using more and more of my mother’s money in flight tickets and living expenses, seeing as I couldn’t work. I went to Israel for a little over a year. I went back to California, still waiting. I applied for Canadian citizenship, on the off-chance that if I got it it would be easier to get a working visa in the US. Thanks to the small fact that my dad happened to be born in Canada and lived there for a few years of his life and never gave up his Canadian citizenship, I was granted with a nice blue Canadian passport myself. This was in 2004.

I was at a loss of where to go. I didn’t want to go back to France because it was so hard to get a job there (and I didn’t feel like going back to school). I couldn’t stay in the US. I couldn’t go back to Israel. I didn’t have enough money to go back off into the world and travel around hopelessly looking for something that didn’t really exist. So I went to London. I lived there for ten months, and apart from the fact that I lived with the loveliest people and actually started being responsible and had a full-time office job, they were the most depressing months of my life. London is not a good place for someone who is fighting heartbreak (never, ever fall in love with a Colombian boy, EVER), and who just doesn’t want to be there. I love London as a city. I love walking around, discovering little places that you would never find if you didn’t explore, going to the free museums, the leaves falling in the autumn, the special days in spring when you can feel summer coming. But London just depressed me. I didn’t know anyone, I was too shy and depressed to actually go out and meet people. I didn’t earn enough to spend it by going out. I didn’t even earn enough to be able to spend every weekend with my family in Rutland, and I just wanted to be in California. I didn’t even have a plan after California – I just wanted to BE THERE.

Then a light appeared in the form of a job offer in NYC in the spring of 2005. I’d never been to New York, but it couldn’t be any worse than London, and it was the US! My work visa was a little too temporary (year-long TN visa on my Canadian passport, renewable every year through my company). So I moved to NYC with two suitcases and nothing else. I worked hard, made some wonderful friends who have become my family, partied hard, stopped partying hard, went through a terrible depression, worked even harder, suffered through visa renewal stress every year, worked harder, felt trapped, wanted to leave. I fell into a life of thinking that I had to work at my job because that was the only reason why I could stay in the US, but in the end I just began to despise my life, myself and everything I had always stood for. Six years in NYC and all I wanted was out, to be someone else, somewhere else. Until I had my Biometrics appointment, and another light appeared right in front of me. And it dawned on me that I wasn’t in a prison, that I could find myself and the life I wanted again… So I left my job, and fell back in love with my life again. And got my green card 4 months later. In the mail, just like that. No official ceremony or celebration. Ten years of stress, heartbreak, crying, depression, travels, new experiences and happiness for the freedom and right to live and work in the country that I haven’t really left in the past 7 years.

I could write a novel about the last ten years. I don’t regret much, because I ended up experiencing things I never would have experienced if I hadn’t had to go through this, but if I had to do it all over again I would just go with the easier option of getting married. ­­I just kind of needed to write this all down, get it out of my system and maybe put it aside as another idea for a novel. Sometime in the future.

(Oh, and as a side-note: it just annoys Immigration officials even more if you burst into tears when they are yelling at you. I know from experience. Try to keep it together, especially if you are prone to burst into tears at any given moment in your life, like me).

Helping at home VS Helping abroad

Something else that has been bothering me over the past few days... For any of you who read my blog and/or my Twitter feed know that I am very much aware of what is going on in this world, always strive to learn and understand more, and am pretty focused on what is happening in different African countries and want to help create a better life for people who literally have nothing right now, and whose children have nothing. There is a severe need for not only reactive response (emergency aid for war and famine victims), but also proactive response (education, political stability, safety etc etc). I'm not saying that throwing money to all different types of organisations is the answer, but there are many actions one can take to help, that don't actually cost money (or very little at all). I've posted a lot of links below.

I usually ask people the question "so what are YOU doing", and hope that this will raise some type of awareness. The other day I asked someone this same question and was given the response of "well if it's not happening right in front of me then it doesn't really exist". Cue frothing at the mouth with anger on my part (deep breaths before continuing), as this is a standard response that makes me want to bop people on the head. Then said individual went on to say that he is a strong believer in helping out at home before looking to help other countries. To which I gave my standard response of "well there aren't millions of people dying of starvation in this country though are there?!".

And then I started to think. Is he right? Should I spend more time looking at what is happening around me? Am I trying to help people who are beyond help when I could be helping people next door? Are there REALLY thousands of people dying of starvation in this country?

So let's do the research and a little comparison. Nothing really beats hard facts when faced with them:

Hunger:
MOWAAF survey in 2007: 750,000 seniors suffering from hunger ( I couldn't seem to find stats for non-seniors in the limited search that I just did on the internet)
WFP Stats: There are more hungry people in the world than the combined populations of the US, Canada and the European Union.

Child mortality:
US, 2006: 6.8 deaths per 1,000 live births
World Bank, 2009: 128.2 deaths per 1,000 live births

(Please don't hate me for my less than deep research - I would do a better job if I gave myself more time, but I think these stats just show what we all know anyway).

So, I'm still confused. Or maybe confused isn't the word... Thinking too much into this? Should I do something at home too? Work in a soup kitchen? Tutor young kids for free? I think that can never be a bad idea, right? In the end, the only reason that I keep thinking about this is that I now feel that I am not doing enough. But at least I am doing something.

UNHCR
Women for Women
Plan USA
UNICEF
War Child Canada
NYCCAH
MNP