Sunday, December 16, 2012

The End of the World, or the End of THIS World?

John’s been sitting on my shoulder for weeks now and I don’t think he’s going anywhere until I listen to what he’s got to say. The thing is, John’s usually right about most things so I’ve nothing to gain from ignoring him. Yes, I challenge him on the “all you need is love” notion (definitely important but doesn't put food on the table), but in most other cases, John is usually spot on.

“How did you get to America?” they asked him once. “Turned left at Greenland,” he answered. How did I get to Paris? Turned right at Geneva. It was about eighteen months ago. I'd been traveling through Switzerland so my first approach was from the south. Little did I know then that I would soon be setting up camp a mile from the Louvre and lapping up life in the city of lights. But I’m full to bursting with baguettes and Bordeaux; it’s time to move on.

Samuel Johnson suggested that, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Of course he hadn't experienced rush hour on the Northern Line. I can tell you that when a woman is tired of Paris, she’s tired of French bus drivers. There is no denying that Paris is a beautiful city; it’s charming and perfectly preserved, and full of treasures, but for me, a city is not the stunning architecture, the heritage, the art collections, the perfect bread and abundance of fabulous wine, it is the living breathing occupants. As another one of my favorite philosophers asked, What is a city but the people? (Coriolanus III.i), and the people of Paris are the pissy Parisians, who still seem to be, en masse, in some kind of post-revolutionary rage. Isn’t it time to move on?

I had no prejudices before I arrived. I’d heard the rumors about rude French waiters, but that was about it. I had no big preconceived ideas about the French. For one reason or another, I did very little history at school; most of my exposure to the Anglo-French wars was through Shakespeare, and that was hardly an objective view. So I arrived a blank slate, so to speak, and all the damage has come from first-hand experience.

It’s a generalized attitude problem. Anarchy is fun for a while, and then it’s downright dangerous. Back in February, during the big freeze, on the outskirts of Paris, I saw a grown man allowing his children to walk over a frozen lake and try to poke holes in the ice with a stick. When I suggested he was putting his sons’ lives at risk, he laughed, even when I explained that two kids had died after falling through the ice on that very lake the week before. Traffic signals mean nothing to motorists, and motorbike riders assume sidewalks are their personal overtaking lanes and race up behind pedestrians like they’re bowling pins. I don’t understand the mindset. Men are predatory and women are jealous. The snobbery and greed, the arrogance and selfishness, seem to be acceptable traits. I’ve never in my life experienced people actively trying to cheat me out of money. It’s happened three times, sadly once with success. There’s a sneaky, dishonest streak prevalent in some of the people here that I haven’t encountered since I worked with a couple of problematic children in nursery school. Where does it come from? And has it always been so?

I’ve been watching a documentary on the history of New York for a work project and was fascinated to learn a little more about the Statue of Liberty story. We all know that the French generously presented New York with the statue at the end of the nineteenth century, but I didn’t know the context. Apparently, the French offered New York the statue if the Americans paid for the foundations and the enormous pedestal. (I will give you a car as long as you build a garage to house it.) This caused the Americans huge stress and embarrassment because (as presumably the French were aware) the US just happened to be in the middle of the worst economic crisis and depression the country had ever known.

I’d accuse myself of sour grapes here, based on the fact that I have failed – spectacularly – to learn the language and thus cannot survive in the country long term, except for the fact that I have several native Parisian friends who agree with me and feel that things desperately need to change.

In Paris, garbage is conveniently collected every day, but there seems to be no policy encouraging the reduction of waste. They wash the streets, every night, with big high-pressure hoses, wasting gallons and gallons of water, as a solution to a problem that need not exist but for people's utter laziness and selfishness. They think nothing of it. They are astonished by the notion of saving water. "What eez zis 'oze pipe ban you eenglish like to have in zee summer?" Hello? Is anyone from the UN listening? For a socialist country there’s very little social conscience. In New York it is not the fine that makes people pick up after their dogs, it’s a sense of responsibility and community. The streets are self-policed by New Yorkers who will not tolerate anti-social behavior (...the people… who make the city…). In Paris no one would dare challenge a person for not picking up after their dog for fear that the offending mess would be thrown in their face.

I was discussing these issues a while back with an American Francophile I met. He likes Paris the way it is. "If the bad things change, some of the good things would change too, and that would ruin what Paris is about," he argued. Really? Is it not worth making compromises for the sake of an improved environment?

Fear of change is rooted in deep insecurity, dirty streets are the tip of the iceberg, because if people cannot change at this level, what hope is there of persuading them that more important, fundamental changes must be made for the future of the human race and the protection of this planet?

I believe in community, that old-fashioned concept that Margaret Thatcher did her best to eradicate in England in the 1980s by encouraging people to think of themselves at the expense of others. I was lucky enough to live, for a while, in a place where there was a strong sense of community. In Silver Lake, an eastside neighborhood in Los Angeles, I experienced some of the best people I have ever met. It’s not a case of whether bio-fuel is better, or how much we really affect climate change, it is the sentiment behind taking an interest in these issues that matters. I was living in Silver Lake when a local business called Forage was opened. Billed as an "anti-restaurant," it encouraged local residents to sell on surplus fruits and vegetables from their gardens to be turned into the dishes offered on the menu. Obviously the menu changed daily according to what was available. There was always an abundance of produce in Silver Lake. I regularly picked lemons off a local tree on my daily morning walk; one family would leave ripening avocados on their front wall for passers by.

When I first arrived in Paris, I was delighted by the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, until I realized why the mountains were there, and how much was going to waste.

Europe is going down the tubes and we're all busy shaking our sticks at the Greeks when in actual fact the French also have a lot to answer for. The French won't back down on farming subsidies. They insist that their farmers be protected no matter what the cost is to the EU coffers or the environment. Without boring you with all the ins and outs of the Common Agricultural Policy, let me just make the point that if we (as the Swedes are pushing for) abolished all farm subsidies next year we’d save over fifty billion euros. In 1962, the CAP was a fantastic idea, but the world it was based on no longer exists and the French need to wake up and deal with the source of the problem instead of always washing away the mess.

I have no future in France. Paris and I have a joint responsibility in this. We don’t speak each other’s language... and I don’t just mean the words. I don't want to live in a city where bus drivers play chicken with me on pedestrian crossings. I want to live in a city where the cab driver says, "That's five pounds twenty, love, but a fiver's fine if you like." Where, when I ask if there's any chance I can order the small plate of fish and chips off the children’s menu, the waitress says, "yeah, 'course you can, pet." Where I can have five grown men in stitches in a split second with one of my sassy comebacks, instead of hearing, "Ah, you will have to explain me, my eengleesh eeze not so good," long after the moment’s gone. In any case, doesn't a girl have an obligation to live in the hometown of her beloved football team at least once in her life?

To each his own; plenty have run screaming from my old adopted home, Los Angeles, claiming they can’t find any culture (we keep it hidden in places like Downtown LA, Highland Park, and Pasadena, away from the celebrity-obsessed masses on Rodeo Drive). Well, I’ve discovered that Paris is not for me. It was a passionate love affair that has passed its prime.

But there is another factor at work here, and it's all Danny Boyle's fault. It’s possible I was perfectly happy in Paris, doing my thing, yelling at bus drivers, eating a lot of bread and wine, talking to no one, and then Danny goes and puts on the mother of all shows to kick off the Olympics, and I find myself sitting in a British-themed pub, staring at the big screen, bawling my eyes out, and whimpering, “I want to go home!” I was mesmerized. It was spectacular. It was nostalgic. It was life changing. Non-British friends around the world were variously bored, confused, and underwhelmed, but I was reminded which side of the Atlantic and the Channel I am from. 

At the end of the day, life is about perspective. One of the paraplegics who carried the Olympic torch this year was quoted as saying words to the effect of: you’ve got two choices when you lose your legs, you either lie in bed and get depressed about having no legs, or you get yourself up with whatever means possible and do whatever you can to live life to the full. You can apply that to everything in life. Everything. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get depressed from time to time about having no legs, or no money, or no children, or your equivalent tragedy, but it means that there’s no point in playing the victim and constantly asking, “Why me?” Don’t let your handicap become your handicap. Get mad, get melancholic, but then get merry. It could be better, it could be worse, but whatever it is now, it may be different tomorrow; you have to keep the hope alive. You didn’t win a medal or qualify this year? Then try again, because if you quit, you can guarantee it'll never happen. Look at where half the success stories of this year – Mo Farah, Tom Daley, Jess Ennis and Katherine Grainger – were four years ago in Beijing. They all faced individual disappointments, but none of them gave up, they faced their challenges and reset their sights on London 2012 and all of them came away with massive achievements. If you don't win gold today, there's always tomorrow; you have to keep believing.

I'm a Londoner born and (partially) bred. Although I've lived in other cities in other countries for large chunks of my life, I did many long stints in London, including my university and drama school years. But London and I have always had a tempestuous relationship and in 2008, after a particularly vociferous fight (I think it started over Oyster cards), I stormed out and didn’t come back for two and a half years. While I’m not quite ready to get back on my Boris bike yet, we’re definitely working on a reconciliation. 

It’s a powerful thing, perspective. Sometimes you need to go a long, long way away, and stay away for a considerable amount of time, to get enough perspective. Most of my life was defined by the fall out of my parents’ ugly divorce. It scarred me and burdened me. I allowed it to become my handicap and played the victim for far too long. Last summer, on a bookshelf in my mother’s spare bedroom, I spotted a book called, “Divorce: the things you thought you’d never need to know.” It reduced me to tears as, for the first time in my life, I considered her divorce, not in terms of how it affected me, but in terms of what it must have felt like for a woman, at the age I am at now, to face the shock, the humiliation, the grief, and the exhaustion of ending her marriage while trying to raise three rambunctious, outspoken children. Where was she supposed to find the tools to do that? Maybe she didn’t always say the things I longed to hear, or do the things I yearned for her to do, but she never failed as a mother, she succeeded against all odds.

I made a fleeting visit to London over the final weekend of the Olympics. Within hours of arriving, I found myself standing on the platform at Earl’s Court tube station saying, “Where am I and where has London gone?” Three times I’d had my suitcase carried down a flight of stairs by London Underground staff, without even needing to ask. I’d sat on the tube and witnessed random strangers striking up conversations with each other. I found dairy-free salads in M&S. I was sure I’d walked into some alternative reality. This was certainly not the London I remembered. Maybe London and I had both grown up in our time of separation.

Then I figured out what had happened. The people had taken the city back. The great British public had said, "No one puts London in the corner." This was no longer the divided London of Thatcher's yuppies and have-nots, it was not the London failed by New Labour, it was not the ravaged London devastated by the 2011 riots, it was a city of people who cared. It was a great capital city, humbly stunned by its own success. It had hosted what people were calling the greatest Olympic Games ever. There were never any guarantees and there were many incidents forewarning of failure, but somehow London kept the faith. Like most successes, it was the combination of hard work and a little bit of luck on the day. And thus Britain reminded itself that it was Great, that it could still stand up as a kingdom United.

However, while the Olympics stood out as a beacon of success, it still cannot, and should not, anesthetize the shame of some failings that have unfolded before our eyes this year. The Libor scandal and the Leveson inquiry have shown us that our bankers and journalists cannot be trusted, the BBC has been exposed as an unmanaged machine, and it appears our Queen once knighted a prolific sexual predator (leaving us wondering how many more have slipped through the net). But the British will not push matters aside and say, "c'est de l'histoire ancienne, ce n'est pas sérieux." No stone will be left unturned until we uncover the full truth and put into place practices that prevent repeat offenses. We set the bar high and when it slips we push it up again, even higher.

But whatever Britain faced when it took a look in the mirror this year, it is nothing compared to what the Americans experienced as a result of the presidential election. Around half of the US population was persuaded to vote for a religious extremist whose closest allies were exposed as bigots and oppressors. No matter whether it would ever be possible to revoke the rights that generations of women fought to obtain, the fact that anyone could stand up in what is supposed to be one of the world’s greatest democracies and challenge them, now, in the twenty-first century, was nothing short of terrifying.

The concept of inalienable human rights was conceived in 1215 in England with the signing of the Magna Carter. For almost 800 years, in countries aligned to Britain and beyond, this concept has stood as a cornerstone of constitutional law, ostensibly protecting the individual (i.e. regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation) against the arbitrary dictatorship of a despot and guaranteeing a person’s right to a fair trail by the legal system of their land. Although in France they seem to feel that a person’s privacy is above the law, a policy that has long harbored sexual predators and corrupt politicians. We need to remember what we ultimately believe in. We need change. We cannot fear change; fear cripples us. As FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

My friend is writing a book about spiders, and how to deal with them. I don’t know the details but she’s a creative spark and it’s bound to be both informative and entertaining. Fortunately the only spiders I'm afraid of are the cyber ones that crawl all over your browser spying on your every move. I have no problem with real spiders – even in Australia those killer ones are pretty rare and can usually be caught and released safely – but what about those metaphorical spiders?

We all have our personal spiders, seemingly small things we’re afraid of, things that bring up a whole range of rational and irrational fears. Top of my list is the idea of trusting someone with my heart again. Relationships are hard to get into and even harder to get out of. Best to steer well clear, I reckon. I know I’ve never got it quite right and I’m not sure I’ll ever have the courage to try again. Why not admit defeat and focus on the few things I think I’ve got figured out (like how to entertain children and make great soup)? I’ve just never understood the rules of relationships. What comes first? The sex or the relationship? I’ve always got it wrong and it’s always ended in tears. I even wrote an entire book about the subject and I still have no answers. I only envisage pain when I think about romantic love. As Shakespeare said, there is no evil angel but love. Indeed, the great irony of love is the fact that anyone has ever tried to write about it at all. There are actually no words to describe that strange sickly sensation of feeling stuck to someone, of being unable to stop thinking or caring about them even when they drive you mental, of knowing that their well being means as much to you, if not more, than your own. (I’m even re-reading that now, shaking my head, thinking, “no, that’s not it, exactly. It’s something like it, but not exactly it.") I know nothing. Is it wonderful? Is it insufferable? Is it all you need? Is it worth the bloody effort? Is there a conspiracy to make it look like heaven when really it's hell? Back over to Will who suggested, There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.

So… is it a good thing or a bad thing that this world is due to end on Friday?

Apparently there is a little method to the Mayan madness. We’ve all heard the theories about a possible polar reversal, or a more dramatic and catastrophic polar shift, that could be at the root of all the hysteria; such speculative events have been dramatized in apocalyptic themed films (that will all feel embarrassingly dated if we come out the other side, like the 1984 and Y2K films). But I did hear a more enlightened, uplifting theory recently. I’m not sure I fully grasped it but it was something to do with the build up of cosmic radiation (that the earth's magnetic fields protect us from) that is going to peak and start declining as of Friday. Why is this a good thing? Because apparently it has happened before and has always coincided with a huge shift in human evolution. Insha'Allah, as my dad was fond of saying to us when we were growing up in the Middle East, because we are well overdue a shake up here.

If we are heading for the end of this world, what should we take with us into the next? What have we learned? What do we need to do? What's our collective responsibility; our common path?

Until this point human beings seem to have been ruled by their fears. Fear of change is certainly a factor, but other basic fears have caused the majority of our suffering. While generalized fears of hunger, loneliness, and pain may motivate most self-sabotaging acts, there is no greater catalyst for destructive behavior than the fear of being insignificant. We want to be noticed, we want our lives to mean something, so we crave power, and when we realize we will never have ultimate control, we explode in frustration and demand more of whatever we can find to make up for it: more money, more land, more followers, more chocolate, more sex. This leads to an obsession with indoctrinating others. You don't need a PhD in psychology to understand how Hitler’s actions can be traced back to being rejected by his father. Fears can propel people to commit heinous crimes. Fears can also paralyze us and stop us from doing everything possible to prevent those heinous crimes. We want to cling to the old and familiar because taking action scares us; change scares us. And when we realize we’re naturally programmed to fear change, we’re even less likely to do anything radical, because we can just blame it on the human condition. We justify our choices every day; we dig our heals in and say, "this is who I am and what I do and I've made my decisions and that's the end of it." We pull the blinkers ever closer to our eyes, blocking out what we can't face looking at. We're barely coping with our own lives, so it’s too much to worry about doing anything about the state of the world. We just don't have the energy to fight. We have children to raise, and X Factor to watch, and iPhones to play with. The wine will soon drown out our screaming consciences. We're far too exhausted to deal with any metaphorical bloody spiders.

But if we don't deal with them, the evil little things are going to take over the world and ruin it for everyone. If we don't face problems head on then what's the point? Is it not our purpose to learn and evolve and push the human race forward? Is it not our responsibility to learn from our mistakes and make the necessary changes to get it right the next time? What the hell are we doing here? Are we learning anything anymore? If we lack the strength to change direction and challenge our fears – even on an individual level – what will become of the world? To make any real difference we have to start to take responsibility, realize we can't have it all and accept that some is enough. We must think of new ways to work together to fight oppression and cruelty, and to bring down borders. We must challenge the naysayers no matter what; we cannot back down. We have to fix what is broken; we have the tools. We've never had so much at our disposal; we have to do something with it. It’s not enough to post a link on Facebook and sit back and think we’ve done our bit. If we allow that to ease our conscience, we’re cheating. 

Why is anyone homeless when there are empty houses? Why is anyone starving when we are tipping surplus food into landfill sites on an hourly basis? Why is anyone dying from diseases we have drugs to cure or information to prevent? I’m told it is because of politics. It is not politic to redistribute food and shelter in certain cases. Or the bureaucracy behind mobilization is too complicated. That's bullshit; I don't accept that. I agree with Dickens who said, "Consider nothing impossible, then treat all possibilities as probabilities." If we don't answer and resolve these questions soon then we have failed. We have failed ourselves, we have failed our ancestors, and we have failed our future generations. Can we do it? Yes we can. We can do anything. I mean… just… Imagine.


I started this blog just over two years ago. Ironically enough, with what I believed to be a quote from John. My intention was to practice my writing skills, to self-publish in order to challenge my fear of exposing my work to anybody. It's served me well. My skills have improved and some of these posts have got me published and got me good work. But with this being very much the season of endings, I am going to wrap it up here. (It is not the end of my blogging, just the end of this blog.). It was a fantastic learning curve, a real education, and I thank you, if you've followed it, for your time, and in many cases your private messages of appreciation. But I feel it’s time now to take what I've learnt to do here – in this relatively safe, hidden corner of cyberspace – and take it further afield; it’s time to do something more with what I’ve learnt to do.

Two years ago, I was in a very different situation from the one I'm in now. To be honest I was barely surviving, I was treading water at best. I was virtually drowning. But somehow I turned it around. The greatest battle I’ve fought to date is still the nicotine addiction (three years of winning that one now), but I also figured out how to take better care of myself, how to command a good wage for my skills, and how to be emotionally independent. I’ve learnt to love my mother again and now count her as one of my closest friends. I’ve learnt to take a little more time over choosing my friends, but once I’ve chosen them, to love and trust them freely. I've learnt to say "no"... to myself as well as others. I've learnt that I am what I think of me, not what my family, or anyone else thinks of me (and at times my opinion of myself has been the most hurtful one of all; I've learnt to face that, too). But most of all I've learnt that there is always more to learn and there is no point in living if we ever stop learning.

It's been a long, long journey, but I think I’m ready to go home. I'm still nervous. I've done the reverse culture shock before and it's tough. Just because you're speaking the same words, it doesn't mean you're speaking the same language and we know what I’m like with languages! But perhaps I'll be more inspired to learn one in a place where I actually like the people. Needless to say, six months from now I’ll probably be moaning about the bloody moaning Brits, but for the moment the grass is definitely greener on the other side of the Chunnel.   

John finally got to me the other day.

I was sitting in his eponymous airport a few weeks back, waiting to board a delayed flight back to Paris, and there it was, etched into the wall in huge letters, above WHSmith’s:

If the Beatles or the sixties had a message, it was learn to swim. Period. And once you learn to swim, swim. You make your own dream. That's the Beatles story, after all, isn't it? 

"Let your fear be your compass," a great friend once told me. I finally understand what she meant.

And the love thing? Maybe I’ll find the courage to give that a go again. We’ll wait and see if John has anything to say about that.