Oops

Few things improve your attitude towards the work-filled day ahead like a crack on the forehead from a curtain pole.

Why do these things always happen to me? I honestly believe that a cliff edge that had been there since the beginning of time and held the weight of hundreds of thousands of hikers who’d rambled across it over the years would instantly snap off in the very moment that I was walking over it, plunging me suddenly and without warning into the sea below to be eaten by sharks or suchlike. I am always the one who will be opening the door when the handle falls off, or in the lift when it breaks down, or standing directly in the path of the drunk guy who’s throwing up.

So anyway, I dragged myself out of bed in the knowledge that I have a ton of work to do and very little time in which to do it. After showering, dressing, and putting the coffee on, I was even starting to feel like I could manage to make a start. Briskly, I pulled the curtains open to let some additional grayness flow in – and the whole ensemble promptly fell on my head. Curtains, pole, the lot.

I cannot fix the situation, mainly because I am dizzy and have a large bump on my head. But also, I did not think to bring my (pink) Emergency Tool Kit For Women Living On Their Own on my travels with me. It probably wasn’t called that, but it was useful for fixing things that fell on me, or at least for handing to male friends when I was asking them to fix things that had fallen on me.

Of course, this would happen to me, on my own, when Riho is away. When he returns to find the huge living room window bare and the curtains and pole on the floor, is he really going to believe that they “just, erm, fell down” and that they just happened to do so when he wasn’t here to see it happening? No. He will think I have been having mad parties that involved swinging on the curtains and causing pointless destruction, and I will be evicted and banished to Switzerland or something.

You wait and see.

Airports (Part 2)

So, to go back to what I was originally going to say in my previous post: there I was in NYC. It was huge and busy and crazy and wonderful, as I wrote in this post many moons ago. My four days there were among the best days I’ve ever had.

But it was still very much a one-off, as far as I was concerned. This was a once in a lifetime experience, and it seemed utterly surreal: I was in New York! I was in New York!! I had been very much brainwashed by my culture, into thinking that travel was either something for the very rich, or something that you got to do once a year or so as long as you saved like mad for the rest of the year and didn’t have much of a life. Obviously, I now know that that’s not true!**

After New York, I had to catch a flight to Nashville, where I would be visiting some good friends, and listening to bluegrass music in the sorts of bars where people wear cowboy hats. Getting there, however, was not as straightforward as it was supposed to be.

For a start, there was a crazy thunderstorm soon after I arrived at Newark Airport. I’d never experienced such oppressively hot, clammy, breathless weather before, and the violence with which the storm errupted was impressive. It was also annoying, as flights (mine included) were being cancelled and delayed all over the place due to electrical storms and various other dangerous-sounding things.

It’s horrible to be hot and sweaty and sticky and dehydrated and tired, and to be constantly going to the boarding gate only to hear, yet again, that your flight will be delayed. Times like this, I consider saving for the occasional plane trips I do take and just hiring some sort of private aircraft charter and not dealing with these airport nightmares. It is, however (and finally I reach my original point), utterly delightful to just sit back and watch everyone else. I sat all alone on the floor, propped up against a wall, and listened to the conversations around me. There was the usual Airport Rage, complete with fists being shaken, voices being raised, security guards being beckoned, and that sort of thing. The tannoy went bing-bong! with a new delay-related announcement every few seconds, and the announcer sounded more and more depressed and frazzled each time, culminating in my favourite tannoy announcement that I’ve ever heard:

Ladies and gentlemen, would the family who borrowed a wheelchair for a sick grandmother please return grandmother to the service desk. Uh, to the wheelchair. Uh, no… would the family please remove the grandmother from the wheelchair and return the wheelchair to the service desk.

Classic.

Eventually, I ended up in Pennsylvania, which to be perfectly honest I didn’t know was a real place at that point. Possibly I was confusing it with Transylvania, because I honestly thought that was a fictional place, what with Dracula living there and everything. Look, I didn’t pay much attention to geography until recently.

Anyway, having finally gotten into the plane and sat at the edge of the runway for at least an hour, we took off, flew around in circles for an extremely long time, and then landed in Pennsylvania for some reason that escapes me now. I have blocked out large chunks of that day. But as I sat there with my head in my hands, longing for cold air and sleep and a familiar face or two, and watching a very large, red-faced man threatening to punch the pilot, I found my attention being drawn to a conversation between a couple sitting near me.

I can only describe them as looking remarkably and disconcertingly like a 40-year-old Barbie doll, and David Hasselhoff.

It was wonderful to have proof that the sorts of characters that you find in things like Baywatch and Oprah actually exist, and their conversation delighted me, because I never really thought that people used some of the words and phrases that those two did. Practically every sentence uttered was a cliché lifted straight out of a trashy talk show or sitcom, and it was wonderful. I can’t explain why: I can only hope that you understand.

It was a long time ago, so the details are a little fuzzy in my head, but as I recall, Barbie and Hasselhoff were going through a rather stressful time in their relationship, thanks to Hasselhoff’s older son, John. John was 16. I know this because Barbie kept whining “But he’s sixteen, baby… he’s not a baby!” which seemed like a really bizarre sentence to me. John did not like Barbie at all, and resented her for stealing his father away from his mother, who was apparently now living with a basketball player called Chad. Barbie was trying to issue Hasselhoff with an ultimatum: Back me up against the boy, or I leave you. Hasselhoff, meanwhile, was trying to issue Barbie with an ultimatum: Make more of an effort to get along with the boy, or I leave you.

Neither of them was willing to compromise, back down, nor even listen to the other one. It was great. Phrases like Don’t ask me to choose between you and my son, honey, and I just can’t continue to be disrespected like this, baby flowed as freely as in a script from Days of our Lives. Readers, I am ashamed to admit that I listened to that conversation for over half an hour. I couldn’t help it. In my defence, it’s not like they were trying to keep it private or even keep their voices down. It was like a special live performance of a soap opera, and I was in the front row. There’s something really weird about hearing an accent you’re so familiar with from TV and movies but haven’t heard much in Real Life. The whole thing just felt surreal to me. I kept gazing at them in awe: Barbie with her flawless face and shimmering blonde hair and shiny shoes; Hasselhoff with his steroid-assisted muscles, deep tan, and arms designed for carrying one of those bodyboard things as he’s running into the waves to rescue a beautiful woman.

And that is the point at which I decided I wanted to be a travel writer. I didn’t want to write dull, lifeless accounts of landmarks and scenery and museum exhibitions. Yes, I wanted to visit all those things, but I wanted to write something different about them. I wanted to insert characters, and colour, and life. I wanted to tell of funny incidents and overheard conversations and strange encounters. I wanted to go to Paris and write not a step-by-step guide to the city, but stories about flamboyant old men who stop to kiss you when you’re resting on a park bench, and readings by a favourite writer at a legendary bookshop. I wanted to go to Hungary and write not about the best places for stag weekends in Budapest, but about the scruffy man and his young son who live in the lookout tower in the village of Révfülöp. You get the idea.

I want to be Bill Bryson, basically.

**This may be seen as something of a plug, as my latest business venture involves the writing and hopefully selling of an ebook along the lines of how to break free and explore the world even on the back of job loss and financial strife. If anyone has any advice about ebooks and the promotion/selling thereof, please feel free to offer it!

Airports (Part 1)

Riho has gone away for a few days, and the conversation before he left for the airport led me to tell him about what first planted the idea of becoming a travel writer in my head. Are you sitting comfortably? It’s story time, boys and girls!

In my early twenties, newly single, and needing some cheering up, I accepted an invitation from some American friends to go somewhere I’d only ever dreamt of visiting: New York City. Other than travelling back and forth between Ballymena and Glasgow when I was at university, I’d never done any travelling on my own before. I was very nervous, but I will never forget how excited I was at the same time.

Of course, I very quickly discovered that the actual travelling part of travelling isn’t all that great, actually. Airports are noisy, confusing, irritating and filled with screaming brats and arrogant middle class twits who think that the more loudly they complain, the more important people will think they are. Aeroplanes are cramped, uncomfortable and unpleasant – at least, they are when you can only afford budget airlines and economy class. In short, travelling (by plane, anyway) is not at all fun and exciting.

However, it’s admittedly something of a necessity if you want to enjoy the fabulous part of travel, which is really more a combination of “arrival” and “actually being there”. I’ve spent more time in airports and planes over the past year than I had in my whole life up to a year ago! And it does have a saving grace, in that it allows me to spend countless hours doing one of my favourite things: observing people, with a view to writing about them at the next available opportunity.

People are odd creatures, there’s no denying that. I couldn’t be a writer if I couldn’t write about people and the weird and wonderful things I see and hear them doing. I’m not interested in writing solely about beautiful scenery and famous landmarks: I want to know the stories behind them, or to recount amusing tales about people I’ve encountered whilst visiting these places.

I remember my original discovery of my love of people-watching. I was 9 years old (I know this because I had just finished having a conversation about how I would be in double figures soon, and was silently and seriously pondering the significance of this fact), and sitting in the back of my granny’s car as she drove my mum, The Sister and me back home from her house one Saturday evening. It was dark, and we were sitting at the traffic lights in Linenhall Street, Ballymena, in a long queue.

I glanced idly into the car next to us, and saw the driver, a man in his early thirties, arguing with wife or girlfriend. They both looked furious. In the back, two girls of around the same age as The Sister and me were watching their parents with wide eyes. The younger one had tears running down her face. The older one had a mutinous frown on her face.

It struck me with surprising force that in that car was a real, live family, with a whole set of life stories about which I knew nothing other than what I could see at that moment. When you’re a small child, you tend to presume that you are the centre of the universe. It generally takes a while for the concept of your own smallness in a vast world to gradually filter down… but for me, it happened all of a sudden, in that moment. That family had been somewhere, was going somewhere, and had its own problems. They had names, likes and dislikes, history, routines. They walked, talked, breathed, thought, and had emotions, just like me. When the lights changed, and our car moved on, so did theirs – they followed their lane, and we followed ours. I recall being utterly fascinated by the concept of their argument, their conversation, their lives continuing even after they drove out of my sight.

Since then, I’ve remained intrigued by the little glimpses that it’s possible to have into the lives of other people simply through observation of brief moments. A snippet of overheard conversation or a chance encounter with a stranger can provide me with insight that is both entertaining and fascinating. Which is why – to return to my original point – I can put up with airports. I’m telling you: if you want to be a writer but are short of inspiration, go to an airport and sit there for a few hours. Guaranteed writing material!

However, since I have strayed so ridiculously from the original story that I was going to tell, I shall have to make this a two-parter (as I still live in fear of commenters who don’t like lengthy blog posts).

I’ll get to the point eventually, I swear.

Flat Joel

As I have mentioned before, I love books. I have always loved books. When I think about my childhood of back-to-back Enid Blyton books, lightly sprinkled with Roald Dahl, Frank Richards and Colin Dann, I am thankful for parents who loved to read, and whose collections from their own childhoods were passed down to me.

But I’m increasingly sad when I realise just how unimportant books seem to be to children nowadays. With endless varieties of computers and games consoles, most kids just don’t seem to have any desire to read for pleasure. Reading is a chore; something you have to do at school. The idea of getting lost in a good book, of your own free will, is becoming less and less common amongst kids today. I can’t believe I’m in my twenties and using phrases like “kids today”, but really, it does make me sad.

This is why I was delighted to receive the following from a friend:

Flat Joel

(Click the image to make it larger)

I’m strangely taken with this. I think I’m just overjoyed at the idea of kids enjoying a book, and I want to encourage such behaviour wherever possible. Anyway, I had an idea. I’ve sent a postcard from Tallinn, and will also send one from Lutry in Switzerland when I get there. But I’d love to give them more than they expected, which is where you come in. What’s the point of having a blog if you can’t use it for good now and again, eh? My stats inform me that I have regular readers from all sorts of interesting places across the world, from little towns in Scotland and England to huge cities like Sydney, New York and Tokyo. What if you all sent a card? It takes a few minutes, costs a few cents, and is also quite good fun because you get to pretend to be Flat Joel.

Anyone from my home town in NI or second home town of Tallinn is excused, as cards have already been sent from those places. Likewise if you’re from Ontario, Canada, as that’s where the school is! But if you’d like to join in with this sweet project and teach these little ‘uns about the joys of reading and imagination, and also a bit about the world, please do send me an email or leave me a comment (no one but me will see your email address) and I’ll send you the school address. If everyone sends a card from their town or city rather than their country, it’ll make overlaps less likely and means that the class will receive even more postcards than if it was just one card per country. Come on – let’s keep the fun of reading, imagination and learning alive for one class of second graders in Canada!

Plus it’ll make me happy. :)

Tram Life

Tallinn’s trams are great places to encounter all sorts of weird and wonderful characters.

For a start, it’s the obvious place to go if you’re homeless and it’s raining. I doubt whether they pay for a ticket, but even if they do, it’s only 9EEK (about 50p) and they can stay on there all day if they like, riding back and forth on the same line. At least it’s dry.

The real fun, however, begins when people start going home from the pubs – particularly the ones who go to the pub at opening time and stay there until the early evening. Let me tell you, I would not want to be feeling dizzy and queasy from a day’s drinking and then attempt to endure a tram journey home. But even less would I like to be stuck standing next to someone who is doing just that, on a packed, standing-room-only tram.

I observed one unfortunate man standing beside such a person one evening. The drunk guy was really not doing very well at all at the whole standing up thing, and with every lurch and rattle of the tram he hurtled into the man next to him and clutched frantically at the rails. The sober man did not exactly look thrilled about this, but he was Estonian: minimal emotion was displayed on his face as the journey progressed.

Unfortunately, the drunk man did not have any such self control. Not only was his balance severely questionable, but he looked increasingly panicky and distressed as the tram trundled lazily on towards his stop – also, incidentally, the stop at which Riho and I were to alight. You could see it in his eyes; and if you couldn’t see it in his eyes, the way that he suddenly started pressing his hand to his mouth and gurgling frantically would have been a good enough clue. He gulped a few times. So did the sober man next to him – he was trying desperately to back away, but there’s only so much room for movement in a rush hour city centre tram.

The tram stopped, and the sober man practically leapt off. Riho and I exited the carriage from the opposite end, and I temporarily forgot about the drunk guy as I wound my way through the crowd. Then Riho nimbly danced across the pavement in one graceful leap, like a ballerina (which is not really his style), and I looked at him in surprise before seeing drunk dude staggering much less nimbly off the tram. In fact, he just kind of burst through the doors, landed miraculously on his feet, and poured forth an impressive fountain of whatever it was that he’d been drinking all day.

I am not good with vomit. Not even my own, but especially other people’s. It took me weeks to get over that experience, Riho’s surprisingly agile ballet move having put him at a safe distance and left me gazing in horror at a close-up puke extravaganza before running away with my hand over my mouth.

Then the other day on the way to the supermarket some girl sat down in front of us and tried to beg money from us before shaking our hands and welcoming us to Estonia, asking our ages, and telling us earnestly that our faces looked utterly identical. This was bemusing, and somewhat offensive, as I do not have a bushy beard and Riho does not look like a girl. But just as we were trying to deal with her startling observation, she turned back round, grabbed the guy next to her, and stuck her tongue down his throat. He looked just as bewildered as us, but as he appeared to be quite drunk (and indeed, was drinking from a bottle of beer at the time, which she craftily removed from his hand during the snogging) he didn’t put up a fight. And she got off at the next stop, blowing us all kisses.

So you see, tram life is entertaining, if a little bit gross at times.

I’m Not The Only One

Katyboo has been tackling a meme:

Think of 20 albums that had such a profound effect on you that they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that, no matter what they were thought of musically, shaped your world.

I tried this, and failed miserably because of my inability to be concise. Before I knew what was happening, I had written an entire post about one single song, so I had to abandon the meme for now. Maybe I’ll compile a list of twenty songs instead, but even at that, I’ll have to post them one at a time if they each provide me with a post of this length…

john_lennon_imagine1My No. 1 song of influence: Imagine – John Lennon

You can picture my mother’s horror when I came downstairs one afternoon as a twelve-year-old and said I just heard this COOL song on the radio, do you know it? and proceeded to sing a few lines from Imagine. She looked at me, her hands frozen in motion amongst the plates in the kitchen sink, and I felt the waves of disappointment and disbelief emanating from her. That is John Lennon, she said very slowly and deliberately. I completely understand how she felt. If a twelve-year-old came up to me today and didn’t know who John Lennon was, I would be just as outraged. It’s unacceptable.

John Lennon meant a lot to me from that point on. I became fascinated by the Beatles, but John, with his cute round glasses and messy long hair and scruffy beard and hippy-dippy lennon-20071208130440ethics and radical beliefs really captured my… well, imagination. I loved him. I still do. The Parents lost custody of all their Beatles albums and Lennon cassettes from that day forth, and I was increasingly to be found in my bedroom reading conspiracy theories and becoming angry about the state of the world and singing along passionately to Working Class Hero.

bma05chuharryville2r-2358When things started getting really silly in Northern Ireland again during my teens (the Omagh bomb; the Drumcree protests; the Harryville chapel protests that meant our home was in the middle of a ridiculous swarm of local thugs and entire defence lines of riot-geared police every weekend), I started to hate the place. We studied Irish history at school, and I hated it. I had a serious falling-out with my best friend over the head of it all, and I started actively avoiding Northern Irish news stories and dreaming of living elsewhere. It made little sense to me. I was brought up in a very peaceful home by very easy-going, live-and-let-live parents, and all the bitterness and fighting and pettiness seemed absurd to me, a dreamy teen who would rather have lived through the Sixties and gone to Woodstock and smoked dope, with flowers in my hair.

John Lennon was a huge source of comfort and inspiration to me. I clung to the line You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one as proof that it was OK to not want to get sucked into the politics and insanity of my home country; that it was OK to dream of peace and love and harmony; that it was OK to hate hatred. When I left NI for university in Scotland, my love for Lennon accompanied me, along with several CDs and posters of him, a passion for attending peace rallies and anti-war demonstrations, and a ban the bomb sign tattooed on my shoulder. I can quite honestly say that of all the songs that have affected me and influenced me throughout my life, none has done so more profoundly and significantly than John Lennon’s Imagine. It shaped who I became and gave me hope that most people did just want peace, despite how things appeared to me. It may not be my favourite song, or the best song in the world. In fact, it’s fairly simple and uncomplicated.

But for me, that’s the beauty of it. Live in peace. Simple. Uncomplicated.

Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

Gone in 140 characters or less.

I’ve never gotten into the whole Twitter fad.

I’m reluctant to make grand, superior-sounding statements like that, because something’s bound to happen that results in me not only being utterly obsessed with Twitter, but probably working for them and writing blog posts entitled “How Tweeting Saved My Life” and so on, which would make this original opinion something of an embarrassment to me. I don’t see it happening, though, so I’ll continue with my musing.

Twitter, for those of you who are unaware of the concept (how?!), is yet another method of sharing every detail of your life with the general public – which I tend to enjoy doing, being a personal blogger and all, so you’d think that I’d be quite into Twitter. You type in a little announcement in less than 140 characters, and it gets published on t’internet. This process is known as “tweeting”. The little messages are called “tweets”. And people can sign up to “follow” your “tweets” if you are an interesting “twitterer” or if they actually know you or something.

This all seems a little bit similar to Facebook status updates, as far as I can make out. However, it gets more complicated than that because people can reply to your “tweets” – and, you know, this is the bit where I accept the fact that I must be an utter dunce, because I can’t fathom it at all. It’s not like having a private conversation, because your “tweets” and the other person’s “tweets” are shown separately. What I mean is, everyone’s “tweets” stay on their own page. So if you were, say, snooping around and trying to figure out how this Twitter thing works, you’d have great difficulty in following any of the conversations, because you have to keep clicking on the name of the person being replied to, in order to find out what they originally said, and then basically do a lot of clicking back and forth to read the conversation backwards. I can’t figure out how it would work, forwards, unless you and all your Twitter associates were following all of the same people and could therefore see all sides of the conversation.

This annoys me quite considerably.

I like things like this to be easy, uncomplicated, convenient and enjoyable. Half an hour of clicking around with Twitter, and I gave up in complete irritation. I prefer Facebook status updates, because they’re just there and if someone wants to reply to what you’ve said, they’ll do so on your page and it will appear for everyone to read right below the original status update. It would make no sense whatsoever if they replied on their own page, even if they did put your name at the start to show that it was addressed to you. You’d have to go back and forth and back and forth if you wanted to read the conversation. It would be annoying.

There’s also the fact that as a writer, I can’t help seeing Twitter as a bit of a thief. It steals blog material. Snatches it from your hands, chews it up, spits it out and belches. Let’s say I’m a Twitter addict, and I keep everyone informed of what’s going on in my life as it happens, in a series of short messages. It might look something like this:

Fell over a loose paving stone and landed in a pile of slush with my shopping all around me. Very embarrassing.

Went out for dinner – tried to order in the local language and ended up eating fried rabbit paws in peanut butter sauce.

Realised at the supermarket checkout that I didn’t have enough money. Cashier didn’t speak English. Lots of confusion.

Going to bed now – have just stubbed my toe and banged my head both at the same time. Woe.

Do you see the problem? Those are the little things that happen to me on a daily basis, and they are just being thrown away in short comments. To me, each one of those things could be padded out to make a lengthy and hopefully entertaining blog post, which in turn might trigger another one, and possibly lead to inspiration for a novel and a screenplay based on said novel, and ultimately a multi Oscar award winning movie starring me in the lead role. And yet there they are… gone in 140 characters or less. You can’t exaggerate sufficiently in 140 characters, nor can you work in some witty comments and insightful remarks, nor can you create suspense and tension and a general sense of melodrama.

I can’t be a Twitterer. I simply cannot be concise. I was never able to send text messages on my phone for the same reason – they all ended up being four times as long as they were meant to be, and thus costing me four times as much to send.

It takes me 140 paragraphs to tell a story in my own, rambling way, not 140 characters.

I hereby formally reject Twitter and  choose blogging. Hurrah! I feel relieved to have reached a verdict at last, even when it seems to be going against the majority opinion. Look at me, see how I grow in backbone and confidence…