Reverse. Pause. 1998.

I remember only just being able to see over the dashboard of the maroon VW Passat estate which my grandfather used to drive. It had an extremely distinctive smell, one which will stay with me for a long time, a uniqueness promoting fondness on reflection. We always drove with the window open, so my grandad could smoke his pipe as he drove, looking at me smiling, as I smiled back, thinking he’s the coolest person on Earth. I remember the smell of his tobacco, it didn’t linger anywhere, but only in the small green pouch with German writing in which he kept it. The small bungalow always smells of cooking, fresh jams and compotes, soups and baking. He’s a chef.

We parked in a side-street of bustling Manchester, on double yellow lines, not that my grandad minded, he can talk his way out of anything in his classy, laisses-faire attitude. He opened the boot wide, and we sat there and ate our sandwiches, listening to the streets of the late 90s roar of the capital of brit-pop; the occasional horns and sirens mixed with birds and shouting in the midday sun. It’s amazing what a twenty three year old remembers of his life as a four year old, as clear as the day.

After we’d eaten, he moved the car a mere twenty metres so that the dreaded parking-officer wouldn’t mention a thing for being on double yellow lines. We crossed the street and went through what looked like a fire-escape. It was the back entrance to the best museum in Manchester, at least, I thought so. The science and transport museum. Cars and gadgets galore – but still something that wasn’t worth paying for. A crafty, wise fox, some might say.

At this stage in my life, everything was taller than me. Planes looked ginormous, even telephone boxes and cars looked too big to be real, especially inside. How did they get there? I remember thinking.  Though, as we were wandering around, nothing quite mesmerised me like the bright orange and multi-coloured Kinect ferris wheel, spinning and spinning. I was totally in awe, just as I was about that whole day, a sensory experience that has lasted eighteen years in my memory so far.

Thinking back now, too, I feel that I’ve shared a close affinity to car rides back in the sunset. Even prior to this trip, I have vivid memories of putting on Dire Straits with my father in his silver Audi A4 as we set off for my grandparents on a Friday evening, the sun a deep orange, mixing with the intense pink of the skies. People often say that your memory isn’t you thinking about the time itself, but the last time you thought of the memory. I don’t know how much that holds true, or how much my imagination has taken hold of the trips I went on with my grandfather. Alas, it makes the memories nostalgic, and magically inviting to occasionally think about on a midnight bike ride back from your evening job. In these moments, you manage to remain very much aware of how your life has turned out, and conscious of the foundation which allowed you to pursue the life you want to.


How can you knock on somebody’s door and expect them to answer?

You run into certain people in life. Some, you’ll never see or come into contact with again, some you will, but they continue to have a lasting effect on you. Sometimes, as much as you wish you’ll see these people again, you won’t, and for some time you’ll have to live day by day, rethinking your conversation over and over. A simple exchange of words and opinions dramatically affecting the way you live life, and the way that you see it.

Cycling home with the bitter wind in my face, confronted with cold, harsh reality. Back to normal.

Wanting to help people is a beautiful thing, she assures me. It’s not simply the words spoken, but the demeanour in which they’re slowly contemplated. Every word uttered has a precision to it; every syllable a meaning, every sentence an opinion, every paragraph a purpose.

The gifts you receive from your mother as stocking fillers are perhaps the most thoughtful; presents which manage to touch your inner 10 year old, despite yourself being a 25 year old semi-professional, far beyond the realm of the average 10 year old. You’re clinging on for dear life as the world rotates a little faster than you can counteract, a never-ending, impossible treadmill. Holding an R2-D2 hot water bottle cover in your hands as you unwrap it on Christmas morning, knowing that, 15 years ago you’d have loved this. But all it carries now is a certain attachment and sentimentality, but that’s all. As much as it doesn’t fit in the here now, it fitted well in the there and then.

When we’re parents, one day, we’ll think back to this conversation. We’ll look at something and think, ‘yes, that’s something our 32 year old son/daughter would love’. No, it’s not. It’s what they would have loved, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful, just a little bit useless.

If there’s one thing I was able to pass on to seemingly infinite wisdom at the tender age of 25, it was going it alone in a different country. Something I applauded the woman for. She saw it as a great opportunity; for how was she to know what she didn’t want, without spending some time out of her comfort zone, experiencing new environments she hadn’t know existed? Will she return? Who knows. But, that’s the point; the poetic and melancholic point to it all.

It’s the people who pass you by that can have the most significance in the way that you act, the way that you are and the way that you simply exist. Yet, the people who pass you by can also be the closest to home, in a perverse and surreal way. We live opposite each other, wholly unknowingly. We used to work at the same restaurant, lamenting over the failings we both shared. Winding up in a small bistro miles away from either of the two, crossing paths and sharing them so intimately and so swiftly is something I will not quickly forget. She lives opposite. For one more week.

A knock on the door and a cup of tea may be all it takes;

A longing to share a similarly insightful conversation;

However, we both have contrasting, but similarly busy lives;

How can you knock on somebody’s door and expect them to answer?

A Conscious Effort – Maastricht Goes to Calais

A Conscious Effort

My readings for this week’s tutorial presented me with a number of interesting, believable and profound statistics I felt were worth sharing, and commenting on. Sandra Mathison states that as of 2017:

  • The world population is 7.5 billion people
  • Half of the people in the world live in poverty
  • 22,000 children die each day due to conditions of poverty
  • 805 million people do not have enough food
  • 5 million children die each year before they are 5 years old
  • 165 million children under 5 are stunted from malnutrition
  • 750 million people do not have adequate access to safe drinking water
  • 2300 people die each day from diarrhoea
  • 214 million women lack access to family planning
  • 1 in 7 children in NYC are homeless
  • This year, in British Columbia 4 people will die each day from opioid overdoses
  • 34,500 people flee their homes every day to avoid violence
  • 1 in every 113 people on Earth has been driven from their home by conflict, violence, or human rights violations
  • Two thirds of illiterate people in the world are women

Most of these, I found rather staggering and quite incomprehensible. But if these statistics are correct, on reflection, I can see how believable they are – and this is the problem. There’s an element of this article which is subliminally reiterating how lucky many of us are. Myself, writing this in the (relative) comfort of my student house will probably never suffer any of these injustices in the entirety of my life, and there I am, critiquing the comfort of my student house when 1 in 7 children are homeless in New York.

These statistics are simultaneously useful and useless. Indeed, they make us think that we’re lucky and we may take two or three minutes to reflect on happenings around the globe. But for many of us, like myself, it rarely extends beyond a momentary thought. This, I believe, is because we are so far removed from the things that are happening throughout the globe, that they almost seem surreal. It is perhaps why, I was mostly staggered by the statistic about children homeless in New York. I am writing this, because that was the statistic that shocked me the most. This disappoints me, considering Mathison states that 805 million people do not have enough food. Incomprehensible – that is the problem. We ‘lucky ones’, are so far removed from these problems that, even though we are aware they exist, our help does not often go beyond a momentary thought.

I go back to the 1 in 7 children homeless in New York. A much more ‘real’ statistic that many of us can perhaps relate to, despite being unable to relate to the millions, almost a billion, without food and water. I suppose the problems are relative. Though, this shouldn’t be the point, and one should treat the more significant problems with the same consideration for children knowingly homeless. But indeed, it’s difficult to relate to, and with a pinch of salt, I ask, what can we do?

Maastricht Goes to Calais

A number of people I’m in contact with at university, including my housemate, are part of an independent project– Maastricht Goes to Calais. A volunteering project providing material and emotional support for the 800 refugees in and around the destroyed camps in Calais, France. The problems faced by these people, again, are incomprehensible, and a lot closer to home than one might ordinarily appreciate. Some perspective, for those unaware of the severity of the global refugee epidemic. According to Amnesty, the number of people fleeing their homes due to war and conflict, environmental and social degradation stood at 92million. Today, the figure is 244million, an unprecedented increase, and something which cannot be ignored, especially when the global problem is becoming a European problem, too.

My point here with regards to Maastricht goes to Calais also relates to those affected by homelessness in New York, in addition to those included within all of Madison’s statistics. One can become involved with the project in Maastricht by simply providing a baked cake for a fundraising sale, a retweet or repost of information, to encourage knowledge and participation alike, that can go on to make a huge difference, knowingly, or unknowingly. The problems around the globe are a shared problem, whether we hold them to be far from our day to day lives, or close to our hearts. What I am trying to convey, is the magnitude of such problems that I had done little more than think about until now; the global issues are not something which you can easily, or perhaps should devote your life towards combatting, as the problems are seemingly endless. This was something that I had not quite appreciated until I spoke to my housemate about the project and issues faced by those at Calais. I reiterate that the problems are seemingly endless, but nonetheless, any contributions of time and devotion can make a larger difference than you may have initially appreciated.

A Master’s Degree Abroad: A Study in Complacency II

‘Oh shit, things are a little different here’

The ‘second language’ English is perhaps the most difficult things to come to terms with. Not with regards to day to day life, but within the University itself. There is a common conception that everyone in the Netherlands speaks phenomenal English. Largely, they do, but it does differ from time to time, and make life a little problematic. Sitting in my tutorials, I frequently have to look past grammatical errors which misconstrue meanings, tenses which convey an entirely different meaning and so on, which ultimately affects my ability to learn and actually, understand what is going on. Adjectives and conjunctives in interesting places require much more concentration than I previously appreciated.

Without meaning any disrespect to my colleagues, it makes learning an extremely challenging experience. However, this is the way of life, the way of the world and the way of business. I must be more open minded. I for instance, speak no second language. For some of my counterparts, English isn’t their second language, but third or fourth. It’s an amazing achievement, to be undertaking a degree in a language other than their own. It just so happens, that English is an extremely popular second language and the language of international business – 70% of Germans speak English as a second language, which equates to two thirds of the whole population of Great Britain. I wish to reiterate, I need to be more open minded.

This does not make up for how difficult it can be. Without the natural fluency one possesses from being a native, even Great British sarcasm doesn’t fair too well, neither does speaking quickly, or colloquially. You observe this in every country when speaking a non-native language. But coming from a university and a country which all too often takes for granted its ease in communications, possessing a native language which dominates the world stage, it has been difficult to adapt.

Though, having said that, I’ve begun to understand how important the English language is, ironically, for completing one of the main premises of the European Union – social integration. Europe is a phenomenal concept, something which I increasingly love, being able to hop from one country to another, only using the local bus services. The dynamism is held together by the English language. I feel therefore, somewhat disappointed in myself that I expect full fluency and for them to make themselves easier to understand for my own benefit. My conscious reflection, continually looking at the ways I perceive things as a result of this year is something which I will take from my international experience, if anything. Increasing open-minded-ness, however difficult it has been to start with.

A Master’s Degree Abroad: A Study in Complacency I

Where to start?

As I sit with a ‘very English’ cup of Earl Grey, with milk, I contemplate how my life has gone astray this year, at least, compared to how I thought it was going to go. I currently study European Studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, essentially European Politics. Strange for a Brit, right? (I’m not going to get into that…). I am currently half way through the year, about to embark on a stressful and difficult semester starting my research thesis until the end of June.

Coming out of Swansea University with a reasonably strong degree, a circle of friends and having had a great few years etc. etc. I felt ready for anything and in search for a new challenge. A new challenge for me, meant a completely new environment.  I was riding on a whole load of confidence, which was of course, about to be wiped away with one clean swoosh of the Flag of Europe; never have I ever been so ready to become part of the Brexit Camp. No, that’s not true.

Though, it does speak an element of truth, my opinions and perspectives about Europe haven’t been embedded further, rather, subverted and challenged at every opportunity. No longer do I ride the wave of English youthful, graduate complacency (that I have basically completed a climb of Mount Everest blindfolded) but I no longer feel so confident in my abilities of an above average, reasonably hard working student. It’s cliché, but it’s a rather large world out there. We truly are an insular, unintegrated nation, sailing on driftwood in our pseudo ex-colonial sense of self-importance, being left behind by the rest of the continent. I never appreciated this until I moved here.

Admittedly, I cannot speak for all those undertaking bachelor’s and master’s degrees across Europe, as of course, universities hugely differ in administrative and teaching style, but, from a British student of politics’ perspective, I am keen to offer some insights into my time abroad thus far. In a series of blog posts, I’ll dissect my time in Maastricht, and hopefully offer you some interesting, first-hand experiences which will either enlighten you, inform you further, or make you think what a total load of shit.

The Lighthouse

The waves follow the swirls and movements of the brooding dark clouds. Only quicker. Looking up, I follow them with my finger. Gentle, delicate cloud formations, created by intervals of high and low pressure. It’s quite amazing, that something so far away, can create such a turbulent voyage.

It’s a place I call home. Staring into the flowing waves coming towards us as they crash against the bow, spraying the salty water over the deck, I find that there’s nothing I would want more from life. A peculiar request perhaps, to find comfort in something with such ambiguity. The ocean carries a terrifying omnipotence: unlimited power, impossible to stop and control. Yet, on a calm spring morning, the waves become reminiscent of a mil-pond, or a painting in Monet’s Water Lily Series, a calmness which brings an inner tranquillity as you look into the infinite horizon, a feeling that is only achievable out at sea.

I ring the bell as a harsh reminder to the mariners, that on days like this (far from the tranquillity we seldom see) we place life and death in the palm of our hands. It may seem an exaggeration, but it is not. The confidence the seamen place into me as their captain, in charge of ensuring their safety, in addition to their belongings, innermost secrets as their counsellor is a responsibility that I don’t carry lightly, but a burden I place upon myself nonetheless.

It is a test of character. I have a number of different jobs and functions aboard this ship (some of which, I did not sign up for) that I have been forced into doing. It is a shame, as the sailors bring it upon themselves to take from me, giving very little in return. I relish an opportunity to be selfless, and show them a love to them reserved for my family. Indeed, they are my family aboard this ship, as the people’s feelings whom I will return to in the future, may well have been extinguished.

Cooped up for months, sharing the same candlelit lit innards of the ship brings us closer together. Naturally, of course. Understanding the eyes others use, to hide their full house behind five playing cards, and the vocabulary they discover after a few drinks. The light is reminiscent of a pub in the 1980s, and so is the smell, reserved for stale smoke and a slight lingering of sweat and alcohol which makes me so unusually think to myself. ‘Yes, this is a shithole, but it’s my shithole’.

I run my hands along the side of the ship, the wooden hand rail splinters me slightly as it needs to be sanded. Having hands that have been exposed to the harshness of the elements, I can withstand a few splinters. As I look down from the bridge, I catch the mariners running around, scattered, disorganised, like an orchestra without their composer, footballers without their managers, and so on. I say nothing, and quietly observe. It’s almost funny, but brings a certain melancholy to the voyage, how I would love to confide in somebody, and talk, just as they talk to me about their problems, stray morals and absent emotion.

Looking into the distance, I can see the outline of land, a similarly omnipotent structure, submerged in darkness and shadow. Out of the darkness, comes the light. However dark it seems, there will always be light deep in the darkness, it will always be there to find you, and steer you in the right way. When anyone sees a lighthouse, they stay clear. Don’t they?

A Burning House Cannot Keep Anyone it Harbors Safe

A house is not a home. It requires a certain characteristic, more than four walls and a roof. Somewhere you recognise the smell of the spring air, year in, year out. Somewhere which provokes fond memories of a near or distant past. Somewhere you’re eager to return to after a few days, or months of travel. A place which is inherently part of you.

Now you have your house in your head, hold it. 

On the way into the area you live, and there’s a breath of relief. You’re nearly home, a dinner waiting, perhaps a pet or a loved one. Notice how your door has its own unique quirk to it, requiring you to insert the key in a certain way, lifting the handle up before you unlock, or perhaps a quarter turn extra. It needs oiling, the flowers need watering. You press your car key once more, to double check its locked, and turn to face the hallway.

Look around, and absorb the environment. Who is the first person you see, interact with?

It is a terrible cliché to talk of a home as a person. But, the love and familiarity you can share with somebody, and find in someone, can closely resemble the love and familiarity you can find in a building. I wish to draw your attention to the details which make a house a home, and the details of a person which make finding a sense of comfort in yourself so easy because of them.

Who do you have in mind? That first person. Right there. Even if it’s the person you do not wish it was, and want for somebody else, you must keep thinking of the first person you thought of.

Embrace them, in whatever capacity. Touch their hair and look into their eyes, or a kiss on the cheek, maybe, even a simple smile.

You sit down and have dinner, it’s a world away from the bustle of the day, the mix of pleasantries you exchange daily, which, when you think about it, mean absolutely nothing; an unwritten formality you go through so you don’t appear rude, before going about your business. Your radio is playing, you’re eating from your cutlery, with your own company. Everything about it is yours, and still, you couldn’t be further from home.

Think about a time a shower has washed away such negativity, and grounded you.

Consumed by the humid, steamy warm air, you feel your open pores and your dripping hair, a slight sting as you open your eyes without wiping the water away with your hands, and let the shower trickle over your back. Watching the water flow along the curvatures of your body and skin, thinking about this home, you’re burning up inside, not knowing the meaning of it, of anything. It’s 2am.

What the fuck are you doing taking a shower at 2am?

Sometimes, it’s necessary to extinguish the flames.