Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Closing Night

It is my last night in the room that has been mine for three years. It's emptier than it has ever been... even the day I moved in, when it was still full of books and possessions from the previous resident.

People have been asking me all day how I feel about going tomorrow. 

The answer is I don't really feel much. It still doesn't seem real. 

An excessive amount of baggage is coming back with me.

Even though my bags are packed, closets and drawers emptied and boarding pass printed I don't believe it... and probably won't until I'm actually on the way... until I land, spend days then weeks then months in California, forget the familiarity of riding across the river on the bus, Tuesday night Morris Dancing, and last minute theatre tickets. 

I hate endings. I always have. When I was little I used to throw tantrums when it was time to leave friends houses. I'd hide behind the sofa, throw myself on the floor, beg for just ten minutes more. But they always got me in the end. No play date lasts forever. 

As I've gotten older things have changed. Not the hatred of endings... that's still solidly there. But I can't hide from them anymore... there's no one to come drag me out from under the bed and cary me kicking and screaming to the car. So I have to do it myself. It might be slightly more dignified, but I do sometimes hate being a grown up. 

I wonder if the shutting the ending out is part of that coping mechanism. If I don't realize I'm going until I'm gone then it's not so painful... and once I'm in the new place I'll adjust quickly enough.

There's plenty to be excited about in the new place. I have the feeling 2015 is going to be a very different and good year... but then again aren't they all?

To all my California friends, I can't wait to see you! And to London friends, not goodbye but à bientôt!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Boarder Control: A post script

If you're a regular reader than you'll already know my previous experiences with boarder control (if you haven't you can catch up here

This is the soundtrack for the current blogpost. 

Every time I have to come through UK boarder control it makes me want to come back less. Maybe Jerusalem was builded here on England's green and pleasant land... but bow of burning gold and arrows of desire seem to fall too short and mental fight too exhausting. 

I had just come back from Barcelona... which was an amazing city, and reminded me of the joy of discovering new places and traditions. I was in a good mood. 

I went to the window and hand the woman my passport and landing card. She asked me to move to the left (so I'm standing to the side of the window and only had a partial view of here.) That’s never happened before but maybe I was in the wrong place? I moved.

I thought I was prepared this time. I had my return ticket to California printed, along with the latest bank statements.

She asked the usual questions… where I had been, how long I was staying. But she seemed confused about how long I was staying and how long I had been there. Finally it came out that my recent trip was the problem. She started to interrogate me about my last meeting with boarder control and what I had said to the agent there. 

“Why didn’t you tell her that you were going to Barcelona”

“I hadn’t planned the trip yet.”

“You can't just go and come back when you feel like it.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Are you planning on going anywhere else?”

“…no?” (not entirely true… I had been thinking about a few places, but that seemed like it would complicate the issue.)

In the end she stamped my passport telling me “I’ve put the date of your ticket. If you don’t leave on that day you’ll have problems.”

She went back to the computer and didn’t look at me again. I guess she was done with me? I waited a few seconds and then left. She didn’t try to stop me.

Not “Enjoy your stay. Welcome to England.” More like “We don’t want you here and the sooner you go home the better.”

Maybe I was in the wrong… there are so many rules that keeping up on the intricacies is impossible without being an immigration lawyer. Maybe she was just a bully having a bad day. Maybe somewhere half way between the two.

I know I am a generally privileged person… I have never had to deal with discrimination. So it’s a weird sensation, even on such a mild scale, to have my intentions or my right to be somewhere questioned, and to feel like the system is determined to find fault with me no matter how carefully I step. It's not as though I have no where to return to. But I want to be here. I've vowed my eternal love and sacrifice and all those things for no other reward than to be able to live here and be a part of the life and culture that I feel so much a part of.

If they keep protecting this country so militantly from outside intrusion before long there will be very little left to protect.

Is there one, anyone, behind those doors
To whom the Heart can still be explained? 
Is there one, anyone, who still may care? 
Who are these dark archangels? 
Will they be conquered? 
Will they be doomed? 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

On Eating Alone

Thoughts scribbled on a napkin in a Vietnamese restaurant in Barcelona… 11pm.

I have never been out for a meal by myself before. 

Cafes, yes. Takeaway yes. But  actually sitting down and ordering proper food that will take time to prepare and more time to eat and more time waiting for the bill… never. An odd realization that it has taken more than a quarter of a century for me to do this.

Is it that it feels odd because I don’t do it? 
Or does it feel odd because it is in fact an unusual thing to do?

No one else here is alone. The four friends on my left are talking (in English) about South Park and Downton Abbey.  The girls on my right are speaking Catalan, so no idea, but they look like a birthday… one of them is obviously the woman of the hour. Just me then. Do they notice me as much as I notice them, or are they too busy for noticing?

When the appetizer arrived I left the plate in the middle of the table as I normally would, leaving drippings of sweet and sour sauce across the table as the spring rolls made the long journey to my mouth. Half way through the first one it struck me how silly this was. They are all mine… no phantom friend to share them with. I moved the plate closer. All mine.

It’s both sad and liberating. Like many of the things in my travels… and my life, I suppose. Weighing the benefit of company vs. the freedom of doing what I want the later often wins. But with it comes solitude.

It’s bitter sweet because I had expected company tonight. A whirlwind hello with a friend passing through a foreign country at the same time as me. We met, along with other friends and friends of friends. They went to a bar. Not my scene and not my people. I stayed long enough to be polite (I hoped), and then the law of my own feet took hold. The most important thing I have learned… if you don’t like where you are change it. Staying won’t make anyone happy.

So alone like often. Not by choice but by default.

Is it wrong that I’d rather be sitting alone scratching philosophical drivel on a napkin with a drying out ball point pen than getting drunk and discussing it? No. Unusual maybe. I’m not unhappy or happy. Just being.

Later thoughts: Not written on the napkin.

A friend recently shared this scene from Luis Bunuel's "The Phantom of Liberty" with me... strangely appropriate in conjunction with taboos and social norms. I'm like the man at the end in more ways than one I guess.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

T'estimo Caga-Barcelona!

I am in love with Barcelona. For many reasons, actually, but the biggest is that this country seems obsessed with poo. At least when it comes to Christmas traditions.


In my friend's apartment there is a log with a happy face on it and some stubby little legs. She explaned to me that this is a Caga Tió (Literally "A Shitting Log.") Starting on December 8 (The Feast of Immaculate Conception) children put out food for him which the parents must secretly take a way bit by bit... because the Tió is eating. On Christmas the children hit the Tió with a stick and order it to defecate while singing special songs. Then they have to go to another part of the house and pray for gifts... while they are doing this the parents put presents under the Tió's blanket. They do this over and over again with increasingly smaller presents until the Tió has nothing left. She said "traditionally it used to be nuts and fruit, but these days it's more likely to be xboxes.

We went to the Christmas market where Caga Tiós of all sizes were on sale, from massive ones the size of a small puppy to teeny tiny ones an inch or two long. 


The other popular poop related tradition is the Caganer (The Shitter), a figurine in the nativity scene. Traditionally dressed as a Catalonian peasant, but can take all sorts of forms. The market stalls included pop figures, politicians, footballers, and a variety of characters from Yoda to Shakespeare.

We spent a long time looking and giggling over them. I bought myself a small traditional one, but am tempted to go back and get more.

The origins of the figure are disputed, but he seems to date back to the baroque period at least. It could just be for the humorous element or to take the piss (especially with the newer political figures), but there is quite a lot of scholarly writing around the symbolism of fertilityEthnographer Joan Amades says: 

"[Caganers were] customary figure in pessebres [nativity scenes] in the 19th century, because people believed that this deposit [symbolically] fertilized the ground of the pessebre, which became fertile and ensured the pessebre for the following year, and with it, the health of body and peace of mind required to make the pessebre, with the joy and happiness brought by Christmas near the hearth. Placing this figurine in the pessebre brought good luck and joy and not doing so brought adversity."

Even the City's official Nativity display had one. He traditionally hides round the back, so it's not as though he takes front and center, or upstages anyone, but you still know he's there.

Apparently there was a row in 2005 because the city chose not to include a Caganer in their display... reportedly due to the city's new bylaws which made public urination and defecation illegal (though the city later denied this.) The Caganer was restored the following year.

The non-poo-related highlight of the day was a visit to the Museu de la Xocolata... but even there there were white and dark chocolate Caganers to be had. There may not be a lot of public toilets, but Barcelona is otherwise a city after my own heart!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Attitudes On Immigration

One thing that a lot of people have said to me (and indeed I've been guilty of saying it myself) is that it's unfair that while someone from the EU can come over and claim benefits and while people like me who start businesses and pay taxes are sent home.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that this in itself is a destructive attitude. It panders to the media bias that the majority of immigrants are benefits seeking scroungers, and perpetuates the negativity around it. It places me in the 'exception rather than the rule' category. Though I appreciate people's empathy the truth is I am no more or less worthy than most other immigrants.

The thing that actually prompted me to write this post (which has been in the works for awhile) was an article in the Guardian Blog: Does Britain Really Want to be the Country Nobody Would Migrate To? She says more or less what I feel. If the country is going down hill it needs to look internally and not blame immigrants. One statement rang particularly true for me:
"The only thing maintaining the flow of migrants is that nobody reads the Daily Mail until they arrive, and only then do they realise how coarse and brutal our politics have become, how pessimistic."
The truth, though I don't always like to admit it, is that I might have fought harder if the overall attitude here were better. I don't mind not having access to benefits. I don't mind the fact that as long as I live in London I'll probably be in shared rented accommodation while my peers back home are starting to buy houses and cars. I don't even mind that it isn't easy to get a visa... I'd do the paperwork and pay the fees. Those are sacrifices I was willing to make to live the London dream: 24/7 access to culture, all of Europe on the doorstep, the stunning English Country side less than an hour's train journey away, the occasional brush with celebrity and fame. But when on top of all the struggles the national attitude towards immigration is so negative it makes me want to throw it all back in their face and say "fine. I don't want to live in your stupid country anyway." Which of course I don't mean... because I do.

I had an interesting experience coming back into the UK recently after my visa had run out. When you are Tier 1 they don't put your visa in your passport like they do for students. Instead you are issued with an ID card called a Biometric Residence Permit.

The woman thumbing through my passport at boarder control noted that my last student visa had run out in 2012.
"Yes, I know. I've been here on a Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur Visa. Do you need to see my biometric residence permit?"  
I gave it to her. A quick glance and she told me curtly:
"This is expired you shouldn't have it anymore."  
"Yes, I know it's expired. That's why I left the country." 
"Well, you need to send it back to the UKBA" 
First I'd heard of that. Plus, she asked to see it! What would she have said to me if I didn't have it? After being grilled on the length of my stay, why I was coming back in, my financial situation, my plans for employment back in the US, and showing her my ticket for my return flight home I was let through.

Welcome to Britain. Now go back to where you came from.

What can you do? 

A lot of kind and lovely people have asked me over the past months whether there's anything they can do. Here are two:

1) Think before you speak... be aware of your accidental prejudices. Keep a critical eye on articles about benefits scroungers and the things that come out of your own mouth (even if they're intended to be well meaning and comforting to a friend.) It takes a fair bit of bravery for anyone to immigrate and start a new life... doubly so if English is a second language.

2) Do write letters! Let politicians know that these pervasive attitudes are not okay... celebrate the positive aspects of immigration. I don't expect you to single handedly fix the country, but writing a letter will take 5 minutes and a stamp, and at best it will potentially benefit thousands of others like me (not to mention thousands of others like you who won't lose friends to deportation.)

For a bit of light reading I also recommend Schrodinger's Immigrant who exists simultaneously in a state of stealing jobs and claiming benefits.