No Man is an Island

The news has always been a divisive thing. On the one hand we all want to feel connected, to know what is going on ‘out there’ in the world. On the other we do sort of suspect that the version of life we are spoonfed by the media is skewed and distorted like a picture taken through a fish eye lens.

Is it getting worse? That’s hard to say. But my own experience as a Brussels resident who has been reading news reports from the UK media on the recent bombs at Zaventem airport and the metro would suggest it is – or at least that the media is as sensationalist as ever.

Both to loved ones and idiots on social media I have defended this city I love, which, if you believed every BBC news report you read you would think was besieged by jihadists on every street corner. Contrary to public media opinion, who take great delight in filming some dickhead reporter roaming the streets of ‘jihadi capital of Europe’, Molenbeek (incidentally also the suburb in which I work), or the use of water cannons against a small group of self-declared fascists downtown, it is still possible to walk down the street here without the need for police protection and an armoured vehicle.

The thing I love most about Belgium, and Brussels in particular, is people’s resilience; their ability to stay clear-headed and articulate in a crisis. And also, as the police cat food Twitter episode so clearly demonstrated, their sense of humour.

Though I will always love it, increasingly I feel glad I left the UK, and am experiencing life on the ‘outside.’ Because when you are inside the Kingdom we ironically still call ‘United’ it is frighteningly easy to adopt the media’s attitude to issues such as terrorism; to become closed-minded and biased without even realising it, due to the diet of twisted information you are fed by power-hungry media outlets and politicians.

If you listen to the likes of Boris we are far better off out of Europe, away from all these nasty jihadis. Raise the drawbridge! Keep Britain safe! What good can Europe do us? Look at the mess France and Belgium are in! Though I have neither the political knowledge nor inclination to address these tenuous arguments here, I will highlight one thing, a poem by John Donne, entitled ‘No Man is an Island’:

Entire of itself, 
Every man is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less. 
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s 
Or of thine own were: 
Any man’s death diminishes me, 
Because I am involved in mankind, 
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

Whether we are part of Europe or not (and I personally believe we should be), none of us is an island. We must stand together in the face of terrorism and not let it divide us, by faith or for political gain. The media and politicians have ulterior motives. It is for us, the ‘normal people’, to look past those, to look past religion, past race and past hatred;  to look into our own hearts. Because it is only there we can find the good, the pure and the true; and understand that love is the only answer there is.

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Today

Today, I will celebrate life instead of being afraid of its fragility.

I will take time out to breathe deeply, to feel the blood flowing through my veins.

I will give thanks for all my blessings, which are many.

I will pray for those who are suffering, and mourning loved ones.

I will not take things too seriously, or let them overwhelm me.

I will realise that, in the end, the only thing that matters, will ever matter and has ever mattered is love.

And while there is breath in my body I will honour the commitment that I make today: to be a good person, keep an open heart and enquiring mind, and help others whenever and wherever I can.

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The Motions

And so, here we are again. Mere weeks after the first ‘Brussels Lockdown,’ we are in the midst of another one. Only this time it’s different. This time our fears have been realised. This time the carnage that was originally predicted has happened. This time there have been deaths (over 30 at the time of writing, but with many more critically ill in hospital); at the airport, on the metro. Two places where we most want to feel safe, but no longer can.

One of the three terrorists from the airport is still at large. Sirens blare on every street corner. Stony faced soldiers stand watch over frightened pedestrians. No matter how much we don’t want to be, we are afraid. And we are angry. But alongside our fear and anger is something else, something far more unsettling: the total absence of shock. I can only speak for myself, of course, but when I woke up yesterday morning to see my phone going crazy with messages from concerned loved ones, I instinctively knew what had happened. And I wasn’t surprised. Not in the least.

Thankfully I had stayed at home ill (the only time in my life that I will ever be grateful for a tummy bug), which meant I hadn’t taken my usual route to work via the metro. Instead of being physically caught up in the chain of sickening events I therefore watched the horror unfold on the news and social media, where the vile reactions of people like Trump and Hopkins turned my stomach.

Today, as a new day dawned, I still felt numb. And I still do. The outpouring of sentiment from around the world is fitting for the victims, but no amount of brightly coloured monuments will bring them back. And sentiment alone will not address the threat that we are facing – which, let’s be clear, is far more than a group of radicalised people on the rampage in the name of their twisted and hate-fuelled ideology.

We are as threatened by the ignorant, yet terrifyingly prevalent, attitudes of the Trumps’ and Hopkins’ of this world as we are by the terrorists themselves. In the battle between love and hate, hate is gaining ground. But it will never win, because for every ignorant, hate-filled person there are a thousand more who can not only see the truth but whose hearts are fit to burst with love. Yes, LOVE; the one emotion that the people who are trying to threaten our freedom are incapable of feeling, and the only thing that can unite us in the face of such unspeakable terror.

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Idiots Abroad

It’s just  hit me (in the freight train sense) that in a little over fifteen weeks I’ll be a Mrs. Given that I’ve been engaged for almost a year now it’s impressive I haven’t grasped this fact before. I blame the inordinately large number of organisational things that have to be done in order to pull off a wedding abroad. Nobody ever said it would be easy. And that’s because, well, it isn’t. In fact it’s really bloody hard.

People ask why we chose Austria, and I enjoy telling the story about the weekend my fiance booked a romantic break in Bavaria, only for us to be turned away from the hotel because he had accidentally booked the wrong weekend. And, as it was a public holiday in Germany, neither the hotel nor any of its immediate neighbours had any rooms available. We ended up driving for forty minutes in silence, over the border into Austria to a hotel where my hapless other half had eventually managed to locate a room. I was so angry I couldn’t speak, and we had an uneasy (and not the least bit romantic) sleep that night. When we went down for breakfast the following morning, however, everything changed. The sun was beaming down and the views of the mountains were spectacular. As we drank our coffee and ate our toast our mood thawed like the snow outside, and we jokingly said we would return to Austria for our wedding.

Fast forward a year, and we are indeed having our wedding in Austria. Right now it feels a little more foolhardy than romantic, but we have to hope the gamble will pay off. Admittedly we didn’t get off to the best start, when our first choice of venue cancelled on us three months after we booked it. By this point several guests had booked their flights, which meant an Austrian wedding was happening whether we liked it or not. So we went back to our second (much nicer, but also much more expensive) choice venue, which – nothing short of miraculously – still had availability on that popular weekend in June. So we snapped it up, pushing our concerns about nearly doubling the budget in one fell swoop to one side.

It took a while to fully comprehend the myriad complications of getting married in a country that is not one’s country of origin. Our situation was further complicated by the fact we already live in a different country (Belgium) – indeed the UK government website has a special page for people (read: idiots) like us. Not only would we have to prove residence in the country we wanted to marry in for a minimum of three days, we would also have to visit the British embassy there to apply for documentation and post notice of our marriage. Before we could go to Vienna to do this, however, we had to first request copies of our birth certificates from the UK (our existing ones being invalid because they were more than six months old), then send them back to a different address in the UK to be legalised before we eventually had what we needed for our embassy appointment. Painful doesn’t begin to describe it.

Once the legal stuff was sorted we rejoiced, thinking that surely the worst was now over. How wrong we were. The legal stuff had nothing on the nightmare of coordinating a hundred people in booking flights. Salzburg being nearer, most people sensibly opted to fly there. Until, that is, British Airways decided to cancel the return flight on Sunday. As in, the only flight that day, which meant that all the guests who couldn’t book Monday off work having to cancel and re-book flights into Munich. On top of that it transpired we couldn’t have the legal and religious blessing on the same day, and since the Protestant church in Austria no longer recognises the Protestant church in the UK, the only way we could have a blessing at all would be to enlist the services of a ‘free'(lance) priest. Still following? I’m not at all sure I am.

Then there are the challenges of working with a wedding planner and suppliers who are not only not in the same country as you, but also don’t speak English as a first language. They are all pretty good, but a lot gets lost in translation, and, let’s face it, that’s not really what you want when it comes to your wedding. It’s also been a nightmare trying to coordinate dress buying for six bridesmaids when you can’t meet everyone face to face. My girls have rallied, God bless them, but I know it’s been a royal pain in the arse doing the endless cycle of purchasing and sending back (thank god for ASOS and its free returns policy).

Now we are at the three-months-to-go-stage, things are really cranking up a gear. I’ve never been much of a fashionista, nor very design-minded, which perhaps explains why I’ve found it so difficult to choose wedding apparel (less so the dress, which was the first I tried on – hell, something had to be easy) and decide on all the smaller details like flowers, cake etc. There is still SO much to do it makes my head spin. I’ve really no clue how it will all come together, but I guess I just have to trust that somehow it will. All I can say is that it’s just as well I only plan to do this once in my life. More than that would send me absolutely nuts!

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