The Happy Place

Despite the wonderful Thanksgiving dinner that our friends hosted last night, I woke up this morning feeling sad. R only got back from five days away at 6.30pm last night, and left again today at midday for a work trip. Lately we’ve been like ships passing in the night, and the next couple of weeks promise to be just as tough. It’s hard sometimes living the crazy life we lead, but at least we¬†both recognise the importance of staying emotionally connected as much as we can, despite the challenges. There is a lot going on and potentially some big changes afoot for us both – all very exciting, but transition always brings with it a certain trepidation.

So anyway, I woke up feeling sad and when R left felt even sadder. But instead of sitting around moping I gave myself a much-needed kick up the arse and went for a walk to my happy place, Tenbosch Park. There is one specific spot where I love to sit and listen to the birds tweeting and just breathe. In. Out. Until I feel calm again. It works every time.

Sometimes the world comes crowding in and it’s hard to get perspective, but there is always a way to get back to what matters, and, for me at least, it usually involves seeking out nature. Trees have a particularly calming effect on me, I think because so many of them have been there for so long, standing tall and strong. Nothing moves them, or riles them. I find them inspiring, and always think when I’m amongst them that I need to take a leaf (excuse the pun) out of their book and not let things get to me so much.

Life is crazy. The best way to deal with it is to accept it and enjoy the ride. Happy Sunday ūüôā

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Food with Friends

On Thursday evening (aptly also Thanksgiving Day) I went down to the Gare du Nord with five more sleeping bags, five winter coats and three boxes of (homemade!!!) chocolate brownies for the community dinner. Funded by the International School of Brussels and fantastic new charity, Unless, it provided a proper sit-down dinner for around 150 people, who, for whatever reason, have found themselves in hard times without a roof over their heads. There was a delicious curry with rice and lentils, salads, fruit, cakes, brownies and tea. The students from the ISB helped the regular volunteers to serve food and spread cheer. Everyone ate together, talked together, laughed together. It was without doubt the most inspiring evenings I have ever had the privilege of being involved with.

I met some more lovely people, a new Eritrean friend called Taha with a cheeky smile, and another man from Afghanistan, who told me¬†that he fled his home three years ago to escape the Taliban, after his brother was killed. He arrived in Brussels on Thursday after being made to leave Sweden, where he had settled, because he had originally been fingerprinted in Belgium (apparently once you’ve been fingerprinted somewhere that’s where you have to stay – can you imagine?). He showed me pictures of his friends in Sweden, told me that he had resigned himself to staying in Belgium now, even though he wanted to go back. He had tried to go to the office to sort his papers on arrival but they had told him to come back the next day. Who knows how long the process will take to be registered here, let alone to have somewhere to sleep that isn’t a park bench or a doorway?

It’s so hard to comprehend how so many people, purely by virtue of the¬†place where they were born, end up in such difficult circumstances. But I am constantly inspired by the hopefulness and cheerfulness of the people I encounter in the face of such difficulties. It makes me realise that so many of my ‘Western’ problems are not really problems at all. I have the freedom to go where I want, when I want. I have a place to call home, documents to prove it, and a support network to help me when I struggle. And for all those things I am truly thankful.

This morning I read¬†this article¬†from the Irish Times about homelessness, and it¬†brought home to me more than ever the importance of helping others wherever we can. You never know how much it means to someone if you just take the time to have a conversation, or to buy them a coffee. Though a small gesture to you, it might just be enough to help them get¬†through the day without turning to drink, drugs, or worse. And as Christmas approaches – surely the hardest time of year for those who have fallen on hard times – it’s more important than ever not to look the other way. Because, to me, the true spirit of Thanksgiving is not just being thankful for what we have, but, in turn,¬†offering whatever help we can to those who aren’t so fortunate.

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A snap from Thursday’s Community Dinner – volunteers and friends alike. Such a great night!

 

Drive

As he drove, his hands clenched tighter on the wheel, his feet pushing harder down onto the pedals. Sixty, seventy, eighty. His very own white knuckle ride. Ninety, a hundred, a hundred and ten. Sweat pooled at the base of his spine, seeping through his linen shorts. Could he really do this? Why not? Now he had nothing to lose. One hundred and twenty, thirty…STOP. Feet slamming on brakes, autopilot mode engaged. Swerving, nearly not quite hitting. Her. Standing in the middle of the road. Wearing just a cotton sundress. Carrying a rose. The car span around and around, almost not quite tipping. Silence spun a web around him. Finally, finally the car came to a halt, nosing the shrubbery at the side of the highway.

He coughed. Shifted in his seat. Lifted one hand, then the other. Patted himself down. No obvious sign of damage. Cuts and grazes at most. Surely a miracle. If he believed in them.

She was beside the car now. Porcelain skin, fair hair, eyes wide with shock. “Hey, are you okay?” Biting her lip. Standing girlish.

“Fine,” he said, as if this was quite normal. “You?”

“Fine,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “I’m sorry, that was my fault. I could have killed you.”

He smiled. “I could have killed myself.”

He climbed out of the car. They stood a while in sun-soaked silence as the tarmac baked beside them.

“Where you heading?” he asked.

She looked down at the rose cupped in her hand. “Anywhere,” she said. She raised her head; blinked away tears.”You?”

“Same.”

A current of knowing flowed between them.¬†He broke it to observe the car.¬†“It doesn’t look so bad. I think I can fix it.”

She sat down on the bare earth and watched him as he worked. From time to time he cast a sideways glance, noticing her bare feet. Slim wrists. The tattoo on her ankle.

When he was done, he closed the bonnet, slid into the driver’s seat and tested the engine. It sputtered¬†into life. He looked at her. “Lift?” She smiled, torch-eyed. Climbed into the car beside him.¬†As he pulled onto the road he paused.¬†“Your rose,” he said, pointing to the dusty patch of earth on which¬†it lay.

“I don’t need it,” she said with a shrug. “Not anymore.”

He put his foot down on the pedal. And drove.

Written in response to the Creative Writing Ink photo prompt 20th October 2016

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Bursting Bubbles

Today I attended¬†the Belgian PR Summit (or at least the first hour of it, which was in English. Unfortunately my French and Dutch skills, or lack thereof, didn’t allow me to participate further), and a point¬†that one of the keynote speakers, Will McInnes, made¬†has really stuck with me. We are living in a time where, globally-speaking, we are more connected than ever. And yet, social media has put us into ‘filter bubbles’ from which most of us fail ever to break out. When we search for things on the internet, the results aren’t a real representation of what’s ‘out there’, they are merely holding up a mirror to our own narrow viewpoint, enabling us to reinforce these views without scrutiny. Will used Brexit (I still shudder at the word) as an example: so many of us believed we would remain, because our personal bubbles reassured us that we would. In reality, however, a totally different conversation was happening all around us, one that we were dangerously blind to. And now the same has happened in America.

If ever there were a time for us to collectively wake up, this, my friends, is it.

But how to shout outside the bubble in which we have unwittingly found ourselves? I am scratching my head as I type this trying to work it out. But work it out we must. Instead of having conversations with other people like us, it’s time to start initiating conversation with those who aren’t. As someone who believes that fundamentally humans are good (because otherwise stop the world, I want to get off), I cannot let myself fall into the trap of branding everyone who voted for Brexit or for Trump (very different situations, I hasten to add, but both with far-reaching consequences for us all) as ignorant, racists, or any of the other terms being bandied about by people in ‘my’ bubble. Even if I find it hard to disagree, I have to try to stop thinking of ‘them’ and ‘us’, because that just makes the problem even worse. Vilifying people makes the gulf even wider. Instead, would it not be logical to try and start a dialogue with those whose views are different to our own, so we can better understand their point of view, and they can better understand ours? True, the most vocal people in both camps are a lost cause in this respect, but there must be many moderates on both sides who are prepared to hear each other out. Surely if we engage in a non-confrontational way we can better understand the real issues, and work out a way to address them that doesn’t involve stirring up anger and hatred?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I plan to do a lot of thinking about it. Because if we don’t work out how to break free from¬†our bubbles, we are essentially just shouting into the void. And the future of humanity in a world where bubbles never burst¬†is a truly terrifying prospect.

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Critical Mass

Until this point in my life I’ve never identified with ‘activists’, the very word conjuring up images of bra-burning, flag-waving hippies intent on ‘sticking it to the man’ but with limited success. Now, however, I’m noticing a change. Not only in myself but in those around me, in my social networks, and also in the wider world. The change is this: It’s no longer¬†just the ‘activists’ who feel the need to take to the streets and decry the social order. The rest of us are beginning to wake up to the need to have our say. Because it’s becoming increasingly clear that our governments and world leaders aren’t going to be the change we want to see. And, more than that, we are realising that time is running out.

According to the UN Refugee Agency Global Trends Report, ¬†65.3 million people, or one person in 113, were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015. Wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since UNHCR records began. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi: ‚ÄúAt sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.‚ÄĚ Until now, in the ‘West’, we have had the luxury of turning a blind eye to the suffering of so many on the other side of the world. But now it’s getting more difficult. Because those people are on the move. Our governments and leaders have driven them from their homes for their own political gain, and now they are on our doorstep.

The situation is compounded by the critical situation with the environment. Despite the landmark signing of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, a terrifying number of world leaders don’t believe the threat of climate change is real. On the website for the recent documentary Before the Flood¬†we learn that “Earth has been warming steadily now for over 100 years.¬†After decades of carbon pollution and deforestation, we are now regularly witnessing record-breaking hot months and hot years. 2015 was the hottest year on record and 2016 is hotter.” Furthermore, “Most experts believe we have locked in at least 1.5 degrees in temperature from the carbon pollution we have already emitted, and we are fast approaching the dangerous climate threshold of a 2¬įC rise in temperature rise.”

In many respects the damage is done. The world is already on course to heat to unprecedented temperatures that will have catastrophic effects on humanity (I say humanity, because, as my husband constantly reminds me, the world will be just fine once we humans have killed ourselves off).¬†It is true that it’s already far too late to reverse the changes, but there is still the narrowest of windows to prevent total disaster – if we act NOW.

So back to my original point. There are a growing number of people who, like myself, are starting to wake up to the need to do something – however small – to stop the bad stuff happening, instead of sitting in front of the (warped) news reports with our heads in our hands thinking that it’s all so hopeless. We don’t want to watch from the sidelines as humanity implodes. We want to get out there and (here comes that classic cheesy phrase) make a difference. Because no matter where we are born or the colour of our skin, we are all human beings. And, for the foreseeable future at least, this planet is the only home we’ve got. Why must we abuse it, and one another, when these facts are so inescapably true?

I’ve recently joined a Facebook group of like-minded women, one of whom made the following wonderfully eloquent comment which resonated deeply with me:

“As I say, regularly, to my clients: our job is to do the best we can with the corner we’re in. Chase the causes in our own heart. Show compassion to those we find around us. That’s actually enough. Everyone’s corner is the size that it is. Just because you see someone with global reach doesn’t mean yours, that reaches a few houses down, is any less important. I also wax lyrical about how wonderful it is that every person I meet has different passions! My own efforts have always been for social justice, children in developing countries, and care for families touched by poverty, but I love meeting people whose passion is care for animals, or saving historic buildings, or sponsoring artists whose work makes no sense to me… because I think “thank goodness, it’s all covered!”. We are all unique, and I am grateful for that!”

Sometimes we all feel hopeless. But my own recent experience of raising money to buy sleeping bags (65 so far Рyay!) for the homeless refugees in Brussels, and volunteering alongside other motivated individuals with Serve the City and now also the fantastic new NGO Unless Рhas made me realise how much better it feels to be in it, instead of watching it, or worrying about it but ultimately doing nothing.

So whatever your cause, whatever your passion, don’t be afraid to live it, to get out there and wave your flag – whether metaphorically or physically – and make a positive difference to the world and those around you. Because if enough of us care – and I truly believe enough of us¬†do – then we CAN be the change we want to see. With or without our governments and leaders.

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Doing What We Can

Tonight was my third consecutive week volunteering with Serve the City ‘s Food 4 Friends iniative to help the homeless (refugees and other misplaced people) sleeping rough around Gare du Nord station. I took eighteen sleeping bags, bought with money generously donated* by my lovely friends. At the start it was tense. The temperature has plummeted and tonight it was barely above five degrees. People are cold and worried about the impending winter. And understandably so. As we began to distribute the sleeping bags tensions rose still higher, until at one point a fight broke out. Fortunately it petered out and we resumed the distribution, but even then there was a lot of pushing and jostling as people desperately tried to make a claim for a sleeping bag. It was heart wrenching.

I was so happy to give my Sudanese friend, Bakare, the sleeping bag I promised him. I was also, thanks to the generosity of a friend, able to buy him some new shoes. He said “when I see you, it makes me happy,” which made me feel amazing. It feels so good to be doing something at last, even if it is just being a ferrier of sleeping bags and offering good cheer. What made me less happy was meeting 13 year old Alaudin, who arrived in Brussels two months ago after making the long three month journey from Sudan with his brother. Alaudin is a tall boy, skinny and quiet, with huge doleful brown eyes. He was wearing only a thin jacket and was shivering. I was happy to see he had managed to get one of the sleeping bags I brought, but I was still worried for him. So I took him to the volunteer serving chai and got him a cup, and then went back to another volunteer who was handing out clothing donations (tonight we were very lucky as a church group who had gathered a lot of clothes and sleeping bags made the journey into Brussels to deliver them – without those donations it would have been much harder to manage giving out mine) and managed to grab him a fleece jumper, pair of gloves and scarf. The gloves weren’t warm enough though, he needs some better ones. I promised to bring some next week.

There were more people tonight than the last two weeks. The fight at the beginning aside, I saw only smiles despite the plummeting temperature. It is so clear that people appreciate the volunteers and the work they do. And being able to speak with everyone and find out their stories is so humbling and such a privilege. I feel almost ashamed when people ask me where I’m from and I say “England,” because I know that all they want to do is make it to my country. It feels so unfair that I can hop on a Eurostar or drive through the tunnel without a care in the world, when they can’t even dream of such an easy life.

But we stay strong. And we stay cheerful. And we continue to help our friends all that we can.

*Cash donations will continue to be gratefully received to help provide some comfort during the cold winter.

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Under the Skin

Last night I volunteered for the second consecutive week with Serve the City¬†who go to the Gare du Nord station three times a week as part of their Food 4 Friends initiative (on Mondays/Tuesdays and Thursdays) from 6.30pm to serve hot food (sometimes also hot drinks) to the homeless people and refugees who sleep rough in, and around, the park. There are around 160 people in total but they don’t always all come; the two evenings I have been there were more like 50 people, but all the donations I brought (sleeping bags, fruit, gloves, hats etc.)¬†were still snapped up in minutes. It is important to note they aren’t all political refugees in the technical sense, but a lot of them are, and I have met several people from Sudan and Syria who have tragically had to leave their families behind and are obviously desperately worried about them.¬†Nino, the man who runs the evening programme, is fantastic. He hands out all the donations one by one to avoid a scrum, and is very fair in the way he distributes items (he knows everyone so well that he can tell if someone is chancing something like an extra item). The other volunteers are also lovely. It’s a really well run operation but they always need more items, especially now the weather is becoming really cold.

Last night I took 20 sleeping bags but there is still a desperate need for more. Thanks to the generous donations of many of my friends in response to a Facebook post last week I have another 18 coming next week, but even then we will need more to help provide people with vital warmth¬†as the temperatures plummet. Any money that kindhearted people are able to¬†spare¬†to help this cause¬†will go directly to¬†those who need it. I also now have a personal interest in Bakare, a guy I met last night from Sudan. He is a year younger than me and his wife and two children are still in Sudan. He misses them so much and is understandably worried about the future. He wants desperately to get to England as he says here in Belgium “they do not like the Sudanese,” and it would be easier for his children to settle in England than in France. We talked at length about our families and backgrounds. He has a wide smile and we shared a lot of laughter despite the bleakness of his situation (his sleeping bag was stolen two days previously, along with all his things, so now he has nothing but the – thankfully warm – clothes he stands in. Sadly he didn’t get one of the sleeping bags I brought last night, but I did give him some gloves and promise him one for next week. A friend has also¬†kindly offered to buy him shoes which I will purchase today, and which I know will make him very happy). Next week he has offered to teach me to dance, which I suspect he may live to regret when he sees the extent of my coordination issues, but at least it will keep us both warm!

It’s really hard walking away and knowing all those people will spend yet another¬†night in the freezing cold park, alone and scared and worried for the future, with limited chance of actually finding the means to get out of their situation. I feel so helpless, which is why I can’t just stand by and do nothing. If we can keep them just that bit warmer and let them know they aren’t alone, that their plight isn’t going unheard, at least they might get through the winter with a little hope in their hearts.

My enduring memory of last night was when I pulled the final item from my bag – a football, which I thought the young guys might appreciate. And wow did they appreciate it! Within seconds about fifteen of them were running around kicking the ball like mad things. And they were really good! Another volunteer said to me “it helps them to forget”, and whilst it’s heartbreaking that such vibrant young people need to forget about their situation, I was so thankful to be able to provide something that enabled them to, even if just for the shortest while.

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