Helping Friends

Tonight I went down to the Gare du Nord to deliver the seven sleeping bags we managed to raise money to buy last week. At a guess I’d say there were somewhere between fifty and a hundred people, but in recent days I learned there have been more than a hundred and fifty (it seems yesterday many were arrested, for reasons unknown). Last time I went was a few months back, when Brussels had its own version of the Jungle in Calais, as displaced people arrived in waves, fleeing persecution in their countries. Now the camp in the park has been cleared, but many people remain; some no doubt the same people fleeing persecution, others who came here in search of a better life for themselves and their families, only to wind up in this purgatory.

As the nights draw in and temperatures plummet it’s heartbreaking to think of them sleeping outside, exposed to the elements. Many of those I saw tonight were young men; buoyant and proud, bright eyed and joking in spite of their awful situation. One of them was Mahmoud, from Egypt, a tall young man with a charming smile who told me that his family are in England. “If I ever get there I will never leave,” he told me. I felt so sad to think he probably never will.

Another young man I met was called Sadiq. He arrived in Brussels a week ago, having made the long journey from Sudan. He looked young but strong, and was dressed impeccably in smart trousers and a cable knit jumper. Only his shoes, with their peeling soles, let him down. As we discussed his need for shoes another volunteer, on overhearing his shoe size, ran to her car and returned with a pair in his size. He held the shoes in one hand and his plate of pasta in the other and said with a smile “Now I have all that I need.” If only that were true.

Mohamed is a slightly older man who helps the volunteers each time they come to serve food and distribute donations. He was dressed in only a thin fleece but said he was warm enough, and refused to take any of the donations. “I consider him a friend,” another volunteer told me. One story I was told involved a Syrian man who last week became ill. When the volunteer medics said he needed to go to hospital a volunteer accompanied him. Had it not been for the volunteer’s persuasion they would not have admitted him, because he lacked insurance. He has now been in the hospital for over a week.

There were many others too, like the young Egyptian guy who was constantly cracking jokes, asking me questions about the Royal Family in England and quizzing me on the name of Hitler’s father! And the shy man from Marrakesh who just wanted a blanket to keep him warm for the night.

Once the crowd had dispersed some people prepared to sleep outside the station. But the police arrived and moved them on, driving them into the park, where their new blankets would quickly become sodden and useless.

I’ll admit that I came home and cried at the hopelessness of these young men’s situations. Who knows if they will ever find a way to rejoin their relatives, or to forge a legitimate life for themselves here or somewhere else; a life that doesn’t involve being reliant on other people’s charity and always having to look over your shoulder.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I posted a plea on Facebook for donations for more sleeping bags and in minutes was flooded with responses; so many that I have just placed an order for 20 (!) sleeping bags, and will next week personally deliver three times as many as I took down tonight thanks to the generosity of so many people I am proud to call my friends, and who, tonight, have done a lot to restore my faith in humanity, and to remind me there is good in this world, no matter how bleak and dark it sometimes seems.

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Proof of Life / Life Lesson

Last night I took my external hard drive from its safe spot in the bottom of the wardrobe, plugged it into the computer and switched it on, with the intention of finding a photograph of me and R to use on our wedding website. Minutes later, on being asked to do something, I jumped up, and, forgetting the wire was in in my way, walked into it and sent the hard drive crashing to the ground. My heart stopped. And, sure enough, when I tried to turn it back on the computer failed to recognise it. It also made a beeping noise (which, as I later read, is never a good sign). A brief call to a data recovery specialist confirmed that paying for professional help was not an option (500-800 Euros? You have got to be kidding me). In the end we whacked it in the freezer for good measure, on the advice of one website that admitted it was a dubious and last ditch method but might possibly work (yeah right), but it is with a heavy heart I am forced to accept that it – along with about five years’ worth of photos – has gone. And most galling of all is that I’ve been here before, having done the same thing a few years ago (and failed to get the data back after parting with 50 quid).

I feel ridiculous admitting it but I’m devastated. Last night I was inconsolable, and couldn’t stop crying. Rightly or wrongly, I value photos enormously. They are a means of remembering all that’s happened in my life, of connecting with my past and demonstrating how I’ve made my mark on the world. Perhaps it’s that last point that’s the most psychologically interesting. People sometimes tease me about how prolific I am on Facebook, and I have often questioned my need to share the details of my life on social media. However, I don’t believe I am a narcissist. My motivation in sharing pictures in particular is not about boasting, or at least my conscious mind disputes that notion. I suppose I do feel a strong need to make my existence in this world tangible, and posting pictures is akin to sticking a sign in the ground saying ‘I woz ‘ere’.

Photographs are, essentially, proof of lives that have been lived. Loath as I am to admit it, on further analysis there is almost certainly a link to my fear of death – of dying, and of people I love dying. I guess I feel somehow that by capturing images I’m keeping myself present, real, alive. And similarly, by capturing pictures of my loved ones I am keeping them alive, and if, God forbid, anything bad should happen, to me or any of them, at least those memories will exist and can be treasured. Is that morbid? Perhaps. But it’s also true.

But what’s done is done. I must move past the sadness, anger and frustration that I’m currently feeling. I’m glad I’m so prolific on Facebook now because I do at least have low resolution copies of the lost files; the memories are not gone forever. But even if they were, what’s most important is the fact I have my health and I have my loved ones – here, in the present, not in the past, which now no longer exists, except in my heart, my mind – and a few low resolution images on Facebook.

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Preparing to Log Off….

This Sunday I will be embarking upon a 26.2 day sponsored social media silence*, as part of my Rome Marathon fundraising effort (for which you can sponsor me here, should you so desire). Those of you who know me will know that the social media element of this challenge is arguably going to be harder for me to endure than the marathon itself. It’s no secret (how could it be?) that I’m rather fond of Facebooking and prone to the occasional tweet and Instagram photo opportunity. Indeed it could reasonably be posited that I’m one of those annoying people who live out their lives in the public domain, as if my life offline would simply not be worth living. Well, I’m about to find out if that’s the case.

Whilst every passing second bringing me closer to the moment I go offline is raising my blood pressure and anxiety levels, I am also intrigued and even a tad excited to see how I fare without the crutch of online interaction upon which I have come to rely. Will I, for example, see a sharp increase in creative thinking and productivity that will lead to my writing my very own Magnum Opus? Or will I (more likely) end up rocking in the corner by the end of day one, repeating 140 character tweets to myself on a loop and driving myself mad because there is NOBODY TO SHARE THEM WITH? One thing I’m sure of is that I’ll quickly feel annoyed by everyone around me who is engrossed in their smartphone, just as when I gave up smoking I found being in the company of smokers intolerable. So that will be fun for my boyfriend, friends and colleagues (and will, quite frankly, serve the bastards right for forcing me to do this in the first place).

To surmise: There may be tears. There may be withdrawal. There may be shattered relationships. But by God will there be some good writing material**

*which means no engagement with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or this blog (waaaah)

**either that or (most likely) some dangerous new TV series addictions

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What makes you tick?

Recent “research” from the folk over at Facebook posits more people see our posts than we might think. I put the word research in speech marks because this comes at a time when Facebook is being criticised for limiting the reach of peoples’ posts to force them to pay for promoted posts. The research in question, therefore, could be taken to be a poorly disguised and somewhat unscrupulous attempt to generate positive PR in response to the media backlash.

But whatever the reason, the research has got me thinking about the reach and impact of my own posts on social media, and indeed my blog. I must confess to feeling a sense of deflation when I see the number of views on my posts declining, and a rush of excitement when they begin to climb again. When someone new follows my blog I beam from ear to ear. Why? Because it means there are people out there who actually like what I write and who, rather than briefly scanning posts before deleting them, want to read them with some degree of regularity.

But who are my followers, and those who like to read my musings frequently? What drives them? What makes them tick? And what is it about my writing that keeps them coming back for more? It strikes me now I think about it that thus far in my writing experiment it’s been almost entirely one-sided. What I’d love to know is what my readers would like more of, what they’d like less of, and generally how I can write in a way that’s more agreeable to them.

It’s fair to say we writers crave acknowledgement, and the best form of acknowledgement – to my mind, at least – is feedback. But the online world operates in a similar way to the real world when it comes to levels of active involvement. Humans fall roughly into two categories; introverts and extroverts. I say roughly fall into, because it’s rare to find someone who would claim to be entirely introvert or entirely extrovert – we usually all exhibit both persuasions from time to time.

This brings me back to the Facebook research. I think it’s probably true that we engage more people than we think when we post things on the internet – because a lot of those who read it aren’t inclined to comment or to actively engage with the content. They are passive observers, perhaps because they’re introverts whose nature isn’t to wade in and shout about their thoughts and feelings but rather to consider them and process them privately. Them not engaging may not, therefore, mean they aren’t enjoying the content, but rather that they prefer to enjoy it from afar.

This rationale (irrational as it may well be) makes me feel better about not having lots of feedback on my writing. What it fails to do is make me any less curious about who my readers are and what they most like to read.

So if you’re reading this and feel inclined to drop me a line about what makes you tick, I’d really love to hear from you…

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Privacy in a world of self-publicity – does it exist?

Today I’d like to talk about privacy. In case you haven’t seen the latest message that’s spreading like wildfire across Facebook statuses the world over, I shall post it in full below to get you up to speed:

Dear friends: I want to stay PRIVATELY connected with you. I post shots of my family and friends that I’d prefer strangers not have access to. With recent changes in FB, the “public” can now see activities on ANY wall. This happens when our friends hit “like” or “comment” ~ automatically, their friends see our posts too. Unfortunately, we can not change this setting by ourselves because Facebook has configured it this way.

 PLEASE place your mouse over my name above (DO NOT CLICK), a window will appear, now move the mouse on “FRIENDS” (also without clicking), then down to “Settings”, click here and a list will appear. REMOVE the CHECK on “COMMENTS & LIKE” and also “PHOTOS”. By doing this, my activity among my friends and family will remain private.

Now, copy and paste this on your wall. Once I see this posted on your page I will do the same. Thanks!

In response to this message I today felt moved to update my own Facebook status as follows:

Dear friends who want to stay PRIVATELY connected to me, I’m interested to know what it is exactly that you think the big bad “public” are likely to do with those pictures of your sister in her Christmas jumper? Sell them to the online Christmas porn industry so Rudolph can get his kicks over in Lapland? If you think Facebook (which is, incidentally, a PUBLIC forum) is so evil kindly stop cluttering up my timeline with paranoid privacy status updates and revert to more traditional forms of communication such as email and telephone – and keep your treasured personal pictures in a photo album on your shelf. Thanks!

Perhaps you’ll think my response flippant, and perhaps it is, but if a prospective employer was shallow enough not to hire me because of a few pictures of me wearing silly hats and drinking alcohol I’m not sure I’d want to work for them anyway. Also, quite frankly, if they’ve got time on their hands to search through all the pictures of me on Facebook with the sole purpose of finding something incriminating I’d not only say good luck to them, but would also seriously call into question their business practice and resource allocation.

What irks me is that in this age of self-publicity, where every other person has a Facebook account through which they delight in making people jealous about their holidays and other (ironically rather banal to a complete stranger) happenings in their lives (please know I don’t exclude myself from this group of individuals – quite the opposite), those very same people are so ludicrously sensitive about having their information shared. Admittedly they may not want the whole world to see their holiday snaps, but it’s the fact they so egotistically think the world will care in the first place that’s so ridiculous. There is no privacy anymore – welcome to the digital age, wake up and smell the tweetable, shareable coffee!

It’s true that sometimes bad things do happen to people’s information – accounts get hacked, photos get posted on porn sites, people’s reputations are sullied through no fault of their own. But it’s important not to listen to the scaremongers and get a sense of proportion. These things don’t happen all the time. Employers do not have time to trawl through all their employees’ personal photos in search of one that will give them a reason to send them packing with their P45. Providing there aren’t photos of you shooting up heroin in a dingy bedsit it’s highly doubtful you’ll get fired for a few pictures of you having a good time.

What is it people are so frightened of really? Losing control? Of their photos, their reputations, their minds? Personally – and this may well come back to bite me in the proverbial arse – I think this privacy nonsense has gone too far. If you’re that terrified of seeing your face staring back at you from OneHotMomma.com then it may be best to remove yourself from the world of social media altogether. Perhaps you’re just not cut out for involvement in the digital world. Cut your losses and be free (and safe)!

But if you’re a sane, rational being who is relatively careful with what information they share on the worldwide web, is it really the end of the world if the world can see?

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Having written this post I did a quick search through my own Facebook photos to try and find one that was suitably incriminating – this is what I came up with. It’s a picture of me and a friend (who I’m pretty sure will be reading this!)’s boyfriend, taken on new year’s eve in 2011. I’ll admit it looks somewhat dodgy, but I refuse to believe my professional integrity would be called into question on the basis of what is clearly a silly picture taken at a party. OBVIOUSLY in real life I don’t walk around in a pink wig pushing my boobs in the face of bespectacled shellsuit-wearing men. OBVIOUSLY I was just HAVING FUN. Last I checked this wasn’t a crime. Or am I not moving fast enough with the times?

Friends like these

Today I’ve been trying to remember the world before social media took hold. This shouldn’t have been difficult, considering I pre-date it. And yet it was. I actually struggled to remember how people – myself included – expressed themselves (read also: showed off) to their peers and wider social groups. I’m certain we did use online networks (hazy memories come to mind of painstaking waits for screeching modems to connect, woefully basic Internet chat rooms and a now long-redundant profile on Bebo, the amateur precursor to Facebook), but I can’t honestly remember more than that.

Further rumination on this subject has me wondering if we actually cared as much in the ‘old world’ about what people thought of us and how we were perceived. Or was it, in fact, the dawn of the social media age that was responsible for turning a whole generation (and most likely all subsequent generations) into shallow, self-obsessed egotists who would rather spend their leisure time posting photos to make their friends jealous than actually enjoy whatever it is they’re doing?

I think the reality is that people – children, adolescents and adults alike – have always and will always have an inherent desire to be liked and to feel part of social groups. Before Twitter and Facebook were invented we flirted with rudimentary forms of social networking to extend our reach into such groups. Before those existed we made do with making friends in ‘real life’ situations. Our need to be accepted and popular was just as great, but we just had smaller social circles.

Now that social networks have become stratospheric in their popularity we have grown greedy for more. It’s a natural progression, but a dangerous one. Having hundreds of ‘friends’ on a social networking site can make you feel popular, but if you can count the number who would be there for you no matter what on less than one hand it speaks volumes about the meaning of those ‘friendships,’ and how much homage we should really pay them.

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Thinking about friendship groups and the importance of being accepted reminded me of this group photo from a holiday last year in Windermere. We had such a fantastic time and all got on so well – it’s times like those you realise the importance of having REAL friends who are always there, through the good times and the bad.