Sunday, December 02, 2007

Being Really, Really, Ridiculously Good Looking Is a Full Time Job

December had already started off on a fortuitous foot when Tara and I snuggled into our seats at Joe Bar on Capitol Hill, steaming up the paned windows with our foamy cappucinos as we watched Blizzard 2007 draw the movie-like qualities out of life: as a soft white began to cast the outside world with a gentler tone, passerby got cuter and people became visibly nicer to each other. A middle-aged couple, appropriately clad in Danskos and Teva gear, opted to take their lattes outside and let the massive flakes settle onto their hair and eyelashes as they sat together on a lazy Saturday morning date. People grinned at each other as they entered the cafe, stamping their boots and shaking their wet hair. Somber dogs peered through the glass as their best friends warmed themselves on coffee and crepes. Joe's provided the jazz-heavy soundtrack, and Tara and I kept hugging ourselves and beaming about how perfect the world was at that exact moment.

(Later, as we tromped through Broadway, we found a bookstore I'd never been to that had, quite possibly, the world's most perfect cards. One summarized our day succinctly: "I bet snowflakes wouldn't be quite so lovely if they were shaped like prostitutes." So true.)

So the blissful beginning of December meant that, despite not feeling my greatest (5 am bedtimes and too much Three Buck Chuck will do that), I had a good feeling about Studio 54 Lives Again. My high school friend Ryan, who works for the Seattle Models Guild, had invited me to this fundraiser for a school in Kathmandu and obviously, despite the fact that I hate people (especially kids) with a passion, I wanted to go to see what the craic was all about. I donned a one-piece pantsuit (tight in the waist but loose in the crotch, for maximum awkwardness in the lower torso region), brushed my hair into a serious white girl fro, and headed out into the snowy night to see what I could find.

The first thing I found was a homeless guy who mumbled to me as I passed him outside the Last Supper Club, "I'm tempted to stab you for no reason." This was, perhaps, the scariest thing that's ever happened to me, besides the time I got groped on the street in Alicante. I chalked it up to him not appreciating the lace tube top portion of my pantsuit and hauled ass into the club.

After tromping ungracefully down a plush red carpet, the second thing I found was: myself, right in the thick of Model Central. Apparently, Studio 54 is a yearly phenomenon in which the big three Seattle model agencies put all their people together in the same room so they can stare at each other and write fat checks for poor kids while getting beautifully drunk (unfortunately, my drunk can more accurately be described as "Bag Lady"). To the untrained eye, watching shirtless guys with bow ties wander around flexing their oiled chests and asking for dollars in exchange for beads seems like a scene out of a skeezy Miami back alley, but to a professional model, this is what "fundraising" looks like. Cover your eyes, kids.

I clutched my free drink tab and headed straight for the bar, desperate for a higher gin:blood ratio before I could face the gorgeous hordes head-on. The bartender winked at me in a non-sexual way, which brightened my mood, and I turned back to the dance floor, sucking on a lemon and looking for a short redhead I could relate to. I scanned the room: giants. Lush-lipped, smooth-skinned, eight foot Glamazons. Not a split end or zit, as far as the eye can see. What an annoying crowd.

I made a personal goal of being purely observant for the entire night, but having at least one entertaining conversation. This is when Ryan popped up, and insisted on taking me around to his various circles and introducing everyone at length ("this is Sergio, he's a photographer..." "Daria, model..." "Francisco, agent..."). After the fourth or fifth blank stare I had to forcibly stop Ryan from continuing on his social rampage and let me stumble around in my own awkwardness. He dragged me to one last circle, and rambled off a few more models' names. One of the guys I recognized from my gym, so I attempted a little friendly chitchat with the most basic of commonalities-- "Haven't I seen you somewhere?"

KIDDING!! I didn't say that. As Mike Birbiglia would advise, what I should have said was NOTHING. What I did say was something sarcastic about not only knowing where he works out, but knowing where he sleeps (trying to make light of my already semi-stalkeresque comment... you know?). My joke went over like the Hindenberg. "So how do you know where I live?" my new friend asked me a minute later.

I'd like to pause narration here for a second to mention that this gentleman was named BLISS. That was his God-given name. Write that down, it becomes all too applicable later on.

As I backpedaled my way out of my overly sarcastic "new friend" test, Bliss became even more confused about whether or not I was actually his stalker or not. Let the records note that the only reason I recognized this guy was because he was awkwardly flexing in the weights section and not because I thought he stood out as a paragon of male attractiveness. As I kindly helped him get over himself, he relaunched the conversation in a new direction that sent me even deeper into my G&T. "So tell me something interesting about yourself," he said, apparently competing for "Biggest Cliche of the Evening." I mentioned something about my near-obsession with travelling and seeing how other people do things, which brought up his recent travels.

I was so excited to have something in common with this vacant-eyed dolt, but when I asked him to tell me more, he just rolled his eyes. "Well, I told you a few minutes ago, but I went to Southeast Asia for a month." I looked around, trying to figure out who exactly he had been speaking to previously that looked remotely like me, but let it go in favor of hearing more... the story already sounded suspiciously drug-induced.

"I went to Asia to search... for bliss. And I found it, right here (points to heart)."

Oh my good God. He just made an analogy with his name. This is gold. I'm leaving this conversation while it's at the peak. Fortunately, Whit showed up and pulled me away to dance at that exact moment.

Ah, Whit. How to describe a person like Whit? He is more of a force of nature than a person, a tornado of random inappropriate comments and stories that are better than fiction. Throughout college, I could always rely on Whitney to bring a heavy dose of the unusual to my life. He would call on a Monday afternoon from outside the sorority, waiting to take me for a spin in his new ride; a massive, gas-guzzling farm truck that looked better suited for central Wyoming than the middle of Seattle. One week later, he would call again, but this time the ride was in his shiny new Audi. Whit had mullets, he had rat tails, he had a joie de vivre that some saw as annoying but which I adored. He worked as a sandwich delivery guy on a bike, as the captain of a massive ship, as a model in Thailand. He came up with elaborate plans to buy Thai property and become a music television VJ. He showed up in random magazine fashion spreads we didn't even know he had done. He always makes me laugh.

Whit was there as one of the Beautiful People, but also bridged the gap as one of the sarcastic people who didn't really try too hard, so we danced in a very aerobics-friendly, non-sexy manner for quite a while. At some point in my Jazzercise endeavors, I got pulled away by Latin Lover Jorge with a minor ponytail who matched my rhythm (miraculously, because after a few more of those drink tabs, it didn't really "sync up with the music" per se) and stuck by my side for the next hour or so. After throwing a few stray dollars into the direction of one of the ubiquitous bare nipples, I closed the night out, content. I think I had more fun the pretty people in the end, anyway.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

...Y después de todo.

The mail came last week, on an evening when I was at home visiting the padres, and what appeared in the middle of a stack of Macy's ads and Visa bills but an envelope with the familiar stamp of the Spanish embassy, postmarked from Barcelona.

I knew immediately: Spain found my mom's license and had the courtesy to send it back to her! For all my doubts, Spanish chivalry isn't dead. I would give anything for the little picture of mom to come to life and tell us all about the aventuras she has been through since July. Who knows? Maybe the license has better stories than we do...

Friday, October 26, 2007

sentences need not apply

As someone who lives and breathes words more every day, who feels incomplete without some kind of literary food and feels more at home than ever when language plays a central role in what I'm doing, it makes me uncomfortable to say this: lately, words haven't really done justice to the quiet peace that I have found washing over me as I find more and more contentment with my job, my home and with my place in the world. It's an unexpected blessing and I can't really hope to describe it well.

Sometimes words are too frail for thoughts.


I love Pedro Almodovar, and even though it's a year or so late, I love Volver. And I loved watching it with my mother, because Volver seems to touch on all those things that moms and daughters never talk about, and looks at what it's like to "come back"- what does it mean to begin again, to reconcile, to finish things that were once left undone, say the things that were unsaid, to try again to do them better.
In the last scene, Penelope and her mother embrace in a dark hallway and Penelope says genuinely, "I need you, Mom." And her mom answers her in that brusque tone that you can only use with people you love deeply, "Stop it. I'll start crying."
I wanted to ask my mom if there was anything left unsaid between her and my grandmother, wanted to know what she'd say if Helen Ruth were standing in front of her today. But I didn't, because I know that there are, and I know that they are none of my business. But it also reminded me that I don't want to have anything left unsaid between me and my own mother. Life's just too brief.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bill Gates Touched My Butt!

Now that you know the end of the story, here are the preliminaries:
Somehow Shauna got a job at Bungie, which, as the roommates soon learned, is the company that makes Halo (our non-gaming tendencies have recently done a 180 since the discovery of this semi-subculture that is opposite of everything we know... it's like Aladdin discovering the secret cave: we realize what a total jackpot it is, but we know we're not really supposed to touch anything). As some may know, Halo got released at 12:01 am, September 25. This major event, years in the making, required proper buildup.
So this is how we spent 12 hours on Sunday at the company barbecue in Bellevue. Technically hired to babysit the kids and keep order amongst the nerd proteges, we ended up schmoozing with the vast spectrum of employees and their wives: from Claw, the 300 pound security guard and his hippy wife Kate, who owns "Hot Chicks" hair chopstick co., to Harold the CEO and his delightfully down to earth and fake-chested wife who shared stories of when Channing Tatum told her she was hot (jealousy doesn't even begin to describe it). Things got good as Shauna forcefully encouraged her coworkers to start drinking (many of whom hadn't seen the light of day for a good nine months.... these games don't perfect themselves, you know), but the highlight was when the roommates got coerced into "babysitting" two actors from LA who were up as Bungie guests. The most awkward setup of our lives went like this:
"Hey, you guys are from Washington, right? Go tell them some facts about Washington."
One of them apparently voiced a character in Halo, the other was as unqualified to be there as we were, and after bonding over how bizarre our introduction was, we realized they were "our kind of weird" and we were inseparable, taking the kids' bouncy castle by storm and carefully maneuvering conversations away from video games.

The next night was Bungie's Halo Launch Party. Since Bungie's location is technically a secret, the event was invite only, but thanks to Shauna, we found our way in via newfound connections. The place was posh, the shots flowed like wine, and everyone was buzzing with Halo-ticipation. One room was chock-full of pre-release gamers: playing Halo 3 before anyone else on the West Coast? Priceless! They had made mini-movies with game clips, interviews, and other footage that I considered obscure-- until the room would erupt with joyful, drunk laughter at one of the jokes, or cheer rabidly when certain Master Chief/Cortana scenes flashed. Watching with Voiceover Chris, we were forced to realize that our worlds had been flipped for the night: we were the outsiders. There was an entire in-group that we had no idea existed, we loved it.
I'm not normally a pushy person, but after a vodka tonic and an unrealized dream, I will throw bows through any crowd and, prepped with my opening line, I shoved my way up to Bill Gates, forced him to make eye contact, and asked loudly, "BILL, did you know there's a place in Sarajevo called Club Bill Gates that sells pancakes and pizza and uses a picture of your face from 20 years ago as their logo and also your signature on their signage?"

And delightful little Aspergers-fighting Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, said no, he was unaware of such a place.

"And I stole a bunch of their cards so I could give you one but guess what, I totally forgot it!"
And Bill Gates told me to mail it to him.

"Copywrite infringement, Bill! Just telling you to watch out!"
And get this-- the crowd kind of laughed and I segued into our next roommate request:

"So can I get a picture with you and my roommates for our Christmas card?"
He chuckled, we got into picture formation, and that is when BILL GATES TOUCHED MY BUTT, thus bringing my entire existence into one blissful culmination and effectively making the rest of my life one massive downhill slide from here on out. I wasn't the first and I definitely wasn't the last, but the point is, Bill's hand was resting on my left butt cheek. Enough said.
The night continued with party busses to the Game Stops and Best Buys, where lines of junior high boys with long hair and trench coats waited eagerly for 12:01 am. The actors and the roomies hopped off the bus and signed autographs (I singlehandedly caused the majority of Eastside Halo fans' memorabilia to plummet in value, but dammit, when else will I be able to sign dozens of autographs and play PR agent for an aspiring voice-over actor? When, I ask you?).

In sum, it was the weirdest and best weekend ever. Aye aye, Bungie, aye aye.

PS: Here's the Bungie article from Time magazine a few weeks ago, an article which didn't mean a thing to me until we met the people it talks about (casually discussing with the Flintstones jingle writer over how Marlo could break into the jingle-writing world, for example) and experienced the inner Bungie stratum. It didn't mean a thing until we realized that for a lot of people it is a big freakin' deal. And now we have become those people.

"This is intense..."

Is it weird that this article makes me a little homesick?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Happy Birfday, Boo!

Last weekend was meant to be a celebration of all things Schlosser: the 5 roomies all together at last, welcoming the first "mid-twenties transition" amongst us, blatantly and pointedly ignoring the looming figure of Father Time with a well-poured drink, a non-Europop song or two, and a few misplaced dance maneuvers. All of the above happened, none of them in the context we'd pictured. The timeline went as follows:

8 pm: one mattress careens through the front window, shatters the ancient glass and slices Aimee's right shoulder open.
9 pm: Aimee, Marlo and I are situated in Swedish' ER. People watching.
10 pm: the non-Europop songs begin (plus). They are on the Fashion Rocks Awards (minus). They are sung by Fergie (big minus).
10:27 pm: the misplaced dance maneuvers begin. They begin with Fergie and end with the hugely overweight woman we are sharing the ER with who has been violently screaming for 45 minutes that her tarantulas are eating her legs and that amputation is imminent. The social worker attempts to convince her otherwise. Fails. Woman calms down long enough to perform a complicated body roll upon observation of Fergie. We are stunned.
10:59 pm: another, much smaller but equally as crazy, woman appears carrying what may be the world's most well-stocked bag of salted goods. Places Doritos in front of her, crackers next to her, and Pringles in her lap. Eats Pringle after Pringle (she'd popped and couldn't, in fact, stop) until she began to lose track of where she had placed all of them and they began to accumulate on the floor below her as well as wedging themselves between her thighs. At this point realized we had spent much of our evening staring at the thighs and bosoms of fellow ER guests (visitors? victims? sociopaths?) and turned a newfound intensity of focus back to the TV.
11:05 pm: Aimee gets stitches to the sounds of tarantula woman, who had ostensibly been granted her one phone call, screaming that the hospital was going to kill her. At that point, I am fairly convinced that they gladly would have, especially considering the fact that a nurse, upon our departure, rolled her eyes in Madame Arachnid's direction and shrugged, "She's a regular." Good god. You couldn't pay me enough.

So we had, blessedly, escaped massive blood loss and gotten our dose of fluffy pop music and awkward dance moves, which is about all you can ask for in your average Friday night, I suppose.
You may be wondering about the well-poured drinks... we found them, in the form of the Silver Bullet, surrounding our two drunk roommates who had sprawled out in the living room with a case of Coors Light to wait for our return. God Bless the Rockies.

Happy Belated Birthday Schlossmo, if there is a sign that the universe loves you and wants you to be happy, it has got to be in the fact that for your big 2-4, it got you the cleanest glass cut Swedish has ever seen! Love you.

(ps. this event hit us a bit harder than it otherwise would have because it forced us to realize that it could have happened to ANY of us, which is fine, except that not all of us have medical insurance and stitches don't run cheap. Which is why I was thrilled a few days later to hear about this:

Friday, September 07, 2007

Reverse Culture Schlock

Returning home after a year in Europe was no great shock to the system at first. Using a dishwasher and a dryer again were everything I'd dreamed of, but not much more. Seeing family and friends was great, but no better than it would have been had they been teleported into Belfast. I was overtly grateful for the home and city I live in after experiencing places like Sarajevo and the Shankill, but I wasn't too upside down about the whole transition.

A couple of times I was taken aback over my obvious return to the States took me by surprise. As I was driving again for the first time, struggling mightily over which side of the road to be on and when, and I rounded a corner only to be greeted boldly by a massive Chevy barreling down the street. Stunned at its size, at its noise, and its exhaust, as "Like a Rock" echoed through my head, I felt refreshed disgust for America's glorification of unnecessary waste.

But while I am deeply irritated by so much of the thoughtlessness that has gone into crafting Americana, I also don't enjoy the people who bring up their own irritation all the time. For example, as my mom and I were watching tv the other night (me with a book in hand for commercial breaks, attempting to mitigate in some small way the mush that Sunday nights spent absorbed in Rock of Love turn my brain into) and she belted out a loud grunt that indicated her disgust at an ad. "Ugh. How American was that commercial?" she begged. "Everything has to be quickquickquick." Criticizing Uncle Sam is a fairly new idea for my mom. Close cultural examinations were never par for the dinner table course. Bosnia changed all that, and now the house has become a veritable land mine of critiques: "AH! Why so many napkins? No one else needs napkins, why do we need 30 per meal? The napkins become an innocent microcosm of the entirety of a flawed and self-absorbed American system.

But I hope to God that there are no good guys and bad guys, that there are only differing levels if ignorance and interest. I don't want to hate that guy in the Hummer, but I do. Wish I didn't despise the person who brags about having no clue about geography, but I do. And I'm not particularly keen on judging people who probably just need a little grace, because God knows I do, and am grateful when I receive it.

Piecing It Together

September arrived, the autumnal closure to a torpedo summer of traveling, tasting, experiencing and changing. I've exchanged trains for my old car, hostel beds for my queen that still holds my self-shaped divot acquired through years of sleeping in. No more guessing at the local cuisine. No more wondering where we'll sleep tomorrow night, what we'll see this week. Home is home, and Seattle is back.

My house is actually becoming a home, a century-old construct that welcomes us with its bright red door (red doors mean luck, a friend tells me with a grin that encompasses every hope that a 20-something grad clings to in a world that seems scarily new), ancient hardwood and a dining room (a dining room! a room in which to dine!) seeping personality from every molded corner. What currently looks like a refugee camp, a cardboard box-covered living room and a kitchen filled with donations from every pot and pan owner in what appears to be the tri-state area, is slowly making its way into a comfortable place for five girls to call home and not be mortally embarrassed to bring friends and potential husbands over to visit.

Side note on the husband topic, which is a total joke because the girls in 2217 all tie for "Least Likely to Find A Guy to Jump on That Grenade": my grandpa, who thinks he knows just about everything about everything, informed me that it was a bad idea to sign a lease with four other girls for the following reason: one of us is going to get married and flee the state and leave the rest of us in the lurch. If only he knew. If only.

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about what home means. I am back to the place I do consider one of my homes, but cities are never the same! I am back to discovering cafes and being served by sleeve-tattooed baristas of indeterminate gender, back to the grubby, 'we're all in this together' feel of the underground music scene, back to the catch in your throat bliss of an unexpected Space Needle sighting. Call me cheesy. I like living like a tourist in my own city. It prevents apathy.

What a strange thing it is, to create a life from what feels like scratch! I am transported back to senior year of high school, when the first half of the year seemed to be spent condensing my entire being onto a sheet of paper and convincing institutions of higher education that I was worth their time. Job applications are a similarly bizarre sense of attempting to prove my worth through a list of accomplishments, a list which appears strangely short when I consider what a full life I've led for 23 years (maybe less than that. I didn't accomplish much when I was a baby, and age 15 was a similarly unproductive era, unless you count "passing notes between classes" a marketable skill). There doesn't seem to be a way to include the important things in my life on a piece of paper, things like: how a weekend in Bosnia radically changed my worldview, how my breakup history has prepared me for corporate America, how Belfast stole my heart for good, how I tend to fall over without my best friends nearby, and how great it was to spend elementary school doing Y Indian Princesses with my dad. Things that make me me don't necessarily look good on a resume.

So I am back to square one, embellishing my brief list of accomplishments so potential employers will have no choice but to beg me to grace them with my presence. It's like compiling a list of things that someone else has done. The job search itself can be absurdly tedious. Staring online at job postings can only last for so long; as it is one of the most morale-draining exercises ever discovered by mankind. Soon every one of your interests becomes something you despise. I thought I wanted to speak Spanish, work with refugees, tutor kids and write about all of it, until the unfailingly prosaic job descriptions started to make me doubt my own middle name. Soon I got to the point where I really just wanted someone to pay me to stay in bed.

But putting a little life together is the next adventure, and for as badly as I want to throw a dart at a map and hop back onto a plane bound for a random locale, coming back to Seattle has been wonderful and I'm a happy girl! I am still trying to sort through everything I saw, smelled and tasted over the summer and will write more on that later...

Thursday, July 12, 2007

El Gran Regreso

"No sigas las huellas de los antiguos...
busca lo que ellos buscaron."

-Matsuo Basho

Eleven months after I'd waved goodbye to my family at SeaTac, the impending arrival of the only member I hadn't yet seen (the mater) was enough to make me need adult diapers on the eve of the 3rd, when Anita was to land in Dublin. I had an alarm set for 4:45 am and a suitcase full of dresses, and sure enough slept right through my alarm, got a full 8 hours of sleep, and was 3 hours late to pick her up at the airport. Pathetic daughter that I am, I also forced her to wander in the rain and gloom of Baile Atha Cliath for most of the day (though a highlight was at the pub that night, when she sang 'Que Sera Sera' while waiting to pay, and was backed up by a feisty five year old who knew every song on the jukebox from Toto's Africa to the Irish Call and proved it loudly and off-key). Mother/daughter vacay was off to a rolicking start, and by "rolicking" i mean "so tired the morning we left for Spain that I left all my toiletries and my favorite earrings in the bathroom." Ah yes, a good omen to be sure.

Landing in Alicante was a sunny relief from the nonstop rain that Ireland has been calling summer. When the bus closed its doors on our faces at the airport (I mean, what is the deal with that kind of thing?), Mom and I met Ted and Rory, two hilarious Irishmen who had a deal for us: I use my Spanish to commandeer and direct a cab into Alicante, they pay for it and entertain us with Frasier impressions, Belfast mockery, and heavy sarcasm the entire way. I think we came out on top with that arrangement, and we now have a place to stay in Galway. Good omen #2.

As I found my bearings in Alicante's Barrio (which can only be described as loud, seething with people from all over the world, and one of the places I feel most at home), who leaned out of a window and yelled my name but Kyle, my North Carolinan friend and 1/3 of the reason I came back to Spain (the other 2/3 being Carlos, an Albacete transplant who has been previously mentioned as the Sonnet Writing Spaniard, and Eija, my Finnish roommate and defender of my sanity for Autumn 2005). Finding Kyle within ten minutes of landing in Alicante? Definitely good omen #3.

Now the next incredible thing to happen was that my boys Fernando and Javier, who I tutored/nannied when I lived in Alicante, were having a birthday party and their mom Pilar went out of her way to invite us, so naturally it was a crucial component of the trip. Thanks to Carlos, who led us to the biggest and most miraculous toy store ever, I found a sweet remote control car and dragged Mom, Eija, and her friend Jenni deep into backwater Spain: Muchamiel is serious desert territory, where jolly old ladies joke with you as they lean out of their windows, where the dusty Spanish hills are the only backdrop, and where everyone is just NICE. Just seriously NICE. As I awkwardly followed the map I had sketched and thanked God for my Spanish, limited as it was, to ask for directions, we had serious doubts about our ability to find the place. But sweet relief, we did, and had an absolutely incredible time with one of the best families I have ever met: three adorable boys, two parents who would literally do anything for their friends, and table filled with incredible Spanish food and surrounded by their equally wonderful friends. I'd been nervous that the boys wouldn't even remember me (a year and a half is a long time if you're five) but the reunion was sweet and the party was one of the best things I've done in a long time. Life just keeps rolling along smoothly...

One should never live in wait for the other shoe to drop, but so many good omens had to be tempered by disaster. So I will skip all the parts of the trip where we were utterly relaxed on the beach, eating paella and tapas to our hearts delight, wandering amidst the chaos of the mercadillo, and laughing with really good friends until we peed a little. Those were good times, but they weren't as memorable as the event I like to call: More Proof That Laura Isn't Quite a Grownup.

It all started in Desden, our favorite bar, where we were trying to order our old standby chupito Cuarenta y Tres. However, after an unfortunate incident involving some drunk breezy setting fire to the floor, they don't offer them anymore. Our shot ordering was cut short, though, by a boxing match that was about to break out in the middle of the bar (nothing unusual for the Barrio... close quarters and lots of alcohol don't always bring out the best in human nature) and our denim-vested bartender went out with a baseball bat to see what the story was. Hoping for a legit fight to provide some entertainment, we were instead left with a dispersed shouting match and two loud, sarcastic, and generous Brits Simon and Steve, who, with their grownup jobs, could buy three girls' night's supply of vodka tonics without much thought.

*Right. The vodka tonics. Which brings me to my next point: how we make decisions is dubious at times. Specifically, how spending six hours in Alicante's Barrio with old friends and new boys will lead to a reduced capacity to choose wisely.*

Fast forward to five am, when I finally got to make use of the bikini I'd been wearing under my dress all day. Simon and I took a dip at Postiguet and swam out to a raft 50 yards from the shore to play on the slide and the diving board. Swimming at the pre-dawn lull, when the quiet hum of the beach Zamboni-type machine is accompanied only by the comforting repetition of Mediterranean waves hitting the cooling sand, is definitely a good and pleasant thing. Leaving your clothes, shoes, money, camera, cash and credit card on what you thought was an abandoned beach is maybe not such a good idea. It is actually an extremely unwise and immature move, as Simon and I discovered as we emerged, still slightly tipsy, to discover every single one of our posessions GONE. From cell phone to ID. Unwilling to admit out own idiocy and naivete, we paced the beach a number of times and I grilled the Zamboni man in angry Spanish about our stuff, only to be answered with a blank look on his face: "Robados. Estais robados." I chose to believe him, for the time being, but I really think he held our stuff in the back of his cab (including: 5 credit cards from Simon's wallet, my Mom's card and drivers license, my favorite dress, my camera which was filled with photos of situation that are unlikely to happen again and now must be stored in the amygdala or wherever stores memory, because they sure won't appear on Shutterfly anytime soon, my lucky flipflops, and our wide-eyed trusting natures). Yep, the sneaky beach cleaner told us we'd been robbed and went on his way, but I couldn't exactly split hairs with a man when I only had a swimsuit to my name. Instead, we went home: shoeless, trouserless, relieved of possessions as well as our happy buzz. Joder, digo yo.

Noon that day saw us in the lobby of the boys' hotel, on Simon's Blackberry with Visa USA, cancelling our main source of expenditure for the next month through a woman whose retainer continued to disconnect with her teeth, making the verval transfer of a Belfast post-code nearly impossible.
But this is also where the story that was just your typical "idiot in Spain whose luck was up" tale to that point, began to shift. As we shook our heads and laughed together over the night we'd left behind us, a middle-aged woman in a knee-length skirt hovered, wandering back and forth through the sliding doors and murmuring something about a "crisis of her own." My mom, ever the willing party to befriend a stranger, asked "Did you lose something as well?" The woman's answer was not the "room key" or "passport" or "Fendi purse" I expected. It was heavier, and much less fixable than a lost credit card: "Yes," she said, "My husband. He left me this morning. Actually, no. I left him." And that is how we met Barbara, who had, just minutes before, discovered her husband texting his girlfriend yet again and had walked out of their hotel room for good. As one would expect from someone who was on the verge of a broken marriage, Barbara was out of sorts. So this is why, our third day in Spain, Mom and I ended up out to lunch with Simon and Steve, random thirty-something bachelors, and Barbara, fresh off her 50th birthday and facing singledom once more. It was an unexpected yet totally welcome meal, one which allowed a random group of people who were strangers twelve hours earlier, to commiserate over what it actually means to "lose" something and, in Barbara's own words, begin to restore her faith in humankind.

I was so thrilled to leave the chill of Ireland for the balmy bliss of Espana, I didn't think much about what it would be like to return to a place that I had once called home. Coming back to Belfast was a firm reminder that cities, like people, are not static, and it's impossible to come back to the same place twice. However, this proved to be a huge benefit in the case of Alicante: all of my former frustrations and annoyances seemed to have become minor in the year and a half since I left. Even the creepy men who follow you home from the beach and try to coerce you to sleep with them right then and there just seemed funny, rather than the horrendous and misogynistic nightmares they had once appeared to be. Spain and I were friends again, and I left happy.

The return to Northern Ireland for the 12th has been an experience like no other, but description will not suffice unless I have pictures to coincide with the words, and at this point I don't. More to come, but for now we are heading on a little jaunt around Ireland (I'm driving again after a year of being a passenger, and actually think the lefthand side of the road is more familiar than the right, which scares me) and then on to Croatia for a wee dander. So many more thoughts and wonders at this point but will have to save them for a time when my word count isn't already through the roof...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

27 Big Ones

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!

27 years together and still laughing... either you're drunk or just not paying attention. Either way, I LOVE YOU and hope your day is phenomenal!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

In Portuguese Time, I'm Still 19!

Three years ago on my birthday, I called my mom at midnight to lament, in a panic, the loss of my teenage years. This year, in order to prevent a similarly ugly scene from taking place, Marlo and I packed up and headed to Portugal to take the sting out of the transition to old-ballsdom.

Let me preface this travel tale with the fact that, as we stood at our door, backpacked and ready to go, we made a verbal checklist of necessary items: bikinis, check. Skirts and dresses, check. Money? No check. Right before we walked out the door we realized: WE HAVE NO MONEY. But we left anyway, armed only with our charm and our willingness to eat bread and cheese for days on end.

After a brief stint in Dublin, during which we met a couple of awkward Canadians who explained to us why Guinness is not, in fact, a friendly drink, we spent an agonizing morning coming thisclose to missing our flight to Porto. In the past six months, I missed a flight out of Paris and Marlo missed one to Dusseldorf, so we were appropriately freaked out that we’d repeat the mistake and have to invent an entire week’s worth of adventures so no one in Belfast would ever know we'd never left the island. Fortunately, the travel gods smiled upon us and we were first on our flight. This gave us plenty of time to make friends with our extremely groomed and delightfully feminine “air host” Fergal, whom we took as a good omen for our trip (side note: the other guy was named Fabio. This is not a joke, people are actually named Fabio!).

Important thing to note at this point: Marlo and I, stubbornly insisting that our week would be a 5 day beach holiday during which we predominantly drank sangria in our new bikinis and allowed muscle-bound men to fan us with palm leaves and feed us peeled grapes, were in for an abrupt and unkind awakening when a hostile rain greeted us in Porto. Unfortunately our stubbornness had translated into a ridiculous insistence in packing only “breezy” stuff, meaning we had to sludge around in long dresses and sandals when the weather called for super-traction boots and waterproof tents. We slid around over Porto’s polished tiles for a while before hopping on a bus to Lisbon, crossing our fingers that the beach dreams would not be dashed in the City of Seven Hills...

Interesting Randomer #1: Mar and I commandeered the entire backseat of the bus to sleep on and silently breathed death threats on anyone who would dare join us, the tallest African we had ever seen sat down between us and gestured that his long legs wouldn’t let him sit anywhere else. Fair enough. Joao was from Guinea Bissau, spoke three languages (none of which was English, but one of which was Spanish luckily), worked for USAID, and currently runs a reconciliation program in Guinea Bissau from its base in Lisbon. Our chat was grounded by my limited Spanish vocab related to conflict work, but Joao was our second good omen and kept us good company for the longest bus ride in the world.

(I need to add at this point that whenever I travel, I imagine myself teleporting from city to city rather than taking normal human transport options. A couple of four hour bus rides will nip that habit in the bud no problem and force a girl back to reality: you can’t leave Dublin in the morning and end up on a Portuguese beach by evening. Scientists have proved it impossible. Don’t ask what kind of scientists, it’s just a fact, ok?)

Landing in Lisbon was a test of the kindness of Portuguese strangers (just like any place where clueless American girls pop into… we’re sorry about our politics, but we’re just here to hang out) and they really pulled through in the clutch. Half the city aided in our hostel-location scheme and as soon as we put our bags down, we decided to find the beach for the last few hours of sunlight. The good news is, we found water. The bad news is, we also found Lisbon’s shantytown and had our dinner on the three-inch stretch of “beach” along the river with one bum peeing on a rock behind us, one sleeping in a box, and another getting wasted out of a paper bag ten feet down the line. Needless to say, we felt right at home and jumped into our newest plot for how to save the world: opening a halfway house, preferably in Portugal. When we got home we found a half-nude Australian on our deck, who turned out to be Nick, our new travel buddy. Nick had just returned from hiking to base camp at Mt. Everest, his buddy Dylan just finished a volunteer stint at a Millennium Village in Kenya and they’d decided to meet up in Egypt. The four of us bonded the first day, and our breakfasts in Lisbon usually involved a few hours of drinking coffee, dancing to the Rolling Stones (the middle-aged guy working at the front desk: “Mick Jagger is my adopted father!”), and finding out the life stories of every single person in the hostel.

Interesting Randomer #2: As we wandered the glorious castle overlooking Lisbon, we met a guy selling those little wire toys that monks supposedly make to tell the story of the universe. Henry from Germany was more than happy to delve into an intense conversation with us, focusing heavily on Brazilian domestic policy, Austrian/German/Dutch linguistic idiosyncrasies and cultural anomalies, Hitler’s secret occupation of the castle and how happy he was to find friendly faces. We rediscovered our dreams of busking on European sidewalks until age 40… or at least painting and writing about every city we go to and selling our “art” to survive in rundown hostels.

Our Aussies cooked us dinner the last night in Lisbon (core ingredients: garlic and eye contact), and we made a vat of sangria (really good wine for €1? We’ll take four) and ran around the Alfama*, listened to jazz, and met Eduardo, the most aesthetically appealing Italian/Portuguese guy currently in creation. Drunk Marlo, when realizing our friend Ashley from St. Louis had swooped in for the same kill, launched a tirade verbalizing the “glaringly obvious” fact that Eduardo liked men. Whoever requested sour grapes, your order is up!

*THE ALFAMA: Lisbon’s major earthquake in 1755 destroyed most of the city, aided by the fires that followed it, but a decent-sized area just below the castle survived the destruction and is now the oldest surviving part of Lisbon, and one of the most unreal neighbourhoods I have ever seen. It’s all jagged brimstone, broken down shops, and unique sights and smells. Not to mention the most killer view in the city.

Interesting Randomer #3: Nobuku, a Brazilian Japanese guy who thought Marlo and I were God’s gift to comedy (no, he wasn’t drunk… we don’t think…), laughed uncontrollably at every “joke” we attempted and repeatedly suggested we get our own TV show. I offered Nobuku obscene amounts of money to follow us around as our promoter, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be and we headed out to Porto; having gained two Aussies but not the Brazilian fan club we’d always dreamed of.

*Story paused for a puke break*: An old boyfriend once used the delightful term “vomit chorus” and it has never applied so fully to my life as it did the day we went back to Porto. Food poisoning is a really good way to NOT see a city. On the plus side, however, my stomach has never been so flat. On the down side, our bikini dreams never came true, so no one can verify that. Moving on.

By the time we made it outside, I fell in love with Porto. The four of us went wandering around wine cellars and sampled port, laid in the sun and hiked up and down the steep hills until hunger drove us home. We cooked the boys dinner, discussed African development, and passed out embarrassingly early that night due to our total inability to deal with the heat and early wakeup call the next day. Overall, a pretty anticlimactic ending to the trip that was meant to contain 4 days more beach quotient, 1 day less puke quotient and a freaking ton more muscled men with palm leaves, but what can you do? Our dreams of sun, sand and sangria were only fulfilled by one third, but Portugal… we’ll be back.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Absolve: v.

sorry for the picture of four old white men as an opener, but i suppose you could call them fairly important...
Northern Ireland and the American South alike saw the 1960s inflamed with an influx of civil rights movements and now, forty years later, both places are still mincing forward in attempts to solidify their own tentative peace. After reading John Perkins’ Let Justice Roll Down, the parallels stood out to me all the more. Perkins is a civil rights superstar and has fought for equality nearly his entire life. This man has a story of forgiveness that is absolutely unreal. Having been beaten nearly to death by racist cops after a lifetime of being tyrannized in mid-century Mississippi, after having witnessed white police kill his brother, after years of being beaten down, physically, economically and socially, Perkins relates how every fiber of his being pulled to reject the entire white community. But at the same time, “I began to see with horror how hate could destroy me—destroy me more devastatingly and suddenly than any destruction I could bring on those who had wronged me… And where would hating get me? Anyone can hate… An image formed in my mind. The image of the cross—Christ on the cross… He was nailed to rough wooden planks and killed… But when He looked at that mob that had lynched Him, He didn’t hate them. He loved them. He forgave them… His enemies hated. But Jesus forgave. I couldn’t get away from that.”

And so John Perkins also felt love and forgiveness for his abusers, for the entire racist and bigoted system that had attempted to hold him down for his entire life.

Things like that make me believe in God.

I ran into Chrissy (the same Chris I mentioned in August) downtown last week and felt the normal swell in my heart when I saw his little smile. Still job-hopping, still in love with the girl he’s dated for a few months (even her baby has started calling him Daddy, a sure sign of true love in Belfast), and still hopelessly stuck in the trap of severe loyalist mentality. Inevitably, the power-sharing topic came up (naturally a popular theme these days:, if you’re interested). I didn’t even need to listen to know what Chris was going to say; in sum: Paisley is a sellout. Adams is still a f***. Prods are gonna have to run at this rate, and we are all gonna need to head to England before *they* take over. Chrissy, having been raised on a steady diet of “anti-Fenian” rhetoric and nervously protective philosophies, really is convinced that Protestants have to stand their ground against Catholic upswings. Power sharing cannot be seen as a step toward workable peace; instead, it is a sure bet that one side or the other is gaining ground (just which side is actually gaining depends on whom you’re speaking with, though). It makes me sad, because I really love this boy. I really want him to become better than his UDA upbringing would have him be. I wish he could see that despite singing the same national anthem and adoring the same Queen, culture-wise Northern Ireland is no more British than Ireland. Northern Irish, both Protestants and Catholics, have carved out a little sub-culture that would not easily assimilate into either Ireland or England.

I also really want Chris to learn how to forgive “the others” for sins that have never been committed against him personally. Perkins talks a lot about how creating victims also perpetuates a group’s own victimhood—essentially, damaging both groups. “After I was beaten by white policemen, I began to see things a little more clearly. I was able to see the needs of white people and what racism was doing to them. You see, I had gotten set to the fact that that the sickness of racism had affected the black community in a way that kept them from functioning as a healthy community. A lot of our people were sick—affected by generations of slavery, oppression, and exploitation—psychologically destroyed. But I had never thought much before about how all that had affected whites—how they had been affected by racism, by attitudes of racial superiority, by unjust lifestyles and behavior.”

Like it or not, Catholics and Protestants are equally at home here in Ulster. And just like for blacks and whites in the American South, they have merely coexisted for far too long. But finding a way to begin absolution is a tenuous process.

“Love fills in the gaps of justice.”
-Shane Claiborne

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Assimilation is a 4-Letter Word

Important UK/US cultural difference:

No one here knows what Cinco De Mayo is. Nor can they pronounce it. Nor do they think it's normal that we would celebrate battles that happened in a different country in which we weren't even involved.

I think we all need to find unity in our universal dislike of the French and start becoming more liberal in our celebration of victories over them. Yonkers and I are going to a house party tonight, and we'll probably be the only ones in sombreros drinking tequila. But dammit, some American traditions must be kept.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

"Need" vs. "Want"

This makes my tummy hurt.

Things that are not easy:
  • clamping one hand over the collective mouth of a disoriented group of possibly guilty, mostly confused, and entirely powerless group of unproven war criminals while using the other to gesticulate wildly while promoting universal freedom of speech.
  • admitting that the US' role as a superpower has not exempted it from the same dirty dealings that we are supposedly fighting against everywhere else.
I am as sick as the next person at seeing George W's smug and self-righteous smirk and his hand stubbornly clinging to the Christian Right's pocketbook and tugging its conservative heartstrings. But unfortunately for Bush haters, too much of the problems the US has strewn cannot be blamed solely on Dubya. But they could be blamed on the fact that its abuse of power hasn't been checked by the rest of the world.

So what do we do about Gitmo? I guess we'll just have to bomb it...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Posting Bail, or, An Atypical Tuesday

Why being a youthworker is the weirdest job I may ever have:

Remember Scott? Three days ago, life was good for Scott. He and his girlfriend Paula had been broken up for a while, but when they showed up to YF on Sunday night, SURPRISE!! They were engaged! To answer your questions: Yes, they are 14 years old. No, it’s not that strange around here to get engaged before you hit puberty. Yes, Paula had already lost her £15 ring. Oh. Man.

Scott: “I was going to wait, but it just slipped out.”
Marlo: “Wait for what? Being legal?

But Paula wasn’t with Scott yesterday, and when I asked about her, I discovered the love was gone. Yes, Scott broke off the engagement after Paula had done some seriously despicable things to Gareth (Gareth is a whole different story. Age 25 chronologically, about 13 mentally, morbidly obese, and in the habit of buying Scott and Jamie phones in exchange for being friends with him). It’s actually a tragedy, but I was so relieved that Scott had defended Gareth against his “fiancée” I could have cried. Instead, I changed the subject to the old classic “Were you in school at all today?” Yes, he was, but got booted from every class. New subject: what’s the craic with you tonight?

Turns out, Scott had a hot date with the PSNI. The cops wanted to get a statement from him concerning Paula’s charges of ATTEMPTED MURDER. A lot had happened since Sunday youth group, obviously. Between Scott and Jamie, the story has unfolded like this:
A younger girl says some unattractive things about Paula's deceased grandmother. Paula attacks her with a razor blade, stabbing her in the forehead and trying to slit her throat. The police take Paula away. Scott refuses to make a statement to "the feckin' peelers." Jamie, on the other hand, thinks Paula getting locked up would be okay and makes a complete statement.

So what are you supposed to do when one of your kids is looking at 16 years in the clink? Seriously. Michelle Pfeiffer and Coolio make this crap look so easy.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sports and Darwin

if he looks pissed, it's cause he's plotting how to kill me.

Two sports that kids love: basketball and fighting.

Exhibit A: Fighting.

I got punched in the face by a 7 year old yesterday. I think my nose is broken.
Carson, bless his wee heart, has learned to throw a punch. This, theoretically, is wonderful, because after months of trying to teach him to throw a baseball, kick a football, and catch a Frisbee, I was losing hope. The kid just has no athletic talent, and that’s coming from someone who can barely run a mile without wanting to throw up and kick someone in the face. I worried about him growing up in a city full of scrappy footballers as the only kid who can quote Family Guy and Simpsons episodes by heart (I’m proud, but I don’t know how much weight “Eat my shorts” will carry when some punk is elbowing you in the eye socket before he charges past you to score).
My worrying was unfounded. The kid can fight, and I’m a bit excited for him to be able to throw his weight around. I don’t consider myself a pacifist by any means, but I’ve never really been down with kids fighting. Of course, that was before I moved to Belfast and immersed myself in a way of life that revolves heavily around violence. Even in playtime, no kid plays nice.

As we spent time in a North Belfast park during Dep ’04, Malia and I saw two kids in what appeared to be a full-on boxing match. Thinking she was about to witness a death and not wanting the hassle, Malia tried to break them up. They paused only long enough to observe,
“You’re not from here, are you? This is how it is here.” Then they went back to kickboxing. What they really said was, “This is how you have to be to survive around here.” It was a lesson impossible to forget, and one that has been driven home dozens of times over the last eight months. And now, my splitting headache has pulled me straight into the muck of a culture full of playground Darwinians. Send ice.

Exhibit B: Basketball.
Dogpile. Basketball turns into martial law around here.
Marlo and I, in a burst of neighborly goodwill, started playing pickup basketball with the kids across the street (yes, the same ones who have been brainwashed to think we’re lesbians). We’d gotten fairly used to the kids banging on our mailslot and yelling into the house “YA COMIN’ OUT?” We hope it means “out to play” rather than “out of the closet,” and are generally willing to play a few games of HORSE. Last week, however, Marlo answered the knock only to discover about a dozen kids standing eagerly on our front sidewalk, ready to play. “Laura, I, uh… think they told their friends,” she called into the house.
What we thought was a friendly game of two on two (using the “No Ball Games” sign as our makeshift hoop) has turned into the Glenbank Afterschools Program. This is a classic example of “You don’t even have to build it, they’ll still come,” and we love it.
Jessica :)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

husband hunting, or the lack thereof

I got my first boyfriend the summer after 5th grade, when my crush Jason called me up and asked me if he could come over and visit me (this came after a long year of teasing from my end on 'when he was going to sneak out and come see me,' undoubtedly inspired by Mariah Carey's 'Always Be My Baby' music video). I said yes, but when he asked how to get to my house, I suddenly panicked and said, "If you really like me you'll figure it out" and promptly hung up on him. We worked through this setback, but that situation set par for the course of the next 12 years of my love life: awkward, at times hilarious, and fairly random.

But never has it been under such scrutiny as it has the past eight months. My marital status has been the topic du jour for women over 70 since the day I landed in Belfast. Rare is the week when Olive, Sylvia, Mae, or some other woman who apparently has a vested interest in my getting married forgets to pester me, “AWK LOVE. Have you found yourself a man here yet?” And then I have to explain the American concept of dating (no comprende is the general response. Either you have a boyfriend or you don’t, missy) and my intense fear of marriage before 30. They just don't care if I'm dating sporadically, if I met someone travelling, or if I want to become a nun. They won’t rest until I settle down, before their very eyes, with a nice Belfast boy, whether or not I want to be in Belfast, and whether or not I want to settle down. It’s pretty funny, because no one in my own family really gives a flying rat’s ass if I have a boyfriend or not. My grandparents always talked about the careers they thought I should go into rather than where I should locate Mr. Right, and I love them for it. But having a gaggle of old women who couldn’t be more concerned about my marital status is pretty cute for the time being.

Then Marlo landed and set the rumor mill alight. Apparently, the concept of dating is as foreign as the concept of roommates in North Belfast: if you're living together, you're TOGETHER.

This is the exact conversation we had last week with our neighbour Mark:

Mark: My friend here wants to know if you’re lesbians.
Me: Exqueeze me?
Friend: No I didn’t. I’m not even getting embarrassed because I never said that.
Mark: He wants to know if you’re lesbians.
Marlo: (gasping for air)
Mark: So are you?
Me: Sorry to disappoint. We’re not.
This entire exchange was, horrifyingly, conducted in front of his four kids. The next day, Luke, the five year old, asked me if Marlo was going to see my boobs after I went to work. Genius! Discuss grownup issues in front of your kids who have minds like sponges!

Then the husband hunt really kicked into full throttle on Saturday. The story needs a proper setup, so here's what happened:
We were wandering around Botanic Gardens in south Belfast when suddenly we heard rap blaring from behind some bushes. Naturally, we gravitated toward it, being white girls who wish they were black. We ran smack into one of the most extensive African weddings mankind has ever seen. It was a sight for sore eyes (sore eyes being ones that have only seen skinny ghetto white guys for the last 8 months). There were three cornrowed guys standing by a Benz with The Game blasting out of it (we think it was The Game, anyway) drinking what looked like Miller Lite and daaaancing. With rhythm. We had no choice but to pop a squat on a park bench and turned our attention to the wedding pictures that were being taken a few yards away. I don't want to be too graphic when describing the pictures, nor do I want to be catty, but I will say the following:
Bridesmaids: Pantylines O'Plenty, socks with strappy heels, and tiaras.
The park bench right across from us: old ladies speaking a mix of Dirty South (weird, since they weren't American) and some native Nigerian dialect. Legit.
The guys in the wedding: HOT.
Everyone seemed really happy, so we were happy too.
So this is where the story kicks into gear: standing near the wedding limo was a middle aged dude who was all too happy to pose for cheesy pictures involving thumbs-up and car hoods. He also decided he wanted to come over and make best friends with us. Or, as good of friends as you can possibly make when your intro line is:
"It's your time soon." After getting our instinctive laughter under control, we politely told him that "our time" was a bit further in the distance than "soon," thank God. He proceeded to introduce himself as the pastor of a church in Scotland who came to Belfast frequently to do weddings. And without any provocation or encouragement on our part, he boldly announced that he was going to "pray for husbands for us." He also invited us to come and visit him in Scotland and come to his church, where "the boys won't leave you. They'll marry you." Quote of the year. Finally, they all drove away after the pictures were over, rap blaring, horns honking, and our hearts on the windshield. It was the most amazing day ever.

Moral of this common thread is that apparently, being single isn't an option in Belfast. You're either meant to be 'going steady' with some crazy lady's nephew, shacking up with another chick, or engaged to an African prince.

Friday, April 06, 2007

happy heart

Marlo is here! I am so happy for so many reasons, but mostly I am just really content because I have one of my best friends in the world all to myself for the next few months. Her Belfast experience thus far has been
rock climbing (unsuccessful attempts that will soon be repeated)

running up Cavehill only to lounge in the blazing sun, which got here just when she did

Cooking like grownups almost every night. Look! Mar made meatloaf!

drinking wine on the roof while discussing Afghani history, nicotine addictions in six year olds, how to save the world, where the tall Irishmen are, travel plans and how lucky we are

Another important development is that I am unassimilating to Norn Irish social situations, meaning we try to be funny at parties and are now greeted with blank stares. SWEET! So happy that I have a life-pondering, food-loving, beer-drinking, belly-laughing, joyful-hearted and sarcastic friend to share Belfast with for a few months... life is good.

Friday, March 30, 2007

My Mates! My Neeborhood!

Wow! So this is what successful cross-community work really looks like: land in a spaceship into West Belfast, discover people with Scottish accents, stop a petrol bomb with your ring, deactivate a nuclear bomb and help a "Catlik" and a "Prod" go into business together. It's so simple, I don't know why we haven't thought of it sooner! I'm gonna go find me Sean O'Reilly.

Oops, I gave away the ending. Captain Planet was a baller. You have to watch this. It's a cinematic masterpiece.


With the political situation in Northern Ireland being what it is, I seem to have been listening to a lot of people spout off lately with their thoughts on politics. This invariably leads to the big question of history: can we get past the history that colors so much of Northern Irish culture and spills into so many corners of life and society? I love this topic; and it's a huge part of what brought me back here in the first place. I didn't feel like I was done with Belfast in 2004 because I'd only scratched the surface of the complexities this place holds. So I came back to ask questions and listen to the answers, to study the polarities between the ends of Belfast, to watch historic politics unfolding in person. I love hearing people's thoughts on Belfast, and I love daydreaming with them about how to help pull it out of the history that drags it down.

But, in the words of Peter Griffin, it really grinds my gears when people who have no clue about what life outside middle-class Belfast is actually like seem to think that they're experts in the social situation all over the country.

For the people who claim to have a lockdown on the Belfast social situation and have never ventured into so much as Sandy Row, for those who think the Troubles are long dead and that society has achieved a peaceful equilibrium, and for those who prefer to talk a lot rather than listen: Belfast's Troubles are technically over, but their legacy refuses to die. Paramilitaries are still around, riots are still cropping up, gun violence hasn't ended, teenage pregnancies are still the highest in Europe, broken families are still the norm, and the suicide rates are still enough to make any jaw drop. Catholics and Protestants are still on edge in each other's neighborhoods, and many wouldn't be caught dead in "their" territory. Peace walls are still the fragile buffers that seem to be multiplying overnight. In many parts, the economy is still struggling back onto its feet. Of course it's not as bad as it was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. But the impact is still real.

I'm not trying to make these communities sound like cultural wastelands, because they aren't. But I also don't believe in sugar-coating them just because others don't see what actually goes on here. I don't claim to be extremely well-versed on Belfast, but eight months of living on the edge of the northwest end of the city, in one of the most divided and deprived areas of the entire country, has opened my eyes and put a passion into my heart for an area that has largely been forgotten. Many people's view isn't holistic, and it really bothers me. Ignorant chatter is irritating coming from Northern Irish people, and even more irritating coming from people who have lived here for less than a year and don't have a clue about what the situation actually looks like. It's like if I were to go on a rampage about how racism is dead on the US west coast. Just because I haven't ever seen it myself doesn't mean it isn't a reality for so many people. I have really learned to not say much when I don't know much about something, because I'd rather not speak until I think my words are more worthwhile than blabber.
We all want to be heard, and we all want to be the expert, but there are a lot of people who I just want to say, "SHUT UP, and just look around you for a minute before you keep talking!"

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Hawthorne Effect

There is a spot right outside the music hall in downtown Belfast that is never without a homeless person sitting outside it. Whoever it may be, their hat or cup is an ever-present reminder for passerby that not everyone is safely tucked into a Housing Executive place and that even in a welfare society, poverty is ever-present. The hats and cups frequently get kicked over and some laugh at the scramble for scattered coins, inspiring an unattractive sense of pity in onlookers.

Scott and Jamie are two boys who drift in and out of Youth Fellowship, depending on whether or not we let the gang of Shankill footballers in or not. Like most of our kids, a full week in school is a victory, a week without fighting is a phenomenon. Scott, at 14, makes a weekly trip to a local bar with £20 to pay off a paramilitary so they won't break his stepdad's knees again. Jamie's dad died suddenly last month and he is still in shock. They smoke, they fight, they don't really know how to handle everything that's been thrown at them in their short lives.

I love these boys with all of my heart. The three of us spent Saturday night dodging wasted twelve-year-olds in city center and hoping no one would recognize the boys as Prod (Happy St. Patrick's Day from Northern Ireland, where few holidays can be celebrated without sectarianism. St. Patty's is the Catholic's turn for control of downtown, July 12th is for Protestants, and stepping on each other's toes is still a no-no). After spending a few hours at Fisherwick's St. Patrick's Day celebration, where the boys got on like a house on fire with the interns, we headed back to catch the last bus. As we approached the music hall, I wondered how the boys would react to the homeless man. We had already had a fairly in depth discussion about the massive amounts of Eastern European immigrants in Belfast, many of whom sell a magazine in a setup much like Seattle's "Real Change" program. The boys were annoyed that they couldn't walk a single block without getting harassed to buy the magazine, relating a story of how they had blown off a Romanian woman, loudly and harshly, as she approached them to sell a copy. So as we neared the hall, I began to get nervous that something would happen between them and the homeless guy, who was picking up 10p coins out of the cracks in the wet sidewalk.

But without appearing to think twice, the boys were filled with compassion for the man. "It got tipped," Jamie murmured. "Someone kicked it." He knelt down to help refill the man's overturned cup. Scott gave him a pound and shook his hand. These boys have hardly a cent to their name, and my mind flashed back to a few weeks ago, when my dad was here. When we dropped Scott off after YF, he had gotten out of the car to shake his hand and look him in the eye. Scott wasn't sure how to react at the time, as there had probably never been a incident in recent history when someone had made the effort to do that. And here he was, imitating the same maneuver with someone else.

The Hawthorne Effect states that everything changes as soon as it is observed. I'm not so naive to think that the boys weren't, at least in part, trying to act in the way they knew I'd want them to. But I also know that words and observation have the power of self-fulfillment, and that when kids who have hardly ever been encouraged learn that they are being watched with eyes that see the best in them, they will live up to such an image. The Effect works both ways, and it kills me to see how many kids around here are living up to the negative pictures of themselves that others have painted for them.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

"Hey, Yoya!"

Between blizzards, a team of raucous Americans that's invaded wee Belfast, yet another arson, Marlo moving here this week and riots in Ardoyne, there's a lot I want to talk about right now, but I will save it for a time when I have more than a couple of minutes to sit still. But I can't let another day pass without mentioning BAILIE.
Bailie is three years old, extremely talkative in that unintelligibly endearing way, and the new apple of my eye. He can't say most of his letters, so I am now "Yoya," and my job is apparently to help him climb onto anything that is higher than his head. Occasionally, I'll feel a tiny arm wrap itself around my shoulders and turn to be greeted with a tiny kiss, right on the lips. It's always the adorable kind of three-year-old kiss where they just kind of put their mouth there and don't move their lips at all, and it's always followed up with a small hug and his head resting on my shoulder for a few moments, before he goes back to playing in the sandbox.
Bailie kissing me probably breaks about a million child-protection laws, and all I ever want to do is grab his cute little face and kiss his forehead and cheeks and nose, but I can't because he's not mine and that might be kind of scary.
But I am thinking of legally changing my name to Yoya, anyway.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Addams Family Values

Does anyone else remember that movie, or is it just me? And whatever happened to Christina Ricci, anyway?

February and its plethora of visitors came to a close with the big visit from DEAR OLD DAD, which I'd been looking forward to despite my doubts that it would actually happen at all, considering his reluctance to fly and tendencies to carry a Rick Steves travel belt (paging Lauren Johnson... paging Lauren Johnson, you have a travel belt compatriot). But miracle of miracles, he did make it across the pond!

Planning for a road trip, we hired a car as soon as he landed, and naturally checked the "full-insurance" option since the left side of the road is a bit dicey. So we're informed that EVERYTHING on the car is insured, and there is basically nothing we could do that wouldn't be covered (including killing a person, which I thought was a bit morbid for the girl to mention), EXCEPT the tires. And not half an hour later, we bounce off a curb on the passenger side and lose a hubcap to the mean streets of the Dublin suburbs. I could not stop laughing about that. We could have done a hit and run and not paid a thing, but the hubcap we lost? Not covered.

So Dale was harshly introduced to the natural wonder of West Belfast as we drove home from Dublin in the rain and dark. I think the graffitti and barbed wire were a shock to the system, but he felt a bit better after meeting the trillion amazing people this city is housing. After a few days of craic with the Belfast crew, we hit the road and thus began EIRE ROAD TRIP 2007.
The trip can be boiled down to the following: the two of us tucked into a little Toyota Yaris, tooling down Irish backroads while listening to Gaelic radio and getting into heated discussions concerning Sinn Fein (maybe not the last part so much). We made a full loop, from the Giant's Causeway and north coast to Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford, and back to Dublin. We ate Irish breakfasts and read our books and took pictures of ourselves mocking ancient monuments. Beautiful.

We spent our last day in Dublin and I put him on the airport shuttle at 6 on Saturday morning, which sucked because the huge calendar that said FIVE MONTHS TO GO was overshadowing everything we said. For a lot of people five months isn't really that long, but for my family it's a lifetime. Of course I was really sad to see him go, so to distract myself I decided to maximize the six hours I had left in our posh hotel room. I took a shower and put on the fancy hotel robe (feeling a lot like Bridget Fonda in 'It Could Happen to You,' except, thank God, Nicolas Cage wasn't in my bed when I woke up) and wandered around the room pretending i was really rich and swank.

Then I ordered room service.

If there is anything in the world that is designed purely to make you feel like a million bucks (or euro, as the case may be), it is room service. You pick up the phone, say what you want, and a tuxedoed man brings it to you. Phenomenal. They didn't have breakfast stuff, so I did what any self-respecting health nut who was taught to never skip breakfast would do: i ordered dessert. And I ate apple crumble (or, as said tuxedoed man defined it, "apple crum-BLAY"... seriously, guy? Let's not grasp at glamour straws here) and had the best cup of coffee ever while i watched planes taking off and landing right outside my window.

A few short hours later, I climbed onto a hot, cramped bus that had a slight stench of BO and headed back to Belfast. Dream over. The transition back to reality was tempered slightly by an extensive conversation with a British professor and Romanian doctoral candidate in chemistry, which covered topics varied enough to distract me from impending doom and included killing the bus driver, the new trend of happiness studies, and how to punish violent criminals. The former and the latter were entirely unrelated.

So I had been maintaining a fairly steady pattern of not thinking about home much until Dad informed me that "it's not natural" for people to leave home for so long, thus inflicting a spiral of guilt that has gotten me on track again to thinking about the lovely PNW (kidding, Dad. Kind of.). Despite this fulfillment of the parental duty of guilt, spending time with my Dad for the first time in six months reminded me again that he is absolutely the kindest, most big-hearted man I have ever met. I miss my family, let's be honest!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ricki Lake Boot Camp

In an alternate universe not so long ago, my Sunday nights consisted of rounding up a dozen willing and able Mug Club members and blissfully paying half price for Big Horn Hef at the Ram.

Fast forward to Sunday nights in current universe: cleaning pee off bathroom walls, covering tracks of broken stained glass, diffusing heated arguments between pastor and elders concerning the kids at YF, getting locked into the church when said kids break handle of front (and, contrary to fire regulations, sole functioning) door.


And then begins the long trudge home, during which the three of us try desperately to come up with a socially acceptable plan to handle our youth group that doesn't involve medieval torture chambers, singing KumBayAh, or locking the doors altogether. Various forms of these tactics have been suggested by the youth workers in my course (who come from all over Belfast EXCEPT the north and the west). Generally, I just laugh at them.

Then it hit me. The proverbial light bulb switched on, choirs of angels belted out Handel's Messiah, and small, lovable forest animals came flocking to me as if on cue (I'm not really sure why that last part happened, actually). I had it: RICKI LAKE BOOT CAMP.

I know I'm not the only one who remembers how that hardcore sargeant used to come in and beat the sassy ghetto kids into submission, and the louder they screeched "YOU DON'T KNOW ME!" at the beginning, the harder they sobbed after Boot Camp Bill got ahold of them?! And he made them respect their parents, go back to school, give all their allowance to starving African children, etc.? Yeah, I want that guy. The only thing a lot of these kids will respond to is an ass-kicking, and they'll find it, but they'll find it from someone who couldn't care less about what happens to them afterwards, ie. the paramilitaries.

Boot Camp Bill always gave kids a hug after he kicked their ass.

Get him out here.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ennui Wonder Why?

“I really loved the place, of course, but somehow knew it was not my city, not where I’d end up living for the rest of my life. There was something about Rome that didn’t belong to me, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was…
-‘Don’t you know the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn—what is the word of the street?’
Then he went on to explain… that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be—that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don’t really belong there.
‘What’s Rome’s word?’ I asked.
‘SEX,’ he announced… ‘What’s the word in New York City?’
I thought about this for a moment, then decided. ‘It’s a verb, of course. I think it’s ACHIEVE.’
(Which is subtly but significantly different from the word in Los Angeles, I believe, which is also a verb: SUCCEED. Later, I will share this whole theory with my Swedish friend Sofie, and she will offer her opinion that the word on the streets of Stockholm is CONFORM, which depresses both of us.)”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, eat, pray, love

Ever since LJ sent me that book for Christmas, I have been trying to figure out the WORD of every city I have spent significant time in, and Belfast's continues to elude me. But for the people in the north and west ends of the city, especially the teenagers, I’d say the word is something like BOREDOM. This manifests itself in a lot of ways.

Unemployment rates along the Crumlin Ward are ridiculously high. I think it’s something like 67% of people that are “economically inactive.” When I mentioned to Jack the fact that I didn’t think many of my neighbors really worked, once again I heard the phrase “dependency culture,” which even residents here will freely admit is status quo: if you can get it, take it.

This culture has developed from a number of factors, narrowed down to two main reasons that I can see. Firstly, both sides of the conflict feel they are owed something. Both feel like victims who deserve something to make up for the years of violence, discrimination, hatred, you name it, they feel like they received the brunt of it. Rare is the working class Catholic or Protestant who is willing to admit that just maybe, “our side” did as much damage as “their side.”

The second factor is the overwhelming willingness of the British government to support its Northern Irish citizens financially. This is visible in the long lines at the post office every Tuesday; comprised of people waiting to receive their weekly allowance from the government. The first week we moved into our house, I went across the street to meet my neighbors. The friendly young woman who I’d said hello to in passing was Claire, her boyfriend was Mark. Together they have four kids, ranging in age from 10 to a little over a year. “You don’t seem old enough to have a kid who’s almost ten,” I said, half-joking. “Ach, the babies started appearing out of nowhere!” Claire laughed, “Aye, I had Jordan when I was sixteen.” My automatic mental response was, “actually, it’s been scientifically proven that babies do not, in fact, appear from nowhere,” but I figured that wasn’t something good neighbors say they first time they meet someone. It wasn’t until later that night that I began to really think about the fact that not only is Claire not much older than me, but her story was not unusual. I have heard more than once from 15 year old girls, “I’m tired of living with my parents. I’m going to drop out of school and get pregnant. I want my own place.” The government is willing to support teenage mothers, single mothers, and a wide cross-section of people of the unemployed variety. No, they won’t be rich. But they won’t necessarily have to work, either, a huge draw.

In September, confronted with a society that approaches welfare from a completely different mindset than the one I have grown up with, I pondered the implications of the term “dependency culture.” It has now bewildered me for six months. I grew up middle class, and often I have felt the need to apologize for that and for the things that I was given because of that. As a result, though, I have also grown up hearing negative opinions toward welfare; discussion of system abuse and the interesting moral position that puts taxpayers into. As a resident of a country seeped in individualism, a country that is either too proud, too self-sufficient, or simply too opposed to the idea of being dependent on anyone but ourselves, the image of a culture where dependency is the norm; an accepted part of the mindset, is far from easy to understand. The Declaration of Independence takes on new meaning in light of what I see here: the American mindset has largely become a declaration of independence not only from Britain, but from asking for help, from admitting need, from accepting ‘handouts’ that you have not earned. It reveals itself in the Protestant work ethic that permeates our mentality, shows its face in the way we treat immigrants, becomes glaringly obvious in our health system (universal health care is one of the best things about the UK, and its absence in the States is extremely unfortunate).

Granted, all of this is blatant generalization. Much like many here incorrectly imagine every American to have a pool, a three-car garage, and a boat, there is no way to categorize an entire culture based on simplistic phrases, and those who milk the system are most likely matched by those who refuse to collect the money they are due. And in a lot of ways, I think the social services system here is much closer to the ideal than the US model, particularly in the area of health care (as I gratefully discovered during my hospital encounter). However, the disabling aspect of the welfare system is that it seems to create an unappealing (and, in the case of paramilitaries and idle teenagers, dangerous) mix of free time and lack of economic contribution, which has led to the general loss of identity and sense of purpose that communities really need to stay cohesive. It’s worrisome, and it’s hard to reverse.

Status quo is fine for a lot of people here. The dependency culture, at least in my area, tends to create a cycle of apathy. But for many, like my friend Deborah, it isn’t satisfying, but the way out of it seems insurmountable.
(I’d like to add here that writing about the social situation in North Belfast gets increasingly difficult as I envelope myself into the community here. It’s a catch 22—you have to be with the people to know what they think, and once you know are a part of their lives you feel guilty writing about them as if they’re hypothetical situations or case studies. In The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly rails against the shades of paternalism and condescension that color the Western world’s dealings with the Third World, but they are possible whenever an outsider enters a foreign situation and decides to analyze it. Forgive me if I ever come across as paternalistic or condescending, because I honestly do not feel that way and struggle to remove any feelings of superiority that creep their way in without my permission. Even using the word “their” bothers me, but I haven’t discovered another way of referring to my neighbors and friends here.)

Deborah is an overweight single mom who has attended Crumlin Road for about as long as she’s been a Christian, three years. She had Carson when she was 22. He’s now seven. She is outspoken, loud, painfully insecure, and extremely intelligent. I like Deborah a lot, because you always know where you stand with her, and she likes to debate. Deborah is another story of support from Housing Executive, and lives paycheck to paycheck (if government support can be classified as a paycheck). I once asked Deborah what she wanted to be doing in five years, ten years. She got kind of quiet, thought about it for a bit.

“I don’t want this, Laura. This is not what I wanted for myself, not how I pictured things going. I don’t want to spend my life just waiting around for the next few pence to come through. I want to be contributing something. I would like to work, but I don’t know what I could do.” In all fairness, the fact is that few opportunities exist to break the trap of a poor educational system and lack of employment prospects, but laziness plays a part as well.

The pervasive atmosphere of helpless boredom, dangerous lack of what I would consider normal social services and the fact that economic opportunities are found largely on the dole or through paramilitaries are a pretty brutal combination. But, much like the "word" for this place, ways to change the post-war pattern seem to be hovering just out of reach.

"The only horrible thing in the world is ennui."
-Oscar Wilde