Category Archives: class divide

Lady Day

Lynn, Richard, Possum, and I made our way into the Wyndham, got some drinks, then headed into the auditorium.

The show was Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.  The premise is that Billie Holliday, the American jazz icon, is performing at a run-down bar in Philadelphia right before she dies, age 44, in 1959.  It’s a two-hour monologue and song book, accompanied by a man who plays the piano, tries to stop her from shooting up, then procures heroin for her.

I don’t go to a lot of live theatre.  It always feels to me like people are talking in a stilted way: “Look at me—I’m acting!”  I was leery about going to any American show in Britain.  On my first trip to England, my cohort of volunteers—who were from all over Europe and Asia—insisted on going to a west end musical involving a loud-mouthed Texan in a big hat.  There was also lots of waving and shooting of guns.  I squirmed through the whole thing.  The group members loved it and laughed all night about “typical Americans.”

Lady Day would be performed by Audra McDonald, with actual audience members on stage as though they were customers at the bar.  This was a bit strange, since McDonald and the musicians were dressed in period costumes, while the customers/audience members were dressed in contemporary clothes.

We were seated at a café table right below the stage.

I loved Billie Holliday as much as anyone; I had listened to her songs over and over, especially in my angst-ridden 30s, but would I be able to sit through two hours of angst?  And my chair was wobbly!

Then McDonald began her performance, and within moments all distractions melted away and I was riveted.  I knew Billie Holliday’s story—raped as a child, raised by a single mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, did prison time, full of regret over not having children and a string of abusive relationships.

McDonald’s voice was well up to the task of Holliday’s songs; when the first strains of “Strange Fruit” began I teared up instantly.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

 

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

So the show was about Holliday’s life, but also about racism in America, and the lot of being a famous woman performer, and love, and addiction. Believe it or not she was also very funny.  I wanted to run up onto the stage and hug McDonald/Holliday, tell her everything was going to be alright and that I would take her home and take care of her.

I didn’t find myself feeling defensive about the theme of racism.  In fact, just the opposite.  Racism is a reality in America and always has been.  It’s something we’ve had to struggle with, collectively.  We’ll probably never see the end of it.  I’d like to think that as older generations die off, younger ones will be less racist, but the crowds in Charlottesville at the white supremacist rally last year were mainly young men.

So why would I feel proud of my country?  Because at least half of us are fighting this shit. At least half of us are fighting back–marching, writing essays, lobbying our elected officials in opposition to racism and other “isms.”

The performance ended; we looked at each other and I spoke first, “I feel like a wrung out rag!”

“That was intense,” said Richard.

“I’m exhausted!” said Lynn,

Added Possum, “I never knew!”

We went back to the hotel, ordered some wine, and talked for hours about racism in our respective countries.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was made into a TV show; if you want to watch it it’s here.

Have a box of Kleenex handy.

Cabbing It to the Cabaret

Lynn had booked three rooms at a hotel near the Barbican, and after carrying a backpack around all day I was happy to check in and dump it.  The room was spacious and the décor reflected the area.  This was the bathroom floor:

This was the art above the bed:

Some people might be disconcerted to sleep beneath meat-hook themed art, but I took comfort in knowing I was not the only weirdo who meditated on meat hooks.

In keeping with modern design principles, I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the bedside lights.  I called the front desk and—I could tell from her voice she had done this many times before—the front desk person walked me through how to grope my way around until I found the tiny, arty button that operated the bedside lights.  The room had a mini kitchen so you could cook for yourself and save money.  That wasn’t going to happen tonight.

Lynn and Richard and Possum and I met in the lobby and walked over to Charterhouse Square to have a pre-dinner drink at the Fox and Anchor, a pub and boutique hotel.  It was built in 1898 which makes it Victorian, but it looks very Gilded Age or Art Deco to me.  These photos don’t do justice to the detail.

We sat outside, soaking up the sun and some drinks, then hailed a black cab to a Thai restaurant.  There are cheaper ways to get around London, like mini cabs and public transport.  Maybe I’m sentimental, but I prefer black cabs, especially when someone else is paying for them.

Here’s what the black cab driver wannabe website says about becoming a black cab driver:

“The London taxi drivers are almost as famous as the black cabs in which they drive, this is mainly due to their in-depth knowledge of London and ability in taking their occupants to their desired destination amid the congestion and the chaos that you often find when travelling through London’s streets.

“Easy you might think with the world of sat navs? Think again. Hail down a black cab in London and you can be assured that the driver will know the shortest and quickest route to your destination without the aid of a satnav. It doesn’t matter if you give them a street name, a famous landmark, a hotel name or famous point of interest, they will know exactly where it is and they will get you to it in the shortest route possible.

“London taxi drivers go through stringent training to obtain their licence, they need to pass ‘The Knowledge’, a test which is amongst the hardest to pass in the world, it has been described as like having an atlas of London implanted into your brain.”

London has 60,000 streets within a six-mile radius, many are one way.

A friend of Sam’s and acquaintance of mine was so smitten with black cabs that when he returned to Australia after living in London for 10 years, he bought an old black cab and had it shipped home with him.  I think his plan was to run a cab service, but now he’s teaching in an aboriginal school so I’m not sure what become of the cab.

You may have read recently about Uber being banned from London due to data leaks and disputes over its employment practices.  I totally understand why Londoners would want to use Uber.  It’s fun to take a black cab, especially when you’re traveling as a group (this is not us):

It’s cool to take a black cab if you’re a tourist or on a special occasion.  But for getting around on a daily basis, only the uber wealthy could afford to use black cabs.

On a side note, I downloaded Uber just the other day but was unable to use it because it insisted I enter a UK phone number.  I guess my phone is confused and thinks I’m still in the UK.

After a great dinner we caught another black cab and snaked through the heaving streets of Saturday-night London. After dodging jay-walking revelers for 20 minutes, we reached our destination, Wyndhams Theatre, two miles from our hotel.

Pigeons

Sometimes I get a notification from WordPress: “Your stats are booming!”  I used to get excited, thinking it must be a publisher in New York reading every post I’d ever written and reaching for the phone to call me with a book deal which would come with a huge advance.

I went to the stats page to investigate and for some reason my last post had attracted the attention of three dozen Canadians.  Why?  I looked at the tags and categories. Were they drawn by the word “England?”  I’ve written loads of posts about England.  The only words that were different were “shopping” and “charity shops.”  Who knows?

Maybe I have a Canadian stalker.  Or three dozen.

Everyone I know is talking about the powerful men in media and politics who are being outed for sexually harassing or assaulting women.  All I can say is: it’s about time.  And I’m not surprised.  It’s happened to me at least a dozen times.  No one famous, but plenty of regular men who had some kind of power over me by virtue of age, title, or size.  It stopped when I hit my 40s—one advantage of getting older.

I never reported any of the incidents because first, I was very naïve and often unsure what was even happening.  Maybe I was misinterpreting things?  I mean, the social worker who was helping me get my act together after I spent two months in a psych unit after trying to off myself when I was 16—when he said he’d like to see me in a lace nightie, he was just trying to help me feel like a woman again.  That’s what he told me.  And that 30-something guy who stopped his car at the bus stop and asked if I wanted to go party—I was 18 and eight months pregnant—he didn’t really want to …?  No!  That’s gross!  I must have misunderstood.

And surely that Greek Orthodox minister hadn’t meant to press his hard-on against my derriere in that crowd of people at the Justice for All rally, right?  Wrong.  When I turned around in shock, he smiled as if to dare me, “What are you going to do about it?”  It must have been my fault.  I had thought how handsome he was and maybe he had sensed that and thought I would like what he did.

Surely my boss’s boss had been fiddling with the coins in his pants pockets when he stood next to my desk talking about nothing and staring at my boobs, right?  I had just started that job and really needed it.  It was 1986 and I had never heard the term “sexual harassment.” It never occurred to me to report him.

A friend described how she tried to get her husband to understand what it’s like.

“Imagine there’s a third kind of human out there.  They’re a foot taller than you and 50 pounds heavier.  They own everything and run everything.  And they want to fuck you in the ass.  Every time you go for a job interview, you know they’re imagining you naked.  They walk past your cube and look at you sideways, and you know they would like to bend you over, pull down your pants, and fuck you in the ass.  They brush up against you and act like it was an accident, but you know they just wanted to cop a feel.  If you say anything, you’ll probably be out of a job and nothing will be done anyway because HR works for them.”           

Back to England, and a more uplifting note.  There are things about the UK with which I have a visceral association.  One is the little teaspoons.  Below are my American teaspoon and a British one, which is larger than many.  Every British home has loads of these.  Something to do with tea, I think. I bought a couple at the £ Store to remind me of the UK.

Then there are the wood pigeons.  When I asked Lynn’s husband, Richard, What’s that bird?” he replied, “What bird?”  He didn’t hear them anymore; their call is so ubiquitous.

It’s this call and these spoons that made me smile every morning.

London Heels

Once I knew I was going in the right direction, settled back and enjoyed the lovely landscapes along the route.  The word “sweet” comes to mind when I gaze out over the English countryside.  That may sound patronizing but it’s not meant to be.

If you like rugby you will probably want to put Twickenham on your bucket list.  I made a mental note to avoid it on game days.

As we rolled into London there were some great views.  For once I have an excuse for my poor quality photos—taken from a moving train.

Waterloo would be my toilet stop every time I came into London.  This sign was still in place a month later, so “as quickly as possible” really meant, “someday, maybe.”

The sign made it clear that your 30p got you one visit to the toilet.  I wondered if someone had sued them, insisted they had bought a lifetime pass.

Then I was on the underground, which whisked me under the Thames toward Canary Wharf, where I would exit and try to find my meeting.  I was anxious about finding the building.  What if I took the wrong exit out of the tube station?  What if I got turned around?  They had sent me a map, which was even more out of focus than my photos and really just a jumble of unhelpfulness.

It showed a picture of the building, but how would I find it among all the other buildings?

The first time I came to England, 30 years ago next year, I had stayed somewhere in the vicinity of Canary Wharf.  Then, it was all gritty warehouses, Pakistani immigrants and elderly Holocaust survivors and native English speakers whose English I could not understand; street stalls selling tiny apples and pet goldfish suspended in plastic bags and possibly dodgy cassette tapes by Billie Ocean, Bananarama, and New Order.

Now it looks like this, according to a local news site:

I stepped out of the tube station and saw this:

Of course it didn’t have a giant black squiggle on it but you get the idea.  When will I ever learn to stop worrying and trust that I’ll be able to find things, especially when I have a map and a photo of the building?

I had dressed and accessorized carefully, making the best of what I had.  I had bought a really cute top in Cornwall that was suitable for a country holiday and I thought I could make it work paired with dress pants, my good jewellery, and an up do.  I felt professional when I left the house.  When I entered the building I immediately felt like a schlumpy schlimazel, which is just what it sounds like.

I waited in the gleaming lobby furnished with sleek Danish modern furniture.  I was sure the water glass the attendant handed me cost more than my entire outfit.  The reading selection on the table included The Financial Times, Economist, Wall Street Journal, and International Business Times.  All the headlines were about rich people making deals that would make them richer.

I noticed my heels were a bit worn.  Note to self: Buy new shoes before next work meeting.

One of the people I was meeting with arrived.  She was 30 years younger and 30 pounds thinner than me, blonde, and dressed in stilettos and a killer designer outfit. Mercifully, it was all over in 30 minutes.

I have been to meetings with foundations and corporations.  I’ve been to Ford and Open Societies Foundations in New York.  At Chiron Corporation in Silicon Valley.  And so on.  I normally carry myself well in these meetings and I had come carefully prepared.

But then I spilled my water and as we were wiping it up, my nose started running like a garden hose and I had to ask them for a tissue and blow my nose in front of them. These people were lawyers and I don’t know if they were on the clock but they were clearly impatient and possibly appalled by me.  I managed to maintain my dignity, make my points and ask my questions, but I was relieved when the revolving door swung closed behind me.

Penultimate Day in Ethi

My penultimate day in Ethiopia.  There, I’ve always wanted to use that word.

Today I would be observing a training and a women’s group.  But first, I settled up my canteen bill, handed in the Chinese dongle that had never helped me get an Internet connection, and returned the ancient Nokia I had been given the first day.  For once, my age was an advantage with technology, since I had learned to text using the ABC system way back in 2005.  Pity the millennial or younger generation who has only known smart phone qwerty keypads with autocorrect.

I could receive messages but the phone wouldn’t send them.  I could see a queue of failed sends attempted by previous users.  I also received various messages in Tigrinya.  I will never know if the message below was important.  Had I missed an incredible two-for-one offer on camel milk?

Maki sent me several messages and I responded to her via my iphone.  Then she would reply to the Nokia. It was a little confusing.

I did some packing and noticed that my mattress was covered with this fabric.

I stared at it.  Why were there kangaroos all over my mattress and why had I not noticed before?  I had been here a week.  I can only posit that it was an example of how the mind narrows down when it is overwhelmed with too much new stimulus.

It could also be related to what I call “the gauze effect.”  I have often gone on a trip to a developing country thinking I’ll write blog posts every day, or fill my hours drafting a novel, or learn French because I’ll have lots of time on my hands.

I do none of that.  In fact I do nothing much, because the pace of life is so slow, the heat so intense, and getting the smallest task done feels like a major miracle.  It feels like a soft cotton gauze has settled over your head.  You can’t think, you can’t act.  Making a photocopy feels like a big accomplishment worthy of being rewarded with a nap.

I attended a two-hour training on attachment in the morning that was given by our expert psychotherapist to employees of other NGOs working with Eritrean refugees.  Several young women had brought their very cute babies, and I thought it must be a nice bonus for them that they got paid to learn about child development and attachment on the job.

A rooster had flown over the wall of our compound and was crowing incessantly in an alcove outside the training room.  Suddenly I saw one of the cooks stride purposefully past the door and the rooster gave an alarming “Bwuauck!”  We would be having poultry for dinner tonight.

After lunch we rode to one of the camps and hung around waiting for clients to show up.  One by one, women arrived, some with children.  CVT has a childcare tukul but the babies stay in the groups with their mothers.

About 15 minutes past the hour there were 10 women assembled and the facilitator began.  Thankfully she didn’t ask me to speak, she just told them who I was and I gave the same introduction as the rest of them: name, age, marital status, number of children, and how long I had been in Ethiopia.  “One week,” I said, smiling. And I thought, pained,  And I get to leave tomorrow, while none of you knows when she’ll return home or be resettled, if ever.

The facilitator translated here and there but mainly it was similar to the boys’ group the previous day; I knew enough to get the gist of what was going on.  All of the women were married with children and dressed in traditional clothing except one.  She was dressed in jeans and a tight-fitting T-shirt and had her hair in a glamorous up-do.  At first she sat slouched down in her chair with her arms crossed as if to say, “I’m not one of you.”  But as the group went on and the women shared she sat up and leaned forward.  It was a remarkable transformation, and a great example of the power of group counseling.

 

 

Cool Scotland

I am sitting on a big bed in a big bedroom in a big house in Scotland.  It’s so quiet, so clean, so cold.  It’s August 6 and there’s frost on the windows.  But the view out my window in the greenest green you can imagine.  Well, you don’t have to imagine it, here’s a photo from yesterday afternoon, when the high reached 60F.

I’m at Lynn’s house; I’ve written about our travels together many times.  I have sunk into a routine of working, eating, reading, walking, more work, more eating, and watching Dickensian, a brilliant BBC TV series that jumbles together all the Dickens characters into one murder mystery.  I don’t know why it never made it to the states.

Europe, Ethiopia, and England seem like dreams.  The episode I wrote about in my last post has already morphed from panic-stricken flurry of drama into something that will make a good story some day.

After returning from Lalibela, I put in a week of work in the refugee camps in northern Ethiopia near the Eritrean border and in our offices in Shire.  I’ve written about the “sensitizations” we carry out to tell people about the effects of torture and trauma on mental health and what we can do to help them heal.

I also sat in on a two-day training in which all of our counsellors were trained in on a new group manual for adolescents.  That probably sounds like a lot of gobbledegook.  There are a lot of adolescents who have fled from Eritrea.  They’re there without their families.  They don’t know when they’ll ever see their families again.  They attend school in the camps and there are recreational facilities where they can play football and so on but in general they feel hopeless and like most teenagers, they’re restless.  So they leave the camps and try to get to Europe.  These are those people you see in the news who are being fleeced by human traffickers, only to drown in rubber rafts in the Mediterranean Sea.  The lucky ones make it to Europe or Israel, where they again live in camps.

So there have been spates of suicides and suicide attempts and the groups for adolescents aim to prevent that and teach kids how to cope with the uncertain situations they live in.

I’ve written about the content already.  This staff training was really good, despite the fact that it all had to be translated, which made it twice as long as if our Kenyan psychotherapist could have just said it once, in English.  It was also despairingly hot and stuffy in the room, and why oh why did they keep one of the Landcruisers running right outside the window, so the exhaust fumes wafted into our room?

We had a break mid morning during which we were served the strongest coffee known to mankind and popcorn.  Yes, popcorn, which happens to be my favourite snack.  (“Counsellors,” “favourite,”—I am working on two grant proposals to British funders right now so my documents are set to UK English.)

This was also my chance to catch the cleaning lady and stop her from spraying poison and air freshener all over my room.  She smiled and gestured as if to say how this was her job, how important the poison was to control the rats, how wonderful the Country Peach air freshener would smell.  I smiled back, trying to convey that under no circumstances did I want this shit in my room.  The toxic-smelling floor cleaner she mopped around was bad enough, thank you.  I would take my chances with the rat sans poison.  She smiled in return and I’m pretty sure she went ahead and did what she’d been trained to do once I was back in the training room.

There were 25 counsellors in the training, and almost all of them were millennials.  They dressed like American millennials, in skinny jeans and Converse and T-shirts.  But unlike their American counterparts would have done, there were no cell phones in sight.  They all had cell phones.  Was it out of respect for Sandra, the trainer?  Or was it because they couldn’t get a signal or wifi anyway?

No Way Out

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Mike’s Place is a tourist complex where we would go kayaking or canoeing—it wasn’t  clear—in caves. Mike’s also featured “zip lining, hiking/swimming/rock climbing, food/drink/picnic/BBQ, and Wifi.”

Wifi, in case you wanted to watch a movie set in a jungle after hiking through a jungle.

Mike’s had been founded by a Canadian guy named Mike.  Here is a picture of him when he arrived in Belize.

Mike no longer looked like this.  He had probably partaken of a lot more food/drink/picnic/BBQ than hiking/swimming/rock climbing.  But never mind, he had a beautiful Belizean wife about 30 years younger than him.  She did the cooking and serving, and she seemed to adore Mike.

After 30 minutes of milling about, discussing vital questions such as “Should I bring a water bottle into the cave?” “Are there bats in the cave?” “Is there a place to go to the bathroom in the cave?” Jose our guide finally corralled us at the water’s edge and gave us a five-minute background on the history, geology, and safety concerns of canoeing in caves.

I live in Minnesota so I have done a lot of canoeing on rivers, in lakes, and in wilderness areas near the Canadian border.  I know how to steer; it’s really simple.  But I had no idea what to expect of canoeing in a cave. I had questions too, but I kept my mouth shut in hopes we would get going sooner and just find out once we were in inside what was involved. Would the water be calm or would there be currents?  How deep would it be?

These questions were not answered on the Wilderness Adventure website, and that’s okay—I don’t want to know everything in advance or it wouldn’t have been an adventure. When Mark and I had talked on the phone he hadn’t known anything about the canoeing either, since he had never been to Belize.  The packing list had recommended water gear as though it would be a serious canoe trip, and I had jettisoned mine after moving twice in three months the previous year.  I had gone shopping for water shoes and water-repellant clothes, none of which are cheap or findable in second-hand stores.  I browsed the water shoes and dropped them like they were red hot when I saw the price tags.  In the end, I brought some cheap Sketchers sandals I found at TJ Maxx.  Worst case scenario, I would throw them away if this canoe adventure turned out to be rigorous.

It was extremely tame.  They made us wear life jackets and helmets—because it was a cave with some low hanging outcrops—but we never paddled faster than two miles per hour.

Here is the cave entrance and the canoes.

As we paddled into the silent cave, the hooting of a barn owl that sat in a niche high above the entrance echoed in the darkness, which closed on us as soon as we were a few meters in.

A second guide, Alex, had been called in from his Sunday off because Mike hadn’t been expecting our group.  We drifted along at a leisurely pace, looking at the formations and ancient pots left by the Maya (maybe).  We paddled about a mile into the interior, and I asked Alex about his life.

He was 25 and from El Salvador, from whence his family had fled during the civil war.  He lived with his mother; his father had gone north to California, where he had a successful business.  Alex’s siblings had followed his father one by one and wanted him to join them.  He hadn’t seen his father in over 20 years.  He had no future in Belize.  But he was the youngest child, and his mother wanted to stay in Belize.

“Last month,” he said, “My father got me a visa and I was prepared to go.  But I just couldn’t leave my mother.”

I groaned internally.  Donald Trump had just issued a decree ordering the number of refugees admitted to the US in 2017 be cut in half.  Alex had probably missed his last chance.