Saturday, 30 November 2013

Honey, I cancelled Christmas!

Are we sitting comfortably, looking forward to the Yuletide season, Christmas songs perhaps about to be put on, minds turned towards buying presents and putting up trees?  Let me begin!

Back in the 90s I had a friend in Germany, Silke.  I went across to see her and her family for New Year, and asked if they'd had a good Christmas.  Much to my genuine dismay they told me they didn't bother with it.  Instead they just had friends and family round just afterwards every year for a "Reste-Essen".  This is where everyone brought all their left-over food, and they had a get together to use it up.  On Christmas they did absolutely nothing.  No tree, no presents, no cards.

KEINE WEIHNACHTEN?  But, but... the Germans own this thing.  Almost all those fabulous pagan things that make little baby Jesus' birthday so special come from Germany.  These include carrying on the ancient pre-Christian tradition of worshipping trees, and celebrating the shortest day by lighting candles; not to mention Advent calendars, Christmas markets, Stollen, Glühwein, Santa Claus (okay he's a Dutch thing, but close) etc, etc.  German Christmases are just so very special.  I just couldn't understand it, and frankly it made me ein bißchen traurig.

Oscar contemplates Christmas
More confusingly, they were demonstrably a really happy, fun family, not a bunch of miserable sods who would do this for effect.  Nor were they either anti-religious, or on the other hand, members of some Protestant sect who rejected this as a "Papish custom".  They were ordinary agnostic Germans.

So, let's be clear that this blog is entirely personal.  I'm not advocating that Christmas should be "banned", or to ruin anyone else's fun.  I've just got to the point where this year, I utterly understand where Silke's family were coming from.  I've cancelled Christmas.  Let me explain!

We Have A Choice

Last year I had probably the best, most perfect Christmas of my life to date.  My boyfriend Ste came down to my cottage in Suffolk for 4 weeks, we bought our first tree together, nearly removed multiple limbs as we attempted to get it in its holder, baked things together, went ice-skating at Somerset House, cuddled the dog in front of an open fire, he made an incredible veggie Christmas dinner for us, and we visited his family in Liverpool on Boxing Day.  Short of snow coming down on the 25th, it was all as perfect and idyllic as a Christmas could be.  I loved it.

Perfection: Christmas 2012

This year, Ste is in Beijing studying and will have lessons on Xmas Day.  I'm off working in Austria on Boxing Day, flying out first thing.  My Mutti will be with my brother and sister-in-law in Germany again for the holiday.  So if I did do Christmas, it would be short, and it would be with friends who have taken pity on sad bastard me and invited me over.  I'll be seeing Ste when the Chinese New Year holiday starts and we're off to Australia/ New Zealand together.  That's our huge winter treat this year, not spending Xmas together.

Further, as I was standing in Tesco the other day contemplating all of these particular personal circumstances, staring at the tacky plastic tree leaning over with the exposed cables below, and the wrapped empty cardboard boxes to add "atmosphere", listening to the tinny piped music on repeat, it suddenly occurred to me - I really don't have to do this thing this year.  Just because last year was so good, and despite the general pressure to conform, I do actually have a choice each and every year.

Dear readers: we HAVE a choice!

Little Baby Jesus

I'm not a Christian, and belong to the ever increasing number of more than 54,000,000 people in the UK who don't go to church regularly.  I've therefore certainly no religious reason to celebrate Christ's birth.  In any case, we all know there's zero evidence that Christ was born on 25 December.  There were apparently shepherds in the fields when he was born, which doesn't happen in December in the West Bank, for a start.  The Bible actually doesn't give any date or day for his birth.  He may have been born anywhere between 6BC and 4AD, at any time of year.  It was only a couple of hundred years later, at the earliest in 273AD, that 25 December was fixed upon.  This conveniently coincided with the winter solstice, and the major pagan festival of the "birth of the invincible sun god".

Classy: Baby Jesus as a Gummi Bear

I get why Christians want to mark a symbolic day when their saviour was born, but I certainly don't need to personally.   It's also clear to me that if you're a believing Christian, you should probably be putting five times the effort into celebrating Easter than Christmas - but hey, that's your call.  Finally on this point,  the central message of Christmas is "peace and goodwill to all mankind".  It kinda strikes me that everyone should be doing that every day anyway: we don't need some day especially set aside to be nice, and then behave like little shits every other day of the year.

The Victorian Christmas: a real raison d'être

Next, it struck me that Christmas back in say, the Victorian age, was a rest-day in a time when people worked 6 days a week, and public holidays were very rare.  It was a day when people who had very little indulged themselves with special treats that were completely out of their reach normally.  A goose for lunch, for example.  Even during my father's lifetime he got oranges at Christmas, which his family couldn't afford during the rest of the year.  I'm fortunate enough to be materially very privileged, and I'll readily admit it.  Like many people in this country, there's very little I would serve up on the dinner table that I couldn't afford at any other time of year if I really wanted it.  I have 2 full days off every weekend, all of our public holidays, and like every worker in the EU, I'm entitled to 4 weeks paid holiday every year.

The point is my very fortunate personal position means that this "Victorian" aspect of Christmases past being a day off work when your belly was properly filled isn't a factor for me.  This is a big, significant change over the past 60 years and it applies to many in this country.  I'd love to say this is the case for everyone, but of course in Conservative Austerity Britain that increasingly isn't the case.  Pictures like the one below are unfortunately a reminder in 2013 that plenty across the country are heading back to the time where having a decent meal is actually something remarkable.

So depressing that this in Britain in 2013

Commercial Excess

Now let's got on to the commercial excess.  There's been a big consumer back-lash against Christmas music and displays in stores in early September, but there's still no denying there is the most hideous display of conspicuous consumption and utter tat on sale out there.  Just as in every single supermarket across the country, in our local Tesco the shelves are currently groaning under the weight of all the chocolate, the mince pies, the booze.  The over-indulgence turns the inner-Puritan stomach in me, especially knowing that people are genuinely short of basic food stuffs in my own country.  How great to come out the other side of Christmas without having to diet all through January because I stuffed my gob to excess all of December?  The thought of all the food and drink that will be consumed (and wasted) across the UK next month makes me feel faintly queasy.

The real spirit of Christmas! Stuffing yourself till you're sick.

I've also genuinely no need of any presents, and really everyone who is close to me is in pretty much the same boat.  I find it completely depressing to have to waste money for the sake of it, rushing around looking for something that friends and family might potentially want, knowing they're doing exactly the same for me.  The crass materialism so turns me off.  I'd got to the stage where I'd rather have fewer "things" in my life than more.  I've expressly asked anyone who might get me anything this year not to please.  I won't be buying anything for anyone either.

Also what does all the cheap plastic made-in-China shite, and all the over-sized gift sets that are on display, remotely have to do with a traditional Christmas, or showing your loved ones that you actually care for them?  There must be the most grotesque emotional and financial pressure on families with kids, who start circling items in catalogues and making on-line wish lists in September.  I also have no idea how people afford it.  I know you don't have to go down this road with your kids, but when their friends get new X-Boxes, it must be pretty hard not to engage in the whole thing to some extent.  We've created a horrible situation as a society where kids expect so much and parents feel guilty if they can't or won't provide.

The Tyranny of Christmas Cards

Even before this year's decision, I long since stopped sending cards out.  Remember back at school where you bought a box set and handed out 40 of them, just so you'd get 40 back and think that made you popular?  It's a bit like saying you've got 28,000 followers on Twitter, but the only reason is that you're team-follow back and follow 28,000 yourself.  In the days before cheap phone calls abroad, free Skype calls, instant email and social media communication, a card was a lovely way of knowing that someone far away was thinking of you.  Nowadays when I get one, I look at it, think "ahhh" and it goes straight in the recycling bin.  Send me a tweet instead, please - it's far better for the environment and I'll really appreciate it just as much! 

I feel your pain, Ian!

Also, how EXPENSIVE is it nowadays to do this?  I always used to think it was a convenient excuse and they didn't really do it, but begin to understand why people say they're making a donation to charity with the cash.

Family and Friends

The final thing is to comment on the friends/family aspect.  It's a lovely, lovely thing to meet up with them, and if Christmas prompts you to do so, great.  But there is no need for this to be the occasion to do so.  Muslims, Hindus and Jews manage to see their families without Christmas being the impetus.  If anything the pressure to have a "perfect time" etc can lead to well-documented domestic stress and fractious family situations.

Compare American Thanksgiving: an occasion to take stock and be thankful for all the good things in one's life and celebrating that thankfulness openly.  Families and friends come together in an almost entirely commercial-free zone (let's ignore the Black Friday consumer orgy the following day) and are just "together".   That speaks to me so, so much more than the way Christmas in the UK has developed.

And what of those who have no family or friends that they can be with at Christmas?  All the images of how it should be must represent a real kick in the teeth for them and a reminder of their isolation.

Happy Yuletide!

So there we have it.  No tree for me this Christmas 2013.  No cards.  No booze.  No advent calendar. No stuffing myself with food.  No stressful battling with the crowds in Norwich shopping precinct.  No presents.  No excess.  How do I feel? Completely liberated from something that has frankly become hollow beyond belief. 

Again to be clear, I don't wish anyone else a bad time if it means something different to you: far from it.  I guess it's a bit like when I see the Diwali lights and see how special it is for many people - but this year I'm just not part of it.  That's not a negative thing: it's less "bah humbug" than "yay, humbug!" It's actually a positive decision for me.

[Let's be honest: like hell will he let me pull this trick again]

Will this continue?  I've no idea.  Ste will be back for Christmas 2014 and we've pencilled in being with his family in Liverpool, because he was away in China this year.  Those experiences will be far more special to me than a load of presents, 300 mince pies and 4 gallons of booze.  A non-commercially excessive, card free Christmas next year is therefore "on".

But for 2013, and whenever it all just gets too much in the future*, I realise I do have a choice, and it seems to be easier to make than I thought.  Maybe I'll do Christmas bi-annually, maybe the cancellation this year will be a one-off.  Maybe I'll never do it again, and Santa will never visit me again!  Who knows.

It's a little early, but on that note, Happy Christmas, boys and girls ;-)



* See caption to above photo. Who am I kidding.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Immigrants and Prejudice

My family are immigrants.  I think most people in this country share this.  My father's family came over from Holland in 1689.  My mother came much more recently: from Germany in 1963.  They're "okay" though - nice blond, Northern European types.

They're not the type of immigrants that people generally object to: never mind objectively what skill levels they have, these are the type of people who will quite obviously integrate, get educated, work and contribute.  Why? Well because they're nice, blond, Northern European types.  It just goes with the territory.  It's those dark skinned gypsies from Romania we need to worry about, or all those lazy Slavs filling up the benefits offices and claiming welfare.  They will never fit in or contribute.  If our family continues to follow German customs and speak German at home that's absolutely fine: we're not a threat, it's just part of our heritage!  But if an East European family doesn't fully "fit in" in this country, in every respect, it's time to point the finger and decry them.

Standard Mail image: E/ European Gypsies just have to be criminals
Never mind the facts.  Never mind every study showing that immigrants as a whole are net contributors in the form of taxes, less likely to claim benefits etc.  You can quote and quote the facts, but it seems some people will just never accept it.  And this, of course, is depressingly and deliberately exploited by politicians of all shades who try to get political support by pandering to this prejudice.

An Example from Twitter

Today on Twitter I experienced a really enlightening example of the above.  I chipped in to a conversation with a 22 year old guy who said that he "volunteered in a soup kitchen where the majority of the recipients are Eastern European on some form of benefit".  He then went on to say that "Foreign nationals do contribute especially those from Norway/Sweden etc. What's wrong with wanting them?"

He was portraying himself as reasoned, and reasonable - not an extremist in any way.  My simple, and I think perfectly apt response, to this was:
"Oh I've heard that philosophy before.  The "Nordic races" are superior to the Slavs. Let me just think where... Hmm"  
He said it was "idiotic drivel" for me to say this.  I don't see why: he was saying that only positive contributors to Britain should be allowed in, and had already divided this on racial origin grounds.  Norway/Sweden = good; East Europe = bad.  This is, I suppose, common-place enough, but what then happened was remarkable.  He quoted from an academic paper, three times, which he said showed those people who come from the "EU8" are much less likely to be in receipt of benefit than the EUA14. "Unfortunately the chances [of people being scroungers] are more likely" according to him.  The delightful thing here he was indeed quoting accurately from the report:



His problem was that he hadn't read what was meant by EUA8 and EUA14 countries.  EUA8 countries are the EU accession countries from Central and Eastern Europe that joined in 2004 i.e Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia etc.  EUA14 countries, by contrast, are the countries who were EU members prior to then.  Yep, that includes those lovely blond Nordic nations, Sweden and Denmark, along with the Netherlands, Germany and Austria.

So - you got it - he was quoting from a report that showed that migrants from Poland etc are less likely to claim welfare benefits in the UK than people from pre-2004 EU members, which happen to include Sweden. 

I'm sorry, but this utterly stinks.  It is a perfect example of how someone's prejudice sufficiently blinds them so that he or she interprets a report in exactly the opposite way to its reasoned conclusion.  This is done in order to reinforce what strikes me as a deeply prejudiced view, which he absolutely refused to accept he had.  He did, however, have the good grace to admit he was wrong when it was pointed out to him that he had massively got the wrong end of the stick. 

The "immigration debate" is polluted to the core with thinking like this, conscious and sub-conscious prejudice and misinformation.  It's so depressing and it needs to be countered a lot, lot louder than people are currently doing.









Voices



I'm going to wager that every one of you who has been here has stood in this spot, at the top of Skólavörðurstígur in front of Hallgrímskirkja, but not for the reason we were there this morning. Today about 300 students from Austurbæjarskóli and their parents gathered with flags and drums and fire-lit torches to march down to City Hall and demand that an important promise be kept. The city had allocated money and shown intent to turn an unused space on the school property into a community center for the kids in our neighborhood (which is basically a wide circle around the Big Church, from the town lake to the northern shore of the bay, and from Snorrabraut over towards the BSÍ bus terminal and Hjlómskálagarður park.)

Austó, as it's called, has a rich 83 year history, and was the first building in Reykjavik to be heated with then-new geothermal technology Here's an informative PDF in Icelandic with images (the school is on page 10) for those of you want to practice the language. (Wow, while looking for old photos of the school, I discovered this blog post by Roddy Fox, a geology prof at Rhodes U. in South Africa, doing research into his father's army time in Iceland during WWII. A short must-read, and once again, why I love maintaining this site!)

While the newer neighborhoods the capitol region often had community spaces incorporated into the overall design, and though culture center Hitt Húsið has been a great success for the 16-25 year olds, younger kids who live downtown don't really have anywhere safe and social to go after school. As stated on the main website for what they call Leisure Centers, these are crucial places for the children of immigrants to go and feel welcome and like they belong. Our Midtown neighborhood is (thankfully) very culturally diverse, and our kids deserve to have the city fulfil their pledge to create a proper one, and soon! (Update: our mayor Jón Gnarr and our city council chairman, Dagur Eggertsson - good looking men! - are going to make it happen! :) 

Re: building and development, today's front-page headline article is on the Icelandic Touring Association's  new idea to protect Icelandic nature via crowdfunding (like our local Karolina Fund) basically inviting businesses, individuals and of course tourists to invest in "nature passes" and thereby avoiding what's becoming a messy bureaucratic issue about how/whether Iceland should be charging for access to our most popular natural attractions. It's our responsibility to keep them pristine for all the generations to come (for example, Icelandic Eden Project, anyone?)


Cuteness

Keep calm and move your ass

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Homophobia and the B&B case

It's been another excellent day for LGBT rights in the United Kingdom.

The "Christian" (I'll explain the inverted commas in a moment) guest house owners who refused to allow a gay couple to stay, in clear contravention of the law, have lost their case in the Supreme Court.  They were funded by the homophobic Christian Institute in their lengthy struggle to have the right to discriminate against the gay couple, in case you wondering.  They lost in the County Court, they lost (unanimously) in the Court of Appeal, and now they've lost (unanimously) in the Supreme Court. You'd hope they've got the quite clear message by now.

One of the most heartening aspects of this case were the words of Baroness Hale, the Deputy President of the Supreme Court, and as such the most senior woman judge in the country.   She went way beyond simply rejecting the guest-house owners' spurious arguments, with this passage right at the end of her judgment:
"Sexual orientation is a core component of a person's identity which requires fulfilment through relationships with others of the same orientation... [Homosexuals] were long denied the possibility of fulfilling themselves through relationships with others.  This was an affront to their dignity as human beings which our law has now (some would say belatedly) recognised.  Homosexuals can enjoy the same freedom and the same relationships as any others.  But we should not underestimate the continuing legacy of those centuries of discrimination, persecution even, which is still going in many parts of the world."
These are beautiful words, coming as they do, from someone so very senior in the judiciary.  When I studied law (at the same Cambridge college as Baroness Hale, no less!) I remember sitting in a supervision in 1994 reading the words of the Law Lords in the recently handed down R v Brown case.  It followed a homophobic witch-hunt by the Police, and the overtones of the judgement were extremely unpleasant.  How times change, and so very rapidly.

The wonderful Baroness Hale of Richmond

The owners of the guest-house in this case have taken every opportunity to portray themselves as reasonable, simple Christian believers.  It is actually hard not to see them as are hard-nosed zealots, determined to take their alleged right to discriminate as far as they possibly can.  They have chosen to open a business and simply can't expect to get away in 2013 with the equivalent of hanging a "No Blacks, No Irish" sign on their door.  They do not even share the part of the building that was used as a commercial guesthouse with their private living quarters, nor is their any evidence they asked straight couples for proof of marriage: quite the contrary.

They will continue to portray themselves as a persecuted minority in the ilk of the early Christian martyrs.  There is a certain group, like them, who seem to revel in their status as long-suffering Joan of Arc types.  Being thrown to the lions in ancient Rome is nothing compared to what they suffer.  They were after all simply "following God's word" in discriminating against the gay couple.  After today's judgement they said they preferred to disobey the law of the land if it meant obeying "the law of God".  They forget that it's their interpretation of the law of God, and there are certain huge flaws in their argument as I've pointed out before with a quick look at Leviticus.

For any straight readers, imagine the personal offence and damage to your basic dignity at being told that cannot stay somewhere because of your relationship.  It happened to my friend Henrietta and her girlfriend in an expensive boutique hotel one Easter, before this legislation existed, which wasn't that long ago.  The aggressive hotel owner told her he "wouldn't have any of that going on under his roof" and literally threw their bags out of the reception.

Of course there are amusing elements to this case too.  I love the assumption that sharing a double bed means you're going to have sex (or will be tempted to).  It's positively Victorian: hands above the sheets, boys and girls!  How about the times I've shared a double-bed with sundry male and female friends, with my mother, and indeed with my dog, without feeling even the slightest need to shag my bed-fellow in the middle of the night.   Moreover, who needs a double-bed if you do actually fancy your bedroom mate?  Do these people have no imagination? :-)

Christian Homophobia

I still encounter homophobia on a regular basis on Twitter.  A common theme arises: by no means all Christians are homophobes, but almost all homophobes I come across seem to be Christians.

There's the zealot Catholic stalker of mine who talks not about gay people, but of people who "have SSA" (same-sex attraction) as if it were an affliction or a temporary disorder that can be "cured".  I didn't chose my sexual orientation, honey - you however chose your faith.. and your nasty, bigoted views.  Then there are the random men, often from America and Australia, who just hurl out violent homophobic abuse to strangers.  It's a very odd straight man who spends all his time thinking about gay sex and gay men.  You don't need to be Dr Freud to take a guess at what's going on here.

Who you trying to kid?!
As ever, the hollow vessels make the most noise, however, and it's important to remember that the bulk of Christians I interact with don't share this type of view point.  In fact several I know are embarrassed, at pains to disassociate themselves from these attitudes, and are genuinely some of the kindest people I know.  It's a constant task to remind yourself of them, but it would make me guilty of the same prejudice I deplore not to.  Aside from anything, they're a delight to talk to.

I therefore deliberately put the word "Christian" in inverted commas at the start of this blog post because my understanding is that the type of people who would shut people out, discriminate, judge and behave spitefully to others based on Jesus' teachings are about as far away from "salvation" as it gets.  It's just such a shame they have such enormously big gobs and make you forget about the good guys.

Going Forward

Gay men, in particular, were often accused in the past of being unable to forge lasting relationships and commitment.  Imagine the effects on their relationships if for a chunk of their life they were at risk of being arrested for having private, consensual sex in their own home.  Imagine what it would be like to live through Mrs Thatcher's government introducing the most spiteful piece of hate-legislation parliament has probably ever passed, with words in it like "pretend family relationships".  Imagine hearing as recently as 2012 from the most senior Catholic in Britain (who as it turned out sexually assaulted young male priests), and half the Tory party in Parliament, that your relationship was in no way worthy of being put on the same footing as heterosexual marriages.  Imagine not knowing for sure until 27 November 2013 whether you could go away for a break together and risk having a guest-house shut you and your partner out for being gay.

All of that has a massive knock-on effect.  Everyone wants their loving relationships affirmed and their love for one another honoured by friends, family and society at large.  When the law allows the discrimination it has done, it places an enormous strain on things.  The fact that so many LGBT people have worked through all this and led happy, fulfilling lives with contented relationships is a real testament to them.  As the legal and societal position continues to improve, so I believe will the lives and relationships of those in the LGBT community.  This a wonderful, wonderful thing.

So it's been another great day, just like the day Parliament finally passed the Same Sex Marriage Bill.  Thank you, Baroness Hale, and your learned colleagues.  You have no appreciation of the ripple effect your splendid words and sentiments may come to have. 

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Vision



GUEST PHOTOGRAPHER: Margrét Gústavsdóttir

Margrét posted this pic on Facebook last week and I fell for it right away. I asked her if I could use it, and if there was any story behind the moment. Here's what she wrote back to me last Monday:

I was driving home today and decided to take the 'scenic route'. Saw these amazing clouds and just had to stop. The picture is taken on an iPhone 5, out of the car window. 

I walk this way every day with my dog. One of the best things about living in this city is the nearness to nature. And one of the best things about living in Iceland is the spectacular sky, the lighting, the contrasts in colors and the constantly changing scene it brings to us humble observers from below. It's an ongoing ever-changing art show that never fails to amaze us.

I'm sure that all of you who've been here fully agree with Margrét, who has been a journalist and online media presence for over a decade. As a matter of fact, she was one of the first very well-known bloggers here in Iceland, back in the old days when the blogosphere was in its infancy and there were really no other social media outlets to speak of. She's always written with sass and style, and has taken on some pretty important issues in her time.

Today she owns, runs and writes for the gorgeous and super popular Pjattrofur (Pjatt.is) website, where she's brought together a group of very sleek and savvy women writers to cover current happenings in the world of fashion, fame, lifestyle and culture. With nearly 25,000 Facebook followers they're definitely doing something right!

Speaking of culture, I was contacted by the BBC World Service radio earlier this week (via the Iceland Eyes Twitter feed! : ) and was asked to join in on the Reykjavík episode of World Have Your Say. Of course I said YES! We did the live show on Friday evening in Harpa  which was thoroughly enjoyable, and pretty content-rich. The theme was "life after the financial crisis" and you can listen to it online here. I'm hoping that the dream that I talk about of Iceland becoming a model eco-sustainable society can, one day in the not-so-distant future, come true.


Friday, 22 November 2013

Expresso Lab Cafe @ Avenue K

Next to Urbean Cafe is Expresso Lab. It was my first time patronising that cafe. I actually left Urbean after my smoked salmon sandwich and as I passed expresson Lab, their tiramisu caught my eye. There was only one slice left and it looked like the Tiramisu from Alexis.

I gave it a go. RM12 per slice.

The verdict: Its still not up to Alexis standard. I do like that they put chocolate chips in between layers. 

The tiramisu from F by Buffalo Kitchens in  Telawi 3, Bangsar is better than Expresson Lab's.

Urbean Cafe @ Avenue K

The last time I was raving about the smoked salmon sandwich at Urbean Cafe in Avenue K. I just had some yesterday for the third time and it was still my favourite kind of meal. Their gourmet bread which is walnut bread topped with chives cream cheese makes it even more delicious.

My sister ordered Smoked Salmon linguini which was just as good. The pasta was cooked to perfection.

Another star for Urbean.

 Try their coffee too.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Witnessed a snatch theft outside Avenue K, Jln Ampang

I was at Wisma Central yesterday having a bite at 12am at the mamak when I heard a loud scream across the road. Opposite Wisma Central was Avenue K mall. The scream came from a lady in front of Starbucks. Her handbag was snatched by a motorcyclist. I saw the smile of the motorcyclist as he held onto the lady's handbag while speeding off.

Everything happened so fast. First when the scream was heard, we had to register where the scream came from.

By the time we knew where it was, the motorcyclist was already a distance away so we could not see its plate number. 

There were also a few other motorcyclist involved.

I started getting suspicious of every motorcyclist that stopped by the mamak, holding onto my purse tightly eventhough there was only RM10 inside.

I lost my appetite to eat.

The lady's scream was etch in my mind till now.

Starbucks located along the main road of Jalan Ampang is a call for extra security. Any bad guy can just easily walk in to rob the patrons and run off in mere minutes.

A word of advise, dont bother carrying a handbag anymore. It attracts the wrong type of people.

Date



So one evening, over thirteen years ago, I sat at this very table at Lækjarbrekka restaurant with a handsome young man. It was a date, but not the kind you'd imagine. As a matter of fact, everything about it was as fictional as reality tv, something my poor dinner partner had absolutely no clue about.

 I had jut recently come back to Iceland a year earlier, and because I'd been working in the film industry (I was Sandwich Girl!) I knew tons of people in the movies and tv field. One day got a phone call from one of them, an assistant director named Fahad Jabali (check out his creds on IMDB), who told me he needed someone who could pass as an attractive professional woman traveling on business in Reykjavík. It was for an investigative piece for the tv station Stöð 2 about prostitution in Iceland, appropriately titled Sex í Reykjavík [article in Icelandic.] I said I was game.

My job was to become a globe-trotting IT specialist and check in to one of the grandest hotels in the city at the time under a false name. Speaking of course no Icelandic, I was to then ask the hotel to find me a "date" for the evening as the company who'd brought me over had made a reservation at a nice restaurant and I didn't like eating alone. There were rumors floating around town that it was fairly easy to hire male prostitutes via hotels if you asked right...
...and could obviously pay the right price.

The concierge obviously had no clue what I was asking for when I checked in, but Fahad encouraged me to keep on pressing in case it was a false front. So I did, saying that every great hotel in the world that I'd been to had access to people who could dine with their solo guests. I suggested that  there was compensation to be had, and especially if the evening went "well." I puffed up a bit and pressed the poor young woman until she broke down and said she'd call her cousin to see if he was available for dinner. A few minutes later she called my room to tell me that he would meet me at the restaurant at 7pm that night.

Here's where it got interesting. I was wired with a mike and mini tape recorder and sent by taxi to Lækjarbrekka where I was seated at the window seat in the photo. After a few minutes' wait a good looking young man in his twenties was shown to my table and we began to chat. He was obviously nervous and even though I was too I wasn't allowed to show it. Thankfully he was easy to chat with, and the hardest part for me ended up being having to pretend I didn't understand a word of Icelandic, and to not accidentally pronounce words like skyr even remotely correctly. Over all we had a very fine meal.

As a matter of fact it went so well that things got tough for me. I was supposed to try to push him farther, to get him to agree to sleep with me for cash money. Did I mention that there was a camera guy across the street filming the whole thing out of his backpack-cam? By dessert, and with a few glasses of wine in us, I was finally gaining the courage to proposition him as a willing buyer of his personal wares. At long last I asked, "Would you be willing to come back to my hotel and sleep with me for...compensation? He looked blank at first, absorbing what I'd just asked, then looked right into my eyes and said what will go down in my history as one of the most charming, sincere and traumatic things I've ever heard. "Oh, well, yes I would like that very much...and you wouldn't have to pay me." My stomach did a flip.

Right then I felt a click against my hip as the mini cassette ran out. I excused myself and went to the ladies, where I turned the tape over, but decided at the last minute not to turn it back on. I went back to our table, took a deep breath, and told my handsome young friend that I had a confession to make. In Icelandic I asked him to stay as normal as possible while I told him what was really going on, because we were being filmed. He blanched, but nodded and let me talk. I told him the whole story. I confessed that he was such a genuinely sweet guy that I couldn't possibly keep stringing him along. He was honestly just the concierge's cousin, and that's it, and I was a fraud.

After one more drink we were smiling secret smiles together and truly having a wonderful time. As some point I'd turned the tape back on and we both slipped back into character to give the tv team some good, juicy stuff to maybe use. He actually asked me on a real date, but told him that I had a boyfriend, who happened to be waiting for me back at the hotel (there was never any possibility that any transaction would take place. I had a signal that I was to give the camera dude when/if I needed him to call me on my cell to give me some emergency excuse to stop the proceedings.) As we stood up from the table I gave him the goodbye my character would give after a failed proposition, but off camera we gave each other a big warm hug and kiss, and went our separate ways.

The show aired in March 2000, and got a lot of press at the time. That was the year that Reykjavik filled up with strippers and exotic dancers from around the world and there were nudie clubs on every other corner, it seemed. Since then they've been made illegal, and a recent push to close down the few remaining "champagne" clubs has made headlines. Here's an article by my friend Paul Fontaine on the situation. I wish I could find a copy of the show online even though my undercover gig didn't make it into the final cut, but no luck.

All in all, though I'm sure there's some kind of escort service up and running here in Reykjavik, I'm glad I ended up just having a very good dinner with a sweet, normal guy who I'll probably, though, never see again.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Dreams



Wandering around Laugavegur on Saturday was really enjoyable. A light, new snowfall still stuck on roofs and trees, glowing in the holiday lights that the city has just put up. Inside the Mál og Menning bookstore my friend Eva Einarsdóttir was signing copies of her new childrens book, Saga um Nótt (the title could easily be translated as 'The Story of Night' but it's actually based on a girl named Saga, and her journey into nighttime Dreamland.) The artwork is by Lóa Hjálmtýsdóttir  who many of you will recognize from The Reykjavik Grapevine. It's a lovely story, sure to become a kids-lit classic.

I worked at Mál og Menning (voted one of the best 12 bookstores in the world by Berlingske Tidinde) one holiday season a decade ago, and I noticed that something was missing in the tourist books section: the book that I would want to buy! Something smallish, colorful, interesting and inexpensive. A year later I started Iceland Eyes, and about four years after that I walked into a random publishers with my basic idea, which he liked. The book, Reykjavik, was published, but at that point the tourist books section had been moved in the bookstore, and my life got more than busy, and more than complicated, so I basically forgot about how Mál og Menning had inspired me.

Ten years along and the bookstore has moved the tourist books section back to where it was, and that book that I had imagined is right there on that shelf, exactly where I'd pictured it. The path my life took to get to there has been fantastic and crooked and unimaginable to the girl I was, straightening and dusting off the books at Christmas time all those years ago.

But that's how manifesting works: visualize, and hold the vision in your mind. Create a prototype to touch and experience, even if it's not perfect. Keep moving forward, tending your idea, but refrain from poking at it! As they say, the seed is taking root even if you can't see the sprout just yet. And then let the Universe work its wonders while you trust that life has an almost magical way of helping your dreams come true : )

Sunday, 17 November 2013

My Sunday in pictures





China Reflections

I'm back from an amazing ten days in Beijing and wanted to put my thoughts down both on what I did and saw, and my general impressions of China.  So here goes...

I <3 BJ
China Knowledge

The first thing to say is this isn't my first experience of the place, although it was my first time in Beijing.  I'm by no means an "expert", but I lived in Hong Kong for 2 years as a child, visited Shanghai more recently, have been involved with a work venture with China (my business partner owns a consultancy business in Beijing), I wrote a 200 page study on Chinese educational travel AND my boyfriend Ste is doing a degree in Chinese.  He's therefore taught me loads about the place.  Oh, I also had a panda teddy when I was 3.  Therefore this post is not entirely ill-informed bollocks.  Just mostly.
What was I doing there?

It was Ste's 21st birthday.  So let's get the cutesy stuff out of the way.  It was so ridiculously, amazingly lovely to see him.  My last blog post, written whilst somewhat tipsy the night before I went, gives some indication of how much I was looking forward to going after a 2 month gap of not being together.  It was every bit as wonderful as I'd hoped.

Katie, Andrew, Ste, Momma Ste, Rocky on our way to the Wall

I was there for 2 days that overlapped with his Mum, brother, brother's girlfriend and his best friend Rocky.  On his actual birthday, when we drove an hour out of Beijing to visit the Great Wall at a place where Chinese, rather than Westerners, tend to go.  In the evening we went for a boat ride on a lake in a traditional part of town called Houhai.

Official 21st birthday photo
Ste was telling me he prefers to have actual "things" than to spend money on travelling or experiences because they're just temporary and pass.  I'm not sure I agree.  You can spend money on a lovely coat or pair of shoes, but will you remember them when you're 80?  I think Ste will remember his 21st birthday by contrast, even if was "temporary and passed".  What an amazing, priceless memory he now has for life of that beautiful, sunny day.   Ste and I had then had 8 days together to hang out, do some touristy stuff and general stuff our faces on our own.

Chinese Politics

The way matters are reported in the West is a little bit like a scratched record.  No story misses the opportunity to portray China in some way as a systematic abuser of human rights: a force of sinister oppression.   We love doing it: there's also some subtle little reminder, just in case we'd forgotten how evil they are, for example in recent BBC reporting on the Third Plenum.

I remember the killings of students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 vividly as they happened.  My constitutional law supervisor at university had a poster on his wall of the tanks and the words "we will never forget you".  I swore never to visit the country until the Communist Party had relinquished its reign of terror.  Let's be clear, the government of the People's Republic of China has done some terrible things in its time.  There's no denying that, and I don't intend to.  If we just take a small example: the 11th reincarnation of the Pashen Laama was named by the Dalai Lama in May 1995: a little 6 year old Tibetan boy.  The Chinese government wanted their own stooge instead, so they appointed him and kidnapped the original boy 3 days after his naming.  He hasn't been seen since and is the "youngest political prisoner in the world".  This is outrageous shit and goes way beyond run of the mill human rights abuses: it's highly inventive if nothing else.

Missing now for 18 years, and 6 months


I do think the situation is a little more nuanced than we like to make out, though.  That deserves some reflection - but if you'd rather just feel all smug, superior and revel in how much better "we" are than them, just skip the next three sections!

Food for Thought

China's recent history (the last 150 years) includes the most brutal experiences of hunger, civil war, foreign invasion, gross political instability and mass famine.  Even in the past few decades tens of millions have starved to death in the country, leading to repeated outbreaks of cannibalism.  The Communist government's Great Leap Forward (1958) led to up to 43 million deaths.  As many as 70 million may have died in total under Chairman Mao's leadership, placing him ahead of both Hitler and Stalin combined, and securing his place as the foremost practitioner of democide in world history.  From our comfy Western perspectives, we can literally have no comprehension of the effect of all this on the contemporary Chinese psyche.  The traditional Chinese greeting (from before Mao's time) is actually "Did you eat yet?" - which speaks volumes.

There is therefore a desperate twin desire for stability and for economic growth.  This the government has achieved with amazing success since Mao's death.  In 1981, some 85% of the vast Chinese population lived in absolute poverty.  This doesn't mean the inability to buy consumer goods: it means the ability to provide a sustenance level of 1000 calories per day to avoid starving to death.  By 2008 this had fallen to just 13%.  Well over 600 million people have been brought out of starvation level poverty during this time as a direct result of the Chinese government's policies.  This quote is taken from a report based on World Bank data that makes very interesting reading:


Look at that second bullet point: "China accounts for nearly all the world's reduction in poverty" and think about it for a moment.  China executes around 4000 people a year (followed in global rankings for state murder directly by the US).  It censors its press.  Political dissenters are clamped down on and often held without trial.  The government thinks it okay to kidnap an innocent 6 year old Tibetan boy.  The internet is monitored and you can't access Twitter.  But not starving painfully to death is also the most basic of human rights.  It is incredibly rare in the West to hear the success of the government in this area even being even mentioned.

Parts of China (particularly in the west) are still pitifully poor by our standards, and apparently resemble parts of Africa in terms of deprivation and development.  There is the most enormous gulf in wealth between them and the bright lights of rich, developed Shanghai or Beijing.  It is like two separate countries in one: one in the first world, and one in the third world.

However, hundreds of millions of people are no longer at risk of famine and death in the poor part, and the economy is ever growing.  So much so, in fact, China has overtaken both Germany and Japan in the size of its economic output, and by some estimates it will have overtaken the US by as soon as 2016.


Modern Day China: a typical view in prosperous Beijing
Given a choice would you choose proper trials and a free press, or prevention of starvation?  I'd like both actually, but I'm not prepared to get on my high horse about the former, without so much as acknowledging the latter. 

Oppressive or Popular Government?

We somehow assume that no one could support a regime that does what the Chinese one does in terms of human rights and that everyone must live in fear of the oppressive government.  I expected Police everywhere, and miserable faces.  This could not have been further from the truth.  It was actually a breath of fresh air after London not to be monitored on CCTV constantly.  The Chinese immigration officers were lovely, in total contrast to the horrendous officious and aggressive UK Border Force.  I wasn't even asked for return tickets: there were just smiles and pleasantness.  It wasn't exactly what I was expecting.

Indeed, I barely saw any Police during my visit.  I felt safe everywhere and wasn't on my guard constantly for petty crime as I sometimes am, even in places like Paris.  After my trip I found out some fascinating statistics on rates of incarceration in various countries.  China locks up 121 people per 100,000 of population.  In Sweden it's 67, in Germany it's 80 and in the UK it's 147 (i.e. more than China, in our case).  That beacon of global democracy, the USA tops the table at a staggering 716 people per 100,000. 

I'm reminded of the fascinating diary, A Woman in Berlin, which was written by a German journalist on her experiences at the end of the War.  There's a reflection in there on her visits to the Soviet Union in the 30s, her stays in Britain, and life under the Nazis.  She herself was a liberal and believer in democracy. Under which system were the bulk of people happier, she asked herself?  They were equally happy, or miserable, wherever they were: they just had different concerns, was her conclusion.

I'm of course well aware that had I been handing out political leaflets, my experience of China would have been very different to that of a person visiting his boyfriend for a holiday.  If you're someone who wants to introduce democracy in China, you're in for a rough ride and your life will probably be not be pleasant.  If you want a job, food, money and to get on with your life, with a genuine belief that the government has your best interests in mind, things will occur very differently.  It was my experience that people on the street in prosperous Beijing seem happy, with many smiling faces.  A miserable, fearful society, it really didn't come across as.

People dancing in public near our hotel: a common sight

Delving into this a bit further, like it or not, surveys do indeed suggest that there is great trust and support for the communist central government, the system, and its way of doing things.  Repeated surveys have shown that the Chinese system is actually equally, or more popular, amongst the population than governments in Western democracies, with support ratings in excess of 80%This article provides some good analysis on that point.  Don't write it off as being people being scared to say what they really think or censorship and a lack of understanding or discussion of the issues, as the piece explains.  It should also be said that there is much wider dissatisfaction with local government, and riots regularly occur across the country, which are then hushed up.

The massive success in providing stability, food, jobs, and the new found wealth of the urban centres in the eastern part of the country, are key to support for and the popularity of the central government and system.   The government is incredibly sensitive to political opinion and knows that its existence relies on continuing to "provide the goods".  It is incredibly fearful of dissent and for that reason clamps down so disproportionally on those who agitate against it and who are regarded as a threat.  It does however listen, and when pollution becomes a source of political unhappiness and comment, actions are taken to quell the problem.

Our Right to Lecture

All this being the case... again, who are we to wade in and lecture, with our insistence on our values, system and standards being imposed?  If the Chinese people want change, this will happen in time.  They are not stupid people, with no voice.  Political comment does occur widely on the internet, but on the whole the bulk of the population is happy with where things currently are.  China has come rapidly from nowhere.  It has been through a process of industrialisation that took us 160 years, in a space of 30 years.  Political change will inevitably follow, but it really isn't for us to dictate how and when that happens.

I therefore honestly don't think we need the snide little comments such as the BBC throwing in the fact that  "political reform was not on the agenda" at the Third Plenum: it was never going to be.  It shows, in my view, a possibly deliberate lack of understanding and an inbuilt arrogance that our system is the superior and the only way of running a country.  As I said before, it's a scratched record whose only purpose is, I imagine, to make us feel superior in some way.

Look out for smiling faces next time you're commuting into London, and then consider our satisfaction with our democratically elected government.  China's record on broader human rights is without question at times horrendously poor, but it has not been involved in invading Afghanistan and Iraq, or indeed any country since Vietnam.  Our democratically elected government has, and the human rights of hundreds of thousands were savaged in those places as a result.  The right to live is the most basic right of all.  It's no wonder the Chinese get a bit fed up of Western judgement and feel people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

In summary, China is dealing with 1.3 billion people, many of whom were quite recently on the edge of death through hunger.  It's hard not to come to the conclusion that despite some the government does a remarkable job of holding this massive country and society together.  The levels of support for the system are again something so rarely touched on over here: I feel to give the whole picture they should be.  So there.  I'll stop lecturing you now if you stop lecturing them :p

What is Beijing Like?

Right, back to some actual holiday reflections.  Beijing is big.  It isn't high and intense like Hong Kong, Shanghai: it's more like a collection of towns that spread over a huge area.  It's more London than New York, I'd say.  It is also prosperous as I've touched on: the cars you see driving round are on the whole more "high end" than here.  There are lots of stretched chauffeur driven cars, and plenty of absurdly expensive models.  There are designer stores all over the place.  It looks as wealthy and developed as plenty of European cities.

That well known American fast food chain

It's weird to see chains you know so well literally all over the place: Costa Coffee, KFC, McDonald's (who deliver on motorbike to your home) and Pizza Hut.  It's a real reminder of how small a place the world is today.  150 years ago you go from one valley to another in Central Europe and there would be a distinct form of local dress.  Nowadays you go to the other side of the world and it's the exact same stuff as here. However, the places I've mentioned don't just do Western food: pizzas are only about 1/5 of the Pizza Hut menu, for example.  The rest is noodles, rice and other dishes that cater to local tastes.  Sometimes places try to be Western and trendy... and erm, it doesn't quite hit the mark.  See the pic above!



Ste in an open air food market.  All very clean indeed.

It's also clean: quite surprisingly so (I remember absolutely filthy parts of HK as a kid).  It's not all modern by any means.  In fact there are loads of Hutong areas with traditional low-rise, old buildings.  People hang out doing things like the woman below.  She randomly turned up outside an old temple, put her music on and started dancing with ribbons.  It was absolutely beautiful to watch.  She was probably about 60. 

Dancing with Ribbons

Both Shanghai and Beijing occurred to me as incredibly capitalist, which might be a strange thing to say given the fact that the country is still ruled by a communist government.  They have long opened the door to private enterprise (at least in the cities) and scrapped basic elements of socialism such as universal healthcare.  The level of individual economic activity can get a bit much: the serenity of beautiful Buddhist temples is ruined by people flogging tacky tourist shit all over the place. It kinda undermines the "do not photograph the statue" signs when there's a stand actually inside the temple selling plastic junk.

Some Comment on the Big Sites

The "big sites" that Ste took me to were the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City,  the New Summer Palace, the Lama temple and Beijing Zoo to see the Pandas.  At times the amount of people visiting, even off-season in November, was oppressive to say the least.  Some Chinese are pretty "self-expressed" (aka loud and bloody annoying) and there aren't too many cultural restrictions on barging your way through, or indeed hawking (making a disgusting gobbing sound and then spitting right in front of you).  I've long realised that's part and parcel of travel though: if you don't like it and want things to be just as at home, stay there.

Doing the Touristy Thing

Some comments on the places we went to follow.  The Great Wall really can't be seen from space.  It's around 5 metres wide, so stop being silly.  It width from the Moon is the same as a human hair viewed from 2 miles away.  Still, it's amazing and one of those places that just takes your breath away to see it real life, it's so familiar from pictures.  It's up there with a very view places in the world, such as the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Great Pyramids, Sydney Opera House and the Statue of Liberty in terms of iconic value.

The Great Wall stretching out behind us

Tiananmen Square was enormous.  Apparently it can hold 1 million people.  This was the only place I noticed Police, because of the recent attack.  Still they didn't threaten or intimidate: they were just there.  Right next to it was the Forbidden City, which is enormous and unfolded square after square.  It was really impressive, though full and quite tiring to get through.  Most parts are beautifully kept and restored: others need a bit of care.

Ste and I being culturally sensitive as ever >.<

Beijing Zoo should probably better be called "Beijing Animal Prison".  It does great work in terms of Panda conservation, but it's a horrible, ageing, nasty place.  I really didn't like it or the way many of the animals were kept.  The Pandas had the best amount of space and there 5 of them.  They're mega cute and have 5 digits plus an extra bone that works like a thumb, so they can munch on their bamboo.  Bonus fact: they crap 40 times a day.


The New Summer Palace is an interesting one.  It isn't actually a palace: it's a set of buildings in an enormous park beside a massive man-made lake.  The huge hill next to the lake is a result of digging out the lake.  I bet you're thinking: hold on, didn't we burn the place down?  Well yes: it's a reconstruction, but in fact the original buildings were only around 100 years old when 3500 British and French soldiers torched them in 1860.  The fact that we did so is emblazoned on literally every information sign on every building that you visit.  You get a bit tired of it the 29th time you read it, and start perceiving it as a bit unnecessarily aggressive.  Apparently it still deeply hurts the Chinese that this happened.

At the most beautiful garden in the Summer Palace

You then do a bit more research and find out why the "Anglo-French forces" did so.  It wasn't purely a case of out of context cultural vandalism.  20 Western hostages including diplomats and the Times correspondent had been kidnapped on the orders of the Empress Cixi.  She was a vicious despotic piece of work, who had a habit of having her son's concubines thrown wells and killed.  The kidnap victims were then ritually executed by "slow-slicing".  That's carefully chopping portions of their limbs off bit by bit, and applying ligatures so they didn't bleed to death, but experienced death over a space of hours.  When their bodies were returned, they were unrecognisable. Empress Cixi's favourite hang-out was the Summer Palace (which of course was out of bounds to any normal Chinese).  Lord Elgin (the marble thief's son) therefore ordered the place torched as retaliation and to warn her not to do this trick again.  He could have rounded up 2000 Chinese and killed them: it wouldn't have bothered her, but this really did.  She spent the following decades rebuilding the place exactly as it was.  Oddly this background isn't ever explained in Beijing.  It throws a slightly different light on matters to know the context, even if it doesn't justify the actions.

Time for a pose: all this thinking about history is a bit *deep*
The Lama temple is actually a collection of beautiful Buddhist temples.  It is far more delicate, spiritual and intimate than the Forbidden City as a place to visit.  People are actually praying and burning incense and it's far less crowded.  I loved it.  Ste was furious that there were no actual Llamas there and said he won't be going back.

Pollution, Veggie Food, and Getting Around

Every photo you see of Beijing in the Western media seems to show it in some dreadful state of smog.  I know from friends who live there that is true for large parts of the year.  But in autumn the air clears and it's beautiful and sunny.  It's very dry air and at this time of year the temperature is dropping rapidly.  It was 17C by day when I was there, 0C by night.  Already a week later it's 9C by day and -4C by night.  I visited at just the right time.  You can expect -20C in winter.

Mutant Ninja Turtle Ste
You see people wandering round with face masks on all over the place.  Ste has one.  Of course his is a designer version.  He didn't actually wear it when he was with me: he's just posing.  Cos that's what we do.

Veggie food is a bit of a nightmare in Beijing.  So much for them having a long Buddhist influence.  I saw one menu with Grilled Lamb Ribs, Grilled Lamb Kidneys, Grilled Treasure (?!?), Grilled Bovine Plate Gluten, Grilled Chicken Gristle, Grilled Chicken Heart and Knee Cartilage on it. Oh yum.  We saw live scorpions on sticks on sale in a food market and this poor thing.  I think it was a turtle, I'm not sure.


It seems the Chinese will eat almost anything.  Given we throw away huge parts of the animal and it's wasted, if you have to eat animals, I guess that's a good thing.  As a vegetarian it's a bit stomach turning though.  So are the few veggie restaurants I found: they were weird buffet things and looked completely unappealing.

At Pure Lotus. Complete bliss.

The one exception was the incredible PURE LOTUS restaurant that my best pal Dominic told us to go to.  It's run by Buddhist monks and is one of the top places in the city to eat, even for omnivores. We each had an 11 course vegan meal.  I've no idea what most of it was, but it was beyond delicious (and heinously expensive too, at £150 with no booze).  Fortunately amazingly generous Dominic said he'd pay as a gift for Ste's 21st.  Thanks, Dom x

Alas the list of things that get eaten in China does include dogs and cats.  There are posters out from animal charities though, such as the below, with a caption that apparently says "do you really want to eat this?".  Note the chopsticks.

Don't eat cats. [Or any animal, Ed.]

Getting round on the metro is incredibly easy, and cheap.  All the signs are in English, the network covers a vast area, it's incredibly clean, modern, and tickets are 20p a ride.  Take note, Boris, you thieving bastard.  Trains come every 2 minutes during rush hour, which is just as well, because that's the only time it's no so much fun.  The concept of a queue really is a bit of a foreign one, and it's every person and their elbows for themselves.

Enjoying the Rush Hour Scramble

Taxis won't generally stop for Westerners, because the drivers can't speak English.  This is annoying when your boyfriend is doing a degree in Chinese and already completely fluent in the language, including the local accent.  They don't know that though, so we had to rely on the metro most times.  The taxis also don't have seat belts and they drive like they've taken rather a lot of hallucinogenic drugs, so I was quite happy with this, all in all.

Well there we go with my MEGA-BLOG on China.  I loved it, all in all.  I'm back out in Beijing in April for another extended visit, and am hoping to get out of the capital and do some day trips next time.  Ste and I have a tradition now of dressing up for stupid photographs and making complete arses of ourselves.  I'll therefore end on our attempt at being dual Emperors - yellow is the Imperial colour and it was reserved just for them.  Many thanks for reading!

Don't we have silly hats on?







































Saturday, 16 November 2013

Hidden



Sorry to burst any bubbles out there in the big world, but as amazing a read as this article is, there haven't been any British anthropologists rescued after a 7-year disappearance into the elven realms. As you can see in the picture above, it is fairly easy to become one with the moss and lava if you're dressed right (can you find the human in the photo?) but there are very few modern reports of Hidden People interactions that we know of.

Unfortunately, it's just easy to permanently damage millennia-old groundcover, seriously twist an ankle, or even slip into a hidden crevice when out in Icelandic nature. I witnessed my former brother-in-law literally vanish while walking a lava field up at Mývatn. He had his baby in a front-facing backpack which made it all the scarier. We'd decided to stop for lunch and walk a few hundred yards from the road to a nice spot over there when poof! he was gone, having stepped on a layer of moss that looked solid enough but just wasn't. Thankfully the fissure was just about as deep as he was tall, and it was wide enough so little Helena didn't get scraped or banged up. We helped him out again, all very shaken and humbled by the experience.

So go gently through nature while you're here. Leave a rock on a cairn along your path to honor the local norn or spirit, pick up random trash you see along the way, and step softly and with care. Stop at some beautiful place and speak words of gratitude for our living island, and maybe, just maybe, the elven realms will open up for you, if only for a moment in time...