Friday, May 30, 2008


Earlier this week I was awoken from my sleep by the sound of the falling rain. Before fully surfacing into consciousness my instinctive reaction was to feel around me to ensure that my possessions weren't touching the walls of the tent and thereby letting the water in. Then I realised that I was in my bed, in my home and not in a tent in a random field trying to look unobtrusive. It was a startling reminder of how my trip has changed me.

Now that I have been back a few months I can see the ways in which I am different and act differently than before. Of course it's difficult to evaluate such things from such an up-close standpoint, but I hope I'm being honest with myself. Firstly I feel I am far more phlegmatic, at least towards other people and external factors out of my control. I am far less likely to let things bother me - a delayed train, torn clothes, annoying kids, shit weather, flat tyre and other minor mishaps I take in my stride. Similarly I think I am less judgemental than I used to be, having on numerous occasions had to change my views of people and places once I had gotten to know them better (this really infuriates my dad who feels he can't get a single opinion out of me as I evade his questions with caveats and conditions).

I also find myself more open towards people and more willing to go to them to try and help them out. Before I wouldn't hesitate to help someone if they came up to me and asked for it, but now I will actively offer if I see someone who I think is in need of help. Not that I am trying to make out that I am some sort of saint, but so often have I been given a helping hand when I least expected it, with no questions asked and nothing expected in return, that I know what a positive effect that can have on a persons day, regardless of how small the act is. The world can certainly do with more random acts of kindness (such as the one at the start of this post).

During my trip I was lucky enough to see first hand some amazing natural landscapes as well as the damage and degradation being done to it. I therefore feel far more responsible towards the environment in my actions and decisions I take (although I'm far from being perfect). I've also become evangelical in trying to persuade people to be more environmentally aware in their everyday lives by, for example, reusing plastic bags, switching off appliances, trying to recycle and so on. However it's difficult to be forceful with people you don't know that well and so my attentions are often focused on my brother who, I feel, doesn't understand the urgency of the situation, which leads to stalemated arguments where I accuse him of being uncaring and selfish and he retaliates by saying I'm not practical and far too idealistic. And this is where I feel very pessimistic about the future, because if people as intelligent and well educated as my brother, who have been educated about the various environmental problems that beset our planet from an early age and have the means to make lifestyle changes still do not do enough, then there is little hope for people who have not been educated, and struggle just to survive, to make those changes. And I am not holding up my brother as some evil or callous person, quite the opposite is true, but he is symbolic of the apathy and dislocation that are far too common in our society. In western Europe especially, we are far removed from either hardship or nature in a pure, unadulterated form. It's a shame because, despite being an atheist (and proud of it), I had several moments that are best described in English as religious experiences. All occurred when alone in the middle of some expanse of wilderness with the only sign of humanity the thin, indistinct trail leading off in front and behind me. It is impossible to fully describe the feeling of awe, and respect, and warmth, but the (natural) world becomes more precious to you (not that this means I will become a hermit and live in a cave somewhere). And since we rarely have the opportunities to make these connections ourselves our view of the world is only half of what it should/could be.

Not that I have an answer or anything - you can't just ask everyone to walk off into the wilderness so that they may find your epiphany. Now if you'll just excuse me, I'm off to be morose in the corner.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Older, But Not Necessarily Wiser

The reunion turned out to be quite a success. In all over twenty of us came down for the weekend, some even bringing friends and partners. Like all good French soirées this one started with an apéro replete with wine, beer and songs. And even though when we were in school we were divided along cliqueish lines (like all schools there was the cool clique, the slacker clique, the basketballers, etc.) when we got together now we got on really well and had much more in common than before. After a good deal of carousing in a park bandstand (the classic meeting point from our days at school) the evening moved to a restaurant, then a bar, and then another. Well suffice to say that the entire evening was great fun and that I wasn't feeling particularly bouncy the next morning.

Apart from the changes in people, the town itself had been given a bit of a makeover with the centre receiving a glitzy refurbishment with lots more pedestrian areas and a bright, new central plaza. In fact, pretty much the only thing that hadn't changed was my French. My friends pointed out to me that me that my slang was rooted in the late 90's and was so "has been". (It took me a while to understand what they were saying as they were pronouncing it 'asbiiin and I wasn't expecting an anglicism to slip into the notoriously chauvinistic French language.) Apparently there's a whole new lexicon (especially internet related) that has come out in the past decade of which I am completely unaware.

Anyway, it was great to renew those old friendships and connections as school days are a special time and there are very few people you can share those memories with.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Auld Acquaintance

Last year, whilst on the home leg of my trip (I think it was in Albania), I was watching the film Grosse Point Blank. In a nutshell it's about a contract killer returning to his home town for his 10-year high school reunion. This got me thinking about my own high school days and how next year (i.e. this year) it would be 10 years since I had left school.

The seed had been sown and soon after returning I decided to set about trying to organise my own class reunion (an entire high school reunion would have been crazy as each year group had over 500 pupils and I didn't know many of them). There were two immediate problems to the exercise: I was now living in London and yet I went to school in the south west of France, so finding and contacting my old classmates would be more difficult, and secondly the whole concept of school reunions isn't very common in France. Nevertheless I started by contacting my high school friends that I'm still in touch with to get their opinions on the idea. Initial feedback was positive and so I went ahead with the task of finding the rest of my classmates, mainly by trawling through the internet. Once I had found a few people it snowballed from there and in the end I managed to find 35 of the 38 former pupils.

Despite my happy memories of Pau it seems that people were itching to leave, with only 5 still living in the area, and some having moved as far afield as Ireland and Norway to get away; but now, this weekend, we are returning again to our old stomping grounds, some of us for the first time in several years. Personally I am curious to see how much we have changed and what we have become in the intervening 10 years (although I don't expect any of my former classmates to be assassins I'm sure there will be plenty of interesting stories). And with that I'll leave you with our class photo from 1997 (see if you can spot me).

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Getting To The Root Of The Problem

There are distinct advantages of living at your parents' house: cheap rent is one, and cheap rent is another (I know that technically this is just one point, but it's such a big one that I thought I'd mention it twice). Now that I'm "home alone", as it were, I have had several responsibilities thrust upon me, the most onerous of which is tending the garden.

When my father left last month he left instructions that I should dig out a pernicious patch of brambles at the back of the garden "with the roots" so that they wouldn't grow back. What he failed to tell me was that bramble roots can extend to over half a metre underground. So there I was heaving and ho-ing for the best part of Monday trying to get the buggers out and although I got most of them I'm sure there are a few blighters left that will survive to reclaim their patch of the garden and I will be, once again, forced to do battle with them. Not something I'm particularly relishing as the battle against nature is a race against the Red Queen and not one you can win.

Despite having often waxed lyrical about the beauty of the great outdoors and unspoilt wilderness I'll also be the first to admit that I am an urbanite at heart (I'm too pragmatic to be able to overlook the advantages of public transport, readily accessible amenities and cultural establishments) and am lacking the gardening passion which seems to grip the rest of the country. It might possibly have something to do with my aversion to trying to tame nature, preferring to let it be; or perhaps my general laziness and aversion to doing any work unless it's strictly necessary.