Saturday, June 25, 2011

Things Left Unsaid

She puts her marguerita down as gently as possible on the marble surface. But she shudders as the clash of glass and marble draws the attention of the entire pub to their little corner booth. Max chuckles:


"Shut up." she rolls her eyes, but smiles anyway.

His friend Jake pipes up, "So, Max, riddle me this? It's Five-for-Four-Fridays - how come you haven't got a girl on each arm?" The rest laugh, but still look at him questioningly.

With his beer in one hand, he drums his fingers on the table edge. The rhythmic beat is lost in the din of the evening crowd.

"See, guys," he turns to the rest of them, as they all take a swig from their beers and listen. "I'm - " but he pauses. His weathered-eye flicks across the pub to the table near the door. She's sitting there, as she does every friday night, as simply beautiful as she did the first night he saw her. He turns back to his friends, none-the-wiser of his practised, snatched look.

"Well?" blurts Sidney.

"We haven't all year, mate." laughs Marshall, already ordering his third pint of the night. "And neither do the girls!" hinting at a group of sorority girls who are eyeing Max from the bar's counter.

Max smiles, but looks up and around the table. This is his closest circle, his entourage... his friends. The group of people he trusts the most. They look to him, waiting for him to finish his thought, but he can't.


Now, try and follow me here, cause it gets a little dense. We all have our own definitions, or pre-requisites if you will, for friendship. And I don't mean the-guy-that-helped-me-get-laid-in-college sort of friend. I mean the true, honest, through-thick-n-thin sort. The sort that only come along once or twice in a lifetime. So, as these 'pre-requisites' go, most generally agree that true friends know you better than anyone else. You could be the most deceptively hidden and evasive character (like Max), but they would still be able to see past the common, everyday bullshit.

Max (and forgive the overrated, overused example) could be the classic playboy: smooth, suave and clever. But he wishes his friends knew that there was something else to his actions, some deeper motive hidden behind his flat-faced sex-capades. Unfortunately, Max is also not-the-type to share himself that openly. He doesn't want to simply explain his predicament, because that would be against his exterior character - against his self-engineered, outer facade.

So, it boils down to this. Sometimes (and I know I'm not alone here), we wish our own self-exploiting, self-sabotaging attitude wouldn't get in the way of those people around us understanding what we really mean when we say something entirely different - something the rest of the world expects from us - simply because we're not the loud, 2D characters that like to blurt out our inner thoughts and emotions like a cute Coca-Cola advert.

Yeah, there's the obvious solution of just 'saying what we mean', but - quite honestly - we don't want to give up our facade just yet. Why? Maybe because it provides us with some sort of comforting security after a hard-learned lesson. Maybe because we just don't fancy the idea of displaying ourselves for every window-shopper that waltzes past our shop. The reason changes from one person to the next - so don't press it. That may be selfish of us to expect that of our friends, but it's never so much an expectation as a small hope. Sometimes, we all just want to be understood and accepted without having to spell it out, without letting down our guard and without revealing that what Max really wants is the perfect girl to come along. Sometimes, we just wish that those'things left unsaid weren't lost to the ears of our friends and family.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Coming Home

When I was almost three years old, my parents took me to Disneyland Paris. A family trip to get away from Britain - and go to France (don't ask me what they were thinking). For someone that young, I remember it quite well. Rides, characters and shows, it was a real riot!

However, looking back, one ride I could never seem to stomach was that monstrous It's A Small World... What's so cute about an army of disturbing dancing dolls singing the same set of lyrics until it's coming out your ears? Not to mention those terrifying, constant grins painted on their faces. And it didn't matter how happy go-lucky the damn music was, or how many different sets of clothes they were dressed up in or how it was that the untouched native-american dolls could speak and sing in flawless english - you still left without some small part of your soul. And here's the best part: when you'd had enough, when you'd come to your senses, when you'd realized that you might not leave with your sanity intact, you would turn to leave and - whoops. That's right, you're in a goddamn rickety boat stuck in a little horror-moat (the rhyme fits the scene).


It takes a sick mind to devise such a house-of-horrors for poor, innocent children. Damn you, Walt Disney. Stick to caricatures of talking mice, ducks and dog-creatures (what the hell is Goofy anyway?), and leave the real world depictions to Michael Moore (no.... wait).


In any case, I went to DisneyWorld about a year ago now, much older and wiser in the ways of the 'small world' (at least, compared to my two-year-old self). And, waywardly wandering around the Magic Kingdom, I came across none other than the same damned ride. We each stared the other down, circling around like some mexican standoff (except we were in Florida, and I was the only one moving). Finally, I swallowed my fear, summoned my courage and bravely walked in.

Though they may have stopped the ride midway because my brave war-cry was drowning out the dolls' satanic chanting, I damned-well made that ride my bitch. Walking (or escorted) out with my head held high, I bought myself a victory-popsicle from the hairy vendor across the road. However, while sitting down and thoroughly enjoying the sight of a fat Cinderella trying to make it up the castle steps, I could think only of that ride. Is it really such a small world?

When I moved to North America 10 years ago, I hated it and refused to accept it. But this summer, I left my house in Canada, my friends, books and car, hopping a plane bound for Europe. I've traveled for the better part of my life, moved ten times, attended eight different schools, and lived in four different countries on three different continents. And yet, for the first time in memory - I didn't want to leave. Why?


Now I sit here in Germany, having just come back from the pub with an old friend. He fished up that old memory when, after our food had been set down, he turned to me and said:

"So, Alex. You've moved so many times, and you've a German passport, but vhere is home for you?" (in his thick German accent)

I was about to reply, but I paused suddenly - I couldn't answer. Nothing came to mind immediately, as it used to. Instead, I sat there pondering, racking my brains for an answer. An answer, and not to his question, but to why my usual one no longer felt right. A few moments went by, and he could tell I was having a little trouble. He took a swig from his mug of Hefe-Weissbier, wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt and said:

"Ah, mein freund." he chuckled "Now zis becomes an entirely different question. Vhat exactly is a home for you?"

I took a sip of my beer and shook myself awake. What is home? I quote Jack Sparrow:
"That's what a ship is, you know. It's not just a keel and hull and a deck and sails. That's what a ship needs. But what a ship is... what the Black Pearl really is... is freedom."


In the same way, a home isn't just a roof and ceilings, a floor and doors. That's what a home may need, but a home is... what it REALLY is... is something else entirely.

"Home is where I hang my hat", "Home is the place where it feels right to walk around without shoes", "Home is where you can scratch where it itches". But we're all so different, and such a vital things means something so different to each of us that it becomes difficult to find an all-consuming, universal, flexible and adaptive definition - Yeah, way to go, Captain Obvious.


But then we get back to the demon-ride. This world isn't so small when you think about it. Yeah, toss aside the internet, the telephones, fax machines and computers and what do you have? A magnificently colossal world, ripe with unknown places and adventures. I'm not saying toss me a fedora, a whip, a fear of snakes and start calling me Indiana Jones (although I sure as hell wouldn't mind) - but I am trying to say that in this giant world, home is something to be valued and understood.
There are so many great thoughts, ideas and opinions on what Home truly is.

"Home is not where you live, but where they understand you" - Christian Morganstern
"Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to" - John Ed Pearce
"Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in" - Robert Frost

We all need to have our own definitions of home. So as I sat there, running my fingers through my hair, my friend looked at me and said:

"Alex, I don't know about you, but no matter vhere I travel in ze verld, I see my home as some-sing I can come back to. And zis vun sing to come back to, is ze place vhere I have somevun vaiting for me. Somevun who matters a lot." he smiled, holding his mug out to me. I grinned, picked up mine, knocked it against his and we drained them both.

Yeah, I've traveled for the better part of my life. I haven't felt at home since I left the U.K. over ten years ago, and I now understand why it felt so odd leaving Canada this summer. A passport, a piece of paper, cannot tell me (or anybody) where home is.


I've unconsciously made that frozen wasteland my home, through its frigid winters, its sweltering summers and its endless political-correctness. I am by no means Canadian, but neither am I entirely German, South-African or British. I am a world citizen, and my home is in the "true north, strong and free". Why? Because of the people I've come to love and miss.

"A house is made of walls and beams; a home is built with love and dreams." - English proverb


My home is where there are people waiting for me, people who mean something, something strong and often indescribable - and though my travels have only just begun, I'll be back home before long.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Breaking the Mould

The context may change, but the question seems to remain the same. What do you want to be when you grow up?

On my way to Botswana, I stop over in Germany to visit some relatives in the Fatherland. I take a call at my hotel and a thick german accent on the other end asks me if I "vood like to have some-sing for supper". It's been almost three years since I last saw my Dad's family, so I think to myself: Why the hell not? I take the U-Bahn to a small restaurant and cafe looking out onto the Rhine, with a beautiful view of the Petersberg and the Drachenfels. The food's good (albeit a little expensive, but what isn't in Europe?), the dessert's great and the beer's bloody brilliant. The conversation seems to wander everywhere at once, from deteriorating politics to the German behind us with the perma-grin and hideous accent. But eventually, as it always seems to with people my age (no matter the language), comes the classic question: Welche Facher nimmst du in der Schule? (loosely translated - "Which subjects are you studying in school?").


I quickly list off a few of the courses I'm taking. They cock their heads and ask the expected follow-up: Und was machst du damit? ("And what are you doing with that?"). I grin - sardonically, because I know what must surely follow - and calmly tell them. A few forced smiles, a pat on the back, and being Germans with no sense of subtlety, one of them swallows their pride and asks the question that they're all trying hopelessly to suppress:Wie verdienst du Dir damit Dein Auskommen? ("How are you going to make a living with that?").

"The apple falls far from the tree". It's an expression that seems to define my life and follows me like a second shadow. As the eldest son of two respected doctors, med-school was the be-all, end-all and expected pinnacle of my academic career. And it's not as if I arbitrarily tossed the idea aside! I shadowed doctors, from family-clinic to OR, for several days - and neither appealed to me.


To give you an idea why, picture this. I'm following my dad's friend, a GP, for about a week. An elderly patient walks into his examination room near the end of the first day. I'm standing in the back, clipboard in hand, watching and ready to learn. She greets me, shakes my hand vigorously, and takes a seat on the sterilized bed. Dr. John Smith calmly and routinely asks her how she feels. She suddenly and unexpectedly breaks into tears. I'm taken aback, but the doctor keeps his composure and gently puts his hand on her shoulder, asking her what's wrong. She keeps blubbering, making it difficult to tell what the hell she's trying to say. But somehow, again, he understands what she's on about. "Where?" he asks, pulling out a box of Kleenex and handing it to her. She grabs a handful in her wrinkled hands and almost shoves them in her eye-sockets. She then rolls up her sleeve and proceeds to poke her left arm in different places, squealing in pain at every plushy prod. "Doctor," she sobs "I read up on Google that leukaemia manifests with easy bruising, and my entire arms hurts. See?" And she keeps poking and prodding at her arm. "Doctor," she starts to cry again "am I going to die?". Dr. Smith, straight-faced, holds out his hand. She shoots him a confused look, until he quickly asks her for her right arm. "But it's my left!" she explains hurriedly. He nods, and says simply "Your right, please." Through her sobs, she reluctantly extends her right and he slowly grabs her hand. He then gently squeezes her right index finger and she screams in pain, looking at him as if he had just escaped an insane asylum. "You've broken your finger." The good doctor explains, "Give me a minute, while I get my prescription pad and a splint."

Trying (and failing) desperately not to laugh, I think to myself that if I have to spend my life listening to that kind of half-assed, cathartic complaining - I'd end up giving a gun a blowjob by age 30. Maybe that makes me a selfish person, but I believe there's more than one way to help people. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate what it means to dedicate your life to the wellbeing of others. I know better than most that doctors give their lives (not literally, but figuratively) for others. As a kid growing up in the UK, I barely saw my parents. Nannies came and went, as my parents spent days at a time at the hospital just to keep food on the table - not for a third BMW. However, medicine isn't for me. Both my parents admit that medicine is no longer the noble profession it once was. Lawyers and giant firms sit on the sidelines scrutinizing your every case, waiting and hoping for that one tiny mistake that they can screw you for. Medicine's no longer a calling, my dad often says, it's become a membership card.


So, back to the dinner table, the entire table looks at me wide-eyed as I explain my reasoning. Jaws drop as I explain my career-intentions. For Christ's sake, I'm not selling my body! (Although it would probably pay better...) My Grandmother swallows her cheesecake and manages to say "Aber, deine Eltern, sie sind beide Artzte!" (But your parents are both doctors!).

Yeah, in a way, I'm breaking the mould. My mum was born and raised in an apartheid South Africa, drilled ad nauseum to believe that she was worth less than a bottle of scotch. She was expendable; existing only to perform the menial tasks deemed below the Whites. Her family, a tight-knit bunch, never strayed from their own race, let alone the country itself. But, where most of her family was limited to teaching, she worked her ass off and was accepted into med-school, as a non-white woman in a paternalistic, apartheid system. Not only did she become a widely respected anaesthetist, but she married my dad: a towering, white, pure-bred German who had disobeyed his class-conscious, neo-conservative family by running away to marry my mother. They weren't supposed to meet, let alone marry, but those two rebels have been married over 20 years now and from that point of view I have to ask myself: am I really breaking the mould?