Archived entries for Relatives

From outside toilets to origami

It’s been a busy few months, which for the most part were spent helping to organise a conference and all the associated chaos therein. There were no major disasters, fortunately. The exhibition stand didn’t fall on anyone, nobody got agressive during the debate and there were no paper-cut injuries from delegates rushing to pick up a report still warm from the printer (“My apologies, sir, we’ll get you a bandage; it looks like you’ve cut yourself on ‘Preventing Injuries at Work’.”).

We’ve been settling into our new flat, helped greatly by Zoe’s parents, who came over for a few days and transformed the place from a rather disorganised, space full of boxes and clothes to a welcoming living quarter with pictures on the walls, proper kitchen tools and even homemade curtains.

They’ve even cleaned up the outside toilet on our balcony. Outside toilets have always for me been dark and scary places. I had an outside toilet in the house I grew up in, and I’d regarded it as the sort of unappealing place to which I might go only if I really, really needed to. Even then, shivering from the cold wind blowing all around, it was all but impossible to get anything constructive done. You’d need to go in there with the sort of reckless urgency which is usually followed by a white-knuckled gripping of the toilet seat and at least one return journey.

The toilet on our balcony is now so clean and sparkly, people will be queuing to use it.

Even the spare room is looking warm and inviting, now with curtains and a bookshelf. This is a good start, because in most houses, the spare room often falls into the same category as the outside toilet: one of The Lonely Places. It’s the sort of place you go into, and don’t quite know what to do once you’re in there. You put your bag on the bed, maybe take your jacket off, and then…what? Wander over to the window, perhaps. Look at the bed. Have a peek into the cupboad (“Yep. Empty.”).

Maybe there are a few books in there, but you can almost guarantee that they’re not going to be the thrilling page-turners you’re hoping for. Try as you might, ‘Adventures in Origami’ just doesn’t keep you gripped until the last page. In fact, by the time you get to ‘Crouching Frog’ the book’s back on the shelf, and you’re starting to inspect the cupboard in the manner of the quietly insane.

Then, of course, someone calls you down for tea, or a glass of wine, and you’re reminded once more of what makes a house a home: The smells in the kitchen, the photos, the alarming crashing sound as Grandad trips over the cat again.

We’d like to forget the Forty-Seven Laws of Paper Folding and concentrate on the sort of charm and character that makes places feel like home. We’re getting there.

 

 

 

 

Towards the Eternal Conversation

Well, if 2008 was the Year of Facebook, it looks like 2009, judging by what everyone’s been talking about during the first few weeks, will become the Year of Twitter. As much as I like new technology, however, there are certain limits to what I consider to be the sort of useful applications which actually make life that little bit easier, or a bit more fun, which is why I haven’t really “got” the Twitter craze. It escapes me in much the same way that I never felt the need for mobile phone  ringtones. Why bother? You either pick up within two seconds, in which case it’s not so much a “ringtone” as just a “ringt-“. Let it play and by the time we’ve all appreciated your electronic, tinny-sounding rendition of a song that wasn’t much good to start with, the caller has lost patience and hung up. It’s the same thing with those little desktop gadgets you get which tell you what the weather is like; you can click on it to open a new window on your computer or you could, hang on…just open the real window and look outside!
For me, Twitter falls into the same category, into a drawer marked, ‘What’s The Point?’. The buzzword seems to be “microblogging“, the New Thing To Do, which is essentially about publishing short text updates about what’s going on in your life. Each entry is a “status update”, or ‘Tweet“, some of the new terms for telling everyone how you’re doing.

Why, though? Surely this will lead to us all becoming like that mad old man in the train station who mutters to himself about everything that he’s doing because he’s convinced that German spies are still listening in to his every word:

“I’m just sitting down on this bench now.”

“I had chip sandwiches for tea last night, you know.”

“Status code Red, Sergeant! Target seen purchasing a suspicous item, codename “Flapjack”. Ready to roll out the next phase of Operation Platform Three. Stand by, gentlemen.”

The point here is that that something like Twitter doesn’t offer you the sort of social feedback that you would get if you said these sort of sentences in real life, to real people. Without the human checks and balances that let you know when and whether something is worth saying, what’s left is simply a license to report everything that goes on, no madder how mundane or trivial, because it’s been marketed as What the World Wants To Know.

If you believe the hype, your old friends are eager to hear that you got to bed at 2am last night; your distant relatives are now back in touch, thanks to this marvel of modernity, and can rejoice in the news that you’re away right now in your third meeting this morning, “LOL”.

It seems like there’s a sort of dichotomy going on at the moment when it comes to people who are connected to the Internet. On the one hand, everyone seems to be so concerned about online privacy, and about just who has access their personal information, whether they can accept the content of their emails being monitored and so on.

Yet on the other, people are only too willing to divulge their personal lives, whether this is broadcasting information about themselves via their personal profiles on social networks, uploading and tagging their photos, their videos, or, most recently, reporting their every actions and thoughts at regular intervals, all day, every day. You could argue that this latter sharing is “controlled” by the people using the service, but it affects other people “outside the loop” as well. We’ve all, I’m sure, met people who have been told that they are “on” Facebook, even if they themselves have never signed up to the service, because they’ve been tagged in a photo, a video, or somewhere in the maze of all that user-generated content that makes up today’s online communities.

The sheer volume of information that we upload to these sites seems to me to be less about control and more about something opposite, an almost uncontrollable urge to communicate as many things about our lives to as many people as possible.

So what’s next, after “microblogging”? With the way things are going, my guess is that the next phase will be “Omniblogging”, in which users forget even the discreet pauses between updates, until what’s left is just a constant, unedited online stream of consciousness, from every device, all the time, about everything.

By the way, have you heard about that other resource they’ve been keeping quiet about all this time? It’s being used all around the world, by millions of people on a daily basis, and what’s more it’s also completely free to use: it’s called “Silence”.

Silliness in Strasbourg

Well, it’s the last Strasbourg session of 2007 and things have been pretty exciting. I like the journeys down here, it’s a chance to get away from the office and also I get to see my former colleagues in the parliament’s press service from when I did work experience there earlier this year. This time around I went out with them to a Wok restaurant, which was interesting because I’ve never been to one before. Those of you who are related to me (let’s hope I haven’t just addressed the entire readership of this blog…yes, hello Mum!) will be relieved to here that I didn’t crack any of the jokes that were going through my mind as the kitchen lads were cooking the food in front of me, for instance: “Woking hard tonight?”….”I suppose it’s all Wok no play around here”….and the rhetorical, “Could you tell me, wok’s the point of this restaurant?”

Yesterday the charter of fundamental rights was signed, and the speeches by the leaders of the commission and the European council were heavily disrupted by protests from UKIP and Tory MEPs demanding a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, as I wrote about here. Shortly after the commotion I went to get a sandwich from the bar nearby, and I got chatting with deputies Michael Cashman (of former Eastenders fame) and Arlene McCarthy about what had just happened. Cashman said that he felt that they had behaved like little children, and I had to agree, it was a pathetic attention-seeking gesture by people who are supposed to be senior politicans. I couldn’t help noticing though how helpless the parliament’s president was; surely, if he’s the one in charge, it shouldn’t be an issue for him to get them removed for disorderly behaviour. Instead he simply banged his gavel and pleaded with them to show some respect to the visiting Portuguese prime minister, because as he said later in a press conference, that’s all he’s entitled to do. The president did however say that there might possibly follow some amendment to the rules of procedure, and I hope so too. Yesterday’s lack of order made the European parliament sessions in Strasbourg seem even more like the “travelling circus” that the tabloids have branded it. 

Familiarity

I’ve started my adventure in Brussels and today’s post, ladies and gents, is on the topic of familiarity. I’ve just spent a really good weekend in London meeting some old friends, some I’ve known for less than a year and others who I’ve known for at least the last ten years. I met some of their friends, all of whom were instantly welcoming, and it was interesting to meet some of the people I’d heard about in the stories told by my friends from home, during university holidays.

I’d been to Brighton the night before, a place I’m beginning to get to know better, and even though London is quite intimidating it’s still obviously British in character.

Arriving in Brussels on the Eurostar, was a bit of a shock, for suddenly I knew nobody and nothing was familiar. I was relieved at how quickly things started to become familiar, however. I started speaking French with the taxi driver, which was a source of comfort as I’ve been brought up going to France on family holidays, and spent last summer living and working in Bordeaux.

I checked into the Youth Hostel, and then took a taxi to drop off my heavy luggage at the house where I’ll be living for the next five months. I told the driver where I wanted to go and tried to show him the address on a printed email, but after about twenty minutes of driving he asked me to give him the address again, and then realised he’d be heading for a similar-sounding street in the wrong direction. It was alright, though, because he reset the taxi meter and then started talking in a lively manner about how he absolutely had to be finished by 6pm or else his wife would be angry. I was trying my best to understand and respond to the French, but secretly I was just willing him to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel.

That evening I went to a St David’s Day reception hosted by the Welsh Assembly, although I arrived only in time for the after-speech food and drinks. In the crowd there was a surprising absence of Welsh, and of familiar accents. Obviously I wasn’t expecting the unmistakeable sound of Maesgeirchen to come drifting (or rather, charging) across the floor, but the sounds of somewhere in Gwynedd would’ve been nice. I didn’t know anyone there, so I ended up randomly introducing myself to a few people who looked about my age. I met a political researcher and a couple of interns who were really friendly; they gave me their contact details and invited me out for drinks once I’d got settled in Brussels.

Yesterday I thought I’d better try and explore a bit of the city, so I wandered around the centre, with its shops, and unwittingly tried out the metro during the rush hour, which was heaving (“I am not a wall, Monsieur”). I had a new room-mate in the YH, Nicolas from Paris, so we went for a drink last night. He told me that if I want to sound more French I need to speak in a more monotone accent (“Ton accent, c’est trop vivant”), and I told him that yes, it’s true, there are people in Britain who really do enjoy Marmite.

 

 

 

 

Gifts of a different kind

sunrise-from-ysbyty-gwynedd.jpg

It’s been a good day today, a day of simple pleasures.

A short bike ride to the beach with my Dad, cruising along the track that runs parallel to the sand. The wind is cold but the sun is out, and the hills are a vivid green in the distance.
Enjoying a quick BLT sandwich in the cafe and catching up with some friends in the village.
I’m doing well, thanks. So where have you moved to now? Working in the power station, is he?
Then an afternoon in the pub with an old schoolfriend I haven’t seen for a whole twelve
months, lots to report from both sides. Leaping from April to October then back to July as
tales are told, characters are quoted and conclusions are drawn. In lowered voices we
exchange the most daring jokes we’ve heard since the last meeting, the ones which make you gasp but leave you grinning.

I’ll be writing to say thanks for the book vouchers, of course, but it’s moments like these
that I’m really grateful for.



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