At the weekend, I went to London. For lunch on the Saturday, I ate at my favourite okonomiyaki restaurant this side of Tokyo. In fact, I don’t know of any other okonomiyaki restaurants in the UK. When I lived in Japan, okonomiyaki was one of my favourite dishes (joint with chilli raamen and perhaps just above tsukune – also known as duck balls).
Okonomiyaki – also known as cabbage omelette – but it is so yummy
The seating in this restaurant was like no other I have come across in the UK. The main dining area is in a square horse shoe shape around the centre. The seats themselves are quite high. They are more like benches than seats as such, They have a lid. On arrival you are asked to place your your coat and bag inside the seat. Then you sit on the lid and, as the seats are quite high and unless you are six feet tall or above, you dangle your feet down.
So when I did this, I felt an odd sense of comfort. I thought weirdly about this. After two minutes of deep contemplation I concluded that this comfort is a Proustian / Freud uncanny-childhood-memory thing. I reasoned that I liked the sensation of dangling my feet because as a child, my feet always dangled wherever I sat. It was lovely to sit and dangle. I really did feel comforted.
I now have just two days left to live. By that I mean, just two days left to live in Shrewsbury and the weird thoughts are flowing at the moment.
I am currently obsessed with repetition. I am looking at the philosophical notion of repetition in my artwork for my fine art degree and it spills over into my everyday life. When something happens to me that is related to repetition, I analyse it, consider it, churn it over and write about it.
Today, I have been considering the end of repetitions and how this, in particular, is affecting me.
The repetitions that will end in two days are:
Taking the children to their school in this town, something I have been doing for over eight years
Waking up in the house and drinking coffee before getting up
Going through the daily rounds of breakfast, lunch, dinner, sitting, watching, working, sleeping, reading, playing, bathing, weeing, pooing in this house
Cycling to town to have coffee
Cycling to Sainsbury’s to have coffee
Calling children from downstairs to come and get their breakfast, lunch, dinner and / or shoes on
Falling asleep in this bed in this room
These things will be carried out after Monday, just no longer here. I will never, ever again, after Monday, wake up in this bed in this room looking at the fireplace I can see in front of me, listening to the traffic going up and down Monkmoor Road. That repetitious act which I have experienced almost every morning for over eight years will end abruptly on Monday and I can never go back.
What I can see, right in front of me and soon that will be gone.
How does that make me feel?
The answer: extremely anxious.
The paradox is, though, that even though non-returnable change makes me feel terribly frightened I would not want to look back on my life from my death bed and see that I haven’t moved, travelled, changed, evolved or experienced during my lifetime. If I was never to move – I’d still be in Stafford right now (or, strictly speaking Upton-upon-Severn but I don’t remember living there). I’d not have experienced the wonders of a Japanese funeral, dressed as Father Christmas for a Japanese pre-school, sampled space cake in Amsterdam (I didn’t inhale though, honestly), worked with the likes of Margaret Drabble and Simon Winchester in Oxford, discovered the beauty of the supply and demand curve in Exeter, sky-dived in South Africa (nah, that one is made up) and met many, many other interesting people along the way.
Me being Father Christmas in Japan.
So, how do I reconcile this anxiety / desire-for-new-adventure dichotomy as I stand on the precipice of change?
The only way is to push through the pain, hold my nose, jump and accept the anxiety and grief, and trust that things will be ok whatever happens to me next. I will develop new repetitious acts: the children still need to go to school, they still need feeding and I will, of course, still need to wake up every day.
This weird thought came to me while watching Celebrity Big Brother. The current series of Celebrity Big Brother is all about contestants from the UK competing against ones from the US. In the episode I was watching, all of the contestants were singing the British National Anthem (not sure why). I realised watching this that I don’t know all of the words to the National Anthem and that I’d also find it quite tedious to have to stand and sing it (it is after all, quite a dreary song). Should I not admit that? Is that treacherous? So why does hearing that rather famous tune not stir something in me? Why don’t I feel pride for my country?
I think my lack of patriotism started once I lived abroad. I have twice been the ‘other’, I have been an immigrant. I know what it is like to be a guest in another country. So I don’t think this country is particularly special for two reasons: there are many other special countries out there and we are letting ourselves down at the moment in not promoting what I would argue is one of the most traditional Britishness values, namely, an ability to embrace diversity.
The first time I lived in another country, the Netherlands, I had a very positive experience. I felt very welcomed there. While living there, I was struck by how small Britain in fact is in the world (I think as we grow up we imagine our homes to be much larger than they are) and how unremarkable the British identity is if compared with others. Before then, all I’d known is what I had grown up with. During that year, I lived with and befriended, people from many other countries including Norway, Sweden, Spain, the United States and Russia. Everyone came with their own cultural identity and assumptions. During that year, I learnt first-hand how interesting and diverse the other cultures I came across were and how, ironically, boringly similar we all were even though we’d had very different upbringings. I was also struck by how relatively uninterested everyone else was in Britain. I don’t know why but I expected them to be more interested. Their relative disinterest was, in fact, very normal. They were equally as interested in Britain as they were in Spain, Norway or Russia for example. We were all equally interesting and different and equally boring and normal.
The world’s centre in my mind shifted from the UK to some unknown place, somewhere near Europe. It was as if a giant camera had moved away from Stafford, Staffordshire, the Midlands, England, the UK and towards somewhere in the sea. Somewhere not too far away. I realised that my culture wasn’t a barometer with which to measure others against. There were lots of barometers, all equally as valid.
A city of bikes and many nations
The Netherlands isn’t hugely different from the UK. I blended in well once I had my bike. I was even twice mistaken for being Dutch. I learnt a lot by this experience. It opened my mind to the possibility of difference and acceptance. I am still friends with many of those people from Norway and America (I’ve lost touch with some of the others). I gained life-long friends.
My next experience of living abroad took me further away from any childhood feelings of patriotism towards the UK. Spending two years in Japan after I graduated from university teaching English turned me from an insider to an outsider. The change was sudden and remarkable. The rug was pulled from below my feet. I was visually different. It gave me a very important insight into what it feels like to be in a minority in a country that is fiercely proud of its heritage. Japan was a wonderful country to live in for two years and I had a very positive experience there. I treasure that time and I made more life-long friends while I was there too (just look at my Facebook friends list). So even more than in the Netherlands, In Japan I came to realise how small and insignificant Britain is and how ordinary British culture is. Japan has a very strong cultural tradition. Towards the end of the two years I felt some of that love for Japanese history myself.
My camera of the centre of the world shifted further away from Europe and settled somewhere over Asia, or just off the coast.
Iwatsuki, Japan – my home for two years
Returning to the UK after two years away, I saw the UK with fresh eyes and noticed how diverse it is. I suffered from reverse culture shock. I could see that the people of Britain also feel a strong cultural heritage, as strong as Japan’s, but it is an internationally-inspired one rather than a narrow one. There isn’t much that originates from the piece of land we live on, it is mostly from beyond the sea (even as far back as from invaders from France, Norway, Denmark, Rome, and Ireland). Much also comes from our imperialist, expansionist past when we invaded others (something we should not be proud of). Just looking at the history of the English language will illustrate this. We don’t speak English in the UK, we speak a hybrid of lots of different languages.
If we have such a diverse cultural and racial heritage, what is a British identity? If I take my husband as an example. He’s lived most of his life in England, he was born and brought up in Wales, and he’s a quarter Italian. I’m not sure where he would place himself. He works with mostly Americans so some of his speech and tastes are from across the pond. He’s a real Heinz 57.
My youngest is one sixteenth Italian – the question is, which bit?
So I find it quite ironic now that so many people of this diverse land feel such strong a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ when issues regarding visitors to this country come up in the news. There is quite a sense of hostility to people coming to live here (interestingly, in 2011 students were the largest category of immigrants – people such as me moving to Amsterdam). It is the people who come here to live, work and study that have made and continue to make British culture what it is. Our culture is a patchwork quilt of different flavours, traditions, behaviours and norms. Having been a visitor to another land I feel saddened that we are not more welcoming. Traditionally, we have been a very welcoming country. Where has that tradition gone?
I would say that the British identity is best described by the word ‘eclectic’. This is also a good word for our culture. It is a mix. It is a bundle of all sorts. It is the drawer where we put all those things we don’t know where else to place (or in this house, the dish). People from Britain are known for their eccentricity and individuality. Why? Because bits of us come from all over the world. This is something we have in common with our American cousins. Ask any American: where are you from? They will respond with ‘I’m part Lithuanian, part Swede and a little bit French’. So this diversity of racial history should be reflected in our tolerance of those from other lands who choose to come to live here. I am not very patriotic because I feel quite ashamed of some of the explicit (and implicit) intolerance I hear about and read about in the press and on social media. It is sadly ironic given that we are a nation made of up so many diverse nationalities dating back thousands of years.
So this is why perhaps I don’t feel particularly proud to be British. I have been that visitor. I want to be part of something that is more caring and sharing. I want us to welcome visitors as the Dutch and the Japanese welcomed me. I would like to feel proud of this country because there is a lot to love about it, including roundabouts.
Roundabouts – quintessentially British?
I do, however, feel proud to be perhaps a little eccentric and 100% pure-bred Heinz 57.
A very British American invention
And as a final thought: where does the word ketchup come from?
This is the weird thought I had this morning. Being in a caravan in West Wales for a week reminds me of life in Japan for a number of reasons. I wanted to think of ten but I could only come up with six.
1. It is cold in the morning.
Caravans have very thin walls, as do Japanese apartments. So when I am in a caravan, as when I lived in Japan, it is always cool in the mornings. Actually, now I have just typed that I realise that that isn’t at all true. It was always cool in the mornings in Japan except during the months of June to September when it was hot in Japan 24-hours a day. Japanese summers are intense with temperatures of the mid-30s in the height of summer and little respite during the night.
This is how cold it was most mornings in Japan
A caravan vibrates and rattles as did my Japanese apartment. In a caravan this is caused by children moving around at the other end of the dwelling. In Japan this was caused by small earth tremours. At first I found these quite alarming. By the second year in Japan being woken up by rattling books at 3am was rather annoying.
3. Rooms have more than one purpose.
Some caravans have a living room that doubles up as a bedroom. In the caravan I am in at the moment my youngest child is being transferred from the master bedroom to the sitting room at night to sleep. So every night before I go to bed I have to turn the sitting room into a bedroom and every morning I have to return it to a sitting room. When I lived in Japan my apartment consisted of three rooms: kitchen, bathroom with toilet and main room. I lived and slept on a futon in the main room so every morning I had to fold up my futon and turn my bedroom into a sitting room.
This is not my apartment but looks scarily similar
4. Sound travels.
Caravans have thin walls (see above), so sound from outside (and inside no doubt) travels. The same applies to Japanese apartments. I tried to be quiet when I lived in Japan. The cicadars outside of my apartment were not so considerate.
This is twice as big as my Japanese apartment
5. Space is precious.
Caravans are not houses. They aren’t designed to be lived in long term. This caravan I am in right now is twice as big as my Japanese apartment. But despite that, the similarity between the two is that space is precious. I didn’t have much space in my Japanese apartment. I think many people who haven’t lived or visited Japan would be quite shocked at how little space I had. In fact, when I first arrived at my apartment in Japan I opened the patio doors in the main room (which I thought was the sitting room) expecting to find another room (a bedroom) only to find that I was back outside. I had to be a master at clever storage and also good at resisting new purchases. The kitchen was tiny so any cooking I did in my kitchen was simple (toast). I went food shopping daily rather than weekly.
6. Japan looks like Wales.
This isn’t at all caravan related but I will sneak this one in because this is my blog entry. The first time I travelled out of urban Japan and towards the countryside I was reminded of family holidays in Wales. This similarity was bizarre. Much of Japan is mountainous and rural. It really does look like Wales.
Is this Japan or Wales?
So if you can’t afford to go to Japan, just book yourself a week in a caravan in West Wales. It isn’t that dissimilar.
This was a weird thought I had today, watching my cat use her right paw to drink milk from one of my children’s abandoned cereal bowls. So of course I googled ‘left-handed cats’. Why wouldn’t I?
I was amazed to find that not only do you get left-handed cats that the chances are, if you cat is a boy he will very likely be left-handed. This article explains. Apparently, left-handedness in cats comes from exposure to testosterone. As a leftie (or predominately leftie), this hormone issue interests me. Does this apply to humans too? The internet seems to think that the reason for human left-handedness is different, for us it comes from genes (although they aren’t sure which ones) rather than hormones (this might explain why two of my three children are also left-handed).
I bet you he’s a boy
Only 10% of the human population (as opposed to 50% of the cat population) are left-handed and we are prone to the following:
dyslexia, ADHD, IBS and other mood disorders
a tendency to vote for left-handed politicians (Barack Obama)
sporting ability (many tennis players are left-handed)
This is a weird thought I had the other day after watching ten weeks of Big Brother, the programme on which the participants seem to swear an awful lot. Earlier that day I had had to explain to my children (who during the school holidays seem to know when I want to watch Big Brother) yet again that swearing that much is ‘not what most people do’ and isn’t something they should do.
The house where swearing is expected
So later that evening I asked my husband: do people swear more than they used to? To which he replied with a high level of certainty ‘no’. I disagreed with him. We debated the issue for about ten minutes (without swearing) and finished the evening in disagreement.
I don’t recall people swearing much when I was at school, or when I went to University, or when I started work. I don’t remember my friends and fellow teachers swearing when I lived in Japan (in Japanese or English). My colleagues at Oxford University Press rarely let out a rude word (although Simon Winchester memorably shouted a very bad expletive at me once in a fit of temper over coffee – not about the coffee).
The man who wrote a book about the OED uses colourful language
So, despite what my husband thinks, as far as I see it, people seem to swear a lot more now in the year 2014 than I remember before this current century started. But am I imagining it? Are people really more free with the f-word than they used to be? Or am I suffering from a selective memory?
One conclusion might be that now people use bigger swear words than I remember from my childhood. I recall my mum once calling Nicholas Parsons ‘that bloody man’ (although I can’t remember what he did to provoke that comment). At that time I felt very shocked at her colourful choice of adjective to describe the host of Sale of the Century. I also remember people at University saying ‘shite’ a lot (at first I thought it was a regional thing that hadn’t reached Stafford) but I don’t think I heard that biggest of all swear words (you know, the one that begins with the letter f) much.
I booked this bloody man in for an ultra sound once when I was a temp
I haven’t really felt much need to swear in my life except perhaps when someone is about to crash into my car or after I bump my head. Even then I only say what might be considered a relatively mild word – shite without the e. I can’t even type a bad word. Perhaps it is me that isn’t normal?
Psychologists will tell you that swearing is not only normal and commonplace, it is healthy. It provides a release of tension. It’s also definitely not a class issue: people from all creeds of life swear. Earlier this year, some clever psychologists at Keele University made a study of swearing and concluded that it is a coping mechanism, with no relation to IQ. They believe that swearing can make the swearer feel stronger.
Maybe if I swore more I wouldn’t be such a stress ball and I’d find this thing called life a little easier to bear.
…to spend just one day at a previous time in my life, whenever I get the urge. And I get the urge a lot. I’d only want a day, that’s not much to ask, is it?
This was the weird thought I had the other day while watching LA Story, a film I hadn’t seen for 20 years. Naturally watching this film got me reminiscing about the last time I’d watched the film (or last approx. thirty times, to be more accurate).
The film with the talking signs
In my final year at University I lived in a flat with five friends.
Me and four of my five flatmates
Me and four of my five flatmates (spot the one missing from the previous, and the extra one here)
The flat had a video recorder. In those days, 1993, this was a rare treasure. However, we owned no videos between us, being the impoverished students that we were. So a friend lent us three videos to watch sporadically during the year. They were: The Life of Brian, LA Story and one other I can’t remember. We watched them all many times over during the year. We would regard watching one of these videos as a ‘special treat’. I hadn’t watched LA Story since that time (having got to the stage of knowing it line-for-line) until two nights’ ago. So that is why watching it after such a gap made me desperately wanted to go back to an evening of watching it with my flatmates.
Rowe House, Exeter, where we had access to modern technology
My current book is a translation of a Japanese novel about two people (a student and a teacher) who meet many years after first knowing each other. They enter into a strange relationship based on their mutual disconnection from society. This relationship is largely carried out in Japanese eateries and bars, and partly on a mountain trek looking for mushrooms. There is a lot of imagery in the book of the Japanese eateries they meet in, the food they eat and the beer and sake they drink.
My current book
It is a lovely little book and vividly takes me back to my two years living in Japan (1995 to 1997). Reading this (not at the same time as watching LA Story) makes me long to step back to a day in 1995 and walk around Iwatsuki, a small town (officially a city, the city of dolls) north of Tokyo, where I lived.
Bad photo of a photo – my local video shop in Iwatsuki ‘Big 10 Video’
If I could go back it would be a Sunday and I’d simply walk around town and visit all my favourite places: the Big 10 Video Store (possibly to browse the Julia Roberts shelf, or the Bruce Willis shelf), the ‘philosophy’ shop (to buy milk with a straw) and Saty the department store (to take ‘puri kuraa’ (print club) photos).
Would I have time for a quick bowl of raamen before coming home? I hope so.