Maybe I shouldn’t watch BBC Question Time quite so much…

It’d been two years since I’d visited England. In the early years of me living in Germany, I’d been going there maybe twice a year. Once at Christmas and once in the summer. Christmas was always a given. With my folks living just a few stops from Heathrow on the Piccadilly line, that was easy… and cheap.

Over the years, the visits became less frequent. It dropped to about once a year. That was down to my kids growing to the age where a seat was required (rather than just sitting on our laps). Kids’ tickets are not really any cheaper than adult tickets, unlike on other forms of transport. And my folks moved away from London, making the journey far longer and more expensive.

But two years was a long time. That came about because of our plans and their collapse. We had been planning to return to the UK last year.

It was almost like Mr Fate was laughing at us, as my wife took her Visa supporting documents personally (by post is not an option) to our nearest office in Germany, on the 23rd of June 2016, (the day the UK went to the polls to vote on our membership of the EU). Long story short, things didn’t work out for the Visa, nor did it (in my opinion) in the referendum. So I missed my annual trip “home” (if you’ve read other bits I’ve written here, you’ll know I don’t really get on well with that word) that year.

I read the news daily. I watch what broadcasts I can on YouTube: BBC Question Time, Channel 4 News, BBC News, Sky News, ITV News, parliament, and various independent commentators. I listen to Radio 4 in the morning and LBC sporadically. What I got from all of these — especially Question Time and LBC — is that the country is angry, tearing itself to pieces, and overflowing with people hating each other. What I saw was very different.

Where I was seemed just like it did two years ago, before the last year happened. I don’t know if people were making a conscious effort to not talk about Brexit, but it just didn’t crop up, except as minor, pleasant asides in otherwise enjoyable conversations.

News reports indicated that hate crimes had spiked. I do not question the validity of this, but the picture I saw from Germany was that the minority of raging racists, who had kept their crap bottled up for years, had been let loose, freed from the societal shackles that deemed it unacceptable to abuse someone because of their national or ethnic origin. Yes, they are a small minority, but it takes only a single person in a thousand to make another’s life unpleasant. With my family being internationalist and racially mixed, this was something that scared me. I’ve lived my life as a member of a social minority. I faced taunts and jibes because of my hair, my clothes, my musical tastes, my weight, but it was because of things that I made a conscious choice about. I chose to not conform to what the majority wanted were. I chose to follow my own path, and found no enjoyment in mainstream mediocrity.

But people do not choose their national or ethnic origin. Children do not choose their parents. There is nothing that would devastate me more than my family having to deal with hatred and abuse.

As it stands, the country is still ticking over. Branston is still on the shelves, beer is still flavourful, pubs are still friendly, the chips are still amazing, the bus services are still terrible, train tickets are still eye-wateringly expensive, and the weather still changes significantly from one hour to the next. This nightmare vision of a starkly divided country didn’t present itself during the two weeks just gone. I just saw people going about their lives as they always did.

Maybe I shouldn’t watch Question Time quite so often…


Othering, and the devastation of division and hatred

Hate is a word I try not to use too much. It’s a word that describes the worst of human emotions. It is an intense feeling.

As the news of what happened last night in Manchester comes out, hate is not the first feeling that comes to me. Melancholy. I feel an intense sadness that people can do this to others, particularly children, who are guilty of nothing. Just enjoying life.

I question what it is that could drive a man to blow himself up, in a concert hall full of kids. Some not much older than my own. And where I feel sorrow at the results of the evil act, I can only imagine that the Manchester-born young man hated intensely. He hated himself, otherwise how could he have ended his own life intentionally? He must have hated humanity, or how could he have murder children and young people so indiscriminately?

When a child smiles or laughs, when you watch them enjoying themselves, I can’t imagine the soul of a man that would use the death of these lights of the world for political ends. What did humanity do to him that was so bad for him to want to destroy its future?

But when I think about it a bit more, I realise, it wasn’t necessarily humanity he hated. He hated us. And we’ve been here before. There has been no shortage of mass murder and genocide in human history. When they occur, I believe there is a common event preceding it: painting some group as “the Other”. It is this Othering that allows people to do some of the most heinous acts.

During war, armies kill the enemy, not just because it is their duty and they know it is a “kill or be killed” situation, but because they are the “Other”.

During republican and communist revolutions, nobles were executed as “Others”; “they’re not like us”.

During the well-documented Holocaust, there was the systematic “Othering” of the Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and that facilitated their extermination.

I look upon our world today and see a lot of divisive hatred. Aside from the cultural conflict of Islamist extremism, there is Right Vs Left; Leave Vs Remain; Internationalist Vs Nationalist; Working Class Vs “Metropolitan Elite”. And through all of this Othering, perpetuated by much of the media and politicians, they have got us all hating each other. But not hating each other because of our actions, but for what we believe.

I’m sure there was a time when a conservative and progressive could have a good, reasoned discussion. But when our own politicians, during debate, descend to school yard antics, it doesn’t set a good example for the rest of us. They’re supposed to be the most educated. The most informed. Yet they don’t seem to be interested in winning the discussions based on the strength of the ideas, but by weakening the credibility of the person delivering the opposing idea.

Humanity has faced a great many conflicts. Many millions have suffered because of this Othering. If we don’t find common ground — if we don’t seek compromise — how can we proceed as a species? Right and Left, Religious and Areligious, Christian/Muslim/Sikh/Jew, Remainers and Leavers, we all need to find the points we agree on, then look at those we don’t and try to meet in the middle — the centre ground. If we can achieve that, maybe we can avoid the level of hatred in the future that will lead to our own mutual destruction.

The worst of our capabilities as a species was seen yesterday night. But in the aftermath, we also saw the best. How the whole city pulled together, united by a common grief. Taxi drivers offering free rides home, restaurants giving free food, local residents offering their sofas and beds for those stranded. People were kind, considerate, giving.

I know that is who we truly are as a culture and species. I guess I always had, but recently I’d forgotten or become  disheartened. Let’s try and remember that, and not allow those that hate to divide us.

Home (and whatever the hell that means)

“Home”, and what the word really represents, is one I’ve considered a lot. Maybe it’s down to me having moved around a lot as a kid.

In my time, I’ve often been asked “Where are you from?” I’ve never really been able to give a straight answer. I used to say, “Well, I’m not really sure.” It seems a pretty strange answer. How can I not know where I’m from? Well, I just never stayed anywhere long enough.

I was born in Manchester, way back in 1981. I was still a baby when I left. Obviously I have no memories of life in the city. I have early memories of Rochdale. I was about maybe four or five when I was in Newcastle Upon Tyne. I remember being six in Edinburgh. I was nine when I moved to Reading (it was 1990, the year of the World Cup in Italy). Fourteen took me to Stourbridge. Eighteen to Slough.

I could say that Berkshire is my home region. The closest thing I have to a home town is probably Reading. I spent my early formative years there, and when I was in Slough, I spent most of my free time there. But now, except for a couple of old friends and some damn good memories, I have nothing there. I haven’t even set foot in the town since 2008.

In spite of — or maybe because of —  all that moving around, I always settled quickly in a place. “Home is where you hang your fucking hat,” I used to say. Where ever I went after I was free of the restrictions of childhood, I settled in pretty quick. I wouldn’t say I made friends easily, but I felt comfortable. I never really needed very much. As long as I had my books, my guitar, and music to listen to, I was fine. Mostly. Obviously, we are social animals, so being alone for a long time gets depressing.

After leaving home, I lived in Ironbridge Gorge, Bath, Brighton, Lincoln, Kamakura (Japan), each for a few months to a year, and no matter how long (or short) it was, I felt comfortable. Happy. At home…

Which is why I always said what I used to say.

In 2009, I moved to Frankfurt, Germany. A country I never even thought about visiting. I upped and left my homeland, to take up a job. At the time, I never really imagined I’d end living here for seven(soon to be eight) years. I said then, I’d see for a couple of years, get some work experience, and then head back. That never happened. But, in that seven years, I’ve really learned to appreciate what home is.

Home really isn’t just a place to rest your head. That’s a purely practical thing. Home is not just having a few friends around. Home is having a place that, after a long journey, you get back and breath a sigh of a relief. Not because you can rest, but because it kind of completes you being there. It’s a feeling that’s really hard to express with words, but only when I didn’t have it did I realise what it was. I think after a long journey everyone’s happy to have a chance to rest. But when returning home there’s always something else. Kind of like when you’re away there’s a piece missing, and only when you get back do you find it again.

But I’ve been living in Germany for a long time now. It’s the longest time I’ve spent in any single city. When ever I returned “home”, from wherever I’d been, I never really felt like I was being reconnected with that missing piece. I only ever felt that relief that I didn’t have to travel anymore. I don’t look upon the cityscape and feel a soothing contentment at being home.

But then, when I look at the events going on back in the UK, I wonder if the country that I had always loved even exists anymore. I mean in spirit, of course. Maybe I’m guilty of living in a bit of an arty, liberal bubble.

I was naturally drawn to people like me. People who thought like me. I guess that cut me off from what a lot of people seem to think. The politics of division are going wild, stoked by Farage and his ilk, and the festering wounds under the nation’s skin have burst. I feel like my country has been dissolved in my absence, like Tom Hanks’s character in “Terminal”. It seems that my green and precious land — the one of tolerance, individuality, of generally progressive values — was a fantasy. A pure fantasy. My liberal, progressive utopia never existed, except in my own little bubble.

Stateless. Homeless. Even if I do actually have a place to hang my fucking hat.

On the matter of freedom, liberty, and equality

The foundation of liberal democracies is that we are permitted to think freely. It is something that we who live in these, although not technically secular societies (such as state churches, like the Church of England, and in Germany, where Sunday — the “Sabbath” — is still a legally enforced day off), in practice we are free to choose our own beliefs. If they infringe no-body else’s right to freedom and a happy existence, we are able to think as we please. Our beliefs and thoughts are a private matter, unless we choose otherwise.  There are few laws limiting what we can or cannot say.

Those that do are in place to protect other’s rights to liberty and happiness. These laws, though, cover the impact these views have on others, rather than the mere thinking  of them. Being sexist or racist in your own mind is your business. If you discriminate in the work place, or are openly hostile to individuals that in your own mind you dislike for no reason other than what they look like or where they come from, then the legal system can come crashing down upon you viciously.

This is a privilege we all take for granted.

A further liberal privilege is that of freedom of action and opportunity. In countries such as mine — and many of yours — men and women are seen as completely equal in law. There are still societal, gender-based biases in both directions, but these are mostly social, not legal.

We can, though, go where we like, when we like. There are no laws saying that men can do this, but women can’t. No laws stating that boys go to school, but girls don’t. No laws prohibiting women from being lawyers, and no laws making it illegal for men to be caregivers for children or the elderly. There is a social stigma attached to men who work in traditionally feminine fields, such as childcare. Women have mostly succeeded in convincing the population that whatever a man can to do, a woman can do too. There are still some dinosaurs roaming the earth, but their numbers are dwindling.

Still, men, women, girls and boys, black, white, Asian, whichever religion they happen to follow (if any), are technically equal under the law. They then should be assessed on their merits (and demerits), when seeking employment, education, or any other benefit bestowed upon citizens/residents of any given nation. As is the law.

This is a privilege we all take for granted.

My final major privilege is key to understanding the world today. It is the reason for me sitting down and writing this.

As I sit in my warm Frankfurt apartment, there is a drizzly rain outside. I am safe, comfortable, and warm. The chances of an intruder are slim. I have three bolts on my front door, plus the door downstairs, and Frankfurt is a very safe city. I’m fairly confident that if I fell asleep outside, or passed out from a night of far too much beer, that my wallet would still be in my pocket. And pretty sure that I would wake up at all, for that matter.

I am confident that no gunfire will shatter my windows. I’m pretty damn sure that there will be no missile fire that will obliterate the side of my building, possibly taking my life and those of my wife and children. The chance of this happening is so low it is absurd to even think about it.

And yet I do think about it. Why? I guess as I’ve waffled on this far, I should say why.

Out of all the things I could think of, why would I conjure up, willingly, the image of my home and family being torn out of my life through the violence (as “Collateral damage”, to use that terrible euphemism) brought about by an argument I have nothing to do with? What good would come of that?

Simple. Empathy.

And that brings me to now, and the whole purpose of this essay. As I sit in my comfort zone, across northern Africa and the Middle East wars and sectarianism are tearing lives apart. Those with the means (as in money, and a presumed education that made that money possible), are seeking to leave these torn and persecuted lands. Leaving these places where the chance of a brutal death is very high. If it is quick, you are lucky. For many it is long and torturous, in spite of their innocence. Those fleeing this violence seek only those things we take for granted: Safety, Security, Freedom, Equality.

Those that make it to our shores, after their long and arduous journeys, find another, very surprising thing waiting for them. Europe has long shone its beacon of acceptance across the waters and valleys of the world. Whatever colour you are, whatever you think, whatever you want to do, you can have a place in our societies.

Instead of those values we promote, and their acceptance, they often meet hatred. Even in the numbers that support and welcome these people, there are many in the margins who hate them simply for being here; for being in a place they feel they do not deserve to be. In the mind of the xenophobe, the racist, the nationalist, a person of their origin can never belong, no matter how well they integrate into the society.

Our politicians, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, have referred to them in terms not usually used to describe humans; a swarm. That word is generally reserved for pests, or groups of flying insects that tend  not to be agreeable to human contact. (I for one wouldn’t like being around a “swarm” of bees)

Public figures, such as the vile Katie Hopkins: Writing in The Sun — a part of the British gutter press, that makes its name by topless ladies on its infamous Page 3, sensationalist “news” that is invariably unreliable, with facts twisted to suit their agenda, and celebrity gossip — described the refugees as “cockroaches”. This, to me, brings forth echoes of Nazi ideology, and their demonising of minorities as dirty and unworthy. But it has an even stronger correlation to the lead up to Rwandan massacre in the 90s. It treats them not as humans, but turns them into pests. And what do people do with pests such as cockroaches? Exterminate. Hopkins went on to suggest in the same piece, rather than using rescue ships to save people from the treacherous sea, she would use gun ships to solve the issue. The fact that a person has this view does not surprise me. That it was published in the best selling “news” paper in the UK does. Even with my knowledge of its place in the press.

But such a view as Hopkins’ is not to be taken lightly. If there is one within the media world who thought it, how many normal people also think it? There may be 100s of thousands of people who support the helping of refugees, but how many thousands are going to be tormenting them while they are here? These tormenters may not have guns, and the pain may be mostly psychological, but a person can only take so much hatred on the streets.

Her view, and her terminology, allows those who are not informed  (Sun readers, so…), not holding a worldly international view, to see these people with whom they already find it hard to connect with as even more distant. “They’re not people who need help, they’re a disease, a pest to be exterminated… we don’t want pests in our country.” So, the headlines which say on devastating regularity, “x00 die at sea”, “x00 feared dead after boat capsizes”, mean nothing to them. For many, I believe, it is a good thing. It means fewer succeeding in making the crossing to Europe.

But these are people: men, women, children. Families with hopes of just enjoying everything we take for granted. Their country has been ripped apart by war (something very few reading this could ever contemplate happening to them). It is something we have forgotten.

Not too many years ago, our continent was ravaged by war. Our children were refugees in their own country. People took them in. Those persecuted minorities during WW2, many fled west, to Great Britain or the United States. These people would have died were they not able to get to a place of safety. How have we changed? Or have we? Maybe we just paint history with a red sheen, tinting the war period of 1939-45 as a time when our brave British men fought hard against tyranny, alongside Commonwealth and American allies. We were a nation of heroes, fighting hatred. How could we have been hating at home? We remember the good things in the history books, not the bad.

So, in their journey to their safe haven, the main entry points have been Italy or Greece. Technically speaking, refugees should register in the first country they land. Once registered as a refugee, they must remain. This of course proves problematic. Greece, for one, is crippled because of the financial crisis, and severe austerity measures enforced by their EU creditors. An already crippled economy, they couldn’t possibly hope to cope with the scale of people seeking refuge. Or Italy? How many 10s of thousands landed in Italy? According to The Economist (Aug 29th 2015), about 270,000 boat people have reached Europe. How could two nations possibly hope to cope with that, particularly with one of them struggling cope even with their own finances just to keep basic services running.

But these demonised boat people face a continent of about 500,000,000 people. Within that continent, there are some of the wealthiest economies in the world. 270,000 people spread across the continent would barely make a mark. Of course we should not forget about the millions of displaced people who did not have the money to pay the people traffickers for their unsafe passage. Those millions living in camps in countries neighbouring the conflict zone, such as Turkey or Lebanon also need help. But, with the vicious reaction that some have faced (these countries’ own ignorant right wingers), are then choosing to make the journey onwards, rather than face torment, robbery, and violence at the hands of those people in a so-called “safe country”.

The refugees that most of the public are fretting about, though, are not the millions in Lebanon and Turkey (many seem to think that there are none there, in fact, assuming that all of the refugees fleeing the Syrian war and other persecution are heading towards Europe), but the boat people.

Most European countries seem to be resisting. Most resistant are the Eastern European countries, particularly Hungary. Hungary’s treatment of these people has been disgraceful. Penning them up, as a person from Human Rights Watch described, and “Treating them like animals,” or locking them up like criminals. That they entered Europe illegally is without question. But exactly what were they supposed to do? Apply for a visa at their local consulate?

David Cameron had as one of his main election pledges, drive down immigration. This is important, as this rhetoric that has been flying around for a long time, especially leading up to the UK General Election earlier this year. Scared by UKIP and the anti-migrant mob, all parties started parroting the same “Drive down immigration” drivel. This has muddied the water when it comes to the refugee issue. For years, people have been getting used to the idea that it’s okay to dislike migrants. They are people who just want to hop across the water, live on benefits from a generous social system, and get free healthcare that they never paid for.

Anybody who knows anything about the British benefits system knows that it is not very generous, particularly since the Conservatives have been running things (in coalition with the Liberal Democrats from 2010-2015, and now with a slim majority), but British nationalists are always convinced that people are knocking down our doors, sneaking in the back gate, just to get to our golden paved streets. It may be the case that some migrants enter the UK with the thought of an easier life, but not for the reasons the nationalists think.

Narrowly elected earlier in 2015, David Cameron and his cohort has been implementing severe cuts, under the banner of austerity (or “live within our means”, in Tory talk): cutting benefits, cutting funding, and cutting grants. This comes the crux of our nation’s problem, and a large part of the resistance stems from this.

Once refugees are accepted, they need to be housed.  Once housed, they need to be granted state benefits, as they are not permitted to seek gainful employment (except, in a very limited way, in some understaffed areas, such as nursing). Allowing them unrestricted access to employment would cause a different backlash, as there are already too few jobs for those already resident in the UK. Caring for these desperate people, from such desperate situations, while eroding those things they offer to British nationals also in desperation of course causes a backlash. In my view, however, just because the government doesn’t give a damn about the less off of our own people, it doesn’t mean we should stand by and see our government do nothing while people are dying, just trying to reach safety, particularly when they are fleeing from a conflict largely caused by our country’s actions in the region.

So, when they have exhibited a lack of care for our own nationals, why should they care about a bunch of scruffy dark people from the middle east and Africa? If a moral obligation to help those persecuted isn’t sufficient, would not the part they played in destabilising the region be reason enough to help? Maybe if they had a huge amount of oil and wealth they would be more inclined to step in and support them. People pushed out of their homes by violence and oppression very often just feel they are lucky to be alive. Riches to them are unimportant and mostly non-existent. Living with the freedom and liberties we all take for granted is all they seek.

I want to close this reflection with a discussion on equality. This is a matter I’m very passionate about and is reflected, overtly and covertly, in everything I have heretofore discussed.

Internationally, there is arrogance. There is a belief that our nations, those of European ancestry, are somehow superior to others. We have great opportunities, we have safety, and enjoy so many privileges. Many feel that if we help those fleeing persecution then ultimately we may infringe our own rights and privileges. The privilege of finding employment, the right to find a home, and housing a refugee family ultimately would mean that another family could not live in the same residence. Some feel that if a home can be found for a refugee family, then it should be found for a British family.

What is particularly interesting to me, though, is that most seem not to care about those coming from other perceived wealthy nations. Do you ever hear Britons complaining about the German family, or the American man, or the French student who moved in on their street? Or perhaps an American complain about Canadians? Compare that to what you hear about people coming eastern European countries, such as Poland, or Asian countries, or middle eastern countries. And think about what Americans say about those south of the border, from places like Mexico. The reception they receive is very different.

The question I pose is “Why?” Why should these fellow humans be treated so differently.

The first obvious reason is “race”. Even in supposedly non-racist people, there is a general subconscious fear and skepticism of anything unknown or different. This extends to subcultures that do not fit within cultural paradigms of the moment. A person’s skin colour, as well as other race related traits, instantly mark people as outsiders. Outsiders, by default, seem to be distrusted by many. They are liars, thieves, robbers, until they are proved to be otherwise…guilty until proven innocent, in other words. The complete reverse of the basic guiding light of our legal system.

Exacerbating this for those who lack an internationalist outlook, is the perceived difference in culture. Cultural difference, such as food and clothing, language and natural cultural norms (like thanking at a certain point in an interaction, or holding the door open for a person coming through a door behind you, are not universal). A black man in a business suit raises no eyebrows, as there are many black Britons. The same man wearing traditional dress from an African nation would be instantly marked as an outsider — “Not one of us” —  and therefore someone to mistrust until their innocence has been proven.

The foundation of this view is the Euro-centric view of our culture being the pinnacle point of civilisation. European culture has spread far, with our globetrotting Empires. Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, North and South American nations, were all founded by European cultures, no matter how distant they may seem today. This globetrotting often came at a cost to the “native” population of the country landed in. European firepower was strong, and overwhelmed any weapons the other civilisation would have had.

When there was conflict, there were slaughters.

Interestingly, though, Central and South American countries seem to not retain this European privilege. Could it be a racial issue? As British migrants set up home in what is now eastern North America, they shut themselves off, isolating themselves from the native population. In the south, however, the Spanish and Portuguese did not to the same degree. This resulted in relationships and breeding between the cultures. Nobody considers the European Spanish or Portuguese as anything but white. In the Americas, though, the racial divide is fierce.

It is these divisions that paint the foreigner as a person to mistrust. In such a wide and colourful world it is sad to see so many people perishing because they just seek the things that we all enjoy, and have as a birthright. A person with a worldly, international view understands that although we may have cultural and even physical differences, our humanity binds us together.

Ignorance of the world leads to an insular view. Insular views lead to nationalist, protectionist, and racist ideologies.

Our differences are only cosmetic… Inside, we are all the same.

Today, 14 years ago…

Today is September the 11th, 2015. Fourteen years since the devastating attacks against the United States, that kicked off the last decade and more of war in the middle east.

Almost 3000 people died that day. The vast majority of them innocent civilians just going about their day. And that day I remember very well. Like all major events — when Princess Diana died, for older people, when JFK was assassinated — you remember where you were, and what you were doing, when you heard.

I was living in Slough, Berkshire. An awful town, full of factories and stink. Pretty close to Windsor and Eton, though, and they’re pretty nice. Nice enough for the Queen to have one of her homes there, and her grand children to go to school. But that’s beside the point.

I’d actually been in the midst of planning my journey to the United States myself. Not too long before (maybe in August, but I can’t remember), I’d decided to leave my job and disappear for a couple of months. I’d saved up some money and was going to spend some fun time in the US. I’d spent a couple of weeks there in the spring, staying with my brother’s friends in Huntington Beach, California, and really wanted to go back. My older brother had a similar idea, and had flown to Los Angeles’ LAX on September 10th, 2001, with his girlfriend (now wife).

A day later, he would have been turned back. I was due to fly in late September for a two month trip. On the afternoon of September 11th (UK time, so it would have been about the time the planes hit, New York time), I’d just been in to the travel agents to book myself a vegetarian meal for the journey.

When I got home, the phone was ringing. I answered. It was my little brother’s girlfriend’s mum. “America’s just been attacked,” she said.

My response was something like… “Huh?” I went to turn on the television. My parents had Sky, so I flipped over to CNN, or some other news channel. And there I saw the planes smash into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. For weeks those images played over and over again.

Shocking images. The explosions. The people falling — jumping — from their supposedly safe, cosy offices. Those images will stay in our nightmares forever. I can’t imagine how awful it would have been to have been there, seeing it first hand.

Being British, I had grown up hearing about many terrorist attacks. Bombs in cars, bombs in train stations, it was just the way things were with the IRA. Americans, though, weren’t so familiar with the concept of being attacked by foreign terrorists. Although, at that scale, I don’t think anybody is familiar outside of wartime…  almost 3000 people. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters.

After that, though, it seemed that so-called terrorist acts were taboo, even for the IRA.

Airlines were shut down, US airspace was closed. After the initial shock subsided, I had a thought. “All the flights are cancelled, into and out of the United States. What about my holiday?” A terrible thing to think when so many precious lives had been cut short.

My flight wasn’t cancelled, though. US airspace reopened, and America was back in business.

I also flew in to LAX, heading to a good friend’s home in Long Beach. After asking for the “cheapest” way to get to Long Beach at the information desk, I hopped on a bus. It took hours to get there from the airport. I wished I’d taken the train, but by the time I wished that it was too late.

I travelled through a lot of Los Angeles, with my rucksack that would probably get me laughed at by most serious backpackers tucked under my seat. I got to LB, eventually. At times on the bus I noted that I was the only white person travelling. Coming from England, this was… a very new feeling.

I spent a good couple of months in the US that year. In my journeys, I saw very proud Americans flying the stars and stripes. Everybody seemed to be coming out as proud Americans. From the outside, America seems a very patriotic country. European patriotism all too often sways too far, and ends up sniffing the backside of nationalism. Sometimes they unify, sometimes they don’t.

I spent a lot of time in Long Beach during those couple of months. I had a ball. In the back of my head was that terrible tragedy that happened on the other side of the country. It was there, it was clear. Did we talk about it? I don’t think we did all that much. We didn’t need to.

On my journeys across the country, I did end up in New York state. In earlier times, I probably would have gone further, on to NYC. But I didn’t. Now, I’m not so sure whether it was my conscious avoidance of the typical big city, or whether it was me avoiding the problems that I knew were there.

The closest I got to NYC was Binghampton, NY. I’d managed to get over to vist another good friend of mine. He really seems almost like a old school friend, even though I’d only known him a couple of years at that time. I still remember the night we met, and maybe I’ll tell that story another day. I’m kind of sad that I haven’t seen him in years, though. One day…

On that journey, I was the anti-tourist for the most part. I made a principle of not taking pictures. I wanted to see and remember. And still I remember. Sometimes I forget, but when talking about it, the memory bubbles to the surface, and there it is… like a lost photograph found, it makes me smile, and the remembering is all the more powerful. I met people: travellers, Americans, foreigners, locals, weirdos, and even a random gay man that offered me a place to stay, free of charge… well, no money was requested, but there was strong implication that other forms of payment were accepted. I turned him down and stayed at a hostel down the road instead.

My memories of the United States in late 2001 are fond ones. The cloud of that awful day was there, but like strong, proud people, the Americans stood up and showed that their ways couldn’t be halted by violence.

Values run deep in every culture. And we must keep our values. Because ultimately our values are what makes us who we are.