Dare you to dance at your orientation

It’s 7.15am and my alarm is blaring inconsiderately. I’ve already hit snooze three times, so I finally silence the thing to quit annoying my flatmate in the next room. Forty minutes later, I clamber down the steps from my apartment as I leave for my first class – yes, some of us have already started class.  I’m running late, so find myself half-running past a mountain, baseball stadium and skyscrapers before scrambling into the arts building at the centre of McGill campus. So begins another day on the international exchange programme.

Having abandoned George Square and the dingy basement under the Pleasance that is The Student’s office, I have been in Montreal, Canada for the past three weeks, an exchange student at McGill University for the next year. As I mentioned, classes have started already, and I am surrounded by a pile of books almost as big as I am as a write this. It seems that there is no gentle induction week here – the workload so far seems to suggest that that whole ‘academic growth’ part of my application wasn’t exactly a matter to be taken lightly.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Back in Edinburgh, you will just be beginning Freshers’ Week, and the reality of actual work to do is more of a vaguely familiar notion that you might remember from before those long months of summer. Out here, we don’t have Freshers, we have ‘Frosh’. It lasts a weekend, rather than a whole week (which may account for the reduced numbers of those incapacitated by Freshers’ flu) but it has all the traits you might associate with Freshers’ Week – slashed t-shirts, wristbands and even green plastic beer mugs. Plus huge club queues – sorry lines – excessive alcohol consumption and throngs of first years going wild in celebration of their recent escape from parental curfews.  However, there’s also plenty this supposedly well-seasoned third year hadn’t seen before. You know those stereotypical red-cup ‘college parties’ of American TV fame? Oh yes, they actually happen – complete with beer pong, flip cup, punch and the arrival of hundreds of absolute strangers. It could only spell hilarity, especially as my fellow exchange students marvelled at the red plastic cups and failed miserably at beer pong.

While we’re on the subject of stereotypes, a note on orientation. Edinburgh Freshers, this is my prediction for you: a 30 minute talk somewhere in the depths of DHT, Appleton or KB, followed by the retrieval of a few guidance sheets and maps that you will forget to look at, well, ever. If you’re particularly keen you might take a campus or library tour, then it’s on with the Freshers’ festivities. Foolishly, I had similar predictions for the Canadian system. Nope, orientation here is an all-singing, all-dancing event oddly reminiscent of High School Musical on tour. Megaphones, acapella, mass dance moves and 1000 pizzas were the order of the day. I can say in total honesty that I did not see that one coming.

To the Freshers – or should I call you Froshies? – I wish you a Freshers’ Week full of fun, new friends, and hopefully little in the way of Freshers’ flu. And I dare you to dance at your orientation.


Summer of blurs

This short piece was written for the Ampersand Journal (McGill University) Summer Issue 2011.

It was a summer of blurs. Six cities, five addresses, four countries, three jobs, two suitcases, one girl. A student summer – when it’s not spent wasting away in front of the TV in that new-found post-finals freedom – generally consists of one or more of the following: job, internship, travel. This summer, my last in Europe before coming to Montreal as an exchange student, I decided to try my hand at all three.

First on my list was Edinburgh. I’ve lived there for two years, and yet in my post-exams freedom, it struck me anew just how beautiful a city it is – domes and steeples, bathed in light, tripping over history in the streets.  A short flight later and it’s on to Oslo, in all its artistic grunge and glory, set against the clear and pristine glass surface of the fjords. When we heard about the shootings there two months later, the memory became inexplicably more sombre – the peacefulness we remembered was so distant, as if underwater.

By that point, I was back in England, having braved the five hour drive from Edinburgh to Birmingham. By British standards, that’s something of a long journey. A few weeks later, I had spent a few days in Nottingham and was living in London, reminded daily to mind the gap as I left the tube. The London life was everything I could have imagined – a magazine internship, dinner on the South Bank of the Thames, underground cocktails – and the photocopying, book-logging and coffee-runs at the office. I remember struggling down the street with six cups of coffee in hand (I say in hand – I mean cradled precariously in my ungainly arms) prompting a passer-by to yell “Intern?” with a look of simultaneous amusement and pity.

Regardless, interning in London was more glamorous than the jobs which followed it in my attempts to save for the year ahead of me. Having received job rejections almost everywhere from Selfridges to Starbucks (and Starbucks in Selfridges, come to think of it), I found work as a cleaner for a little old woman in Staffordshire who took rather too keen an interest in my love life. Many, many hours of vacuuming and many cups of coffee later, I left to work in Edinburgh for the Festival. The atmosphere was astonishing. Each day, when I left my job as a kindergarten worker, let my hair down and changed out of my uniform, I was struck anew at the vibrancy and life of the city around me. People swarmed in masses of colour as singers, dancers and mimes performed in the streets, offices, pubs, parks, and alleyways.

And all too soon, it was the last week of August. Several trains, two flights and a few minor immigration issues later, my two suitcases and I find ourselves in Montreal for my exchange year. And so begins another blurry adventure.

Nomad: Memories from the middle of nowhere

I cannot believe that three years have passed since I last saw Africa. The montage on my wall is daily reminder of the places I went to, the experiences I had and most of all, the people I met. Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali – to Timbuktu and back. Amazingly, I still miss it. And I still can’t believe I made it to Timbuktu. Here’s some recollections from that little place in the middle of nowhere. [Originally published in Nomad Magazine]


The sun glares down on the legendary, mysterious town of Timbuktu, in the deserts of Mali. The streets are narrow, dusted with sand from the encroaching Sahara. The mud walls of the houses and mosques are cracked and dry, and the few intrepid travellers run for every possible shaded area, desperate to keep out of the sweltering 50◦C heat, even at 9.30 in the morning.

As we enter the old town, we see two men undertaking rather unorthodox construction work. One is standing at the top of a ladder, whilst his partner throws fully formed bricks up to him. He catches them with such precision and in such quick succession that it seems as though some powerful magnetic force must exist between them and his hand. Utterly enraptured by this display, which so dramatically surpasses the building skills I had attempted to acquire over my previous few weeks in West Africa, I suddenly notice a boy my age standing next to me, evidently entertained by the Europeans’ fascination with ‘everyday’ building. Mohammet, who was indeed my age – seventeen – then proceeds to show us around the rest of the old town and the marketplace.

As we walk, he asks me about my journey to Timbuktu. I tell him how I had travelled by tro-tro (a form of minibus that I have every confidence would never pass an MOT) from Accra, on the south coast of Ghana, through Burkina Faso into Mali, where I had taken a land-cruiser down the 10-hour, potholed road into the middle of nowhere, and then taken a boat across the river into the port near Timbuktu. It had taken about a week and a half, if you counted a few stops for leisure and plenty for chaos. ‘So short a journey?’ he laughs. I can’t deny that I am a little taken aback – I had thought my mammoth trek was quite an impressive feat. He goes on to describe his journey to me, from the salt mines, which were 3 weeks’ camel ride away. You see, Mohammet is a Tuareg – a member of a nomadic tribe which crosses the Sahara desert from Mali to Algeria in huge caravans of camels (which I soon learn to be a huge herd of camels carrying goods and people, as opposed to a mobile holiday home). He and his father had come to Timbuktu to sell the salt they had transported across this vast distance. He shows me a slab of the salt, still in its huge crystallised form, glistening in the sunlight. The Tuaregs have been trading salt here for centuries – in Timbuktu’s heyday as a Saharan outpost, it was worth as much as gold.

The culture difference could not be more pronounced as we walk along; I am clad in my linen trousers and H&M top, whilst he wears his turban and blue desert robes. Just as I find the prospect of a three-week camel ride absolutely incredible (not to mention more than a tad uncomfortable), he cannot comprehend the fact that we do not keep camels in Britain.

We carry on chatting in a mixture of broken English and French as we reach one of the Tuareg camps, just on the edge of the city. At the extremity of it, just at the point where town meets desert, a huge monument has been erected. Upon closer inspection, we discover that the base of it is adorned with dozens of rifles and firearms. This, one of the Tuareg elders explains, was a symbol of the ceasefire called in 1996 between Tuareg rebels and the Malian authorities in Timbuktu. The monument – the ‘Flame of Peace’ – stands where their two worlds meet, where the town disappears into the vast expanse of the desert.
Later, we are welcomed into one of the Tuaregs’ desert camps, after a rather uncomfortable camel trek to reach it. After two hours, I am in serious pain, so how Mohammet manages three weeks travelling this way is a complete mystery to me. Here, we discover something of the rich culture of this fascinating nomadic tribe. To welcome us, the nomads serve us their speciality tea, which custom demands you drink in three batches. These signify the three certainties in this world: death, which is bitter; life, which is significantly sweeter; and love, the sweetest of all. As we drink the tea, we barter for silver jewellery, swords and pipes – an age-old tradition. The men explain to us the meanings of the engravings on the silver – the story of the nomads tracing their route across the desert by the stars, until they finally reach the mosque in Timbuktu. Meanwhile, as is Tuareg custom, the women set about preparing the meal and the children attend to the camels. Talking with Abdullah, one of the elders in the camp, I realise what a special and ancient tradition these people belong to. Their route begins in Algeria, where they trade spices and silver. They then travel to the salt mines, and down to Timbuktu, and occasionally as far as the Niger Delta for festivals, where nomadic tribes meet to socialise, trade and arrange marriages for their young daughters. It is rumoured that the Tuaregs are aided in their toil by slaves, but they vehemently deny any involvement in slavery. On their journeys, in the middle of the Sahara desert, huge caravans sometimes happen upon each other, and their leaders trade silver and livestock, exchanging stories, advice and parts of their cultures.

It is utterly incredible to think that in this moment, thousands of miles away, hundreds of people are still living their lives according to these ancient customs. They have remained resistant to and virtually untouched by the changes in the surrounding world; urbanisation, technology, even roads and clothing! What we must hope now is that these extraordinary people can continue with their way of life unhindered by the problems that we in the developed world have unleashed – especially that of climate change. Whilst desertification may not sound like an issue for a civilisation that has lived in the world’s largest desert for generations, it may well have adverse effects on the towns upon which their trade and hence their livelihood depends. The mystical Timbuktu where I first encountered the Tuaregs might be one such example, as the desert inches into the streets of this small town, the last outpost of the Sahara.

Redefining cool: Tacheles, Berlin

We all know it. Berlin is cool. A city teeming with history, so much so that you practically stumble over it in certain streets. It is everywhere – the monuments, the memorials, the grafitti, the architecture of the old East and West, the remnants of the Wall. There are galleries and museums left, right and centre. A thriving business sector. A vibrant fashion and music scene. Nightclubs that stay packed until after the office opens. Hell, they even have green beer. Like I said, everyone knows Berlin is cool.

And yet, there is something about the inherent coolness that is so… Berlin. It is eclectic, it is offbeat, it is quirky, it is so compelling, captivating, and the fact is that there seems to be no word or expression that quite does justice to the atmposphere of cool that permeates throughout the city. Where else does a very middle-class girl find graffiti cool and interesting, not only in its more artistic forms, but when it paints the streets of the poorer suburbs? Where else being so rough and offbeat chic, not scary? I am a fan.

The first glance at the guidebook might direct us immediately to the East Side Gallery to see Berlin’s finest examples of professional street art. This 1.3km stretch of the Berlin Wall acted as a canvas for street artists from around the world after the reunification of Germany in 1990, and is currently the largest open air gallery in the world. I loved the Gallery, don’t get me wrong. The art there was wonderful, the history so visible and touching, and aside from the biting cold (it was December and about -16 degrees celcius with windchill from the icy river) I really could not fault the place. However, it is not the East Side Gallery that I felt really captured the spirit of the new bohemian cool of the German capital. It is Tacheles.

I was sent to Tacheles on the orders of a friend who goes to Edinburgh College of Art. If I am honest I should admit that when I first saw its entrance-way, I almost chickened out. In the middle of what seemed to be an otherwise respectable and relatively normal street, complete with restaurants, cafes, shops, apartments and bratwurst stands, stands an oddly crumbly-looking, red-brick building with various coloured pictures cascading down its sides. Above the entrance isa huge banner reading ‘Welcome to Poland’, adorned with a huge vision of what can only be described as disturbia. I do not know how else to describe a huge black and white photo of a rather demonic-looking, naked old woman. Mirrors and broken frames are stacked inside the entrance archway, and I remember looking at my friend, Kirsty, as if to say: “Jess is an art kid. She’s allowed to like weird stuff. I’ll bale if you will.”

Thankfully, both of us are too stubborn to give up on anything – least of all let ourselves be intimidated by a place. So, ignoring our substantial lack of inner art kid, we tentatively crossed the threshold of Tacheles. Inside, we found a snow-covered courtyard full of strange sculptures forged out of what appeared to be scrap metal (slightly rusted), icicle-coated patio furniture, abandoned buses and trucks (circa 1960-something) and giant graffiti-coated billboards. Now, I realise that this may sound like nothing special. But it is the ‘cool thing’ coming back. Never have a seen a place that sums up the bohemian spirit of a city in so abstract a place. For all I expected not to ‘get it’ and leave Tacheles securely in the realm of the cool art kids with back-combed hair and spidery limbs, something about the place really struck me as — well, cool. Eclectic, bohemian, offbeat, this place is just plain amazing. I am not ashamed to admit that I went back three times. There was something about the vibe of the place that I cannot recommend highly enough. It seems to capture the essence of bohemian Berlin, and whilst the city’s history is by no means forgotten there, Tacheles seems to live more in the moment. Not in the past, not in the future, but in the infinitely, sublimely cool present.

Sehr cool. Darf ich bald zuruck gehen bitte?

Floating on a mountaintop

Sitting on my bed at 1am, scribbling out a tpyically last minute Italian presentation, my mind inevitably began to wander. I had been sitting here for about seven hours, and having had my brain numbed by grammar and paperwork for my upcoming year abroad, it hardly seemed surprising to me that it sought some form of escapism. I began to think: where would I like to be right now? If given the choice of literally anywhere?

Of course, being me, I overthought it. There are a thousand and one places that I am positively dying to discover for myself: Cambodia, Russia, Prague, Peru, Stockholm, New Zealand. (Really, if I didn’t love it quite so much, I would say that this travel addiction has got to stop. As it stands, there is about squat chance that my travelling habits are going away any time soon.) Or I could be sitting in the Hardwick Arms with all my friends from home. Or curled up on the sofa at home with – dare I say it? – central heating. But amazingly, not one of these places particularly stood out in my mind. Instead, I found myself envisaging the mountain of Triund in the Himalayas, where I went trekking with my fellow volunteers in India last summer.

It was a long trek up – I won’t lie for a minute. Eight hours of steep climbing with what felt like a significant proportion of my own body weight on my back. The blisters don’t even bear thinking about. Neither does the amount of chai we must have consumed en route – and yes, I am talking about the kind with an average of twenty sugars. But my gosh, was it worth it. The views were nothing short of incredible, the satisfaction immense, and the Dairy Milk sold at the top only four months out of date and hence strangely edible.

I can think of many words to describe the atmosphere at the top. Surreal would be a fitting one. We sat in – or above – the clouds, hearing the thunder below us, staring at the innumberable bright stars above us as we sat around a fire singing Hindi folk songs. When I ventured outside of my sleeping bag the next morning, I remember walking in what felt like a precarious bubble. The world around you seemed to just end, enveloped in cloud so that all that exists is within a two metre radius and beyond is just nothingness. It sounds bleak, but in reality, it was so peaceful, so safe, knowing that just for once, there was a place quite literally set apart for you in the world. Phone signals were long since gone, the internet had been left in the cafe miles below us, but instead of isolation, all I felt was a comforting freedom. In my clouded bubble, it was just me and the ground beneath me. I think that day I really began to understand the meaning of escapism.

And now the hustle-bustle of life back in the city is back with all its demands and pressures, the mountain feels like a distant memory. But if I close my eyes and remember that small, small world inside the clouds, I can continue to float into that easily forgotten memory of calm.