The Brutal Death of ‘Never Again’

It’s a difficult lesson to take in, but it’s one that made itself apparent in the close of last year and the dawn of this new one. There exists a point where language no longer possesses any power – where all the weaknesses of words and literature are painfully exposed; where the pen is no longer mightier than the sword. We reach this point when the sentences that drift out from our mouths become completely disconnected from our actions. What does a word become then? Not even a lie, because lies perform functions. Words become motes of dust, floating, existing only to fill the space.

After Rwanda, after Srebrenica, we shook our heads and said Never Again. Why? Because in the aftermath of a staggering tragedy, there is silence, and silence wills us to say something. The best thing to say, and the most reassuring thing to say, is that we gained at least something from the horror – an understanding, an experience, a series of established warning signs that would allow us to avoid this happening again. This means that the next time, the traps will be familiar to us, and we will know when to turn around and say, “I’ve seen this before, and I know where it ends. We can’t repeat it.”

Last month, the world watched Never Again stagger to its knees alongside the citizens of Aleppo in Syria. It was horrified, but the horror was qualified by a shrugging of the shoulders. This was inevitable, it said. Awful, yes, but there was no way for us to stop it. This was a lie. It was a lie we told ourselves to keep from having to admit that Never Again was a lie all along, too. The world should have stopped it, but we didn’t. And now, as we sit in our homes, another brutal reminder of the futility of Never Again is creeping towards us.

Have you heard of semantic satiation, or jamais vu? It’s that strange experience where you repeat a word like ‘body’ so many times that it temporarily becomes a string of sounds that you don’t recognise, an odd collection of letters that doesn’t make any sense. It can happen with phrases too. Here’s an extract from the statement Donald Trump made on Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this month:

“In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good.”

There it is towards the end: “never again”. This time, it referred to the darkest and most despicable event in modern human history. And yet, on the same day that he released this statement, Trump signed an executive order banning anybody arriving from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. This sweeping demonstration of discrimination, ignorance, intolerance and monumental stupidity was precisely the type of event that preceded the Holocaust.

You could be appalled that he did this the same day as he released a statement saying Never Again, or you could accept what the phrase has become. It is now ‘just something you say’. This is all Trump understands it to be. It sounds right, and therefore it should go in. It doesn’t mean anything. The words are motes of dust.

The same applies to Theresa May, who seems to have decided that a trade deal and a ‘special relationship’ are more important than Never Again. She hasn’t condemned this disgusting, terrifying act, saying simply that she “does not agree” with it. As such, she will be complicit in whatever happens next, as we prepare to discover what that is.

We need to accept that the words Never Again no longer carry any weight. Let Never Again become an action rather than a phrase. Let it become something we shout as we protest on the street, or something we think to ourselves as we donate or volunteer in support of the many charities and organisations that can, and do, make an enormous difference. From now on, if you truly believe in Never Again, you will have to fight for it.

The Shot

“I’ve always said, for a crowd watching that final, it was probably quite a boring game.”

Curling has never been a dramatic, stand-up-and-scream sport. There is no 250 km/h serve, or last minute shot from across the pitch to clinch the cup. There are no time trials, or photo finishes. Curling is deceptively unspectacular; a hold-your-breath sport. The stone drifts from one end of the rink to the other, spinning carefully like a planet, and the only sound is the yelling from the skip, which echoes around the chilled hall. The sport operates according to the tenseness of the atmosphere. Nobody goes into curling for the thrills.

Despite all of this, when Rhona Martin’s final yellow-handled stone settled in the centre of the red and blue concentric circles in Salt Lake City – right on ‘the button’ – she became the talk of the UK. Never mind that the United Kingdom is made up of four countries, only one of which actually cares about curling. Never mind that the last stone was actually played in the very early hours of the morning, Scottish local time. She had become a household name.

The household name is a status both unimagined and unwanted by most curlers. Curling is a Sunday pastime, an excuse for meeting up and socialising with friends. Bonspiels and major competitions are an ambition, but the results hold very little weight outside of the community. This was the world a young Rhona Howie from the village of Dunlop in Ayrshire thought she was entering.

Her parents didn’t curl, but her brother Drew once represented Scotland in the World Junior Championships, and Rhona thought she could give it a shot. The rink was cold, and she couldn’t get the knack of sliding down the ice on one foot without falling over, but she enjoyed it, so she kept going. Her ability grew with her stability, and soon came the National Championships, the European Championships, the World Championships. She had been curling for twenty years when her team’s silver medal at the Europeans and fourth place finish at the Worlds qualified them for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Although an extraordinary, difficult and rare achievement, qualifying to play for Great Britain at the Winter Olympic Games at that time didn’t generate much excitement outside the sporting community. The last time the country had won a gold medal was 1984, when Torvill and Dean danced their Boléro in Sarajevo. Since then, there had been a smattering of bronzes, but nothing that captured the public’s imagination like Steve Redgrave winning a fifth gold medal at his fifth Summer Olympics two years before. The last time a British team had won a medal in curling was 1924, and every curling team won a medal at the 1924 Olympics because they were the first ever Winter Olympics and only three teams took part.

Looking back at Salt Lake City fourteen years later, Rhona maintains that she and her team (made up of Janice Rankin, Deborah Knox, Fiona MacDonald, and the reserve Mags Morton) were undaunted by this history.

“When the time comes and you’re there, we had played all the teams before. We’d beaten them, we’d lost to them, so we knew that if we played well we were in with a good chance of making a medal game.”

When Rhona describes the various disasters, victories, and precious second chances of the tournament, she is careful not to romanticise it. There is the occasional “nerve-wracking” moment, and matches she can point to as pivotal, but it is apparent that, mentally, she approached the Olympics in the same way she would approach a Christmas bonspiel. This is the mind-set that led her team to Great Britain’s first Winter Olympics final in nearly two decades, and it is still visible in her description of that match.

“You’re just thinking, this is to win the game. That’s all you’re focused on doing, is winning that game. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, when you played the last stone, were you not nervous, because it was for a gold medal?’, but I honestly have to say, I never thought this is for a gold medal. It was like, I’ve got a shot to play, to win this game, you know, let’s do it.”

When that final stone settled right on the button, though, the calm exterior slipped, and Rhona lifted her brush above her head in victory. The crowd in the rink, and everyone watching in the early morning back home, were on their feet. Still, aware of curling’s status back home, she called home the next day and asked if their picture had made it to the back page of the Glasgow Herald newspaper.

“They said, ‘You’re on the front of every newspaper.’”

It was the right kind of story to appeal to the British public – a group of amateurs, who only began to practice full-time six months before the Games, triumphing over the teams that had dominated the sport for almost eighty years. Rhona was invited to the Royal Box at Wimbledon and the British Olympic ball, where she met, among others, Sir Steve Redgrave – “and they’re coming up saying, ‘Oh, it’s the curlers!’ and we’re chatting away, and it’s just surreal that curling was getting that attention”.

The entire team was awarded MBEs for services to curling, and the final yellow-handled stone now sits in the National Museum of Scotland. It is nicknamed the ‘Stone of Destiny’, after the rock upon which Scottish monarchs were once crowned.

Nobody goes into curling for the thrills, but for six months after that victory, “it was chaos.” As Rhona was trying to settle back into her life as a housewife and mother, there were calls to appear on quiz shows and chat shows, and newspapers asking for her opinion on matters that she didn’t care about. “It was difficult to juggle it all,” she says, “but you had to take advantage, because you knew it wasn’t going to last forever.”

Rhona, who has now switched back to her maiden name of Howie, retired from curling in 2006. She is now Scotland’s high performance manager in another deceptively unspectacular sport – lawn bowls. This was an unexpected career move from someone who had never bowled before, but she is on course to manage the Scottish team at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast. This doesn’t mean she is leaving the curling world behind, though, as she still occasionally appears on TV during tournaments. 

It’s a very different world to the one in 2002. Thanks to an increase in funding, today’s Scottish curlers are professionals, who train hard all year with high precision equipment. Rhona coached Eve Muirhead, the figurehead for this new generation of curlers, and her team to an Olympic bronze at Sochi in 2014, the 2011 European gold in Moscow, and the 2013 World gold in Riga. Despite these changes, she still anticipates a return to the rink – although on a strictly casual basis.

“When you’ve been involved for so long, it’s very hard just to walk away, you know, cause it’s obviously a sport I love to play.

“I probably will go back. I definitely will at some point.”

The Last Three Months

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Over the last three months, I’ve been asked more than a few times why I chose Ottawa. The reply that I’ve formulated mentions how I came to visit Ontario a few years ago with my family, and out of all the places we visited, Toronto, Kingston, Niagara Falls, it was Ottawa that left the biggest impression. I usually say that when I left the city, I thought that I wouldn’t mind living in Ottawa one day. I’ll mention how I loved the beautiful buildings, and the scenery, and the people, and how it maintains the convenience of a big city while still feeling comfortably small and friendly.

It’s strange, because it is a generic reply. It’s what everyone says, not just about Ottawa, but about Canada in general. We’ve reached the point where complimenting the country for anything has become a cliche. And somehow – this is going to sound bizarre to people from outside Canada – people here have got the idea that having a country that is nice to be in, means the same having a country that is a bit boring.

Canadians who are reading this: that is complete nonsense. Your country is not only one of the most admired and emulated in the world, it deserves to be so. It is vibrant, it is tolerant, it is gorgeous. It has its issues, naturally (one big thing I’ve learnt since coming here is that Justin Trudeau isn’t the infallible archangel the rest of the world makes him out to be), but honestly, they seem so wonderfully fixable, especially in the context of twenty-bloody-sixteen. With the Hieronymus Bosch pandemonium of Brexit going on back home, and the surreal, screaming nightmare that’s taking place in the USA, and the skin-scratching sense of impending horror in the rest of Europe, Canada is what we need to reassure us. And listen: it’s doing a great job.

Non-Canadians, do you fancy a laugh? Right now, Canada is reeling from an expenses scandal. It’s one of the biggest political stories of the moment. Remember when we had an expenses scandal? Which of us wouldn’t give a limb to return to those halcyon days where we were worried about 40p of taxpayers’ money being wasted, rather than £66 billion of it every year? Canada, never stop fighting for what’s right, but it won’t hurt to take a moment and appreciate just how good you guys have it. Justin Trudeau may have broken quite a few promises, but when he greeted those Syrian refugees at the airport, those images told people around the world that Canada will always be here to set an example.

I’ve had the huge privilege of experiencing this Canada close up since September, and almost everyone I’ve met here has confirmed it. That feeling I had the first time I visited Ottawa – the feeling that someone seems to have created a city just for me! – has lasted for months now. I’ve had the opportunity to see inside my favourite building in the world, the Library of Parliament. I’ve explored all but a couple of the city’s great museums. I’ve walked around the grounds of Rideau Hall when they were green, then when they were orange, then when they were white. I’ve learnt an incalculable amount, particularly from my journalism lecturers David and Brett, both of whom decided to just run with the idea of a foreign kid who had only two years of university experience joining a class meant for fourth year and Masters students. It’s been enjoyably bewildering.

A crazy number of people from all over have put in the effort to make me feel as welcome as possible. Cornelia, the owner of the house I stayed in before moving into my residence, who bought me a coffee and a cream cheese bagel the day I left. Lisa, the lady who was happy to be interviewed by a student a couple of days after he sent her a desperate message over Facebook. Jarred, one of the canteen workers at Carleton, who tries his hardest to strike up a meaningful conversation with every person he serves. The Quebecois lady who works in my favourite poutinerie in Gatineau, who very politely and patiently humoured my awful French. Arelis, my Venezuelan hairdresser who talked about the factors leading to the 2009 financial crash the first time I visited her, and the virtues of Swedish politics the second time.

I’m appreciative of the fact that I have met so many fantastic people over here that it would be pointless and dull to try and list them all. Instead, I’m going to try and say goodbye and thanks to them all in person.

I’ve got just under a week left in Ottawa now. Recently, I’ve been concerned that when the time comes to pack everything up and take the bus to the train station on the 18th, I might feel like I was only beginning to settle in, like the whole experience just passed me by as if it was a two-week holiday. That worry has dissipated. Ottawa, the city and its people, has left an impression on me for good. When I remember my time here in the future, it won’t be with regret, it will be with immense gratitude for everything it gave to me over the last three months. Hopefully, it won’t be too long until I return.

The Simpsons

It was election night in America, and Hillary was going to win. I’d bought Ruffles crisps and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon to eat in celebration, watching the results roll in. Joe and I had arranged to go across to the eleventh-floor flat on campus where a bunch of our friends lived, where we’d watch CNN, pass around the Ruffles and talk and laugh so you couldn’t hear the pundits analyse all the unnecessary minutiae. We’d talk, enjoy ourselves, pass around the Ruffles, then go home around one or two in the morning knowing there was going to be a female president, which was exciting. I’d probably pick up the newspaper the next day, as a keepsake.

When we got there, the room was packed and warm and loud. Other people had brought sweets. I said hello to a few folks and took a seat next to Joe on the sofa right beneath the TV. I had Twitter on my phone, and I was swinging my head between that and the screen above my head at the start of the night.

When I was in Montreal last weekend, I joked to everyone that I’m addicted to the news – I struggle to go without internet connection or access to the TV for a few minutes, because I worry that something enormous has happened and everyone else in the world knows about it except me. It’s a disease brought on by the up-to-the-second nature of Twitter and apps like The Guardian and BBC News. I need to know what’s happening, and I need to know right now, because big or shocking news gives you a little adrenaline shot and everyone knows it and it’s very easy to get addicted to. When there is nobody to speak to, I take out my phone for Twitter and refresh and refresh to get that buzz.

It was about half past eight when we got to the flat. It was about half past nine when everyone began to realise what was happening. Some of the girls in the room were sitting with their hands clasped and their eyes on the ground in front of them. Some people were still watching the television, their fingers fiddling with the material on their trousers. Some frustratingly continued to talk, so you couldn’t hear the pundits analyse the minutiae as it grew more and more necessary. People were cheering – this is what I can’t get past – people were cheering, ironically of course, but people were cheering and laughing as the shiny, spinning graphics gave the world their prognosis.

I must have been looking a bit pale, because Joe turned to me and said, “Are you wanting to go soon?”. And I said, “You know, I really want to watch The Simpsons.”

Soon after, we both got up and left the eleventh-floor flat. It was quiet in the lift, and outside. When I got into my room, it was silent, despite everything else. I placed my phone face-down on the desk, and searched the internet for Simpsons episodes (my only regret about coming to Canada is forgetting to bring my boxset). Over the next three hours, I watched a few episodes, and I laughed. This was in the early hours of November 9th, 2016, and I was laughing. Can you believe it? It has to be the best TV programme ever made.

October

October arrives suddenly in Ottawa. As your body is beginning to adjust to temperate September, everything becomes overcast at once. The temperature falls fifteen degrees or so. The loud geese begin filling the sky above you. The tops of the maple trees turn orange, and the pigment moves down the branches as the month progresses. Before you know it, a leaf is cracking under your foot with every step.

This came as a bit of a shock to me, as the first of October meant I had already spent a month in Ottawa. While I was settling into my classes, getting used to the workload, beginning to meet new people, and casually planning for future trips out of the city, an entire month passed. I needed to stop beginning to do things and start actually doing them.

Helpfully, the first of October at Carleton means something else: one of the most famous university sporting rivalries in Canada, the Panda Game.

This is the name for when a bunch of students from Carleton University and a bunch of students from the University of Ottawa descend on a place named Lansdowne Park, where everything is hideously overpriced, to watch a game of American football. The teams on the field represent the universities, and they charge at each other for ten seconds at a time in order to win a panda-shaped trophy. You wouldn’t think it, but it is good fun.

So me and Joe, my brutally undermentioned Yorkshire flatmate at Carleton, met up with a bunch of friends and headed off. Despite the aforementioned high prices, Joe was quite happy to go up and buy snacks and drinks on a regular basis. To be fair, there wasn’t much to follow on the field. I didn’t have the faintest idea about how American football is played before I went in the stadium and, despite the best efforts of a girl sitting behind me, I left in the same state.2016-10-01-16-01-14

I followed the game by watching the scoreboard until, towards the end, a player from Carleton made a magnificent run almost the complete length of the field to score a touchdown. Even I knew that was very impressive. After three hours of nonsensical passing, sprinting, and throwing, the game had reached a climax, and as the seconds ticked down towards the end, it became clear that Carleton were going to win, and they were going to win pretty spectacularly. When the timer reached zero, our crowd stormed the field.

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That was a new experience. I was mirroring the reactions of the crowd all the way through, and at the end, the crowd was ecstatic. I joined in. It felt brilliant and bewildering.

A week or so after the Panda, when everything had calmed down again, I found myself with a free afternoon and a craving to see more of Ottawa. I’d discovered a fair bit of it, but there was still much to explore, and I felt as if my time was running out before it was too cold to leave the residence. So I took the bus into town, walked to the Prime Minister’s house at 24 Sussex Drive, had a look around Rideau Park, walked over the MacDonald-Cartier Bridge to Quebec, had a wander around a park over there, then walked back to the Parliament and took the bus back again. I’ll share some photos.

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Ottawa in the autumn is just obscenely beautiful, as you can see. A walk in any direction is inevitably rewarded by a really stunning view, or some fantastic piece of nature, which appear in unexpected spots around the city.

So the entertainment is great, and the setting is amazing, but what about the people? Well, a couple of days after my saunter, it was Canadian Thanksgiving. As most of the people at Carleton were away celebrating with their families, Joe and I decided to spend our day as Canadianly as possible. It was an early start, and we took the bus to the Parliament. We booked a tour of the Parliament building for later on that day, then went and bought some Tim Horton’s donuts. It was a good start.

Coming back into the city later on once Joe had finished his midterm revision, we entered the Canadian Parliament for our tour. If you’re unfamiliar with the appearance of the Parliament, here’s a picture I took from the adjacent Ottawa River:

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It’s a pretty incredible building. The clock tower at the back of the picture is known as the Peace Tower, and it houses a viewing platform and a war memorial chamber. In front of that, you can see the main body of the Parliament, where you find the Senate and the House of Commons among a collection of offices and meeting rooms. Then, that pointy, round wizard hat at the very front is the Library of Parliament, which is also notable as my favourite building in the world. The Library was the only part of the Parliament to survive an enormous fire in 1916, and we visited it as part of the tour. As it turns out, the interior is just as breathtaking as the exterior. I took some photos, but they’ll just look anticlimactic. You really have to walk down the corridor into it, smell it, investigate the tiniest details, to properly appreciate it.

Seeing the library was a highlight, but there were more plans for later on in the day. As soon as we’d finished the tour, and enjoyed the view from the Peace Tower, we headed back to campus for a little Thanksgiving party that Chloe had invited me and Joe along to. It was a party for the people who keep the campus residences in order, which certainly didn’t apply to us two, but being two exchange students with nowhere else to go earned us the sympathy vote. It was wonderful – so much effort had been put into the food and hospitality, I felt a bit silly just bringing a box of Timbits. I went around the room chatting to some very interesting people, and ate until I could barely move.

I may be worried about the time running away from me, but October has reminded me what is so special about Canada. Time spent doing very little still doesn’t feel like time wasted, because I’m here. The entertainment keeps me interested, the scenery keeps me curious, and the people keep me feeling welcome. Maybe I should stop fretting over the time that’s already gone, and start being grateful for the time I have left – October, November, December.

Perspectives on Trump

It’s just over a month until November 8, the date of the American presidential election and what appears to be a day of reckoning for the other seven point one billion people on the planet. We all ought to be worried about the possible results of that election and the ramifications of those results. But I don’t need to tell you that.

I don’t need to tell you why we need to be worried, either. I don’t need to tell you about the racism, or sexism, or hatred, or the greasy, repellent narcissism. I don’t need to tell you about the potential environmental, political and social disasters that could await us. What would be the point? There is no point. Most of the people reading this won’t be able to vote next month, and if any of you are able to vote, the chances of your mind being changed by my view on the subject are miniscule enough to be essentially non-existent. In any case, I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t share my opinion on Donald Trump, who doesn’t consider him to be a figurehead for the most loathsome, reactionary, hate-fuelled parts of our culture. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t wonder how he could reach seventy years old and still remain so ignorant about subjects that are so important.

Why write about the man, then? Why bother reminding everybody of his existence?

I’m afraid the problem is that I find the man and the entire phenomenon surrounding him absolutely fascinating. I have done since the start. The psychology behind the way that he speaks, and the reasons why his supporters are drawn to that incoherent babbling; the cognitive dissonance and logical leaps that his supporters have to create to justify everything he does, and why they bother going through the effort; and the whole, decades-long story that led to an inexperienced, bigoted businessman coming within one election of becoming the US president.

Anyone who’s been around me for the past few months will know that it was only a matter of time until I decided to write something about it. It’s been difficult to avoid. Trump and the terrible wave of his support has been such a monumental issue since he declared his candidacy, every journalist across the political and talent spectrum has written something about it. The sheer volume of articles and opinion pieces has, naturally, meant that a few truly great pieces of writing and analysis have appeared. Here are a few of my favourites. Please read them when you get time:

All of these are really brilliant pieces of writing, but it’s hard to shake the sense that they (with the possible exception of Moore’s piece) were all written for people like me, and people like the people who are probably reading this – people who have already made up their minds, and who just want to read something beautifully crafted that will affirm that choice. We know that Trump as US President is a horrifying prospect, and it’s comforting to know that some of the smart people who write for the world’s best newspapers agree. People get so smug about their awareness of the danger that they forget about just how imminent that danger is.

But even if the imminence of the danger is accepted, what is there to do? If people have got as far as October, hearing and seeing everything that we all have, and still consider Hillary Clinton to be as much of a threat as Donald Trump, is there anything that can be done to persuade them? Is there any possible event that might convince a Trump voter to abandon their candidate?

I am a twenty-year-old white Scottish guy, currently living in Canada. In all likelihood, I will not be affected in any meaningful way if Trump is elected president next month. I’ll be back on the other side of the Atlantic by the time he gets in. I’m not a Muslim. My first language is English, not Spanish. When I walk around in public, I don’t get catcalled, or racially abused. I usually pass through the airport pretty smoothly. My home country hasn’t been “compromised” by terrorism that makes my life hell.

I can watch Trump on the television, or read about him in the newspaper, and laugh at him. Every so often, I’ll be lulled into the idea that this whole thing is actually very entertaining, and I can’t wait to hear what bizarre, offensive nonsense he comes out with next. After all, Trump has always been a joke in Scotland, since he unsuccessfully tried to evict people from their homes around his golf course plot in Aberdeenshire, and then unsuccessfully tried to take the Scottish government to court over windfarms. A recent opinion poll gave his net approval rating in the UK as -69, spectacularly low. The election of Trump as president would destroy the credibility and reputation of the USA, which has been so carefully improved recently by Obama. He’s a clown over here, a pathetic, childish clown.

It’s easy to just sit back and laugh, though, because I’m not Mexican. I’m not black. I’m not a woman. I’m not a Syrian refugee, fleeing ISIS bullets and regime bombs only to be turned away at safety’s door because, no matter how much proof I submit, the president will never be satisfied that I’m not one of the people who caused my flight. I’m not living a few decades from now, trying to explain to kids that, right when we were on the brink of saving the planet, a climate change skeptic became the most powerful person in the world.

Too many people have spent too long pushing the boulder of progress up an eternally unforgiving mountain, for one man to let it roll back down in the name of ignorance and hatred. Those of us who haven’t been demonized or patronised, even those of us outside the United States, need to realise what we’ll be up against if Trump wins next month – and even if he doesn’t. In contrast to his supporters, we need to look beyond ourselves, and look beyond the present. Empathy and foresight are the best weapons against everything the man represents.

Settling In

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It’s now been three and a bit weeks since I sat on my laptop at Toronto Pearson Airport and wrote up my initial Canadian blog post, and exactly three weeks since I hauled all the belongings I’d chosen to take into a room at my Carleton University residence. In those twenty one days, a room has convincingly become my room, and I’ve seen a weekly routine develop. That cosy routine has taken a battering this week, though.

As it turns out, my journalism classes this semester are both pretty hands-on, with the emphasis placed on us actually going out and getting stories ourselves. Last Thursday, I had a 250-word story pitch to hand in to my Sports Journalism course, and the next day I had a spreadsheet, a report and a report about that report to hand in to my Data Journalism course. That Data Journalism report involved hunting down people to interview, including the Ottawa Police, and creating visualisations that showed all the data I had gathered. It was pretty hard work, especially with about a week to get it done, and so on Monday I was getting a bit worried.

There’s the context. Now, last weekend I sent my SA2 back to Stirling University. The SA2 is a document on which you write the courses you now know you are doing at your host university, as opposed to the SA1, which covered the courses who wanted to do at the host university. As explained in my last post, the courses on my SA1 and those on my SA2 are quite dissimilar, so it was important to get this document sent away.

On Monday, I got an email in my inbox that had been sent by Jo, the Study Abroad coordinator at Stirling. It asked why I had only written three courses on the SA2 – there should be one more. It soon became clear that somehow, since the day I chose where I was going on my semester abroad, I thought I was going to be doing one course less than I actually was. I should point out, this was a deceptively simple mistake to make, despite how ridiculous it sounds, and I’ll be happy to explain why when I’m asked. I’m not going to write it all out here, though, because it’ll sound like a bitter rant.

The end result was, on a Monday that was already crammed with worry about my journalism assignment, I now also had to get my name down on a new English class. Due to some delays, it was Tuesday when I eventually emailed the Carleton Study Abroad coordinator to ask her what to do. It turned out that Tuesday was also the semester’s new sign-up deadline. I had to rush around trying to get all the signatures I needed by 1600. I managed to do that, happily, and I’m now enrolled in a 20th Century Poetry class.

You can see why, when a day like that is over, I might want to relax by watching a TV show or something on my computer, with some chilled water. And it might seem inevitable that, given my luck, when I was pouring that water into a glass, it mostly missed the glass and washed over my laptop keyboard. At that point, it was obvious that I had lost, so I covered the keyboard in toilet paper, shut the laptop and went to bed.

The Rain Men among you might have noticed that I have not used the letter that comes between ‘E’ and ‘G’ in the alphabet anywhere in this post, and I haven’t used the number between 3 and 5 either. Those two keys, and my mouse track pad, were this disaster’s only casualties. I’ve bought a wireless mouse to solve the latter issue, but I don’t want to have to buy a whole new keyboard because two keys don’t work.

This is where it all gets a bit Laurel and Hardy. When I was writing my journalism assignments, I decided to keep the letter between ‘E’ and ‘G’ copied, so I could just press Ctrl-V whenever I needed it. Sadly, the task also necessitated copy-and-pasting several web addresses. While writing my notes and transcribing my interviews, I would, maddeningly regularly, accidentally paste a huge web address where I just meant to type that one letter. I’d then have to locate an earlier example in the document (it’s the thinnest, trickiest letter to try and highlight in existence, apparently) and copy it again.

Other times, I’d want to write the upper-case version. I’d stick on caps lock and type it, but, naturally, nothing would appear. I’d remember that I couldn’t copy and paste this one, because I’d only copied the lower case version, and that I had to go and get it under ‘insert symbol’. So I’d try and navigate up the screen with my track pad, but that doesn’t work either, so I’d grab my wireless mouse and try to resist the urge to use it to smash the smug laptop’s screen in.

In any case, I should appreciate that nothing more serious happened when I spilt that water. I could have ended up having to buy a whole new computer. I’ll get used to it with time, like with all things, like I’m getting used to Carleton. Soon, it’ll all be the routine.

The Classes Begin

Here’s something I haven’t talked about yet: a couple of months ago, I got an email to confirm the courses I’d be taking in my semester at Carleton University in Ottawa. The email said that all three of my modules were English modules. There was something wrong with this – in Stirling, my degree is English and journalism. Without any journalism modules, my Canadian semester wouldn’t count towards my degree.

Cue lots of frantic panic emails between Scotland and Canada. At first I was told that nothing could be done, and so I sent an email off to Jo, the study abroad adviser at Stirling, explaining the problem. Her advice was to visit the university when I got to Ottawa and talk to them in person. I did this the day after I arrived, and they told me to send in something called a Registration Override Request, which was basically a request to change some of my classes. A couple of days after that, once I had moved into my accommodation, I got a couple of emails from the journalism department telling me that my requests had been denied. There was simply no room in any of the classes.

My reply to this was a bit embarrassing, as it involved sounding both desperate and desperately upset. I need journalism for my degree, I said, or I don’t know what will happen to me when I get back to Scotland.

On the morning of the day when teaching officially began, I got another couple of emails from the journalism department. These said that they had found a space in a couple of journalism classes – Hallelujah! – but there was a note. Both of these classes were fourth year classes. I wasn’t quite prepared for that, in more ways than one.

So I had gone from three third-year English courses to one third-year English course and two fourth-year journalism courses. My first class was that evening, on September 7, and it was to last from 1905 until 2155 – three hours, essentially. This was a bit of a shock. Lectures in Stirling have never exceeded one hour, and they were usually less than that. This was being thrown in at the deep end. In a way, we’re returning to what I originally set out to do with this blog – jotting down the bumpy origins to a career in journalism.

It was seven o’clock and I was sitting in a classroom in the university’s River Building with a satsuma and a bottle of water. As a break-the-ice exercise, David, the lecturer, got everyone in the room to stand up individually and say who they were and what they were doing in that room, on a data journalism course. There were only eighteen of us in the room, and it was more of a computer lab than a lecture theatre. Each of the tall, stubbled men and confident women stood up in turn and declared that they were on a masters program, or they were fourth year and interested in the process of combing through data for stories, working their way round to skinny, spotty me.

When it was my turn to stand up, I told the whole story from the beginning, how I didn’t particularly belong in that classroom because I was actually in third year and in any case I wasn’t even from the country, I was from the other side of an ocean, but I got this email and I had to get it sorted and they put me here. When I was finished, everyone seemed fine. David mentioned that his wife was in Scotland at the moment, and we moved on to the next person. From that point on, I realised how we were going to play it. I wasn’t expected to prove I was worthy of a spot in this class any more than anyone else was. Even though I had landed on that swivel chair as a result of total chance, when everyone else in that room had to show themselves fit through three years, or more, of work, I was on the same level, and if I succeeded or failed, I’d be viewed the same as them. It was a freaky boat to be in.

Wow, I was excited. I still am. This is the shot, this is the test. Through a complete flip of the coin, I’ve found myself in a place where I can set up a future. If I absolutely work my arse off for this, I can be the boy who went to Canada for a few months, was given two final year journalism courses to work with despite having only studied journalism for a couple of years, and bloody nailed them. Anyone starting out in such a tough field could do with a story like that. Hell, I could get things published, get clippings. I could get a reputation from this.

The three hours flew by. David was a really casual teacher, chatting as he took us through each step. We sent away FOI requests for nice big data sets in class, and soon we’ll chisel them into real stories. We’ll interview some folk. It’s hands on, it frightens me, but that’s where you’ve got to start. It was the same with my second journalism class, which was a couple of nights ago, and it was led by a man named Brett.

But before I get to that, I’ll mention what was different about this class. This wasn’t data journalism, Wednesdays 7-10, this was sports journalism, Thursdays 6-9. While I have a very minor interest in sports journalism, in that I enjoy reading pieces like David Foster Wallace’s astounding Federer as Religious Experience, I have absolutely no interest at all in sports. I’ve never played them at any serious level, and I rarely even watch them. For his break-the-ice exercise, Brett got us to say our names, then one or more of the following:

  • The athlete we would most like to interview
  • Our favourite ever sports moment
  • Our favourite sport, to watch or play
  • Our favourite sports film
  • What we wanted to get out of the course

These are difficult questions for me. I couldn’t even think of a sports movie that I had seen. All the Canadians around me were discussing nonsense names and referring to goals in semi-finals years ago, and everyone else was laughing or nodding. So again, I explained that I had been put in this class because there was space in it, and I said I’d most like to interview Roger Federer, for some ridiculous reason I didn’t really mean. I was feeling even more alien in this class than I had in the one the night before.

But again, Brett just moved on, talked about some of the impressive work he’d done, the interviews he’d conducted, the feature pieces he’d contributed. And they were really well written. Afterwards, he explained that he was not a fan of sports. He’d never been obsessed with them. He started out as an investigative reporter, and ended up on the team of a sports magazine who wanted an outsider on the staff who could provide a new perspective. He was that outsider. His skill was in getting stories from an angle that a die-hard fan would either be unwilling to get, or would never have thought to get. Suddenly, the sports journalism class was worth going along to after all.

Again, there was an assessment that involved actually finding a story, this time to do with sports. I have no idea what’s going to happen with that, but I’m going to try and put something together. This is the shot.

I’ve just noticed how long this blog has run already, so I’ll go through the rest of the news in brief. I also had my first English class today, which went well. The lecturer for that hour-and-twenty, a man named Rob, is smart, experienced and witty, so I’m looking forward to seeing where that goes. Joe, my roommate, doesn’t appear to hate me, despite how I made it sound in my last post. We’ve had a look around Ottawa and the local Walmart since we moved in, and we’re looking to probably go out this weekend. I’ve bought a duvet, a pillow and some sheets for my room, which allowed me to return Chloe’s blanket to her. A bunch of us went into the city to watch the light show on Parliament, which was spectacular.

It’s beginning to dawn on me just how short one semester is, and I need to work out how much I need to concentrate my energy in order to blow the journalism out of the water. I need to work out if I’m capable of concentrating my energy like that, or if I’m just likely to get distracted by films or food or Twitter. This is an interesting time, and I want to find out where it goes, but I don’t want to find out too quickly. I’ll keep you updated.

Move-In Day

I’m sorry for the lack of pictures on this post, there’s a problem with sharing them between my phone and computer. Once I sort that out, I’ll make it a bit more visually interesting.

It’s now been five days since I moved to Ottawa. I mentioned in my last post that the first short while would be spent in the house of a lady named Cornelia – this short while has now passed, but it was a good one. I took advantage of this short stay in the centre of the city with several walks around the most interesting areas. I had a look around Parliament Hill and along the Ottawa River just as the sun was beginning to set over Gatineau. I toured the Canadian Museums of both Nature and History. I took a long walk to Carleton University campus, where I asked some questions and familiarised myself before returning along the banks of the Rideau Canal, where the sun burnt the skin at my elbows and the back of my neck.

I spent these first three days essentially alone, getting to know the city for myself. I’d grab lunch at a place in Rideau Mall or across the street at the Byward Market. As enjoyable as it was to have that freedom, I found myself going for hours without saying a word to anyone who wasn’t taking my order. I’d go out for most of the day, then check back into Cornelia’s in the late evening and go to bed. When you’ve just arrived in the country you’re about to spend four months in, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re wasting valuable contact-making time.

Anyway, the itch to meet new people doesn’t do much to soothe the nerves on move-in day. Not much could relax the plain, bare-boned dread of what could very possibly happen next: the roommate who might find me a tad irritating, and who makes excuses not to go across campus or into the city with me; the fellow exchange students who have already formed their Canadian friendship circles, and wouldn’t want me to disrupt things; the floormates who simply squeeze out a patronising smile when I try to start a conversation. Making the wrong impression that day would mean four months spent like those first three days in Ottawa.

September 4 was move-in day for me. I was heading to Frontenac House, a relatively new building right at the centre of the Carleton campus. I packed my bag that morning, and bumped into Cornelia on my way downstairs. She’d bought me a cream cheese bagel and a cup of coffee from Tim Hortons for my leaving day. Again, I’d only been at her house for three days, and I’d met her only twice before. It was a really lovely gesture, despite the fact that I don’t drink coffee and I’m not much of a fan of cream cheese bagels. I went out to buy some supplies for the new room, and when I came back, her cat was sleeping in my suitcase. Don’t let anyone tell you that Airbnbs are disasters waiting to happen. Mine was terrific.

Cornelia moved the cat, and I shunted my bag along to the bus stop around the corner. I plugged myself into a podcast, and took the number 7 when it arrived.

My arrival at Carleton coincided with the start of ‘Frosh’ week, the university’s equivalent to our ‘freshers’. This meant I was dragging my bag through crowds of people dancing, clapping and singing while painted purple or dressed as a raven. That really isn’t my kind of scene, and so I smiled and edged my way towards Frontenac. There, a couple of girls who took great pleasure in my accent passed me a welcome pack and waved over another girl named Chloe, who showed me upstairs to my room. Chloe is the Residence Fellow for the fifth floor of Frontenac House, meaning she keeps everything in order on my floor. I made sure to get on her good side nice and quickly, as insurance against any future misdeeds.

The room is about four times the size of my first year accommodation room in Stirling, and it is part of a larger ‘suite’ which involves a kitchen area, a bathroom, and another bedroom across from mine. Inside the room, the walls are partially painted and partially bare concrete, with a large window at the southern end which looks on to the Rideau Canal. Below the window is a double bed, and at the other side of the room there is a shelf and a metal rod for coat hangers. I dropped my bag in this room, unzipped it, and began to rebuild my home. I stuck up my nice big Saltire, my old Renaissance map of Scotland and my Swedish calendar. I dotted around the little rhino figures I had brought from home, and the framed picture of me and Charlotta, and the card Michael had given me when I left. I wanted a hint of familiarity, because familiarity is comfort.

Soon, I heard the main door open into the suite. My roommate was being shown into his own bedroom by a purple man. Feverishly eager to make a good first impression, I jumped through to his room and spoke almost constantly, I think, for about five minutes. As I realised moments after I stepped back into my own room, this probably wasn’t a fantastic first impression, and it probably made me look like a bit of a moron. I learned later that Joe, who would be living across from me for the semester, was exhausted from jet lag after his flight and just wanted a shower and a rest. This didn’t improve things.

While Joe slept, I went out for dinner with the rest of the fifth floor of Frontenac. The meal was thin, floppy burgers in wet buns, but the company was good. This was followed by a small party for the entire residence, where everyone complimented my accent and ate nachos. It was quickly becoming clear that everyone in this country is friendly, welcoming and eager to help out.

That night, after I realised I had no duvet or pillow in my room due to my misinterpretation of the residence website, Chloe loaned me a pillow and a blanket so I wouldn’t be sleeping under a towel with my head on a jumper. Settling in really is made a lot easier when people are willing to accommodate you like that. In all honesty, it’s getting to the point where I sink a little when I remember that I’m only here for the one semester, and I’ll be heading home in December, just as the canal freezes over. I’m worried that that flight’s going to come a lot sooner than I expect.

This took a bit longer than expected to write, but that’s it finished now. I’m going to try and make the next few posts a bit more frequent, but I’m stopping short of making any promises. What I can promise is, you’ll see them when they appear.

Canadian Check-In

Sorry for not updating in a while, Charlotta was over and I decided I’d rather spend time with her than write angrily on my laptop. Also, sorry for being so lazily stereotypical as to begin my first Canadian blog post with an apology.

Canada Cookie

I’ve managed to temporarily connect to the wifi at Toronto Pearson Airport, and so I’ve taken the opportunity to quickly batter out a few words about what I’m doing here. The wifi at this Canadian airport is, of course, free, because the wonderful people of this country would never dream of adopting the fascist wifi policies of, say, Madrid International Airport. Wifi costs as much as heart surgery in Canada.

The past year or so of my life have been dominated by two fairly big anxieties. The first, now passed, was anxiety over a group trek to Machu Picchu. The second, which still lingers a little somewhere in my large intestine, was anxiety over my impending move to Canada. Despite having it organised since early in my second year of university, the second anxiety only fully dawned on me once the first anxiety had disappeared, and I was home-ridden for most of the last week with a monstrous pain in my stomach. Whether the stomach pain was completely to blame on the worries I carried for my transcontinental flit is a matter for someone who knows medicine, but I wouldn’t cast it aside as a total coincidence.

Looking at everything that has happened since I first signed up for the semester abroad, it might not be surprising that I had my concerns. There was a time when I thought I’d have to rent a private flat for my four month stay in Ottawa, and organise it from across the Atlantic. I’ve been in a panic over modules, thinking the courses I’d been allocated by the university wouldn’t count towards my degree in Scotland. I’ve had a surprise email presenting a great big mysterious bill. I realised almost too late that my flight was considerably earlier than I initially thought, and that I’d be in Ottawa without a place to stay for three days before I could move into my accommodation.

Each of these worries has been picked away over the past wee while, though. When I get off my flight to Ottawa in a couple of hours, I’ll be going straight to the home of a lady named Cornelia, who owns several cats and who put one of her rooms up on Airbnb for me to find. Three days after that, I’ll be moving into a groovy looking building from 2008 named Frontenac House, which will be my residence for the rest of the semester. The bill in the email, it turned out, was simply the bill for my stay at this residence. A few days after moving in, I’ll be meeting a few more of the students at Carleton University, and hopefully getting to know Ottawa a little better.

I was drawn to Carleton for a number of reasons. It’s one of Canada’s best universities for journalism, which is part of my degree, and the students who have been there before seem to have enjoyed it. But mainly, I chose Carleton because it’s in Ottawa, a city I first visited with my family five years ago. We didn’t spend long there, but I really loved the place. It’s beautiful, and it manages to balance the convenience of a big city with a quiet, relaxed atmosphere. My dad says it reminds him of Edinburgh, and I can see his point. There’s real, interesting history in the city, as well as green parks and people who smile at you. I remember leaving Ottawa thinking I could happily live there one day. Now I’m about to board a flight to do just that.

When I got off the flight from Glasgow at Toronto Pearson earlier, I got a feeling I recognised from that trip. The staff at the airport are friendly, say hi, chatted with me. They know how to make you feel welcome in their country. I suppose that’s just Canada. It’s enough to make your pile of anxieties, no matter how high, melt down like maple syrup into a soft pancake.

I’ll let you know how I get on.