Upgraded to a liminal zone


For the last 30-plus years I have been a fairly frequent air traveller, mainly between the UK and Japan, but also within Europe. Over the years I have developed my flight kit, and my personal expectations of plane etiquette. For long-haul flights I always take a neck pillow and my own small blanket (I don’t think airlines clean the blankets after every flight, how could they?). I have a foldable water bottle, and a small plastic bag with toothbrush, moisturiser, eyedrops etc. I always carry my Kindle. For short-haul flights I can do without the neck pillow and blanket.

Plane etiquette: Of course I greet the person I’m going to be sitting next to, but after that I like to be in my own little bubble until just before the plane lands. After the travel to the airport and getting through luggage drop-off, hand luggage check, waiting at the gate, it’s nice to just unwind a bit. Unless you need me to pass you something or stand up so you can get past me I’d rather not have long conversations.

Several years ago, KLM announced some link-up with Facebook where you could search your flight for people who knew and then get seated next to them. No thank you. In all my years of travel there has been one occasion, only one, when my fellow passenger started talking to me before take off and I didn’t mind. We’ve stayed in touch, she’s a Facebook friend now, but that is the only time. (It was a December flight on Swiss Air, hello H if you’re reading this.)

In these 30-odd years I have also been a reasonably loyal customer, and have amassed air miles in a couple of frequent flier programmes. On a few occasions I have been upgraded, but it hadn’t happened for a while.

Last month I went on my annual visit to the Netherlands (more on that in another post). From Manchester to Schiphol is a very short flight, only about 50 minutes, barely time for the cabin crew to serve everyone a drink and clear up before we land. You take off, climb for a while, cruise briefly and then start to descend.

I checked in online, went to the airport, dropped off my bag and went to the gate (OK, I did make a brief detour through duty free and Costa Coffee). Just before boarding, they announced that the flight would be full and asked several passengers to come to the desk at the gate; one of the names they read was mine. They gave me a new boarding pass; I had been moved up to 1C from a few rows back. Oh what joy! It may be a very short flight, but a bit more space, being right at the front of the plane so I could get off ahead of everyone else, I was briefly happy with my lot.

The fun started when I got on the plane.

Sitting in seat 1A, the seat next to the window, was a British man in his late sixties or early seventies. Realising that I was going to be in 1C, he asked, would you like the window seat? I agreed to the seat swap, and as he settled into seat 1C he remarked, ‘I always sit in 1C.’ OK then. From there he didn’t stop talking until we landed at Schiphol.

Within a couple of minutes, he was telling me about his wife’s cancer and chemotherapy, his former life in South Africa, first as an engineer and then as a diamond dealer, (he was on his way to Antwerp that day), his reluctant return to the UK and disillusion with post-Apartheid South Africa, his own health concerns, including a recent colonoscopy (done by a doctor friend in Germany at no charge), how to book train tickets with the best app (the one I was relying on was not good, apparently); on and on he went.

I tried to avoid his conversation, first by pretending to doze. That didn’t work; I was poked awake for the snack (which is much nicer in business class). Later I pulled out a newspaper but he read over my shoulder and commented with some relish about the article on North Korea. I mentioned then that yes, it was concerning, particularly as I live in Tokyo. I thought he might find that interesting, but no, he ignored it completely. I was just the person he was talking at for the duration of the flight. Later I turned and looked out of the window, noting with some relief that I could see wind turbines in the sea, so we must be approaching the Dutch coast.

Just as I was thinking, oh thank goodness, a bit of peace, a hand snaked forward from the passenger in 2A. He poked me on the arm and said, ‘It’s a nice view, isn’t it?’ I gave up and asked a member of the cabin crew for a cup of tea, which was brought in a white china mug instead of the usual plastic cup. ‘Aha!’ said the man next to me, ‘I knew it! You’re from Yorkshire! My wife is from Yorkshire and is always drinking tea.’ Through gritted teeth I answered, ‘North East Derbyshire’. Of course, he didn’t hear me.

Finally, we landed at Schiphol, taxied, then got off the plane onto a bus to go to the terminal. Mr. Chatty picked up his briefcase, deplaned (as they say), hopped on the bus and started talking at someone else. It wasn’t me, it was him.



My heart is not here


Jet lag is a funny thing. I got back to Tokyo last night after an almost 24-hour journey back from the UK. After a pot of tea and some toast I thought I’d be ready for bed, but nope, at 4am I was still wide awake. I finally managed a couple of hours sleep and then my eyes popped open again and by  7:30 I was out in the windy sunshine, off for a walk round the lake at my local park.

This year I have been walking every day, and as well as making me fitter it has also opened my eyes to the beauty and wonders around me. Tokyo is a great city to walk in, but in the summer, walking around the village I grew up in I realised what a country girl I am. I recognised the crops, I was thankful for the good harvest, I fretted whether the harvest would be in before the rain came. Walking in my own childhood footsteps I had a new appreciation for the village and the surrounding countryside.

Just as I did in the summer I spent the last fortnight taking the same walks. My favourite takes me all the way up the village, past the primary school I attended, along the top road and then a long walk down a farm track, through a hamlet and back out onto the main (actually only) road. I walked through the wood where bluebells bloom in the spring, past the field of Jacob sheep (and the alpaca that lives with them), past the church where I was confirmed. On Sunday I walked 4 miles to the parish church, something that feels like a mini pilgrimage every time I do it.

And then, on Wednesday, I left again and flew back to Tokyo, and I have the same feeling I did when I came back at the end of August: my heart is not here. My body is here (even though it refuses to sleep), my mind knows I’m here, but my heart hasn’t caught up yet. My feet are walking on the pavements in Tokyo, but they are missing the farm tracks, the mud and the soft fallen leaves I was walking on a few days ago. I see herons at the park and miss pheasants, I smell car exhausts and miss woodsmoke, I see smart pedigree dogs dressed up in little outfits out for a walk and I miss the farm dogs who come out to bark and see me off as I walk past their home.

My heart aches for the landscape that shaped me, for the memories, for my roots. I feel like I’ve been wrenched away from the soil that I belong in. Having spent most of my adult life in large Asian cities I thought I was a confirmed city dweller and it has come as a surprise to understand that I am very much a country girl; a north of England, tiny village, muddy-booted, crop-watching, blackberry-picking country girl.


Love more. Connect more.


It has been a long, strange week. Some of it I expected; my schedule at work was quite packed, I knew I had a lot to do. I knew my evenings were also spoken for, and that the days would be long. In the middle of it all was the US election, and I was, like most people I think, expecting Hillary Clinton to be elected. By Wednesday I was just feeling relieved that all the campaigning, and all the unpleasantness that had gone with it, would soon be over. I was looking forward to it not being on TV every time I turned it on, and I was looking forward to not having to listen to Donald Trump anymore.

I am not American, so I was only a bystander, I had no vote, but of course an American presidential election affects us all. I am British, and you may remember we inflicted something similar on ourselves back in June, when by a relatively small margin we voted in a referendum to leave the EU. I didn’t have a vote then either, because British citizens lose the right to vote after living outside the UK for fifteen years.

Now, here I must say, the majority of my friends were horrified at the Brexit result; most people I know voted, or would have voted, remain. I do, though, have some friends who were, and continue to be, delighted at the referendum result. Likewise, the majority of Americans I know were not Trump voters, and my Facebook newsfeed has been reflecting the horror, despair and heartbreak that many of my friends are feeling. I know there are some Republicans among my Facebook friends, but they seem not to be posting  at the moment. It feels a lot like Brexit, and has given me a lot to think about.

Had I had a vote in the US election, I would have voted for Hillary Clinton. I understand that many people even in her own party found her an unattractive option, and that for a lot of Americans she is far beyond that. I know that she was a flawed candidate but I did not, and still do not understand the visceral hatred many people voiced throughout the campaign. I just don’t get it.

Donald Trump. Well. It’s hard to know what to say. He said himself, months ago, that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and he wouldn’t lose any votes. In the end, it seemed there was nothing that could make people not vote for him. The comments about immigrants, about Muslims, about women . . . jaw-droppingly, mind-bogglingly dreadful, and still he rolled on. I had a conversation a week ago with a friend who is a Republican, and she was focusing on Mike Pence, almost voting for him and ignoring the name right at the top of the ticket. Maybe a lot of people did.

So here we are. The world waits to see what the Trump presidency will look like. Millions of people in the US are scared about what is to come; for undocumented immigrants, for women, for LGBT people, for people living with diseases or chronic health concerns, for the planet itself. We don’t know what is going to happen. As a candidate, Mr. Trump promised or threatened many things. With a Republican House and Senate he could get a lot done.

After the Brexit vote, hate crimes increased in the UK. People inclined to hate felt liberated, it seemed, to express their hatred to whomsoever crossed their path. There was a brief flurry of petitions, half the country scrambling to find a loophole to undo what had been done. There was a lot of distress in my Facebook newsfeed then, too. I was part of it, I needed to say, I am heartbroken, I don’t know what has happened to my country, where has it gone, what have you done to it, how do we get it back? It is still raw, months later. I still don’t know how we did that to ourselves.

And yet, I do. I know there were a lot of lies during the campaign, but I also know the Leave side seemed to have far more passion and brought people out to vote who had never voted before. The Remainers didn’t seem to get their act together enough, didn’t seem to believe we could really inflict such damage on ourselves. Some of my friends campaigned, stood outside in the rain handing out leaflets, called voters to ask if and how they would be voting. But how do you talk to someone who is voting Leave because of Napoleon?

There are people in the UK who thirty years ago would have been solid Labour voters. In 1997 they must have hoped and expected that the New Labour government would be in their corner, redress the balance of almost two decades of Thatcherism, and yet, they weren’t. For the last twenty years, these working people have watched their jobs disappear, watched the free movement of people within the EU, felt left behind, and wondered, why doesn’t someone do something for us? They were easy pickings for the likes of Nigel Farage, now gleefully skipping through New York to pay homage to the president elect, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and others who thought they would rock the boat just enough to improve their own lot.

It is an awful thing to see your country divided down the middle, distrust, hurt and anger spilling out, the country you love spatchcocked because people who got tired of not being listened to finally turned out to vote and really did make a difference. In any election, the losing side feels disappointment, but after Brexit, after this election, it’s more than that. It’s important to remember that in both cases half the country is happy with the result. But the other half is distraught.

What can be the reaction to division and hate? We have to love more. We have to connect with each other more. Hunkering down is not an answer for our broken hearts. I am not suggesting that people should try to talk across the divide about what has happened. Everything is too raw, and will be for a long time, maybe even for the next 4 years.

I have a friend in Tokyo who was, and still is, cock-a-hoop about Brexit. We have agreed to not discuss it. There is absolutely no point, because he thinks it’s brilliant and I am still convinced that we have done great damage to ourselves. Neither of us will be swayed by the other, we both believe, sincerely and passionately, that we are right. I don’t believe our friendship would survive a heated discussion about it. But we meet for lunch, we talk about other things. We connect on a human level about things we agree on. I have lunch with my friend, not a Brexiter. We connect on the things we share and it is balm for my heart.

Two memories:

(1) Quite a few years ago, I was having lunch with another friend, and I mentioned someone who was one of my few Republican friends. My lunch companion declared that he wasn’t friends with any Republicans, that it would be impossible.

(2) Also a number of years ago, a Church of England priest who was spending several months in Japan preached at church one Sunday morning. He started by describing what he had seen on his travels so far, what were well-known cultural differences between the UK and Japan, and I remember sitting there, inwardly rolling my eyes, thinking, really? Is this all you’ve got? It wasn’t. He moved from, oh, look at that, it’s a shrine, it’s a kimono, it’s sushi, to an exhortation to always seek out the ‘other’. Whatever is alien, whatever feels strange, whatever feels right outside your comfort zone, go there. You will only grow and learn by encountering new things.

There have been a lot of awful things said in the course of the election campaign; some of it was lies, some of it was hateful, but it is over. If President Trump does start to do the things he has spoken of, then there are people and rights that will need to be defended.

But there are also people, whose hearts are broken, who are feeling frightened. There are people who voted for the winning candidate, who are feeling vilified and don’t understand the anger from the other side. Apparently they didn’t hear the hateful things as hateful things and voted, I hope, for a positive reason. I suspect that many on both sides voted for the lesser evil and are feeling bruised by the whole process.

America is a great country. I take issue with plenty of things about it, but the people are great. Mr. Trump doesn’t need to make them great again, because they already are. They are welcoming and friendly in a way that British and Japanese people find beyond them. They work hard, for far less vacation than people in many other countries, in a way that other countries respect and emulate. Look at China. They have an immensely beautiful country. It’s stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful. They have big, open hearts and an eagerness to get things done.

It’s a time to guard our hearts. It’s time to put love and kindness into the world. Post your anger, disbelief and distress on Facebook, if that’s what you want to do. I see those things, briefly, and then I hide them. I am guarding my own heart. Sign petitions, if that’s what you want to do. In June I signed them too, and felt a tiny bit better. But don’t spend too much time receiving input into your heart from the media. Turn off the TV, turn off the computer. Our output is more powerful; we need to send our love out into the world. The world needs it now.

Love more. Connect more. Please.