The Strangeness of Kindness – remembering how to be human

I’ve spoken before about my need for reindoctrination into the concept of people being ‘nice’ after living in London for so long, but I thought I’d share a story to illustrate how severely afflicted I was. This was a couple of weeks after moving to Edinburgh and I still wasn’t used to the whole idea of good customer service. Or any kind of customer service. Actually it was all rather weird.

My kitten had been driving me nuts for days, so, determined to sort her the hell out, and despite the fact it was called Simply Dogs, I walked to the pet store half a block from my house. I didn’t know for sure, but I was fairly confident Simply Dogs wasn’t a literal interpretation of their services, just like the launch of Virgin Airlines years ago didn’t convince me I’d be ineligible to fly with them.

I had a quick look at the window displays and yes, there we go, cat toys. I pushed the white, wooden door open with some effort and stepped in. Although only about as big as your average famous person’s walk in closet, Simply Dogs was crammed full of what was quite possibly every single animal product available to mankind. Precariously stacked shelves of name tags, leashes and fetch toys reached the ceiling. Cat and dog baskets, bicycle carriers, litter, dry food, wet food, fish food, bird food, automatic laser beams, dog hurdles and curious things called Wiggly Giggly and Kong Wobblers filled almost every bit of floor space. These too were arranged just as alarmingly as the shelves.

I stood there, stuck staring in amazement, before being startled by a small “hello…”

Turning my head to the right I was surprised to see a lady seated behind a small glass counter. She was crouched so low, for all I knew she might have been sitting on the floor.

“Oh. Hello.” I replied, feeling giant-like as I looked down at the top of her head.

She smiled widely and stood up. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

She had soft blue eyes and a kind, round face, but her hair was a most unusual pale yellow, so much like creamed butter that I felt a sudden urge to lick a cake bowl. She wore a grubby, blue windcheater with the name “Pedigree” embroidered on it and her plump hands were clasped together, resting on her belly as she spoke.

“Well, my kitten has developed a new routine where she claws the sides of my bed at 3am every morning. Have you got a scratching post? But not those stand up, ugly carpet ones? Are there any other kinds?” I asked hopefully.

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I know what you’re thinking – how could anyone possibly ever have a problem with something this cute and fluffy? Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, you’ve obviosuly never had one.

Her eyebrows lifted toward her buttery fringe. “Oh aye,” she said, coming round from behind the counter and negotiating two display racks in the middle of the store. She squeezed in front of me, her right foot kicking a bottom shelf as she passed. A pyramid of Sheba Chicken Liver spilled to the floor.

“Oh.” she said, absentmindedly looking back to see what she’d knocked over, but making no move to pick them up. “I’ve got a wee something back here, the last one I think.”

Balancing one hand on a box of disposable puppy nappies, she reached behind a row of super-size Royal Canin dog food bags and presented me with what looked like a skateboard made of porous cardboard.  ”There we are,” she said, pleased.

As she handed it to me, I noticed a small, plastic bag of suspicious looking herbs taped to it.

“It comes with Catnip. You sprinkle it all over it. Cats love it.” she explained.

“Ah,” I said, moving the packet toward me for a closer look, somehow managing to stop the urge to sniff. Continue reading

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Basic Instincts – just because you can’t see the ice pick, doesn’t mean they’re not a psycho.

Choosing to house-share via a website is a bizarre leap of faith. I mean, you email back and forth, arrange to meet and then if all goes well, move in a few days later. What on earth can you figure out about a person you’ve just met online that makes you decide you can co-habit? It’s speed dating on crack.

Of course, there’s the obvious things to look for; do you like the house and your room, is it conveniently located to where you work, does the neighbourhood possess all the amenities you’d be needing like a supermarket, bakery, brothel, I mean church? But does this person have an ice pick under their bed? Not so easy to check.

In one more week I shall be an unemployed bum yet again. Most people would be upset by this, but I’m quietly hoping I didn’t get that job I went for last week because a dose of unemployment will give me time to write. Plus without any money, maybe I’ll lose a couple of the kilos I’ve put on after four months being stuck to a chair for eight hours a day.

The job is at a university, helping manage flat rentals for students. They’re at the stage where they’ve lived with each other for a couple of months and personality clashes are beginning to show. Of course, all this has done is make me ponder my own disastrous colourful history of flat-sharing.

I’ve been through this process many times now. My decisions are usually based on nothing more concrete that a feeling, an instinct and, surprisingly often when I think back on it, alcohol. The first time I opted to live with strangers I was 26. The ad said they were looking for someone over 28 but I chose to ignore this. It was 11am when we met and within a few minutes they were serving me champagne. Three hours and many glasses later, I left with a new home.

Instinct paid off here and I lived happily there for three years, until one of the three housemates started a relationship with a manipulative psycho bitch and the house dismantled. Two housemates left and instinct failed me abysmally with the choice of replacement.

It’s probably my fault. I was, not for the first or last time, led astray by aesthetics. The best candidate of a bad bunch was also the prettiest. And at first he seemed fantastic, but it soon became evident that he was a habitual liar and, we came to suspect, a gay male escort. Continue reading

Homeland – the version with cows and sheep, not presidential assassinations

knit me a sweater

It’s possible one of these sheep donated the wool for my Harris Tweed cushion. I mean, it’s a small place right? It could have been. Maybe.

Years ago, watching a blue faced Mel Gibson sitting on a horse going on and on about his freedom, it never really occurred to me that the land which he so ferociously battles to save would hundreds of years later be the land of my ancestors. So two years ago, on what was probably about the eighth rewatch of Braveheart, I decided the time had come. I wanted to see my ancestral homeland, to see if I felt some sense of belonging, of kinship, and whether I suddenly developed a taste for sheep’s stomach stuffed with offal.

Happily, I was living in London at the time. This meant I was about 16,000 kilometers closer to achieving this goal than I would have been had I been watching Mel strangle a Scottish accent on my couch in Melbourne. So I booked a wee trip around the West Highlands.

I caught the train up to Edinburgh on a Monday afternoon and met the tour bus early on Tuesday. I’d put a lot of effort into picking the right kind of tour company. I didn’t want the ‘let’s get trashed every night till we vomit’ tour, or the other end of the spectrum, the’ ‘I’m so old I might die on this tour’ tour. I thought I’d picked the happy medium. As I walked around a corner onto the Royal Mile, I saw our mini bus parked on the street, a large dent and angry grey marks slashed across the front bumper bar. Now, if I was someone who believes in signs… oh, I am… shit.

My bus was made up of a family of six from India, a Malaysian couple in their fifties, an Australian couple and their (I’m guessing) not-quite-all-there teenage daughter, three Germans in their twenties and me. Oh and James the driver/guide/historian/botanist/web-designer/soon to be ex-smoker – “Tomorrow tomorrow, I swear I’ll give up tomorrow”.

Glencoe 2

This is Glencoe, site of the tragic massacre of the McDonald clan in 1692 after the Jacobite uprising. The eerie weather was the perfect backdrop for James’ tale of murder and betrayal.

The Indian men were lawyers, quite happy and chatty, but their wives and kids kept pretty much to themselves. Although one woman made her prescence known by belching her way around the Highlands. Every minute or so there’d come this enormous, chunky burp from her, then a second, then a third, just in case you put the first two down to exotic wildlife. None of her family batted an eyelid.

The Malaysian couple were lovely. The husband had studied engineering in Glasgow thirty years ago and was back on a small trip around Scotland, to show his wife around I guessed.

The Australians, yeah they were nice too. Everyone was ‘nice’. I of course recognised their accents straight away and a few sentences in I also guessed they were from Queensland.They were amazed at my deduction, but it’s not that hard for someone who spent a bit of time up north in her teens. You see, the dad spoke really slowly. Like. There. Was. A. Full. Stop. Between. Every. Word. And the mother had a habit of repeating everything, but with a slight edit on the second sentence, also a very Australian trait. She’d be like “So how long have you been here? Have you been here long?” and “I guess you’ve been to heaps of castles. Have you seen lots of castles?” By the end of the trip, to my horror, whenever I spoke to her I realised I was doing it too.

On the first day, whenever we stopped for a photo-op (or as I deduced – James’ cleverly disguised smoke breaks) their daughter would steal off by herself and then… well… all I can say here is ‘act like a horse’. She’d flick back her head as if she had a mane of hair to swish, lift one leg slightly and stamp the ground and then launch into a short canter across the countryside before coming to a stop and then looking at me like she’d done nothing weird. Maybe I should have offered her my apple. Continue reading

Like a Business Trip Virgin – Expensed for the Very First Time

This is Zurich. To find out why you’re looking at a picture of Zurich, you’ll have to keep reading.

I realised this morning I have nothing left to stress about. What on earth am I going to do now? I can’t remember how one acts when one is sane and composed and dare I say… happy?? Well, I’m sure I’ll muddle through. Life’s bound to go pear shaped sooner or later.

So September’s come and gone. That happened. I passed my Life in the UK test, I went to Italy to check out real estate, I survived going to London to (attempt to) take photos for a friend’s wedding and got back just in time to post off my UK residency papers. Stress, stress and more stressssssss. I also had two job interviews in there somewhere. One I didn’t get because I don’t have Edinburgh experience in answering a phone, writing down what the person tells me is broken and organising someone to repair it – but he thought I was terrific and if he had time to train me on answering the phone, writing down what the person says and organising the repair person, I would have been a shoe-in.

Oh hey, wait a minute, there is something to stress about – I’ll be unemployed again in three weeks. See, told you. Oh, that feels better.

Anyhoo, being stress free today reminded me of the time I went to Zurich for a week with work in 2011. If you’ve never been, and for me coming from London (where I lived then), the absolute calm of Zurich is friggin’ eerie. No, it’s pungent. It gets up your nose and makes you screw up your face and think “what the hell is that?”

On the plus side, my stomach miraculously behaved itself the entire week. Having to sit in a deathly quiet office with three senior managers is normally enough to have it perform an aria of gurgling and suspect eruptions, brought on just from the fear of that deathly quiet, never mind what I chose to put in my mouth that day. But to my utter amazement, not a peep. It was the first time I started to see a link between my gut, my head, and how much a city can affect your stress levels.

But anyhoo, I digress. Here’s a little ‘diary’ I wrote while there. I dug this out because I’m lazy, I mean busy, and I haven’t written anything on my poor blog for so long. Millions and bazillions of readers are bound to be wondering if I’m alive, or if I’ve discovered God and moved to the Amazon to spread his word to some unknown jungle tribe. Actually I did discover God and I am spreading his word – on Twitter.

Just for some background, the reason I was sent to Zurich was to gather space management statistics for a week, to help them configure the floor plan of a new office being built next door. In other words, I walked into every office and counted empty desks twice a day, then wrote the numbers down. Obviously such lowly grunt work was beyond the three senior managers whose office I wrote these figures down in, so the most cost effective solution was to fly someone from London to do it, put them up in the Marriott for a week and pay for their meals. That, by the way, is most certainly not a complaint.  Continue reading

The Secret to Being a Featured Blogger on Huffington Post

Before we begin, I must explain something. There’s being published on Huffington Post and there’s being featured on Huffington Post. Only one will give you the chance of a massive audience. The other will give you bragging rights, but no audience to speak of, unless of course you do constant self promotion and nag all your real friends and social media ‘friends’ to read it and ‘like’ it. I think that’s cheating, but I could just be bitter.

All advice below relates to my own experience, and that is HuffPo UK, not USA. I’m assuming the procedures are the same, but maybe not. I’m also assuming any admiration you had for my awesome writing feat may have just slipped down a few notches on the belt of awesomeness… but hey, UK, USA, saaaaaaaaaame. 

Being featured pretty much guarantees an audience; often of mean, opinionated snobs, ready to pick holes in your grammar, your spelling, your education, your seeming lack of journalistic skills and pretty much every statement in the entire article. But you asked for it, stop your crying Natalie Chatalie… I mean readers…

So here we go. The secret to being published on HuffPo is that there’s no secret. Anyone can do it. Well, anyone who can put a few hundred words together in some kind of coherent structure. And sometimes you don’t even need that skill, as the chorus of bitchy commentators will no doubt point out. Yep, I recently figured out that HuffPo has a “contact us” section and it’s there right in front of us all. I hope you noticed that I’ve been helpful and hyperlinked it for you. If you’re as (non) tech savvy as me, that means click on the blue words.

I don’t know why but it never occurred to me that anyone could be a HuffPo blogger. Judging by everyone’s bi-lines I thought you had to be some kind of world leader or successful type person. I mean look at this morning. There’s “Director of Giant Pandas and Strategic Innovations for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland” and “Head of Communications at Women’s Resource Centre,” and “Associate director of education and social policy at CentreForum, the liberal think tank” for gods sake. But look closer and you’ll figure out there’s also this – “Award-winning heavily tattooed comedian, writer and professional idiot”. See… aaaaaaanyone can do it.

So go ahead, click the blue word above dear readers and HuffBlog your little hearts out.

But remember, you’ll want to be featured, not just published, which means they’ll put you on the front of one of their categorised pages, or if you’re really lucky, on the front page of the ‘Front Page’ of the entire thing. And I think I’ve figured out how that happens. Continue reading