Homecoming week

One night in the summer of 1994, around 3 AM, I woke up to the sound of a key in the lock of the door of my room.

This was when I was working for a Public Sector Organisation. It was headquartered in a town that had a Budapest-like divide between the wealthier and poorer sections. My main concern at the time was rent, so naturally I was living in the latter. But I also wasn’t unaware of the risks that would come with that.

However, there was also a nursing college in that part of town. Which had a residence, and which also happily rented out rooms to non-nurses if they had some available. A friend who also worked for Public Sector Organisation had stayed there the previous summer, so it came recommended. It seemed like the perfect solution: community, solidarity in numbers, the presence of other people working in the Public Sector who were new in town. And a security guard on reception.

Who didn’t work nights.

So I sat up in bed saying something that probably sounded like “whazzafluck?” Heart pounding, trying to cope with the fact that, despite all my security precautions, someone, someone who was not authorised to do so, was not even breaking into my room, but was actually. Coming. In. With. A. Key.

The door swung open, to reveal, not burglars, rapists or emergency services personnel, but two girls in their late teens.

The first one looked me straight in the bleary eyes and said, cheerfully, “Oh, hello. I didn’t realised they’d rented the room out again. Mind if I show my friend around?”

And then, while I sat there in bed trying to figure it out, she literally gave her friend a tour. It wasn’t a big room, so the tour was along the lines of, “this is the bed, and this is the cupboard, and this is the bookshelf, and this is the window and this is the desk…”

She then smiled, said goodbye, and walked out, closing the door behind her.

The next day the security guard was very apologetic, swearing blind that he hadn’t know she’d kept a copy of the key (I believed him, but not so sure I believed the building manager’s similar denial), and agreeing both to move me to a different room as soon as possible, and to keep my laptop in the combination-locked secure room until that could happen (1990s laptops being expensive and huge).

The story, as much as I could tell, was that she was a local girl who had run away from a bad home situation and used the nursing residence as a sort of halfway stop between getting away from her family and actually getting out of town. She’d just moved out one day, presumably having found a way to do just that.

So that explained the surreal reunion tour. With a biography like that one, the desk, the cupboard, and the bookshelf– your own desk, cupboard and bookshelf– do rather become very significant things.

And if somebody who’d lived in my house back in the day came by and wanted to visit, I’d be happy to let them in to relive the old memories.

Not, however, normally at 3 AM!

Returning from Amsterdam: An Italian Comedy

In the summer of 1999, I had a newly-completed M.Phil. degree from Oxford, severe burnout, and no money. I had gone to Amsterdam to celebrate the first and recover from the second. To address the third, I had travelled by bus.

The bus back was on the final leg of a journey up from Italy, and so was full of happy Italian students, heading back to the UK. Which, under normal circumstances, would have made for a fun atmosphere and a nice end to the journey. The problematic element was that the driver was also in the mood, and wanted to play his video collection. On the bus’ internal video system. At inescapable volume.

Here is one of the films: https://youtu.be/xll47sY_AvU

Here is another: https://youtu.be/84VpGffhmgs

[side note: the author of this blog claims no responsibility for the content of external links]

Nowadays, in this era of Google and Wikipedia, I am aware that the driver was a consummate fan of 1980s Italian action-comedy legends Terence Hill and Bud Spencer. At the time, all I could think was, “who exactly are these two gentlemen and why can I not escape their wacky adventures?”

And then came the border crossing at Calais.

We all filed off the bus, stood in a queue with our luggage, then stood in a waiting room until given permission to return to the bus.

Did I say “we?”

The sole exception had two thumbs, no money, and a very new Oxford M.Phil.

Now, it’s perfectly understandable why I’d been “randomly selected” for a bag search. I’d just spent a week sleeping in the communal dorm of a youth hostel, and looked it; I was carrying a much-worn rucksack with a Canadian flag on it (you have to have the flag, if you don’t they revoke your citizenship and ban you from buying maple syrup for life); I was wearing my last reasonably clean clothes, which were a pair of stripy linen harem pants, Birkinstocks, and a T-shirt advertising the Toronto Lesbian And Gay Pride 10 Kilometre Road Race. The T-shirt might, in hindsight, as well have read “I went to Amsterdam for the drugs, and I just might be stupid or naïve or overprivileged enough to try and bring back some snacks. Please search me.”

Furthermore, with the adventures of Signori Hill and Spencer on my mind, I was thinking of all the ways this could go wrong.

Maybe the box of tulip bulbs that the shopkeeper had assured me had all its certifications to return to England would turn out to be a rare specimen stolen from the Botanical Gardens, and I’d be arrested for trafficking….

Maybe the souvenir teddy bear from the youth hostel would turn out to have been stuffed with hemp fibre and set off all sorts of alarms…

Maybe the customs inspector would get entirely the wrong impression from the amusing souvenir T-shirt, or the box of cookies I’d bought for my friends back at college, or from the Charlie Chan mystery novel I’d book-swapped for or…

…well. Lack of sleep and three hours of Hill and Spencer had me convinced I’d be fleeing Calais on the back of a hippopotamus. So I just sat down and watched the bag search with detached, if slightly fatalistic, interest.

Partway through the bag search, the inspector said to me, “you know, you’re the calmest person about this that I’ve ever seen.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Normally people just stand there looking scared and guilty. But you’re not.”

So we got to talking, and I asked him what the weirdest professional experience he’d had was (unpacking the bags of a young couple and finding it full of used baby diapers, as it happens), and then he asked me a question and so I had to explain what anthropology was and why I was studying it, and I was back on the bus before long.

The Italians, still being happy, forgave me for the delay, and the trip back to Oxford otherwise went smoothly, to the merry sound of Miami Supercops.

If Hill and Spencer ever needed a scriptwriter for an English Channel customs-agent comedy, I was on it.