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Tribes

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A week after my university friends and I held our annual existential crisis meeting here in Amsterdam, I find myself sitting in Schiphol Departures with three kids and a sense of déjà vu as our Easyjet departure time arrives, flips us the bird, and then leaves without us into its Easyfuture with its Easychildren and its Easyworklifebalance. A Schiphol rep explains to us that we are waiting for a plane, and also a crew, who will arrive separately from their homes around Amsterdam, whilst the screen overhead displays our original departure time of half an hour ago with the same misplaced confidence that must have engulfed me when I booked these Easyflights. Surely there’s a legal argument for putting inverted commas around the Easy? I would ask my lawyer, but he isn’t here with us. He’s at home, “working”.

“Is that our plane?” asks the four year old, pointing outside.

“I don’t think so,” I answer.

A British couple opposite me, who, I have gathered, are not a Love Couple but professional colleagues whose connection has organically blossomed into a genuine friendship over the course of their working week in Amsterdam, are discussing the information on the Easyjet app.

“It just says the same,” says the woman.

“I wouldn’t even bother looking,” says the man.

I lean in; I have been talking to my kids about the meaningless shit that is important to them for the last three hours whilst simultaneously negotiating airport protocol. British Couple have been dangling the carrot of lucid adult conversation in front of me for the last sixty minutes, and now, SHIT. MAMA’S GONNA GET SOME.

“So my mum just texted me,” I confide, pointing at my phone, “to say that the Easyjet website is displaying a delay of two hours.”

“Ahhhhhh!” says British Man, who is in his sixties, and so this is very close to a profanity.

“I believe your mum,” says British Woman. She turns to the man. “I believe her mum.”

“I think you’re right to,” says British Man. “It’s all we’ve got.”

Having established myself as Harbinger of Truth, the anti-Easyjet, gateway to our new shared belief system of My Mother, Who Art In Norbury, I dole out iPads to the kids and dive right in to the luke-warm waters of grown up discourse.

“We were here for the Christmas drone delays too!” I say, wide-eyed, communicating with nuance. No-one tells you how much you’ll miss nuance when you become a parent.

“Was there ever even a drone?” asks British Man, chuckling, and he’s chuckling because this isn’t a question to which he expects an answer, it’s a rhetorical point referring to the ambiguity of both the drone witnesses and the resulting reportage of those witness accounts, and we both know that without pointing it out. JESUS CHRIST I’M HAVING A GREAT TIME.

“Do you have family here?” asks British Woman.

“No, our family is in the UK,” I say. “We live here. This is maybe our last pre-Brexit trip back.”

“Oh!” British Woman says, and then, sincerely: “We are so sorry.”

Wait, what? Why is she sorry? What do I need to pretend to understand now?

She carries on hastily: “We voted Remain. Both of us.”

She is apologizing, I realise, on behalf of her country. Or on behalf of our country. Or on behalf of the people in her/our country who voted for a farcical tantrum upon the global stage; not so much, as some have suggested, an act of suicide, because falling on your sword suggests some degree of noble intent. No, it’s more akin to mooning your next-door neighbour’s house in a bid to demonstrate your own idiotic autonomy, only to accidentally shit yourself in front of the whole street, and then subsequently insisting that the steaming pile of shit was always, of course, your goal, as your naked arse glistens beneath a lamppost.

I was still living in London at the time of the referendum, and voted to Remain, just like these two. They owe me no bigger apology than I owe myself. Still, they don’t know that, and frankly it’s about time someone apologized to me, for all sorts of things. And I’m unlikely to find myself face-to-face with any influential political leaders any time soon. So, by God, I’ll take it.

“I can hardly bear to talk about it,” I say.

“Us too!” They agree. “It doesn’t even bear talking about!”

We then talk about Brexit for forty-five minutes, until the four year old interrupts us.

“Is that our plane?” asks he asks.

The Apologetic Brits fall back into conversation with each other.

“No,” I say, sighing. “That’s the same plane as before.”

Non-EU

A few days later, we get the Eurostar back to Amsterdam, because I want to bring a lifetime’s supply of Branston’s pickle with me. Our carriage is noisy, full of British people talking about their forthcoming weekends, getting things about Amsterdam wrong. I resist the urge to butt in with corrections. I hand my children over to their iPads and get my own computer out, looking up every now and then to exclaim:

“Look, children! Look at the beautiful French countryside!”

No one seems to hear me pretending to parent; a large group behind us are more interested in listing people in Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle. The TIG Eleven are discussed at length; you know you’ve made it as a new political party, says someone, when you accrue enough representatives to form a football team. People walk back and forth past us constantly. I block them out with my headphones and return to my computer. I have several blog-related bits to look at, which are mostly kind offers to write for other people for free. (“Great exposure!”) There is an invitation to an escape room event, and I have a small, contained panic attack at the mere mention of “escape room”. I am a stay-at-home parent; every day is a fucking escape room event. There is an invitation to an English play in Amsterdam, Tribes: Would I like to review it? I reply to explain that I’d love to, but my reviews are not so much reviews in the traditional starred sense, but more a cultural stitch in the rich tapestry of the existential crisis that is my migrated identity.

They ask: one ticket, or two?

I relax with a collection of Joan Didion essays (What? How do you relax?) until we stop at Brussels, and a noisy hubbub distracts me from a story about a dinner that Joan once had with John Wayne.

“Did you see him?” says someone from within the hubbub. I turn to see people squinting through the window.

“No,” comes a reply. “I think he’ll leave from that far exit.”

“Did you speak to him?” says another.

“I didn’t, I just pretended I was using the bathroom!”

Frenetic laughter. Much excitement. I have missed something.

“What’s happening?” I ask the hubbub.

“Jeremy Corbyn and his team,” explains one of the hubbubers. “They were on our train. They just got off at Brussels.”

Joan

Another week passes at home, by which I mean Amsterdam, and with this comment I’m reminding myself just as much as you. It is St David’s Day, and my Welsh mother writes something in Elvish on our Family Whatsapp group. I am off to the premiere of Tribes with My Creative Partner, formerly My Only Friend In Amsterdam. Her ascension to Creative Partner is good news for both of us, suggesting not only that our friendship has organically blossomed into a genuinely productive working relationship, but also that I’ve made a second friend, maybe even a third.

Tribes is a great play. It tells the story of Billy, a young deaf man, the youngest son of a dysfunctional academic family that doesn’t let him get a word in edgeways. “We are all trapped,” pronounces big brother Dan ostentatiously, reading aloud from his own thesis, “in our own subjectivity!” He is in his pyjamas, with a bare foot resting in his mother’s lap as she tries to remove a splinter for him. They’re not entirely likeable, Billy’s family; they are pompous, competitive and catty, but their obvious vulnerabilities render them ultimately relatable, apart from the father, who is an unforgiving bastard. That’s fine with me. My own dad was very nice, and, as I may have mentioned once or thrice, died nearly ten years ago. Nice dads make me sad. Give me a bastard dad for entertainment purposes any day.

So. Searching for a voice and somewhere to belong, Billy learns to sign and falls in love with Sylvia, a hearing woman slowly going deaf in a deaf family. Sylvia has had it with what she calls the “hierarchy” of the deaf community, and just as Billy throws his anchor down, she wants out. Billy’s family see their map moving beneath their feet. They are no longer home without Billy’s steadying presence. Billy has his say by not having his say; he signs his frustration at his bewildered family and makes a dramatic exit with Sylvia. But – guess what? The spot on the map is moving again. The tribe isn’t where he thought it was. What now?

“I never felt totally comfortable in the Labour party,” said Chuka Ummuna in this weekend’s Guardian. So he made a dramatic exit too, just as we – the Brits – are about to make from the EU. We all think we’re owed an apology. We all want our say. A bottomless pit of personal injustice is surely a cornerstone of the modern human experience. But if came to it – if we found ourselves, for example, in the train carriage next to the Leader of the Opposition – would we know, at that moment, what to say?

Arguably, the more enlightening moments in life happen not when you find a tribe, but when you leave one, or when one leaves you. Because then, all you’re left with is yourself, whether you like it or not.

And maybe a steaming pile of shit, as your naked arse shivers plaintively beneath a lamppost outside your next-door neighbours’ house, whilst everyone else is asleep.

Tribesend
Photo courtesy of OTC

Tribes runs at Het Parool Theatre until Sunday 10 March, with a signed performance on Saturday 9 March. Buy tickets here.

5 thoughts on “Tribes

  1. Love how your compelling post morphs from novel-like to essay-like without ever taking itself seriously. Serious sentence admiration, if you ever do formulate an escape plan, a couple hours a day plan, it’ll be an entertaining novel or collection that will result and be devoured by readers. Make it an intention at least, seeds planted today…

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  2. Love this! Thank you, keep them coming. But relax with Joan Didion? Did you? I find her excessive self-awareness just plain irritating 🙂

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  3. “Arguably, the more enlightening moments in life happen not when you find a tribe, but when you leave one, or when one leaves you. Because then, all you’re left with is yourself, whether you like it or not.”

    This is beautiful, and so insightful. And congratulations on the Creative Partnership! I look forward to whatever Creative Endeavour results from it.

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  4. Most of my adult conversations about Brexit seem to turn into various declarations that the whole thing is a mess and we have no idea what will happen. I didn’t even get to vote because I’d already lived here too long at that point.

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