And what a disappointment it was! This week I've been really focused on healthy eating, cutting down my alcohol intake quite dramatically, drinking plenty of water and keeping up with my exercise routine. I've been below 1400 calories every day (but not hugely below – so I don't think I'm under eating) and have been eating more fruit and veg, plus wholemeal bread rather than white. I've probably had about a third of the units of alcohol I was consuming – and so way fewer empty calories than usual. I've drunk at least a litre and usually 1.5 litres of water a day. I've done DPPY every day bar one. The only thing I've not really done this week is walking – a couple of days I've come close to my target but I've not found a way to fit it into the routine yet.
So a good week and one where I expected to see a good weight loss, at least two pounds. I FEEL thinner, I LOOK thinner so surely I must WEIGH thinner too?
Nope. The scales haven't moved at all. Not a single pound.
How very disappointing.
Ok it's time of the month so I'm hoping it's due to period-related water retention – I do tend to gain, so maybe next week I'll have a bumper weight loss. And the DDPY is toning me so it could be weight redistributing itself. I'll get out the tape measure later and see.
But I'm stil disappointed. This is the story of my life – I make an enthusiastic start, lose a few pounds (eight so far), carry on working hard and being good but quickly plateau. Then I get bored, get annoyed, give up the healthy lifestyle, eat and drink what I want – and put back on all the weight I've lost, and some.
But this time I am NOT going to do that. Mostly because I actually don't feel like it's been hard work. I've been eating well, and enjoying my food, and not denying myself things I want. I've been loving my exercise and can't see me stopping that, whatever. I've been feeling better for drinking less alcohol and more water – my skin is noticeably less dry and more clear.
I just need to find the missing link. Maybe it's walking – I'm going to make a concerted effort to hit my (admittedly measly) target of 7000 steps a day over the next week, and try and incorporate a daily walk into my routine, and gradually increase the steps and see what happens. Doesn't help that I work from home so have no commute, no chance to walk to the bus stop or station or park the car further away from the office than usual. But I'll do what I can to increase the steps.
And I'll try and keep positive. I know how easy it is for me to fall off the wagon when it comes to my weight. I need to reinforce the benefits and keep going, no matter how disappointing the results.
So here’s my review of DDP Yoga, the transformational fitness workout devised by American wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. We met DDP at Wrestlecon in Dallas, Texas this April, and until then I’d never heard of DDP Yoga … and why should I? I’m not a yoga person, I’m not an exercise person, stuff like that passes me by. But my son had heard about it (I’ll try and find the video Dan had seen that inspired him) and he mentioned it to DDP, and we chatted a bit. And while we were in America I saw lots of very large people, and I looked at the photos of me and didn’t see what I liked there, and I decided to take a look at the DDP Yoga thing when we came home.
DDP – the guy behind DDP Yoga
Dallas Page created DDP Yoga when he had lots of wrestling injuries and wanted to get back into the ring. The story goes that his wife was a yoga fan and suggested he give it a go but he thought it was a mumsy thing and not for guys – but eventually he tried it, and discovered that there was a way he could use yoga to rehabilitate and recover his body and improve his fitness. He’s since used the system with over 40 other wrestlers and other sports people, and also discovered that it’s actually really really good for weight loss – and that it can be used by people whose weight would otherwise rule out physical activity.
The DDP Yoga website itself is inspiring. There are lots of success stories, both from sports people and from “normal” guys and girls, and they are well worth watching. And if you find yourself thinking that the stories are fabricated – well, many of the people he’s worked with actually appear in the fitness videos, as proof that it works! Of course it’s not just a case of doing a bit of yoga now and then; it requires dedication and lots of hard work, and a total change of diet to achieve the best results – but even 7 weeks in I am really feeling the benefits, and I haven’t even looked at the nutrition section of the programme!
Most people who have heard of DDP Yoga talk about Arthur Boorman – an army veteran whose body was trashed, and who turned things around completely using DDP Yoga. It’s a truly inspiring video and well worth watching – and you can do so here. But the one that really got me was the story of Jared. In fact, I came across this video of YouTuber Boogie2988 reacting to Jared’s story, and I have a feeling this may be the video that Dan was talking about, so we’ll go with this one. Get the tissues ready…
So what is DDP Yoga?
DDP Yoga is not like your usual yoga (or as Dallas Page says, “It ain’t your mama’s yoga!”). Instead, it takes many classic yoga poses and adds dynamic resistance to them – so you use your body’s own strength to increase resistance, which helps to heal, strengthen and tone muscle. And because DDP Yoga increases the blood flow to the muscles it also increases the heart rate – so it gives you a really good cardio workout. But here’s the great thing – every cardio exercise I’ve done before, like running and cycling and fitness classes, has involved lots of impact movement, jumping up and down, etc. And when you’re overweight and have arthritic knees it hurts, and it’s uncomfortable, and when you’ve got lots of flab the last thing you want to do is bounce it around. But with DDP Yoga, you can increase your heart rate, and thus burn calories, by standing still! And boy, does it make me sweat! Just by engaging the muscles in the legs, butt, back, arms you can see your heart rate increase – so it’s suitable for people who have mobility problems as well as those who just don’t enjoy high impact exercise.
Another great thing about DDP Yoga is that throughout the videos Dallas Page encourages you to “make the workout your own”. One of the things that puts me off other exercise programmes is the assumption that I will be able to do everything, because I feel useless if I can’t. That kind of attitude just puts me off and I’m not likely to even make the effort. However, Dallas understands that not everyone is able to do every move straight away. Every exercise has modifications – different ways you can do it – and throughout the ethos is to do something – that you are better doing something than nothing and if you do that something every day you’ll get fitter and stronger and more flexible and eventually you’ll be able to do the full workout. There’s no body shaming, no fitness shaming involved – just encouragement to make the workout your own and get moving.
What do you get for your money?
So let’s unpack DDP and see what you get. It comes in two versions – DVDs and the digital product. (Actually, I think you can also sign up for MP3s but I can’t really see how anyone could do this from audio only, as it really helps to see the moves.) I decided to get the online digital subscription, partly because I wanted instant access but also because wanted to do my workouts upstairs in our enormous bedroom, but we don’t have a DVD player there, and having the digital version means I can take my iPad upstairs. I’ve even used my phone with workouts I know well, though the screen is a bit small if you’re unsure about the moves.
You can subscribe to the digital subscription for one month, three months or a year. I went for the three month option; at $40 dollars (£28) it didn’t break the bank and it would give me long enough to give it a proper go. After the three months are up it’ll bill me for $12.99 (about £9) a month.Included in the digital version is access via tablet, smartphone and computer, all the workout videos plus new updates, food videos, plus a PDF version of the programme guide. Alternatively you can buy the DVDs for a one off payment and you also get a printed copy of the programme guide and a poster of the “Diamond Dozen”, the key moves.
There are loads of workouts included, from “Beginner Beginner” to “Extreme”, and if you wanted to you could just dive in wherever. However, there’s also a recommended programme that takes you through each stage over 13 weeks, introducing you to the moves and workouts gradually so you can build your strength and ability, and that’s what I chose to do.
However, before you begin, the programme recommends that you take a few initial measurements. After all, if you don’t know what your starting point is, you won’t know how far you’ve come! So you’re advised to put in measurements – arms, chest, waist, hips, thighs, calves – and your weight, and also to take photos in six different positions, so you can see the difference DDP Yoga is making to you.
Once you’ve done that you’re ready to go! Ah … except for one more thing, which is optional but recommended, and that’s a heart monitor. See, the dynamic resistance fat-burning part of DDP Yoga is based on you working out in an optimum heart rate zone, where your body burns calories without working you so hard you’re in danger of combusting. Yes, you can do DDP Yoga without a heart monitor but it’s much better using one, as you can hook it up to the app and see on screen where you are, and then engage or disengage depending on whether or not you are “in the zone” – shown in green on screen. Originally I thought my Fitbit HR Charge would work with it but sadly it doesn’t sync with the app, so I have bought a Wahoo Tickr chest monitor, which I can recommend. I’d also recommend you get a yoga mat to exercise on, as it can be quite tough on the knees otherwise!
Get with the programme
So now we are ready to start, and the programme begins with the Diamond Dozen, which introduces you to the 12 key moves used throughout the workouts. This first video is quite slow paced, but that’s good as it means you can get to grips with the moves without any pressure. Dallas Page takes you through each move in turn, showing you various modifications that you can try if you’re not quite able to do the complete move. For example, during Runner’s Lunge and Supported Lunge I wasn’t able to do the exercise “properly” at first, because it really hurt my arthritic knee, so I tried the modified version, which just meant dropping to my knee. I was able to do the rest of the exercise and within a week I was doing Runner’s Lunge fully, because my body had already strengthened! The video looks quite tame but don’t be fooled – it had me drenched in sweat, simply because I was engaging muscles I hadn’t engaged in a long time, and that in turn got my heart racing. There are also individual videos for each move so if you’re stuck on anything, you can try just that one instead of having to do the whole lot.
The programme default is for three workouts a week, starting with two run throughs of the Diamond Dozen before moving onto the Energy workout. This is the first time you’ll be combining moves, moving from Cat Lift to Cat Arch to Down Dog to Safety Zone, and fortunately it’s done at such a pace that I found it reasonably easy to keep up, even though the moves were still pretty new to me. After a few times I found I didn’t need to watch the screen; when Dallas says Runner’s Lunge or Superstar I know what I’m meant to be doing.
Here’s a little taster of what one of the early programmes, Energy, is all about. (Actually the one I do is Energy 2.0, but this is the earlier version.)
The programme progresses gradually by adding more challenging workouts. The first time I did Fat Burner, with all its Squat Thrusts, I thought I was going to die! But the next time I did it, it was much easier, and by the 3rd and 4th time I was finding I could squat pretty low without killing myself. Today I did my first Red Hot Core workout, which is only 15 minutes long but really focuses on the stomach muscles, and I’m aching now – but I know next time will be easier, and I might not even need to do all the modifications!
So far the workouts have all been quite short – 30-40 minutes, which is great as I can fit one in before I start work. As you move on the idea is to start combining workouts to build it up to an hour at a time, or to do a couple a day, and that feels doable to me.
The programme is in 13 week blocks, taking you through beginner, intermediate and advanced levels, and you can customise it totally. For example, my “core” days are always Monday, Wednesday and Friday as that works best for me, but sometimes the programme switches to a Saturday, so I just edit it to suit me. You can, of course, always add in extra workouts whenever you want, and most weeks now I do at least 5 or 6 workouts a week. There’s also a good mix of workouts, from a 10 minute “Wake Up” session of gentle stretching to more hardcore ones that focus on specific areas.
Why I love DDP Yoga
Something I haven’t mentioned yet is how fun I find DDP Yoga. Yep, FUN! I never thought I’d say that about something like this! I’m not really an exercise fan and even with the odd thing I enjoy, like aquafit, I have to force myself to go, but I actually wake up looking forward to my DDP Yoga workout, and at weekends I find myself itching to do some and often come up partway through the day to do a session. I’m not sure what it is about it that I enjoy – Dallas Page is growly and shouty (as you’d expect from a WWE wrestler!) but also engaging and supportive – and he makes me laugh. I also love that the people in the videos aren’t fitness models but REAL people (including Arthur and Jared) who have succeeded with DDPY. The workouts are challenging but achievable, and I feel a real buzz when I finish. And though I’m only in Week 7 I can already see a difference in me physically, I feel fitter and more flexible and every time I do the workouts I can tell I’m squatting lower or holding firmer or bending further. And that development inspires me to go further and further.
I also find it helps my state of mind – while this isn’t traditional yoga and so doesn’t put you in a meditative state, I do find that if I’m in a bad mood or worried about something, DDPY lifts my mood and takes my mind off my problems. It’s also helping my breathing as there’s a lot of focusing on breathing in the exercises, and I find I’m breathing more deeply now.
I haven’t even mentioned the nutrition programme that’s included with DDP Yoga, have I? Mostly because I haven’t actually tried it yet. Again it’s in three stages, and I guess I’m more or less doing the first level, which is to cut out processed foods and start eating “real” food. The later levels begin to cut out dairy and gluten and that’s not for me right now – but if I get to a stage where I stop seeing results with DDP Yoga and my current healthy eating plan, I’ll definitely look at it more deeply.
So there is my review of DDP Yoga. For the first time in my life I’m actually exercising regularly – daily – and really enjoying it, and on Week 7 I’ve already lost 8lbs and 15 inches, which is a really good start. If you’ve tried it, I’d love to hear how you’re getting on with it – and do leave a comment if you have any questions!
OK so I have had a weight problem for most of my adult life, that much is obvious. When I fell pregnant with my daughter, back in 1993, I was 9.5 stone and a size 10-12. After I had Katie I went up to about 12 stone, size 14, and then after I had Dan I had post natal depression which I ate my way out of – ballooning over the months to a size 16-18. Every now and then I decide to do something about my weight and manage to lose half a stone, but then I get stuck, get fed up and put on 10 pounds – and so the pattern has continued, for the last 18 years, leaving me at somewhere between an 18 and 22, depedning on the brand of clothes.
Back in 2012 I started yet another healthy living regime, this time under the watchful eye of Helen Yarnold of Your Happy Size. I was at my absolute heaviest – 16 stone 10 pounds – and I was determined. This time I was not dieting but making sensible decisions about what to eat (and drink – I think beer and wine is actually a far bigger problem for me than food) and increasing my exercise, including walking, swimming and aquafit in the routine. Over six months I lost a massive 18 pounds. Then Christmas happened, I got a bit stuck, I stopped working with Helen (and I can’t even remember why!) and gradually the weight crept back on…
Summer 2014, around 16 stone and size 20-22- not my heaviest, but certainly not my most flattering look!
Since then I’ve done some calorie counting and some Slimming World and some gym and some swimming and each time I’ve managed to lose half a stone, then got stuck, got bored and put on ten pounds…. So when this latest (and last!!) healthy living regime began I was back at 16 stone (224 pounds), fat and unhappy.
But then we went to America for Wrestlemania, and I was shocked by how big people were there, and I resolved to get fitter myself, and I met Diamond Dallas Page, and I had a look at his DDP Yoga …. and I really do believe I am on a permanent healthy living regime now!
The first big change is that I’ve finally discovered an exercise I can do every day that I LOVE! Yes, I really enjoy Aquafit but it’s not something you can just get up and do in the morning. But for the last seven weeks I’ve been doing DDP Yoga at least 3 and usually 6 days a week and the novelty hasn’t worn off yet! Review of DDP Yoga coming soon.
The second change is I’ve decided to address my attitude to alcohol. Now I wouldn’t say I have a problem with drink – but alcohol has definitely become a part of life that I need to work on. For years now we’ve been in the habit of going to the pub two or three times a week and having two or three pints, and then coming home and sharing a bottle of wine, and probably having a bottle on at least one other day too. And when I sat down and worked out the alcohol units and calories I was consuming, I was shocked. You’re talking 35-40 units a week at least, and around 3000 calories….. Which is not healthy by any standards! (I should ahve known I had a problem when I had some surgery a couple of years ago and was hedging the answers when the nurse asked me about my alcohol intake…) So I started by ditching the beer and switching to gin and slimline tonic, which reduces the figures to 25-30 units and 1600 calories … but that’s still too much. The problem is I like having a glass of wine, I like going to the pub – so Steve and I have now made an agreement that we will either go to the pub or have wine at home – but not both on the same night. And so far that’s working out well … and in terms of units and calories it puts it at around 14 units and 700 empty calories a week, which is much better!
I’m trying to drink more water – at least 1.5 litres a day. That’s a struggle – I drink a lot when I’m doing DDPY but then forget for the rest of the day. But I’m working on it.
And of course I’m making sensible decisions with food too. I originally started following Slimming World principles (though not going to the groups) but I found I was underestimating syn values so that probably wasn’t the best way to go. I also find it hard to monitor portion sizes with Slimming World – so I end up eating tonnes of “free” foods like pasta. So now I’ve reverted to calorie counting using My Fitness Pal, and so far that’s going well. It means nothing is a “syn” and if I want a bag of crisps in the pub I can have one …. so long as I have the calories spare. I’ve set the limit at 1300 calories a day but because of the exercise I’m doing I could actually have a few more, and I do at weekends generally – but I don’t feel like I’m starving myself. So how is it going so far? Well, I’m 6.5 weeks into it – next weigh in comes on Friday. But as of last Friday I’d lost 8lbs, which didn’t feel like a huge amount to me. But better than that, I have lost 15 inches from my calves, thighs, hips, waist and chest and this is huge news – in fact, I can actually see the difference in my hips and I have a waist again! And it’s made me realise that the figure on the scales is actually not the whole picture… the DDP Yoga is turning fat to muscle and as that’s denser it weighs more…
I really wish I’d started blogging in my first week, with my first experience of DDP Yoga, but I didn’t get round to it – but from here on I’m going to try and update every Friday, and we’ll see where it goes!
Day 2 started as day one had, in Cindi’s New York Diner near Reunion Tower. But whereas it had been empty the day before it was packed this time, mostly with wrestling fans! We bumped into the couple we;’d met the previous day and talked about Wrestlecon and mentioned that we were going to Axxess that day. “You’ll love it!” the guy said. “So much better than Wrestlecon.”
Our tickets were for the 12-4 slot and I had no idea how long we’d have to queue so we headed off in good time and spent a fair while looking round the WWE Megastore. Well …. there’s no accounting for taste, I guess! I’d become used to seeing people walking round with one and sometimes two replica belts round their waists or over their shoulders, but the store was jam packed with all sorts of belts as well as Money in the Bank briefcases, dolls, clothing and more. We bought a few bits and bobs, but some of the stuff was stupidly expensive (some of the belts are over $300!) and people were buying bags and bags of the stuff! I guess it just proves how passionate WWE fans are – though I did later spot a guy on one of the Facebook groups desperately trying to sell his $200 MITB deluxe briefcase as he had decided he really didn’t know what to do with it! The queue for the tills was huge but moved surprisingly quickly, and soon we were in another line, the very long line for general admission to Axxess.
I hadn’t been sure how Axxess worked – I thought it was a bit like Wrestlecon, where you paid admission and then paid extra for the Meet and Greet opportunities, but actually once you’re in that’s it, you don’t have to pay any extra (though of course there were VIP tickets, the only way to meet the top superstars). And actually, if you plan it properly and are prepared to queue A LOT it could be very good value for money. But there was no one there we particularly wanted to meet (except Hacksaw Jim, who we’d met the day before anyway) and the queues were offputtingly long, so we didn’t bother with that at all. There were several photo opportunities too – on a ladder, in a ring etc. There was some pretty cool stuff to see too, costumes and props and things.
The most entertaining thing for me was the Superstar Entrance area – after queuing (of course!) you could choose one of 12 entrances and make your way down the ring as your favourite wrestler. Dan was a bit reticent about doing it, but then made his entrance as The Undertaker, got a round of applause and did a great job of it, I think! (It was officially filmed but sadly the access code doesn’t work … so you’ll have to make do with my home movie!)
The big draw for Dan especially was the ring, where there was some NXT wrestling going on, including some of his favourites like Samoa Joe and Bailey, and my favourite Apollo Crews. So for most of the afternoon we watched the wrestling, though my feet hurt and I did slide away to have a drink and a sit down at one stage. I met some really cool characters and got into a couple of photos too…
As we left there was a group of God botherers outside the venue, telling us that we – along with murderers, paedophiles, feminists and “lukewarm hypocrits” – were all doomed. The wrestling fans – with Dan as one of the ringleaders – responded in style with lots of chants, entrances and witty ripostes and it made for an entertaining hour!
Next we were over to the other side of town for the WWE Hall of Fame. I’ve never watched it before and didn’t know what to expect except for a bunch of old wrestlers talking … and I guess that’s what it was really, except it was pretty entertaining. Great to see Big Van Vader (without the mask) and of course the place went nuts when Sting was inducted, and we joined in with the cries of Woooooo! ringing around the arena. Shame Ric Flair’s introduction was so boring though, with him talking all about himself rather than Sting! I also enjoyed Dana Warrior and Joan Lunden; some pretty inspiring stuff was said. But I have an admission – I think jetlag got the better of me and I did find myself dozing off once or twice during the event! But overall it was a good night out. Sadly it ended on a low though – we were starving and struggled to find anywhere to eat, and the place we did end up in was so painfully slow and so dreadfully managed that it really put a downer on the day.
I’m not one to have idols, and I don’t really “do” celebrities all that much, but there are some people who have influenced me or touched my life in some way, of course. And within the space of two days, the world lost two of those people – Victoria Wood and Chyna.
My mum and I are both huge fans of Victoria Wood. Back in the 80s we spent many an evening together watching Victoria Wood As Seen on TV and many of the characters she played had catchphrases that became part of our family vernacular. I’m thinking particularly of the wonderful world of Sacharelle, and Kimberley’s friend, forever waiting for her to turn up. And then there were her incredible creations Mrs Overall and the elderly waitress, played so wonderfully by Julie Walters. Many a time Mum and I have watched a waitress of a certain age wobble across the floor and looked at each other and said, “Two soups!”
And who could forget “The Ballad of Barry and Freda”… Having worked in my grandma’s sweet shop as a kid and read many copies of women’s magazines there, “Beat me on the bottom with a Women’s Weekly” never failed to raise a chuckle.
Even Dinnerladies was a firm favourite – yes it was a bit cheesy, yes it was a bit dated in some ways but it brought back so many of the team from As Seen on TV and always made me laugh.
Victoria Wood always seemed to be such a NICE person. Just your regular Northern girl who just happened to have a huge talent for writing funny sketches and songs, and bringing them to life in such a memorable way. And she was a bit chubby too – seeing a chubby woman on TV when I was a chunky girl was a big confidence booster. And she was just so funny. And of course the 80s were so male dominated when it came to comedy – okay, probably nothing much has changed even now, but Victoria Wood was a bright light for women everywhere, a woman who was equal on the bill to men, and who was able to poke fun at men and women alike in a way only women really understood.
When I heard the news yesterday that she’d died I had to resist the urge to say “She didn’t”… But sadly, yes, she did. Just 62 – no age at all. Yet another reason to say #fuckcancer.
And then this morning I woke up, had a look at Twitter on my phone – and read that Chyna AKA Joanie Laurer had also died, at the age of 45 or 46 (I’ve seen both – but close to my age, either way). Nooooooooo! When I was a huge huge WWF (now WWE) wrestling fan, Chyna was one of my all time favourites. At a time when most female wrestlers were bints in bikinis, here was a strong, handsome woman who could stand toe to toe with any man in the ring. She had muscles on muscles but still managed to ooze sex appeal. She showed me that women can stand equal to men in any arena, and I’ve never forgotten that.
When we were in Dallas earlier this month she was one of the people I really wanted to meet at Wrestlecon and I was gutted that she hadn’t shown up. A message on the organiser’s website later suggested that she’d been intoxicated and had missed the flight. I know her life was pretty challenging after she left WWE, what with drug and alcohol addictions and her career in porn films (and unlike the McMahon family I have no issue with that – porn is as porn does and someone has to be in it, so why not her!). But from things I’ve read today, it sounds like she’d been getting her life back on track, rebuilding her health and teaching English in Japan. I don’t know how she died – rumours suggest it was an overdose, though whether accidental or deliberate isn’t clear. What I do know is that at one stage in my life, Chyna was the closest thing I had to a hero – and I will openly admit that her death has sent me reeling.
Rest in peace, Victoria Wood. Rest in peace, Chyna. In your very different ways you were both ambassadors for women’s equality in a male world. Thank you and farewell.
Our first full day in Dallas was Friday and we didn’t have anything planned. Actually, that’s a lie – we’d tried and tried to get tickets for NXT Takeover but missed out on pre-sale and sale day, and Stubhub was looking for stupid amounts of money for them. But the day started with Dan deciding he wanted to go to NXT whatever the cost, and us tracking down a ticket for around $380 dollars including fees. Ouch. Suffice it to say that I chose not to go!
I’d heard people talking about Wrestlecon and thought perhaps we’d give that a go, especially as tickets were available on the door. Then we met a couple of American fans in a diner and they almost talked me out of going, saying it would cost us a fortune to meet people and there wasn’t a lot else to do.. But we went anyway … and I’m really pleased we did!
Wrestlecon is an independent event, and most of the wrestlers there are retired and ex-WWE … which meant it was a chance to meet some of those longtime heroes! OK it cost us $20 a pop to meet, chat and get a photo, but actually I really enjoyed meeting these huge guys I’d only ever seen on the screen! SO during the morning we splashed the cash to meet Al Snow (crazy guy! And he had Head!), Billy Gunn, Hacksaw Jim Duggan (and we got to do a Hooooooo!), Rob van Dam (Dan met him, and they chatted about concussion…) and Diamond Dallas Page. Hacksaw was a lovely guy, as was DDP – I’d never heard of his DDP Yoga before then, and I’m now a convert … but that’s a story for another post!
(I was a bit gutted that Chyna wasn’t there, as I was a big fan and hell, so what if she’s a porn star now? But her table had a note on it saying her flight had been delayed so she wouldn’t be there till Saturday. And later I saw an apology from the organisers, basically saying that she’d got drunk and never made her flight!)
We could have carried on meeting people but we were spending a ludicrous amount of money so at that point we bailed out. Actually, The Hardy Boyz were there and I would have happily paid for a meet and greet with them, but the pre-paid queue was enormous so we ended up not bothering.
I wasn’t sure what else Wrestlecon would hold for us, but it seemed there was entertainment all day. We’d just missed a Hardy Boyz Q&A when we arrived, but we did enjoy the Road Warrior session, and the live recording of a podcast by some wrestler called Colt Cabana – never heard of him before but it was very entertaining! And then the day ended with the Queens of Combat wrestling … Dan had poured scorn on this, saying that he was ONLY interested in the proper thing, WWE – but it actually turned out to be a lot of fun, with all the soap opera drama of the main event but without such egos. It was definitely an enjoyable way to end our day at Wrestlecon and the people who went home early missed out on a treat!
By now I was tired and ready for some food, so we walked into Downtown Dallas and found a Tex Mex restaurant, where we had some really good food (but too much of it, of course!). Then I got an Uber back to the hotel and Dan headed off to Next Takeover – which was apparently worth every penny of the small fortune he paid for the ticket!
Our Wrestlemania 32 adventure was was my first trip to the United States of America. Despite growing up watching American films and TV (The Kids From Fame played a major part in my childhood!) and having friends in America, it’s not somewhere I’ve ever particularly wanted to visit. But as we boarded the plane, I realised that I was really excited about going … and seeing if some of those things we Brits believe about America are actually true!
So here are my observations of America. Obviously these were formed during a very short time in Dallas, and I know they only apply to that tiny bit of America during the time we were there. So apologies if I’ve got it totally wrong …
The portions are enormous!
I’ve often watched an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and wondered at the enormous portions. Surely that’s only done for telly, I’ve found myself thinking. Surely the portions aren’t REALLY that big? Surely everyone would be enormous if they were!
Having visited Dallas I can tell you – yes the portions ARE that huge, generally! (And the people are pretty big too – see my next point.)
I have a very healthy appetite and I struggled to finish meals; in fact, I left quite a lot of food, which really pained me because I’m one of those people who hates leaving anything on the plate. And Dan struggled even more. Actually, we could probably have got away with a meal for one between us and been perfectly well fed!
This was my breakfast on the first morning, when we went to Cindi’s New York Deli in Downtown Dallas. Six (yes, 6!) pieces of thick French toast, plus bacon, plug egg, plus grits (ewwwww! Not a fan). The pancakes you can see were Dan’s – but they came with scrambled egg and salmon and grits. The next day I had a 3 egg spinach omelette – which came with hash browns and two pancakes. Seriously …. the pancakes weren’t needed!! (I have to add, the French toast was one of the most indulgent things I have ever eaten!)
We had a Tex Mex one night and that was huge too, and again we both struggled to finish. The only reasonable-sized portion we had was mac and cheese at a bakery … and even then I still couldn’t eat it all! And considering none of these meals cost more than $10 (about seven quid) it’s amazing the restaurants aren’t bankrupt.
The people are enormous too…
OK, so here in the UK we have an obesity problem – and at 16 stone, size 20 I’m part of it. I was aware that the situation was even more serious in the States – but I didn’t realise quite how serious … Especially at the wrestling events we went to, but generally everywhere we went in Dallas, there were enormous people. And I’m talking seriously enormous – man mountains. Women mountains. Even kid mountains. People who need two chairs to sit down. People who are so big they can barely walk. People whose bellies hang out from under their t-shirts. Whole families of severely overweight people – mum, dad and kids all huge. Man, I felt quite small when I was there! Even the thin people all seemed to have guts on them … actually almost all the thin people I talked to were from Europe!
And when you go back to the issue of food portions, it’s no wonder. If I lived in America and ate out once a week, got a takeaway midweek – I don’t think it would be long before I’d be booking that double seat on the plane.
And you know what, that thought really galvanised me. Though I was quite small by American standards, I know I’m a big girl here in the UK. I’ve been fighting my weight for the best part of 20 years, losing a bit, putting on a bit more, losing a bit, putting on a bit more …. and so it goes. But seeing these mountains over there, and realising how badly it affected people’s health and quality of life, really made me want to nip my own weight issue in the bud (if you can call it that after 20 years!) and start doing something. So I’ve come home determined to eat healthily, drink less and do more exercise. Including doing the DDP Yoga programme, which I’m really enjoying.
Americans don’t do tea
I always thought this one was a joke, or at least vastly exaggerated … the idea that Americans are such big coffee drinkers that they don’t really do tea. But it’s true! Our hotel had a little machine and coffee bags – but no tea bags. They did manage to find me a couple one day, but tea was not on general offer. If I ever go back to America I’ll definitely be taking my own!
The first day we had breakfast in the diner we both asked for tea and got … iced tea. Hmmm. Yeah, it was nice – but not really what we wanted at that time of day! The next day we asked for hot tea and the waitress stared at us like we’d asked for roast rhinoceros or something. Eventually, she shrugged and said, “I can, but it’ll take a while.” This made no sense to me at all … after all, what can be easier than pouring some boiling water onto a teabag? But then the American couple we were dining with explained that kettles are pretty uncommon in the States and that the waitress would have to siphon some water from the coffee machine, which was going to cause her more work than just pouring a coffee. Anyway, finally our hot teas arrived – two pots of hot water, two mugs and two tea bags. Except, of course, to make the perfect cuppa the water needs to be poured onto the teabag when it’s at boiling point, so our hot tea left something to be desired… Finally, on our last day we found a fabulous bakery in Dallas’ West End district that did us a good cup of tea without any fuss. Thank you, Corner Bakery Cafe!
But I did come to appreciate iced tea – though maybe not for breakfast! But later in the day, when it’s hot and sticky and you’ve been on your feet for hours, an iced tea is perhaps the most refreshing thing you can drink. So thank you, Dallas, for that little insight!
Uber is awesome!
Unless you’ve been living under a stone you can’t fail to have heard of Uber, the app-driven taxi service that London’s black cab drivers are up in arms about. In fact, they’ve taken to the streets in protest, so angry are they about Uber’s arrival on the scene. But until we went to Dallas I’d never experienced Uber for myself …
Let me tell you a little about it, if you’ve never used it. The app is free, and you register with a phone number and add a debit or credit card simply by scanning the card – the app picks up the long number and asks for the security code. Once that’s done, you’re ready to roll! Open the app and it asks you to set your pickup location – you can either click an arrow to go to your actual GPS location, or type one in manually. Then you add your destination. You can ask for a quote or just go straight to requesting an Uber. They come in different types – uberX is the cheapest option for up to 4 people, uberXL is a people carrier, uberSelect and uberBlack are more expensive, classier cars (though we had an uberSelect once and it wasn’t much different to be honest). Sometimes there’s also the option for uberShare, when there might be other people wanting a car too.
Once you’ve requested an Uber the magic begins. You’re sent full details of your driver – including their name and photo, the type of car and the reg number plus an estimate of how long they will be. You can also contact your driver by text or phone – useful if your location is a bit tricky to find. The best bit is that you can actually see where they are on the map – maybe I’m sad but it’s great fun watching the car get closer and closer!
We used Uber every day we were in Dallas and were amazed by how good the service was. All bar one of the drivers were friendly and chatty, many shared their local knowledge with us, or told us how they came to be in Dallas. The cars were always clean and tidy and the journeys good. And best of all, it was CHEAP too. An Uber from the airport for two of us was $30, and it rarely cost us more than $5 or $6 to get around town. Even the uberSelect we got home one night was only $12 and that was a posh car on a 3.2x surge! (When there’s a rush on Uber requests, the price goes up – so when we came out of an event everyone was looking for a car and the cost rocketed. You can suck it up and take the higher price, or be notified when it drops – your choice!)
Uber exists in the major cities in the UK and I can understand why black cab drivers are worried. The technology of the app enables drivers to be busy all day long, picking up job after job after job, and because most phones have some sort of sat nav “the knowledge” isn’t needed any more. And if they are offering a competitive price too … well, it’s a no brainer!
If you live in an area served by Uber and fancy giving it a go, go to the site, download the app and use this code to get a free trip up to £10! alisont1265ue
American people are friendly
We Brits have a reputation for being a bit stiff upper lip. And I guess it’s true, to an extent. We like to keep ourselves to ourselves, we’re not generally good at striking up conversations with strangers or oversharing. (And that’s not necessarily a bad thing!) And Americans, by contrast, are always portrayed as being very out there, very friendly and open.
And I think that’s probably true! We met some great people in Dallas, both there for the wrestling and people who lived there. All the Uber drivers were very friendly and keen to talk about their lives or find out about ours, and the restaurant staff, on the whole, were friendly and talkative too. (There were a few exceptions but it was busy and I had just asked for hot tea!!) We met people from all over the country and many were keen to talk about stuff that … well, the kind of things I wouldn’t talk about with a total stranger! We met one young couple and quickly discovered that their relationship wasn’t all it cracked up to be, which left us feeling quite worried for the girl’s safety – but really, can you imagine a British woman sharing so much with a stranger, so quickly? I came away with the impression that American generally, and especially those in Dallas, are a friendly bunch and we could learn a lot from them.
But then my illusions were shattered at the airport. As we waited to pass through security, a guard was standing alongside the line chatting with people. “Ma’am, you know why people in Dallas are so friendly?” he asked me, in a low Texan drawl. “It’s because we’re all carrying guns. Every last one of us.”
I’ve been a bit of a fan of WWE (WWF as it was) for about 25 years. When I first left home the pub I drank in in Hounslow was an early adopter of SKY TV and my boyfriend and I used to watch WWF stuff now and then. Not long after I met my children’s father and though the relationship was often difficult, wrestling was one of the things Ian and I enjoyed together – wrestling and football, and we shared our passion with the kids, Dan especially. We’d stay up late to watch the Pay Per Views, we had WWF Smackdown on the Playstation, Dan would walk round the house holding a stick and pretending to be Hacksaw Jim Duggan …. you get the picture. When we split up I used to go round now and then to catch up on the big events, but then we drifted further apart and so did the relationship between WWE and me.
But then in 2013 Ian died quite suddenly. Dan got a small inheritance and almost the first thing he said he wanted to spend it on was to go to America to see Wrestlemania – and to take me with him. It didn’t come off at the time, but we made it happen this year … and on March 31st 2016 Dan and I set off on the 10 hour flight to Dallas for Wrestlemania 32!
So these next few posts are my memories and observations of our trip to America. I’ll be uploading more over the next few days, but to track them all down just click here.
Having only visited the Calais Jungle on Sunday I wasn’t expecting to go back for a few weeks – but seeing the destruction of the camp begin on Monday, and the violence used by the police towards the people there, I was feeling very angry and helpless, Four of our team – Anna, Darrell, Dan and I – decided to do an additional trip to the camp yesterday. We wanted to see for ourselves exactly what was going on with regards to the demolition of homes and police aggression, and get an idea of what the general feeling is like. We also heard about an #istand demonstration taking place on the No Man’s Land area between the camp and the motorway, so we were all geared up to take part in that, but for various reasons it didn’t happen.
Rather than give you a chronological account of our trip, this time I’ve going to focus on the main themes of the day…
I didn’t think I believed in heaven and hell .. Until today! Now I know at least one exists …
Iranians with their mouths sewn together
A dystopian fucking nightmarish scene from the depths of despondency ….
So here are our themes for this post.
The biggest issue we encountered yesterday was fire – seemingly random fires breaking out in houses around the camp. The first one started directly opposite the Iranian area that’s been cleared. A shout of “Fire! Fire!” went up and several volunteers – including Darrell and Dan – ran across to see what they could do to help. From a small plume of smoke, very quickly the flames took over. Dan helped pull the building apart so other people could get water and fire extinguishers onto the fire, but it caught hold too quickly and very soon not one but two homes had been totally destroyed.
A few minutes later we again heard “Fire! Fire!” this time from the opposite side of the road. Smoke billowed from one house and was quickly smothered, but then a house a couple of metres away was on fire, and then another a few metres further along. At this point we began to question what exactly was going on. There have been plenty of fires in the camp, mostly accidental ones from candles or cooking stoves. It’s also thought that tear gas canisters can ignite and start fires. But this – this seemed different. No one was in any of these homes when the fires started so there were no open flames, and despite the heavy police presence there was no tear gas. So what was the cause?
The media has reported fires as being started by refugees, who would rather burn their own homes than see them destroyed at the hands of the French government. But the long term volunteers we spoke to aren’t convinced about that at all. The first mysterious fire, on Sunday night, started in the famous pink caravan, the place new arrivals go to get a sleeping bag and some advice. Why on earth would refugees set light to that? It doesn’t make sense. So the theory is there is someone working undercover in the camp who is deliberately starting fires for some reason. It could be the police, creating diversions from the demolition – if everyone is away fighting fires there’s no one left for the police to deal with. But a more sinister theory is that it could be the work of fascists, who are looking to cause chaos and damage the refugee cause…. Whatever the answer, there definitely seemed to be a pattern to those early fires yesterday.
Later on there was another, much bigger fire that destroyed a huge, solid building with a corrugated metal roof. This time the fire truck (a jeep with hoses in the back) was employed and again Dan and Darrell got involved with fighting the flames with Dan waiting till the fire was nearly burned out to check it didn’t spread. It was interesting to see how many people used it as an excuse to warm their hands! Again we don’t know what the cause of this fire was – I have read that it was a simple cooking stove accident, or kids messing around, but no one really knows. It’s all a bit worrying.
So obviously there was a lot of smoke in the sky, plus the sky was leaden grey for most of the day anyway. But for me, the real “black sky” was the air of depression, desperation and despondency that has taken over the camp. Every time I’ve been in the past I’ve been inspired by the atmosphere of hope within the camp. People were so positive they would make it England, that their God, whoever he may be, would look after them. Even when people suffered injuries or were arrested and beaten or were separated from friends, they said “Maybe England tomorrow, inshallah” and smiled and laughed. But yesterday very few people were laughing. The overwhelming impression I got was that everyone has given up; they are resigned to whatever happens now. No one really knows what to do any more. Many people are trying, trying trying to get to the UK (and some are still succeeding – just as we drove onto the train to go over to Calais, I had a phone call from John, one of our Eritrean friends, to tell me he had made it to London in a lorry, along with another lad we’ve met. Yay!). But others simply don’t know what to do any more. They know they can’t stay in the camp, they know their home is going to be destroyed, if not in the next few weeks, then in the coming months – but they don’t know where else to go. We were told that the last of “our” Eritrean boys to be in the camp, Filimon, had also made it to England – but alas it wasn’t to be, as we later found him and were shocked to discover he’d been badly beaten by the police. Seeing his beautiful face battered and bruised nearly broke me. Later, Anna and I had tea with Muna and Auguta, two lovely Eritrean girls and when we went to leave they were both tearful. “What shall I do? Where shall I go?” one asked. And we didn’t have any answers. In our hearts we wanted to bundle them up in the boot of the car and bring them back with us, along with other dear friends like Filimon and Gypsy. But in our heads, although we’ve never once been stopped and searched on the way home from Calais, we know that the one time we tried anything like that would be the one time we got caught – and we just can’t take that risk. Instead we have to walk away with promises to come back soon. There were a lot of tears in Calais yesterday.
Now in my experience, when it hails, it does it for a minute or two. Not yesterday. Not in Calais. As the sky got darker and heavier, the heavens opened and we endured a hailstorm the likes of which I have never known before. It went on for at least ten minutes with no let up in its ferocity – tiny bullets of ice pounding down on the ground, the tarpaulin roofs, and anyone unfortunate enough to get caught outside. We dived for cover in an abandoned house but even then, it was pretty scary hearing the ice crash down and the wind whip around, and my hands very quickly went numb! It was a hailstorm of biblical proportions that turned an already difficult situation into a scene from hell…
Fortunately once it finished the sun came out and we were offered some warming soup in the Ashram Kitchen. Although I’ve heard about this place loads of times before I’ve never actually been there. it’s one of five (I think) kitchens in the camp that provides thousands of free meals every week, to both refugees and volunteers. We had a cup of delicious chunky vegetable soup and some pitta bread, and we took shelter and warmed up. The Ashram Kitchen is a place of happiness and comfort, where everyone is welcomed warmly and invited in out of the cold. It’s devastating to think that places like this are also going to be demolished very soon.
And of course the storm made me realise a little about what it’s like to live in the camp. We were soaked and cold and didn’t warm up until halfway back to Swindon, once we’d filled our bellies at the terminal and put the car heater on full. But what if you live in the camp and have nowhere warm to go? How do you survive the elements when your only home is a small wooden shack, your only clothes are the ones you stand in? What happens then?
Iranians with their mouths sewn together
Perhaps the most chilling part of the day was when a group of young Iranian men appeared in a silent protest at the way they have been treated by the French government in particular (but also, by its inaction and erection of the fences, the UK government). In a bid to be heard, these men have taken the decision to sew their lips together … to be heard, they have to be unheard.
There was a lot of media around and I wasn’t able to get very close to take decent photos – which is as it should be. After all, my photos only go on here, whereas the media pictures have been all over the internet. But you know what was really weird? Usually when you see a media scrum on the TV there’s a gaggle of accompanying noise as the journos ask for comments. But this time there was no noise at all. Just as the Iranians have taken a vow of silence through the act of sewing their mouths up, so too the journalists entered into their own vow of silence, perhaps as a show of respect. There was certainly a very eerie atmosphere as everyone realised that this was France in the 21st century – and these are the lengths the refugees feel they have to go to, to be heard. It’s not something I am likely to forget for a long time.
A dystopian fucking nightmarish scene from the depths of despondency ….
A strong police presence meant we couldn’t get close to the area currently being cleared but we could clearly see the bulldozers and diggers smashing into homes in the Sudanese area of the camp; the Iranian area has already been cleared. Anyone who has been to the camp will know how tightly packed together the homes are in most areas – so it was a real shock to see how big an area has already been destroyed, just since Monday.
Staring across land that once held hundreds of homes was really depressing, especially as I wondered where all the people have gone now. We’ve heard that some have simply left the camp – perhaps to try their luck in another country, but more likely to find a new base somewhere else in Calais; there are already reports of smaller camps springing up around the area. Some have been rehomed in the Jungle, but with the available space decreasing all the time, it’s going to be more and more difficult to house people safely.
The idea of destroying the only home someone has is horrific, and it’s such a waste of volunteers’ time and money too. Volunteers and refugees alike have worked so hard to build something from nothing, and yet it’s pulled down without any thought at all. We had something of a stand-off with the CRS at one stage, and it was interesting to note that very few of them could look us in the eyes … I don’t know how they and the prefecture demolition team can sleep at night.
So what next for the camp? Who knows. The plan seems to be to destroy the south side within the next four weeks, then take a break and apply for a court order to remove everything from the north side. People will be encouraged to move to other refugee camps in France, apply for asylum in France or enter the prison-like storage containers the government has erected, at a cost of 12 million euros. So there are some tough decisions to be made. And of course we will be watching the situation closely and assessing when or if we return again.
Many people have asked me how they can help, so here are a few ideas:
You can also donate to Swindon-Calais Solidarity to ensure we continue our visits there: https://www.gofundme.com/7x2uq3dk
2. Write to your MEP ( MPs have no influence in what happens in France; MEPS can have mor of an effect) via https://www.writetothem.com (I found a great post earlier today with some ideas of what to say, can’t find it now but will post if I come across it again)
3. Buy items to send directly to Calais: go to http://www.leisurefayre.com a click on the banner at the top. The site shows the most needed items and offers a 20% discount plus free delivery direct to a Calais charity warehouse. Just make sure you choose “Send to a refugee” as the shipping option
5. Join your local Calais solidarity group … Searching in Facebook for your town and with Calais or refugees should find something. (There was a list but it doesn’t seem to be working right now) Local groups raise money, collect donations, visit the camp, organise events etc.
6. Tweet a photo of yourself with #istand in the photo
Back to France we went yesterday, this my 10th trip to the Calais Jungle, the refugee camp that’s home to people from war-torn countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and dictatorships like Eritrea. Home to people I have come to consider my friends; people who have inspired me with their ingenuity, their determination, their generosity and their warmth, all maintained in the harshest of conditions. Of course this time we weren’t going to see my dear friend Ridwan, who has recently claimed asylum in Germany, or Abel, who has done the same in Holland, or Ibrahim, who has been safe in Scotland for several months. But there were other people I wanted to see, and aid to take over, and stories to hear.
We started our day at the warehouse of L’Auberge Des Migrants. I’d collected a boot full of stuff from another volunteer who had too much to fit in her car, and my passenger had donations too, so we unloaded camping equipment, tents, clothing and toiletries at the warehouse while the rest of the team applied for passes to gain us admittance to the camp should the CRS riot police make trouble. While we were there we had a quick look inside and spoke to someone about the new rota they have for ensuring every part of the camp gets food on a weekly basis; it’s a complicated system but it certainly seems to be working, for the desperation we’ve seen for food parcels on previous trips was no longer evident inside the camp.
Between us as a team, we’d fulfilled a personal shopping list for three beautiful young Eritrean women – leggings, underwear, make up, earrings, moisturiser and hair oil – so my first stop was to their small house, recently relocated to the rear of the Eritrean church. However, the house was empty and we soon discovered that the girls were at Hazebrouck, a lorry stop where many refugees travel daily to try and get passage to the UK. On all our trips we’ve always been under the impression that the Hazebrouck attempts were a weekday activity, when the lorry stop was at its most active, so I was surprised they were there on a Sunday. In fact, this was a story we heard all over the camp – it seems, with the recent news that the local prefecture judge has ruled for the destruction of the south side of the camp, people are more desperate than ever to find a way to England and are trying their luck every possible moment.
Having been thwarted in our plans to see the girls we left our gifts in their tent and began distributing food parcels around the Eritrean section, though unlike on previous trips where people were clamouring to get something, there was less of a rush and we even had some people turn down the food! After a while we were invited into a neighbouring tent for warming Eritrean tea – sugary and spiced with cinnamon and cloves. It was most welcome, and we did our best to talk to our hosts, though language was a bit of a barrier.
We then moved on to a section of the camp reserved for women and children and again gave out food as well as lip balm, hairbrushes and pain relief. We talked to a family from Afghanistan who have been in the camp several months; with small children around, I have no idea how they plan to get to the UK and I’m not sure they know either. I spotted three small girls playing on a makeshift swing and gave them toys donated by a friend – sparkly tiaras, magic wands, hair bobbles. It was so delightful to see the smiles on their faces as they dove into the bag to choose their goodies, though we did later hear them arguing about who had taken the most! It was a big reminder that these are kids, just kids – just like any other group of kids, anywhere in the world. Yet they are living here, amongst the mud and shit and destitution.
We’d not been able to find two more friends, John and Filimon, so we were over the moon when Filimon found US! Hugs all round; it was so lovely to see this guy, who was in hospital the last time we visited. Good to see him looking so well. He was on his way somewhere but we were to see more of him later on.
Having distributed all our food and most of the other bits and bobs we had, we wandered around for a while taking photos of the graffiti-decorated shacks, chatting to people here and there. Our overwhelming impression was that the camp seemed much quieter than usual – almost eerily quiet. It was rather like the calm before the storm – which, following events today, it does seem to have been. But more on that later.
Eventually we headed to the north side and visited our friends Afredo and Aziz in their restaurant. Except Aziz told me that his business partner was actually called Afridi …. all these months I’ve called the guy Afredo and he was too nice to put me right! I won’t make that mistake again, Afridi it is! They made us milky Afghan chai, which is always delicious, and we spent some time chatting. They’d built the restaurant after giving up hope of reaching England, but with the proposed demolition of part of the camp – and potentially their restaurant – they are once again contemplating the prospect of trying to jump on a train or hide in a lorry. The restaurant was busy when we arrived and got even busier when a huge group of French volunteers poured in, so we drank our tea and gave up the seats, but not before we were entertained by a round of singing by the volunteers and refugees.
Opposite the restaurant were the burned out remains of a house, and we met one of the guys who’d lived there, yet another Eritrean who has only been in the camp a few months. He lost everything in the fire and literally had the clothes he was wearing – yet he was still smiley and jokey and happy to tell us about himself. Already volunteers had built a new home for him and his housemates. The dedication of the long-term volunteers to respond to an ever-changing situation never fails to amaze me. I would love to be there for more than a day here and a day there, if only my circumstances enabled me to … That way I’d maybe feel like I’m really making a difference.
We were heading to the end of our day and went back to the Eritrean part to find Filimon – and John was there too! So lovely to see “our” two remaining boys on this trip. We were again treated to hot drinks in a neighbour’s tent – sweet thick coffee this time – and we all piled onto the mattress and chatted. There was another lad there who I assumed was a new Eritrean, but it turned out he was actually from Guinea, and has been living legally in France for 5 years, studying. He had helped out in camp and befriended a few of the refugees as his home is near Calais and he now visits regularly. We also met the famous Gypsy Builder, a lovely Afghan guy who is so well spoken, so intelligent and so knowledgeable about the political situation. He talked passionately about the millions of pounds the UK government has spent on keeping out the few thousand refugees in Calais, and we all expressed our disgust at the situation that taxpayers’ money – OUR money – has created. Having recently moved into David Cameron’s Witney constituency I am especially horrified at how “my” MP has responded to the refugee crisis.
While I was drinking tea Dan disappeared outside with Filimon and I soon discovered what they were up to – across the road from the church was a kind of hang out spot, a darkened room where mostly Eritrean guys (and a few girls) gather to drink beer and smoke. Eritrea is 50% Muslim, 50% Christian so presumably it’s the Christians who partake in this particular activity! Anyway, the guys invited me in too so we spent the last half hour of our day sitting round an open fire, drinking beer (Coke in my case, as the designated driver) and putting the world to rights.
And I had a bit of a “moment” there too… Recently I’ve started questioning the validity of our trips to the Calais Jungle. The warehouse seems to have got itself better organised and delivery of food, toiletries and clothing to the camp happens more efficiently, so there doesn’t seem to be the huge demand for supplies as there was last year. It costs us around £100 per car to get from Swindon/Witney to Calais and back – and I was really beginning to think we were spending more than we were effectively achieving, and that perhaps the money would be better off being donated directly to Care4Calais or one of the other organisations there. And while I had bonded strongly with Ridwan and Abel and Ibrahim, I wasn’t sure my presence was so needed any more by the other guys and girls we’ve befriended.
But when we were in that drinking place, around the fire, Filimon looked me in the eyes, put his hand on his heart and said, “I’m happy.” Why are you happy, I asked. “Because I haven’t seen you in two months, and today you’re here. And for four months you’ve been my Mami, bringing me food and clothes. And I can share it with my Eritrean family here. And that makes me happy,” he replied. And then his beautiful face broke into a beaming smile.
This is what it’s about. This is why I have to keep going back to the camp, until there isn’t a camp to go back to.
But that, of course is the big question – what DOES the future hold for the Calais Jungle? The ruling last week stated that the north side of the camp was to be demolished, but that it wouldn’t happen for three weeks, and that it would be done in conjunction with the organisations on the ground, to ensure everyone was safe and rehomed. But the very next day officials were walking round the camp, marking homes as occupied or unoccupied, asking refugees to go on buses to new locations. We’ve already heard about people being bussed to Spain with the promise of accommodation and support, only to be dumped in the middle of nowhere, with no support in sight. And guess what those people did? Came straight back to the Jungle – the only home they have. Wherever we went in the camp people asked us if we knew what was going on, what was going to happen, where were they going to go? And we had no answers…
And then early this morning volunteers reported on Facebook that there was a huge show of intimidation by the police and the local officials, as over 50 police vans surrounded part of the camp and around 20 homes were taken apart by men in high viz jackets. I don’t know what the plan behind this was. Some have said it was to clear an access path for fire vehicles, though others have disagreed. Perhaps it was a show of power, a demonstration that the authorities can come in and do what they want whenever they want. Maybe it was just to shake the people up a little, heighten the tension, scare people… If so, it’s certainly succeeded. The aggression is still going on there, several hours later, with police firing tear gas at refugees and threatening them with rubber bullets.
It’s all so cruel, and so unnecessary. The one thing that has hit me most in my trips to the camp is that these are PEOPLE – no more and no less. Men who want the best for their families, women desperately doing their best for their kids, young men and women who want more from life than their country’s government permits them, kids who want to play football and laugh and smile and go to school. Ordinary people who just want the simple things in life that WE take for granted, like security, safety and freedom. There are also people there who have British passports but wives and children who have been refused entry; people who’ve lived in the UK before; people who want to be reunited with mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.
Our government has spent billions on keeping people out yet the cost of building an assessment centre, letting people apply and giving safe passage to those who have a good claim for asylum or reunification would be a fraction of the cost. In fact, we could open the doors and let all 4000 Jungle residents into the UK, house and support them for a year and the cost would be less – and the effect it would have on our culture, our safety, our daily life would not even be noticed. Instead those in power let them rot…It’s wrong, it’s sickening, it’s heartless and yet there’s nothing we ordinary citizens can do except sign petitions, write to our MPs and take over our tins of fish, our toothpaste, our love and support. It just doesn’t feel like that’s enough.