Not black or white – or grey either

It might be nearly 20 years ago but I remember it as if it was yesterday.

Getting off a tiny plane in the middle of the night and being hit with strange smells, sounds and searing humidity. Oh how I remember the humidity.

It was August 1997 and I’d just landed in America’s ‘Deep South’ where I was due to spend a year studying at the University of North Carolina.

I’d expected it to be a bit different, but nothing could have prepared me for the huge culture shock I was about to experience. Or the crippling homesickness that held me captive for the first few months, as I juggled loving my new life with desperately wanting to go home.

The reason all this has sprung to mind in the last 24 hours is thinking about the horrific mass shooting of 50 innocent people in Orlando by Omar Mateen, a man who has since been described as a terrorist, homophobic, mentally ill… I don’t know what I’d call him, apart from a madman.

The shock of his senseless bloodshed, his hatred, his lack of compassion are all too hard to even try and compute, but what I have found bizarrely compelling over the last 24 hours has been some of the reaction on my social media feeds.

I felt the need to vent on Facebook about what I consider to be the sheer ignorance and pathetic bravado of Donald Trump in response to this terrible tragedy. This is after all a man who chose to accept congratulations on being ‘right’ about terrorism as a result of this nightmare. Nice sentiment.

Some will no doubt have called for his immediate election though due to the need for a ‘tougher stance’ on fanaticism across the pond.

Others, who hail not too far from where I once lived in America, seem to be outraged that British people could now question the need for greater gun control in the US.

To us it seems a total no brainer that you would massively tighten firearms regulation in the face of one mass shooting after another. To them this horrific incident was inspiration to talk about how America is still the greatest country in the world, and how they are sick of people criticising it, and them.

I think what these Monday ramblings of mine boil down to is that perhaps what we should never forget, the vast majority of us who want to live in a free world, is that while we might have different views on certain things we’re still all pulling in the same direction.

I despise the death penalty, completely and absolutely. I think it is never, ever justifiable – but many Americans support it.

I think it is worrying that under 50 per cent of Americans (46 per cent at the last count) have passports. Many Americans would probably tell me that in a country as vast and varied as theirs who needs to leave it?

The point is that these issues aren’t easy and they’re not black or white either, or even grey.

What is black and white is that most people are still good and still aspire to a global society where we can speak our minds, marry who we want and go where we like in safety.

So while I vividly recall the time I tried to order a simple sandwich on the UNC campus a few days after arriving and ended up in tears over the whole thing because it felt like I needed a translator.

(You can’t just ask for cheese, you need to specify whether it’s ‘swiss,’ ‘jack’, ‘cheddar’ or ‘white cheese’ – whatever that is!)

I also remember how unbelievably kind everyone was. How I got invited to umpteen peoples’ houses for Thanksgiving, and how they were all totally genuine about it.

And that, in my very humble and not very important opinion, is what we should try to hold on to in the face of such hatred and violence. That whether or not we’d choose to own a handgun for self-protection we’re all still pulling in the same direction.

Although I may have to revise that if you tell me you’re voting for Trump…

What we should, or maybe shouldn’t, tell our children about Paris

Like everyone I’ve found it pretty hard to tear myself away from the news since the awful, awful events of last Friday.

There’s no doubt that currently some truly terrifying things are taking place on our planet, and the words ‘devastating’ and ‘tragic’ barely do them justice.

Listening to a radio phone-in show a couple of days back I heard a heart-breaking call from a new dad who admitted sitting by his baby son’s cot sobbing inconsolably for half an hour just because he feels so guilty about having brought this innocent life into a world that in many ways is being torn apart.

I’ve thought a lot about what he said since, especially concerning Mini-me and Blue-eyed boy. About whether I feel guilty in the same way about my children – unquestionably yes.

About whether I should even try to explain to my beautiful, bright four-year-old what has been going on – where would you even begin?

And about whether what’s happening should change how I feel about their safety or how we go about our everyday lives.

Well the only half decent answer I have come up with is to the last question. And the answer, at least concerning how we choose to live, is no.

In the last few days I’ve heard people discussing whether it’s wise to go to big events like football games or concerts any more, debating over the security of using public transport and chewing over trips to iconic places like London.

I once had a debate with a friend about her decision to ‘never get on a tube again’ after the 7/7 bombings, and while I could – and still do – understand her fears, the point of view I held then is the one I do now.

If you don’t board that bus, if you let the doors of the underground train close with you still on the platform, if you cancel a planned trip to an amazing city like our capital, you are letting them win.

They want us to be terrified, to alter how we go about our daily routine, to second-guess every decision we make in case we or our loved ones might end up in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time.’ And I for one don’t want to ever give them the satisfaction.

I’m very well aware that this is all too easy for me to say.

Although I was commuting into London on the morning of 7/7 I was merely evacuated from a station, I was lucky enough to not witness any of the horror first hand.

I couldn’t tell you what it’s been like living through the past few days in Paris. All I’ve done is shed tears watching pictures on a television screen, sitting in awe of the bravery and dignity shown by the people of the City of Light.

I haven’t lost a friend or family member in a terrorist atrocity.

But as well as that phone call to a radio station the other thing that has really hit home since Friday night is the open letter written by bereaved husband Antoine Leiris to his wife Helene’s killers, after she perished inside the Bataclan theatre.

He writes incredibly movingly about refusing to hate the people who murdered his partner and the mother of his little boy. He eloquently states that he and his child will grow strong together, and that his boy will be happy and free all the days of his life.

So perhaps this is really what we should be telling our children.  About how lucky they are to live where and as they do, about all the little things they take for granted every day.

What I’m personally going to hold onto is the wonder in Mini-me’s eyes as we walked through Covent Garden at the weekend, taking in the Christmas lights, the market hall and the street performers.

And that there is still far, far more love in this world than hate.