Thought-provoking Christmas

One of the things I am resolving for 2009 is to think slightly less and act slightly more, so I’ll start by writing a few more blog entries without feeling they need to be magnum opuses (so recommends Arianna Huffington, via Slate). E.g., I’m not going to check whether that’s the proper Latin spelling or plural of “magnum opus.” Warning: this one is a rambler.

It has been a wonderful holiday so far. Having very recently seen my folks in Bangkok and brother and sis-in-law in NY and keen to have a bit of quiet time in London, I decided to stick around over the holiday period, and took the opportunity to join Crisis Christmas.

Crisis is an NGO for the homeless that sets up several centers around London from 23-30 December every year. The aim is to provide those in London sleeping rough or in difficult accommodation with shelter, food, services (from massage to haircuts to medical care to advice to training), and companionship at a time of year where things can be especially difficult and lonely. It’s something of a London institution, having run since at least the 1970s, and people travel from all over the UK to volunteer.

Worked up until Christmas Eve enjoying the quiet with the few of us left in the office, playing streaming Internet carols on my laptop (developing an unhealthy love for Channel O, which plays only carols beginning with the interjection “O”, but of course! including my favorite, “…Holy Night”) and getting some thinking done. Then to Sainsbury’s (along with lots of other fellow last-minute-ers) to buy groceries, a quick phone chat with my brother (who was getting ready to cook a seafood supper for himself and N as per southern French Christmas Eve tradition), an hour’s nap, and then to the center at 10pm.

I’d been assigned the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day overnight shifts at the Quiet Center, a residential center that caters to those guests who prefer to be in a smaller, quieter environment (no drugs or alcohol). This year it happened to be located in a unused magistrate’s building just by the Angel tube station, handy as I was able to walk the two and a half miles home on Christmas morning and back again that night. Showed up a little apprehensive as had no idea what to expect (having missed the volunteer induction earlier in the month) and worried about not being able to stay up all night. It turned out to be (as expected) moving, satisfying, educational, and (to my surprise) also just… a whole lot of fun. It’s meeting new people and doing new things wot makes life sparkle.

On my second night at the Quiet Center I had a chance to talk to more of the guests, a hugely varied group of nationalities, ages, histories, situations.

  • Had a nice chat with Marion, a young English woman who was very much into politics and poetry. She had just had her hair, makeup and nails done that day and was going on a date on Boxing Day.
  • Also spent a while talking with Andreas, a 24-year-old Lithuanian man who showed all of us the same card trick and spoke eloquently of his dislike for the United States and the war, having just seen Battle for Hadifa. He’d come to the UK to study business, but was accused of a crime and had to drop out while he was doing his court case. He was found innocent and is now sleeping rough while he works and saves up money to go back to school. He won’t go back to Lithuania because it’s just as expensive to live there as it is in London, but the wages aren’t as high.
  • Also had a lovely chat with Eli, a quadrilingual Lebanese man who left Beirut eight months ago to go to France and pick grapes, and then somehow ended up in London over the holidays, and plans to go back to France because he said it’s easier to be homeless there.
  • Others included a young Romanian man, a very old and blind English man, a Nigerian man, a Chinese researcher who had come to the UK to do a postdoc and ended up homeless after losing both his accommodation and his research funding.
  • Sam, who did a shift yesterday, said that many of the (male) guests she spoke with had become homeless after getting divorced.

On the night shift in particular there seems to be a lot of time to talk to your fellow volunteers, as the guests are by and large asleep and you’re paired up to keep each other company. Like the guests, they were a real mix of people with different reasons for being there. I chatted with Toni, who sold cars in Surrey and had a daughter doing 5 A-levels including maths, further maths, physics, and economics!; C, a 20-something financial journalist specializing in hedge funds and trading technologies; Rachel, who had just gotten married in October but was doing this instead of spending Christmas with her and her new husband’s families because she has been doing this for years and missed it last year and didn’t want to miss it again; H, a Japanese-Korean girl in her final year of European studies at UCL whose flatmates were all somewhere else for the holidays (“I’m looking for company, quite honestly”); Paul, a 50-something writer and storyteller; Patrick, an insurance clerk and born-and-bred Londoner with Irish parents; Tammy, a young Anglo-Indian and recent graduate in biomedical sciences about to start a job at UCH; Jamie and Mark, two handsome young men (bless) from South Africa and Britain; George from Scotland who goes to Thailand every year; D, a young insurance underwriter who had spent a few years living in the States and had himself spent some time on the streets in London when he was 16; Sarah and Petra; Bryan and Ross, both former Crisis guests themselves.

As they sent out a last-minute call for extra volunteers, I did a third shift at the Rough Sleepers Centre yesterday, in a disused BBC television studio in Acton, west London. Sam came along as well. It felt very different from last week, not because it was daytime-evening or because there were so many more people, but because the setup of the building was very different: lots of corridors and stairwells and consequently lots of “gap duty” — sitting guarding entranceways and such (and, weirdly, the local Tesco). So ended up having very little interaction with the guests despite the daytime — though did meet a young man from North London, Stavros, who had done a lot of work in local musical and regular theater and was hoping to be a volunteer next year. Did meet some more interesting fellow volunteers though: Mark, who had just returned to the UK after a decade in Southeast Asia and who had me pretty convinced that living on a narrowboat is a great way to house oneself; Helena, a lawyer for a publishing house who was volunteering with her UCL medical student daughter; Rosalind, an accountant at a telecommunications multinational who was going through a bit of a crisis of loving her company but disliking her actual job; and Emma, an stunningly self-possessed 17-year-old English girl with American parents who was a dancer and artist and planned to study physics and philosophy at university.

Sam enjoyed herself hugely as well, despite being tired from running around all weekend visiting family. We were quiet and happy on the tube ride home. A real privilege to be able to do this.

And it was lovely walking home on Christmas morning. Early delight because the S&M Café on Essex Road was open when I walked by just before 9am. Sat in there and had a sausage sandwich, a cappuccino, and a friendly chat with the chef / waiter, a young man from Algeria. Read a bit (Adam’s Fallacy by Duncan Foley) and then the rest of the 2.7 miles home, smiling and exchanging merry Christmas wishes with the few people also out and about, with a final brisk last stretch through a misty Clissold Park and then to home and hot shower and bed… all things even more appreciated.

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