My brush with the Muscles from Brussels

So that was my top claim to fame as told in the Small Claims Court of BBC Radio 6 Music. Here’s the full story…

I met Jean Claude Van Damme in LA in 2001, back when I was just 20. He was living in the same apartment block as my friend’s Dad who we were staying with. On our last night we passed him on our way out. I had missed him so turned back under the guise of having left my purse back at the apartment. I’d only wished to sneak a glance at his face, but when I turned round one of his two dogs was following me so obviously I stopped to stroke the animal.

He came over and started chatting with me – he’d been walking his dogs with his son, Kris. Dressed in double denim and aviators I was really shocked by his somewhat diminutive stature. He waxed lyrical about how he’d rescued the dogs from the street and how smart they were, attempting to get them to perform small tricks for me. Does that impress a 20 year old British girl? No sir, no it does not. Anyhow, the dogs refused to perform, as if weary at this well-worn ruse for attention. After a few more minutes of small talk (boom) he whipped off his sunglasses with full on movie-style flamboyance, extended his arm and  introduced himself “Jean-Claude”. Stifling my laughter I shook his hand, mumbled a pleasantry, made my excuses and left.

On my return to the UK I learned he was desperately trying to make a come-back, and wondered if we should have acted starstruck instead of feigning ignorance (as one does in LA!). Admittedly, I’ve since watched every film he’s ever featured in – most of them in the ensuing weeks as I recuperated from an operation (special nod to JCVD which is a must-see). I must also confess to having a teeny weeny bit of a crush, but at the time he was just an embarrassing, ageing, has-been. Sorry JC, you truly are a star.

Update 29/10/13 >> have a bit of fun with this JCVD poll: http://theactionelite.com/2013/07/poll-who-is-jcvds-most-iconic-character/

 

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The case of the Tuk Tuk and the missing backpack

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Travelling around South East Asia was not so much an onslaught on my senses, but a battle between them. Nowhere more so than in Phonm Pehn. Arriving at 2am on a rickety sleeper bus no sooner had I wiped the sleep from my eye was I thrust into the mêlée of tuk tuk drivers jostling to take the latest herd of travellers to their guesthouses.

Pulled along by the crowd I settled into the relative comfort of a Tuk Tuk, but as we were waiting to set off, a squabble broke out between my driver and another, disgruntled at having apparently lost his place in the pecking order, and I was promptly packed off into the challenger’s Tuk Tuk. Too tired to protest I acquiesced, but a niggling feeling in my stomach warned me this was not the best course of action.

After an average journey time to my guesthouse there seemed to be some confusion and it became apparent the driver didn’t believe we were at the correct guesthouse. I tried to reassure him but this was a man on a mission, and off we set for a further search of the empty streets. In time we arrived back at the same guesthouse and the driver engaged the night-watchman in conversation, trying to ascertain if it was indeed the correct establishment for my booking. At this point I attempted to join the conversation as it seemed to be the right place to me. Neither man spoke more than a smattering of English, and me only the most rudimentary Cambodian. I understood the guard believed there was ‘no room at the inn’, but I had a booking confirmation and protested until he at last relented and called another member of staff to clarify matters.

Fortunately the young chap who appeared spoke excellent English and had been expecting me, so wasting no more time I paid the driver.  I was still in conversation with the young fellow, who was explaining he needed to put me in a different room for the night, when I turned to see the driver speed off into the distance…with my backpack in tow! Panicked, I ran into the street after him, shouting and waving for him to stop, but to no avail, and I could only watch as the Tuk Tuk grew ever smaller until it faded into the night.

I thought it should be a fairly easy case of calling the taxi rank manager to explain the situation, and wait for the driver to return, but it transpired there were multiple bus drops in the city, and I didn’t know which road I arrived into. Nightmare! I grew ever more fraught while the hotel staff kindly rang around to find out which street I had arrived into, and advised me to enlist a Moto taxi to give chase and see if we could locate the Tuk Tuk driver ourselves. So that’s exactly what happened, my very own high-speed chase. Just like in the movies. Of course there was a language barrier and my lack of geographical knowledge to contend with. I remember thinking how hopeless the situation was and I should accept that my backpack was lost forever. In the back of my mind was the thought that this would one day be a great travel tale, and that calmed me, well, a little.

After what felt like hours the Moto taxi driver received a call saying the Tuk Tuk driver had been located and we would rendezvous in ten minutes. I was both relieved and anxious, as it had begun to feel a little cloak and dagger and paranoia had kicked in. However, the original driver did indeed arrive and handed over the backpack, albeit reluctantly. I don’t know whether he had received a rollocking from his boss, or the whole debacle had been deliberate, but when I refused to pay him for coming out to meet us he became very angry and delivered some choice words (well, I assume so anyway). The exhilaration was wearing off so I begrudgingly stuffed a bill into his hand and we sped off back to my guesthouse.

This story is now indeed one of my favourite travel tales to tell, and I cherish it as much as any. I will say this though, dear, reader. Always heed your instincts!

There’s No Place Like Home

I have a moderate to severe case of wanderlust, which I ascribe in equal measure to my Romani blood (50% proof), limited attentions span, and downright curiosity.

Last year I found myself at one of life’s crossroads: I hit the Big 3-0, lost my job through redundancy as part of Britain’s austerity measures, and exited a serious relationship stage-left. When the world shifts around you, take the hint. So I got the hell outta dodge. Or so I thought.

Now, I was fortunate enough to receive a not-insulting pay-out from the redundancy elves, something that’s frighteningly rare in the public sector these days, and having come to the end of my natural lifespan within my job at least 18 months before this all happened, it wasn’t the saddest of farewells. So, with rental costs too much to bear (and I sure as heck wasn’t going to fritter my doubloons on it, sea-view or not!) and no immediate prospects, I set sail on the high seas of adventure (in reality I booked flights).  Now there’s an idea for next time – take a boat trip around the world.  Food for thought.

So I embarked on a mini adventure around South East Asia, starting in Bangkok and from there travelling largely overland through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore, before crossing over to New Zealand.  Asia was a whirlwind; not so much an assault on the senses but a battle between them! I took in the main sights (think the Vinh Moc War Tunnels of Vietnam, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the Temples of Angkor) and caught up with friends dotted around the continent. Learning new customs, greetings and currencies every few days was certainly challenging; the difference in deference so slight, yet so impactful on the receiver. One false move and you might insult your new neighbour.  Thankfully, to my knowledge, my weeks passed without committing any cultural faux pas.

On then, to New Zealand, or to give it its Māori name, Aotearoa (Land Of The Long White Cloud).  This is a difficult one; on paper New Zealand is a wonderful country. With its great expanse of diverse, breath-taking scenery, small population and relaxed outlook, for some it’s a virtual nirvana. One person’s nirvana however, is another’s inferno.  Not wanting to unjustly judge a country I spent a mere five months as a resident of, I have tried to be objective, but the fact remains: The Land Of The Long White Cloud is my Land Of The Great Dark Cloud.

It’s probably fair to say that we are all a little guilty of complacency and sometimes neglect within the relationships we build.  Even, and perhaps in part because of the tools of technology at our disposal, and that we all seem to live such rushed lives, it’s easy to find ourselves disenfranchised, be it self-imposed or otherwise.  Now and then, when life throws us a curve ball that not so much slips through our fingers as knocks us over, we are reminded that the relationships we cherish, but  have side-lined for individual pursuits, are our only salvation.  What happened next I still find hard to quantify.  At this point you would be forgiven for thinking “Uh oh, here’s the kick.” Not so dear reader, don’t fret.  It’s true I’d found myself in a fairly hideous predicament, but this tale is not one of lamentation, but one of love.

The yearning to come home, to this broken country I had been so desperate to escape six months earlier was overwhelming; completely and utterly consuming, but I was destitute and needed help.  More help than I’ve ever dared ask for.  Guess what? That help came.  Three months later I am still blown away. I’m utterly astounded by the immense support and generosity of these wonderful people, who quite literally, brought me home.  Then I ask myself, why am I really?  I chose them, each one, and they chose me.  We handpicked each other to form part of our respective inner circle, our gang, our flock.  Should it be such a great surprise then, that we would support each other in times of great need?  One could argue that it no, it shouldn’t be, and in part I agree, for I love these people, and they love me.  On the other hand, there really is no room for complacency here.

What then of the kindness of strangers?  My friends brought me home and gave me shelter, but I then needed to find somewhere to lay down my recently-torn roots.   I’d turned to my allies for help, and the balance was tipped heavily in their favour.  Was it possible the same theory could be applied to a different audience?  The answer it appears is yes it can.  I turned to social media to broadcast my plight, and within a matter of days I had the foundations of that sought-after new start.  The reaction was, as with my “friends in real life”, nothing short of extraordinary.  I certainly didn’t expect the volume of responses received and it has left me truly humbled.  This gives me the courage and strength to fight on.

In times of hardship such as we find ourselves in now; amid a global recession, my country is even more fragmented than it was when I left. Every day seems an uphill struggle, and the system is failing so many, but I’ve seen the Third World, and the people there put us more fortunate folk to shame.  Entire generations wiped out by genocide, yet there’s such a strong sense of community, and the people have a smile for everyone.  That’s what life is about is it not – smiling through the pain, shouldering each other along and helping your fellow person.  The next chapter isn’t going to be easy, but my faith in life bolstered, I owe it to myself, to my loved-ones, and to the human race as a whole, to persevere.  In a battle between adversity and humanity, I know who my money’s on.

Mon voyage pour voir Harriet en France , Septembre 2010

Beaucoup de fromage! Mont-Blanc au coucher du soleil. Nager dans le lac d’Annecy. Dieux grils à raclette avec fromage et steak haché (et de la salade , bien sûr!). George le chat gris. Moules-frites safranées avec Noixettes St.Jacques. Belle étoile et couchers de soleil , mais pas des étoiles filantes. Un croque-monsieur chic. Faire du feu! La cueillette des prunes et des combats hors guêpes! Café et Gauloises. Poupées peur. Une toilette style de sauna, avec intégré TV! Une soirée à La Cave pour un plateau de fromage et charcuterie…et sexy hommes gallique 😉 Le Melet (frais du lac!) avec frites. Hat me forçant à écouter sa musique 😉 Un voyage au supermarché – j’aime épicerie étrangers!. Un macaron grand et un biscuit florentin grand – c’est délicieux! Des vacances très relaxantes – merci beaucoup Hat xxx

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La bande-son:

youtube.com/watch?v=7M8UxZDk56o

et

youtube.com/watch?v=sUgoBb8m1eE

et, bien sur

youtube.com/watch?v=5AhU12zC8fc