My Fitness Journey – an update

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Last April I set off on a mission to finally rid myself off the 4+ stones of excess weight I’ve been carrying round for about 20 years, and to get fitter and healthier. I was eating better, reducing my alcohol intake and had started doing DDP Yoga (see my review here) and I vowed to update every week …but the last entry I did was on week 7, when I felt like I was getting stuck having lost 8 pounds. Every time I’ve dieted before I’ve plateaued at about half a stone, got bored, gone back to my usual habits and put on more weight than I lost. So anyone reading this blog would probably imagine that was the case this time too, hence no further posts … but no!

This time I persevered, ate better, did more exercise, joined Slimming World, changed jobs so I was more active every day …. and, ten months on, I’m delighted to have lost over three and a half stone, and dropped 3 dress sizes!

It’s not been easy – actually, it’s been easier than I expected, because (A) I absolutely adore DDP Yoga, and apart from Xmas week and a week when I was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, I’ve done it 4-6 times a week,e very week. And (B) I really love the Slimming World way of dieting, and it seems to be working for me. Initially I was calorie counting but it was far too easy to cheat – I often estimated weights and it’s so easy to look at something and say “yeah that’s 100g!” when actually its three or four times more… The fact that you can eat so many things on the SW plan without having to weight them, and nothing is restricted, and it’s all about making choices (do I have crisps or wine? Or do I have one glass of wine of three gin and slims?) – that’s been a real lifesaver for me.

So I’m now at a very lovely 12 stone 12 pounds, down from a hideous 16 stone 6 when I started last year, and I’m wearing size 14 rather than an 18-20. I feel better in myself, my confidence is growing every day and I actually look in the mirror and like what I see!

There’s still some way to go. I’ve set my initial target at 11 stone but once I get there, I may lose a little more – oh, to weigh ten stone something! And I definitely want to be a size 14 at the biggest. It’s so lovely being able to shop in “normal” shops and not be restricted to the outsize departments!

So there you go … this stuff does work when you set your mind to it and stick with it.

Hopefully the photos below will show the difference!

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Three fat ladies in July 2015…        and us in January 2017, having lost seven dress sizes and                                                                     over seven stone between us!

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Review: Eat, Pray, Love

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Eat, Pray, Love
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this up as a freebie at work a million years ago – I think the stock photography company I worked for at the time had something to do with the original release’s cover. Never got round to reading it, and then it became a huge hit and somehow that put me off reading it, and then I read some reviews that talked about how the author whined a bit and that put me off even more … and so it’s sat on my shelf for a very long time!

Finally decided to give it a go and you know what – I loved it! I’m at a point in life where I’m wondering who I am, what my purpose is and what the second half of life holds for me and the idea of taking off for a year and immersing myself in other countries and cultures really appeals. I loved the Italy and Indonesia sections – the Bali part in particular introduced me to a country I ahve no experience of whatsoever and I would love to visit because Elizabeth Gilbert paints such a wonderful picture of the country and its people. I have a huge interest in India and while that section was interesting, I did get a little bored with the endless meditation, just not something that massively appeals to me. I guess for me I want to be learning more about the culture and the landscape but given Gilbert didn’t leave the Ashram for four months I wasn’t going to get that.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be reading more of her work in the future. I’;m especially interested in finding out how she and Felipe get on…!

View all my reviews

Review: DDP Yoga

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ddpSo 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.

Inspirational stories

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

SupportedLungeSpaceShuttle_1So 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!

http://ddpyoga.com/

Healthy Living Regime … The Reboot!

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At 18, size 10-12, 9.5 stone

At 18, size 10-12, 9.5 stone

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, and certainly not my most flattering look!

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.

beer-422138_640The 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.
scale-403585_640So 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!

Dallas Diaries Day 2: Axxess and WWE Hall of Fame

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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.”

2016-04-02 18.16.52Our 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!)

P1000701The 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…

 

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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.

 

 

Victoria Wood and Chyna: Farewell to two ambassadors for women in a man’s world

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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.

Victoria Wood

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.

 

Chyna at Slim-Fast Fashion Show 1

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.

 

Dallas Diaries Day 1: Wrestlecon / NXT Takeover

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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!

2016-04-01 23.15.57By 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!

 

Dallas Diaries: Observations of America

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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!

2016-04-01 11.12.19This 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…

P1000678OK, 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!

P1000649And 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!

2016-04-04 18.12.15The 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.

2016-04-15 13.37.05Once 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.”

 

A sad farewell, Jungle-style (my 9th trip to the Calais Refugee Camp)

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If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that, following my 8th trip to The Jungle, the refugee camp near Calais in northern France, I was debating whether my trips there would continue in 2016. We’ve had lots of personal stuff going on this year already, not least a house move, and it’s kept me busy and not so involved in the humanitarian crisis. And to be honest – and this sounds completely selfish – I’ve enjoyed the time off. Going to Calais every two weeks for three months has been emotionally and physically draining and I felt like I was becoming obsessed with the situation over there and not focusing on my own life. Taking time out helped me refocus and I was starting to view Calais from a more detached viewpoint, as something I’d done my bit to help with, rather than something I was emotionally bonded to. But then the Swindon Calais Solidarity Group announced another trip, my son said we’d be going … And that was it, I found myself slap bang back into being involved – and even more so when we learned that our dear friend Ridwan would soon be leaving the Jungle and this would be our last chance to see him, and to say goodbye.

P1000262You may remember we met Ridwan on our very first trip, back at the end of September 2015. Just 14 years old, he had left Eritrea and travelled to Calais alone, leaving behind his parents, four younger brothers and a sister. We gave him a scarf, chatted about football – he’s a big Man United fan – and wished him well. The next time we went Ridwan found us – “Hey, do you remember me?” he asked – and spent much of the day with us, telling us a little about his life, proudly showing us his small, neat tent and pointing out the route he’d taken to get to the camp on the wall map in the Jungle Books library. We were won over by this beautiful boy’s charming smile, infectious laughter, sense of humour and positive spirit, and a friendship began. Since then we’ve sought out Ridwan every time. On our third trip we took him a bag of clothes after we learnt his possessions had been stolen; by then he had moved into a large tent with three other Eritrean guys. Next time they’d moved to one of the small shacks built by volunteers; over the following weeks we took them food, clothes, shoes, a wood stove. They made us tea and shared stories with us, talked about their lives back in Eritrea, their love for the country they’d left, their hopes for a brighter, more free future in the UK. People came and went – one of our friends made it over to the UK, others left for Germany, Sweden, Holland. We love all these guys, and the Eritrean girls who lived next door but Ridwan… Well, Ridwan is special. He became my son, my boy, and if there had been a way to bring him to the UK safely and legally, and bring him into my family, I would have done it. But of course there isn’t, and I’m generally a law-abiding soul with too much to lose by smuggling him in the back of the car … Though I can’t say I haven’t been tempted, many times.

Ridwan and I have kept in touch via the Viber app and he called me last week to tell me he had given up any hope of reaching the UK and decided to go to Germany and claim asylum there. His friend had already left the camp and claimed in Holland, and I was already sad about not seeing him again – but the idea of losing Ridwan broke my heart. Which is why, despite having detached myself from Calais in many ways, I simply had to go yesterday to see my boy one last time and say goodbye.

And so we headed off to Calais yesterday with other members of the Swindon Calais group and two cars full of food parcels – sardines, noodles, tomatoes, onion, banana and chocolate – plus another bigger bag of food for Ridwan and his friends, a pair of walking boots – and a beginners German book! I was nervous about what we might find at the camp, because a couple of weeks ago the Calais prefecture ordered the demolition of a 100m strip of the camp – including the area where Ridwan lives, and the family area. Fortunately volunteers managed to move all the houses before the bulldozers moved in, but I was anxious about what the mood would be following such devastating and unnecessary action. There has also been intense police action in the last few weeks, including reports of volunteers being deliberately tear-gassed, and only the day before we’d heard that the police were demanding volunteers had official passes, asking for ID, fining people for minor car issues, turning people away. However, my anxiety was misplaced, for this time the camp was calm, the police mostly lurked in the shadows and the people were as welcoming as ever.

Before we drove to the camp we went to the L’auberge des Migrants warehouse to collect our passes and I was surprised to see mountains of food there – piles and piles of canned beans and vegetables, boxes of fresh onions and carrots, crates of milk and so on. It made me wonder why we had bothered bringing over our 170 individual food parcels, when there was seemingly so much food headed for the camp. Yet when we arrived, we met up with Ridwan and he and Dan (my son) handed out all our food parcels in no time. It could be that the food at the warehouse is all destined for the camp restaurants, which provide thousands of free meals every day. However, there are still big communities who want to cook for themselves, so perhaps the individual food parcels are still worth taking over. It’s something we need to think about for future trips.

While Dan was distributing food, I was being hosted by a trio of beautiful Eritrean girls in their late teens, who made me tea, applauded and giggled at my attempts to speak Tigrinya and gave me their personal shopping lists, which included leggings, eye liner and nail polish! Again, the idea of “personal shopping” is something our group is going to discuss for future trips – it’s these little luxuries that give people their dignity and humanity and some semblance of a normal life. However, it’s not clear how much longer we will actually be visiting the camp – more on that later.

P1000228Ridwan then took us over to the recently demolished strip and we stood on the spot where his house used to be. It’s now situated near the Ethiopian-Eritrean church in the centre of the camp, and most of his friends are nearby, but you could see he was sad for the loss of the sharing caring community they had created in the area near the bridge. The strip extends 100m from the motorway bridge to the main “road” running through the camp and as far as the eye can see to the left and right. It’s shocking to see such a huge bare expanse of land where people were only recently living; it’s even more shocking to realise just how far the camp extended along the edge of the motorway.

Next we walked back into the camp and along to the restaurant run by our friends Aziz and Afredo, where we ate chips and drank sweet milky Afghan tea. This has become a regular event for us, and it’s lovely to see our friends and support their business, especially as we first met them when the restaurant was just a wooden frame.

P1000273I also came across other buildings I’d not seen before, including the recently moved school, a youth centre and a legal advice centre. I asked Ridwan if he knew about any of these places and he said he didn’t; these are all in the centre of the camp and of course he lived in the bridge area for many months. A lot of the volunteer organisations seem to think all the camp residents are aware of the facilities available to them but this obviously isn’t the case. I wonder if knowing about the school etc would have made a difference to Ridwan’s life in the Jungle? Perhaps there’s a case for getting information out to people more consistently.

domeI was determined to visit the Dome, where community groups run art activities, and this time we made time to find it. It’s actually two domes – a small transparent outer dome which leads to a larger, enclosed space used as a theatre and music venue. We only stood in the outer area but for me, it was a place of peace and tranquility amid the chaos and hubbub of the camp. However, my two teenage companions were soon bored of the peace and quiet and dragged me back to Ridwan’s home, where we chatted, listened to music and danced.

We’d taken some first- and second-time volunteers with us and they joined us in the hut when a heavy hailstorm beat down on the camp. It’s great to take new people to the Jungle so they can see it for themselves and take back their own experiences to share with those people who only see it though the eyes of the media. They told us they’d been blown away by the kindness of the refugees, and when Ridwan’s friend made tea and served it with biscuits, they were bowled over by the generosity of people who have so little to give, but who are so keen to share.

Our time in the camp was coming to a close and we walked back towards the car, with Ridwan in tow. He got a phone call from another friend who had attended the local hospital with an arm injury; he’d been discharged and was concerned about the walk back to camp, because the weather was very bad. We had tickets for the train and simply didn’t have the time to collect him, but I spotted a volunteer “taxi” minibus and asked if they could help, only to be told it was their last trip of the day and they couldn’t. I understand they have limits to what they can do, but it was frustrating not to be able to help.

I was dreading the moment when I had to say goodbye to my darling Ridwan. While I’m happy that he’s made the decision to leave the camp, which is no place for a young boy, and seek sanctuary in Germany, I’m also devastated that it bursts the dream I had of taking him into my home, as my son – even though in reality I know that was unlikely ever to happen. But finally the time came. Dan and I hugged him tight and we all shed a few tears. We wished him luck and I told him I loved him. “I love you too, Mami,” he replied. And then he turned and walked back towards his house, and I, inconsolable, returned to my car ready for the long drive home.

It’s the following morning now and just thinking about Ridwan makes me cry. Part of me wishes I’d never met him, never been to Calais, because then I wouldn’t feel so much pain. But we can’t live life like that, can we? We can’t not do things for fear of how it will affect us emotionally. All I can do now is stay in contact with my friend via the wonder of the Internet, and wish him all the best on his journey to Germany and his future there. He’ll be fine, I know he will. After all, he travelled from Eritrea to Ethiopia, through Sudan to Libya, across the Mediterranean to Italy and then up into France to Calais on his own. Getting the train to Paris and another to Germany will be a piece of cake! And I know he will have a much better life in Germany, where he can be fostered, fed, educated and do normal teenage boy things, than he has in the camp. But I can’t help feeling sad, almost grief for the loss of this wonderful boy who has touched my life in so many ways over the last few months. I truly hope that our bond helped make his life in the Jungle a little better, and a little easier to bear. And I also worry that the six weeks between my last two visits may have played a part in his decision to go to Germany; maybe he felt I’d deserted him. But then again, maybe I’m overthinking this, or overplaying my role in his life. I might just have been a nice lady who came to visit now and then and brought him chocolate. But I hope not; I hope it meant more to him than that. I hope we mean more to him than that.

So what does the future hold for our trips to Calais? I’ve realised that my last several trips have been focused almost entirely on supporting Ridwan rather than refugees generally; yes, I took food, scarves, other supplies over, but the main reason I went was to see my boy, and I’m not altogether sure that was a good thing. It’s reflected in these blog posts – initially they were full of lots of different people’s stories, and then they became more about what we’d done with Ridwan and his friends. So any future trips need to be focused more on the camp as a whole rather than specific people, and that should be easier once Ridwan has moved on, though I’ll always have a soft spot for his Eritrean friends. I’ve promised to do some shopping for the three girls we have befriended, and I know other members of our team have personal shopping lists they want to fulfil. But I think my focus now will be back on meeting people, hearing their stories – if they want to tell them – and giving support and love wherever it is needed, rather than bonding with individuals – and, of course, sharing my experience via this blog so other people can learn the truth about Calais, albeit the truth as I see it. Other members of our team had different stories from yesterday, including meeting a family who lost three children on their trip across the Med, and being rushed by the riot police during a peace demonstration. There are so many stories that need to be told, and I know I can tell them, so I probably will continue with the trips, but with a different objective in mind.

However, the biggest question is how long the camp will even be there for us to visit. The destruction of the 100m strip seems to have been only the start, as we heard the worrying news yesterday that the Calais prefecture is determined to remove the camp totally by the end of March. Although the number of people there has reduced significantly in the last few weeks, there are still around 5000 people there, including families, young women, teenage boys, disabled people, children and babies. Where are they supposed to go? It’s almost impossible for people to get across to the UK now and these people cannot return home. Germany and Sweden are limiting the number of refugees they accept, France seems generally hostile to immigrants and other countries are not so welcoming either. These are human beings we are talking about, people with hopes and dreams who deserve a decent, safe, free life. What will happen to the people if the camp is destroyed? It’s a very worrying situation.

 

Welcome to the Calais Jungle

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P1030137So on Sunday 27th September 2015 my son and I left home at 4.25am to join the Swindon to Calais Solidarity group for their first trip to the Calais Jungle – the refugee camp at Calais. Although I’m not actually an official member of the group I’ve been quite involved with the preparation for this trip, through acting as a collection point, campaigning for donations and making up individual toiletry bags, and the day before the trip Steve and I helped load the van.

12079678_513618662134910_125848176187001059_nI’d met a couple of people from the group but was a little apprehensive about who our travel companions would be and I know Dan was too – but everyone, without fail, was fantastic. I couldn’t wish to be associated with a more lovely group of people!

Once assembled we were a group of twenty travelling in a long wheel base Transit van and four cars, accompanied by a film crew from BBC Wiltshire. They had to take a security guy with them, so we stopped off at a hotel in Ashford to collect him (and have a quick wee) before heading on to Folkestone and onto the Eurotunnel across to Calais.

After a quick regroup at the motorway services we collected Riaz, out “man on the ground”, and then went to one of the distribution centres to unload the van. I wasn’t really sure what I’d expected but I was blown away by the size of the place and the amount of stuff in storage! There were lots of volunteers there who all seemed to know what they were doing while we stood around feeling useless and generally getting in the way! Eventually we worked out that a large lorry was being loaded with sleeping bags for the camp; we’d brought a load with us so we set up a chain gang to manhandle them all from our van to the truck. However, a lot of them were buried under tents so my job was to stand in the van and pull all the tents out of the way so other people could get to the sleeping bags. Once we’d got those out of the way we loaded up trolley after trolley with tents and roll mats, ready to be stored in the distribution centre till they’re taken to the camp. I was a bit worried that everything would stay there indefinitely but we were told that the van of sleeping bags was going to the camp later that day. Knowing that stuff we had brought over would be used by someone that evening was really reassuring – and sure enough we did see the lorry in the camp later that day.

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Once we’d unloaded the van it was time to visit the camp to distribute the packs of toiletries, some tinned food plus a few other bits and pieces we’d brought over. I was a bit apprehensive about what the camp would be like but actually it was so friendly and there wasn’t a single moment when I felt threatened in any way. The TV security guy did tell us the atmosphere would change as the day went on, though, and it was certainly a little rowdier when we left at his recommended time of 4.30pm – I can imagine it might be a scary place after dark.

As soon as our van parked up an orderly queue built at the back of it, even without us asking. I guess the refugees are used to people coming with donations and know the drill. As soon as the back doors opened there was a bit of a scrum but it was all very good-natured and we managed to control it fairly well. It was very quickly obvious, though, that these are desperate people who ahve very little. Some of them had only the clothes they were wearing, so donations are much appreciated. Anna-Maria, our group leader, showed them what we had – toiletries – and quite a few of the men (for at this stage it was all men) wandered off, but we still had quite a crowd waiting and we spent probably an hour giving out toiletries. Because there was a bit of a gaggle at the back of the van I took a rucksack and moved away a little, and Dan and I handed them out to anyone who wanted one. Sometimes people wanted something in particular – we were asked for shampoo and deodorant – and I was pleased we’d mixed up the contents a bit, as we were able to swap bags and give people what they needed.

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We also had some food to distribute – mainly pasta, rice and tins of soup, beans, rice pudding and fruit. By this time I’d started talking to some of the refugees and Dan and I had a lovely conversation with two young men from Syria. It turned into a bit of banter as I was trying to get rid of a tin of vegetable soup and they weren’t impressed; they kept telling me “No soup! No soup!” It became a bit of a joke as I tried to sell the benefits of this bloody soup to the men, to no avail. Eventually they said they would like a bag, so I managed to get hold of an empty rucksack for them and gave it to them – on condition that they took the soup as well! They were so friendly and it was a really funny situation (probably one of those where you had to be there!) – and later on we saw them again and they called out “No soup!”

P1030169So no soup, but they do like cake! At one point a group of lovely ladies came in with big boxes of cream cakes, which went down very well with the camp inhabitants – though there was a bit of a rush for them, and some of our team helped with the distribution. In fact, we are planning on taking cake, biscuits and other treats to the camp next time we visit.

 

 

We had a bag of about half a dozen football with us and they really went down well! Wherever you go in the camp you see people playing footie, so again, I think this is definitely something we’ll try to cater for in future deliveries.

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P1030213Many of the men wanted jackets and shoes, neither of which we had (having been recommended to take no clothing over!) and it was gutting to have to tell them no. However, after a while two huge trucks arrived from the distribution centre, loaded up with shoes, and huge queues formed with men waiting two hours and more to get a pair. We had to move the van to let the trucks in, so that was our cue to split into smaller groups and see a bit more of the camp. We decided to take the remaining toiletry bags into the camp, so we loaded up several black sacks and ventured in, later returning to re-fill our bags with food. I also took a few scarves, a woolly hat and a pair of gloves that my mum had given me.

The camp resembles the Glastonbury festival in a way; there are places where all you can see is a sea of tents, though many of them are actually hand-made, with tarpaulins draped over flimsy wooden frames. I was surprised to see how much structure there is in the camp – there are lots of “buildings” made from offcuts of wood, metal sheeting and tarpaulins, acting as restaurants, bars, cafes and shops. You have to remember that many of the refugees here were living good lives before war forced them to flee; just because they are refugees doesn’t mean they are penniless, and I’m sure some people are doing a roaring trade there.

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There’s a real sense of community in the camp, and we saw a church, a meeting house and various tents used for other community reasons. In one area there was a power generator and rows of power points for people to charge their mobile phones – vital for people thousands of miles from home, who might want to talk to family. There was also a small music system and speakers and the men there were obviously enjoying socialising and relaxing a little. One guy even invited Dan for a dance! There’s a caravan that serves as a medical centre, and further into the camp I’ve heard there are more churches, a library and a school. I was surprised to find there were half a dozen portaloos near the entrance to the camp – funded through a community group – and we also saw a couple of water pipes where people could wash and collect water for cooking etc. I was concerned there was no sanitation at all, so that was good to see. However, there are around 4,500 people in the camp and six toilets don’t go far ….

So exploring the camp was really fascinating – what really came across was that the people who live there want to live as decent a life as they can, considering the circumstances. They are hard working, innovative, motivated and ingenious – these are certainly not people who want to sit back and let other people provide for them.

But the best part of the day was the people we met, especially once we went off into the camp itself. We met so many people who were all really friendly and welcoming. However, there were a few people (who shall remain nameless …. I’m not good with names!) who we really connected with.

Lots of the men we spoke to were really upbeat and had a great sense of humour, despite the horrors they must have encountered in their homeland and on their journey to reach Calais. We chatted to three men from Afghanistan, two of whom wanted to come to the UK; the third said “No, England bad! I want to go to Germany, Germany welcoming.” It was obviously a source of amusement among the three of them, and the other two teased him about it. Then they asked us where we were from and we said Swindon – near London. “Ah London!” one of them said. He linked his arm through mine and said, “We go to London together!” When Dan said the guy wasn’t going to take his mum anywhere, he linked arms with Dan and said “We go to London then!” It was all so good-natured and funny – they were obviously well aware there was no way we could take them anywhere, and it was all very jokey.

I also got propositioned in another way! We approached three men, one of whom was sitting in front of a tent. “Ah, you come into my tent,” he said. “We get …” He shook his body around, and laughed. As soon as he discovered I had my son with me and my son was 6 feet tall he changed his mind – but again it was all very light-hearted, not threatening at all, just a joke between friends. Actually what came across strongly was how much respect the refugees have for the volunteers here – and we respected them back.

What you hear all the time is that there are no women and children in the camp – and yes, the refugees there are mostly male (there’s a separate camp for women and children) but we encountered quite a few children and women there – including several pregnant women, which was really shocking (and we are trying to do something to help one woman in particular, who is about seven months pregnant). There was a young girl from Iran, she must only have been about 15 or 16. Really pretty, intelligent, pretty good English.  She reminded me so much of my daughter! I don’t think she’d been there long and I’m quite worried about how she will cope.
P1030171At one stage Dan spotted a guy doing some washing in a bucket. He went over to talk to him and give him some toiletries, and they had a chat and a manly handshake. It was just such a lovely gesture, seeing him engage with people like that.

I had my own moments too. One man I spoke to said he didn’t need toiletries, so I asked if he’d like a scarf. He said he would, that it was cold there at night, so I wrapped the scarf around his neck and he touched me on the shoulder in thanks. Such a small gesture but it was quite a special moment.

Another recipient of a scarf was a young lad from Eritrea. He was 14 years old and all alone in the Jungle (the name used by the refugees for the camp). He’d travelled from Eritrea on his own, leaving behind his mother and four younger brothers. He was intelligent and polite, a big football fan (Inter Milan and Man United!), full of hope for the future. I really hope he can find asylum somewhere – the camp is no place for a teenage boy to be, he should be getting an education, playing footie, out with his mates. I told him he could be my son – if I could, I’d bring him home!

He wasn’t the youngest person in the camp though. Many of the “men” are actually between 13 and 18, but there are younger people there too. One was a young Afghan boy who said his father lived in Birmingham; we don’t know the circumstances but presumably they got separated somehow. The boy was a cheeky chappy, very friendly and with a good command of English, and quite a few of our team befriended him. For a while we were really concerned this boy was there on his own because he was only ten years old …. We have since found out he has an 18-year-old brother who is taking care of him, but we’re trying to find out where the father is and if he’s in the UK legally – and if so, if there’s any way this family can be reunited.

P1030201We also met a man from Syria who had two young children with him, a boy and a girl aged 4 and 6. One of our team had taken a rucksack of soft toys and there was a really lovely moment where she gave these children some toys. The boy chose a cuddly Dalmation and it brought tears to my eyes to see him cuddle it, kiss it and bite its nose. The look on his face was a picture… While they were there a young woman made a beeline for the rucksack and pulled out some toys for herself – as she walked away I realised she was only about 13 or 14. She stroked the toys as she walked away and I hope they gave her some comfort; I can’t imagine what living in the camp must do for your mental health, especially for a young girl.

Towards the end of the day we went back in with food, though it was quite hard to get rid of some of the things that had been donated. However, we came across a young woman who had a very tidy makeshift tent with a row of spotlessly clean washing hanging on a line outside it. We found out she was there without a man and had two children aged 6 and 5. With two hungry mouths to feed, we gave her all the food we had left … hopefully her kids will have full bellies for a while.

(While I do have some lovely photos of a few of these amazing people I can’t post them here – if they are ever in a position to make a claim for asylum it could prejudice their case, and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for that. )

On the journey home we heard what others in our group had done. Some people stayed to help with the shoe distribution. Others went off with black bags to do litter picking; they went quite deep into the camp and were met with friendliness wherever they went. They were even invited into one of the restaurants for tea and soup, despite admitting they had no money on them. The welcome shown to us by the refugees was just incredible.

P1030143Meeting the refugees and migrants in the camp was amazing, it’s as simple as that. These are people who just want a better life; they want what we have – a roof over their heads, food in the fridge, a job or an education, the chance to be safe and happy and contribute to society. It must be difficult to maintain your dignity when you’re reliant on handouts from strangers, but these people are so dignified, so appreciative and so grateful. We were welcomed and thanked, and I really didn’t expect that.

But the day wasn’t just about helping people in need, or making new friends, or doing our tiny bit to make the world a better place. It was also a day for self-development, for reflection, for learning. I know I have grown as a person through our actions, but the real surprise of the day was how it affected Dan. Dan is the boy with Aspergers who finds social interaction difficult, the boy with ADHD who was permanently excluded from school twice, the boy from hell who was in trouble with the police at the age of ten …… There have been many times when I despaired of what would become of my son, but yesterday was the moment when my boy became a man. He started the morning as a nerdy, anxious teenager but by the end of the day he’d grown in so many ways. He struck up conversations with refugees from around the world, showing them empathy and compassion; he found practical solutions to problems; he was willing to be interviewed by the TV crew (and appeared on the local news the next day – you can watch it here); he encouraged other volunteers to keep going when they were running out of energy; and he demonstrated real leadership qualities. He’s keen to go back again to do more volunteering over there and I believe he can make a real difference to the lives of many. I couldn’t be a more proud mum.

So many memories of this incredible day, but this will have to do for now. I came home feeling heart-broken yet overjoyed, frustrated yet inspired. Whatever your political stance on immigration, these people need our help. The conditions in the camp are pretty appalling and they are only going to get worse as winter arrives and the weather worsens. We are going back twice more this month to take some treats, warm clothing, coats and shoes, and a group is also raising funds for multi-fuel stoves so the people there can cook and make warm drinks. Donations are gratefully accepted, (click here to see the latest list) or if you have time to give, find your local group here.

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