Archive | December, 2013

Are gap years (gap yahs) simply an excuse to get pissed and ‘find yourself’?

22 Dec

Gap years have become synonymous with tousled hair, ‘ethnic’ beaded bracelets and late-night beach parties.  Attitudes towards gap years have changed – when I was younger, gap years were almost encouraged as a way of gathering more ‘life’ experience, a way of exploring the world and doing things outside the rigid school curriculum.

In the last few years, though, the ‘student on a gap year’ seems to conjure up images of frightfully posh eighteen year olds, with wads of money from the Bank of Mummy and Daddy who think that getting pissed in a different country means expanding one’s mind and perspective.   There’s a plethora of stuff out there that mocks the average gap yah student for example, this sketch which is pretty spot-on in some respects – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKFjWR7X5dU – and does anyone remember the furore about good old Max Gogarty and his ‘ironic’ journal detailing his travels in the Guardian? http://www.theguardian.com/travel/blog/2008/feb/14/skinsblog

I think it’s a real shame that these caricatures have come to pervade our associations with gap years, and as a person who had a gap year myself, I can safely say that its not all ridiculously posh, rich, vacuous students (debatable…!) looking to sleep around.  My gap year was non-voluntary and came suddenly when I was forced to leave university after a term due to depression and anxiety.  It was entirely unplanned, and initially I found the idea awful.  I saw it more as another year delaying the inevitable while comparing myself with my friends who all seemed to be having so much fun at uni, and there were times when I became very introverted, frustrated and generally disillusioned.  However, for me, it helped to begin the healing process and I managed to get into some sort of structure which is vitally important when you’re down.

Firstly, I needed money.  I ended up working full-time in retail which taught me a lot of things, namely that I didn’t want to work in retail.  I also learnt to curb my expectations.  I think it’s good, no vital, to have dreams and ambitions but many of my dreams were illusions – unobtainable goals.  These only served to make me feel like a failure as I could never achieve the impossible, but working in a monotonous and at times, incredibly boring, job gave me a little perspective about what I should expect for my life.  In a way, by doing something I knew I didn’t want to do, I felt more determined to find something that I did want to do.  Something that would open more opportunities to me and I started looking into courses and universities that I would be better suited to.

Later on in the year, having saved my money for a while, I decided I wanted to travel and engage in the more ‘typical’ gap year experience. Strangely, my good friend was in a very similar position to me and we both decided to do something a bit different.  We booked ourselves onto a volunteering program in Cambodia for a couple of months, where we worked in a school for poor children and an orphanage as English teachers.  At the time, I desperately wanted to escape the tedium of my life, and the malignant thoughts that followed me everywhere.  Yes, I was incredibly self-indulgent but the beauty of my gap year experience was its ability to change my perspective.  I met some of the nicest people I have ever met, and probably will ever meet, who were incredibly strong, kind and genuine despite the fact that they had very little in material terms.  It was refreshing to escape my narrow world of being trapped in my head and I even felt ashamed that I should be so focused on myself.  The picture below shows Indu and I teaching English to a class of the cutest Cambodian children.  Their energy and enthusiasm was incredibly infectious.

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So, even though the notion of ‘finding yourself’ is beyond cheesy, my entire gap year experience (at home and abroad) was vital in making me who I am today.  It also gave me the travelling bug, and since then I’ve done internships and volunteered in a number of countries as it’s addictive to lose yourself in another culture.  It also taught me the value of hard work, the kindness in other people (which I had pretty much given up believing in at that point) and that sometimes you need to realise that it is all in your head.  And the world is far bigger than your head.

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Christmas at Kew – a surreal and very non-Xmassy affair

18 Dec

Earlier this week, I went to Kew Gardens to ‘follow an illuminated trail through our enchanting winter landscape.’  I’d seen the adverts everywhere and excitedly booked tickets for me and my friend as a way to get into the Christmas spirit.  I envisaged beautiful traditionally lit trees, Christmas markets and gorgeous scenery.  The reality, however, turned out to be rather different to my expectations.

It probably didn’t help that it was raining when we went but the whole affair seemed to have been incorrectly marketed.  Firstly, it wasn’t exactly a Christmassy walk – in fact, there was nothing Christmassy about the walk.  It was more of a surreal experience with a dominant theme being ‘plant whispering’ and some actors were rather half-heartedly rambling on about how plants can communicate to each other through a series of strange noises.  Who this was aimed at was rather unclear – the children that had been dragged along expecting to see elves and Christmas trees stood confused as they were handed a marble which they then threw into a lake which prompted the plants to “communicate” back.  My friend threw a marble into the lake and we had to practically strain our ears to hear a noise which ended up sounding like a tiny little belch.  Strange.

Throughout the trail, there were several gramophones around playing noises of the plants, which contributed to the rather bizarre atmosphere.  There were some aesthetically beautiful moments – there was one part where a section of landscape was lit up and children (or adults) could press buttons that emitted rave-like sounds which was rather entertaining.  There was also the Field of Fire (as in my blurry picture below) which was strangely hypnotising and an inspired art installation entitled ‘The Waterlily’.  

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The trail ended with a fun lights show which illuminated the main Kew greenhouse in all its glory, lighting it up in different colours in time with the music.  The whole event seemed to be more a surreal exploration of light and sound amongst nature which is why I think many families must have finished the trail sorely disappointed.  The Christmas Village was rather mediocre and the rides were small and targeted to children – fair enough perhaps! 

In conclusion, the Christmas trail was not at all what it promised to be, however if you’re willing to forgo all expectations, there are parts that are aesthetically beautiful, especially so at night time and we still managed to enjoy ourselves!

Ghost World

4 Dec

Every time I watch Ghost World, I am transported straight back to being 17 years old again.  That was around the time I was studying for my A-Levels and to escape from my world of Pure Maths and memorising facts, I’d wander round the local HMV store to browse for something that could take me away from the tedium of my daily life.  During one of these browsing sessions, I came across Ghost World and I’m bloody glad I did as it spoke VOLUMES to me as a cynical, melancholic and precocious adolescent.  And let’s face it, who hasn’t been one of those?!

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The film is actually based on a comic book by Daniel Clowes and this is carried through the film with vivid, almost cartoonish imagery.  The main character, Enid (played by the underrated Thora Birch), is a cynical, pseudo-intellectual teenager and the story follows her and her best friend, Rebecca (played by a baby Scarlett Johannson before she became a Hollywood clone) the summer after they graduate from high school.  Their boredom leads to them playing a cruel trick on the unsuspecting and adorable Seymour, who is played by the amazing Steve Buscemi.  Both eccentric misfits with Seymour openly acknowledging that he ‘can’t relate to 99% of humanity’, their relationship develops into one of genuine affection and Birch and Buscemi play their parts superbly.   Enid’s witticisms and sense of superiority over the rest of society is something familiar to most teenagers, and her increasing confusion as she wrestles with the elusive  question of ‘What’s this all about?’  results in a moving, poignant conclusion.

The sense of apathy and restlessness that pervades the film is key to its beauty, along with its gorgeous cinematography and the soundtrack (which made me start listening to 60’s Bollywood music).  The script is incredibly clever and speaks volumes about how utterly alone and fearful you can feel after school, in a world that values the superficial (demonstrated hilariously by Enid’s caricature of an Art Teacher, who humiliated Enid’s drawings by dismissing them as ‘cartoons’ and praises a tampon in a cup because it contains so many “issues”).