A Game of Me

tumblr_ntr3clyrxw1qbch0vo1_1280One of the most important life-lessons I have ever learnt was taught to me by a Belgian theatre company at a one-to-one drama festival somewhere in London in July 2010. I don’t want to give any more identifying details on the infinitesimal chance that someone (but who?!) reading this will then go on to ‘see’ the same ‘play’. If you do get a chance to experience the (short) piece in question, seize it, even though you don’t know its name or that of the theatre company which produced it. Basically, if it sounds like your bowl of stoemp, your best bet is probably to move to Belgium and start going to the theatre a lot. Or just email me and I’ll happily tell you. But do be prepared to learn things about yourself which will surprise and may appal you.

Here is what I learnt about myself:

  • My name is Mark, or possibly Peter.
  • I live in California and am not married.
  • I like going to the theatre.
  • I like cars.
  • I look like I work in advertising.

As we shall see, I got off lightly on a karmic level.

The first thing that happened was that I arrived five minutes early and chatted to a youngish (mid-30s) woman from London (or possibly Essex) who was ahead of me in the queue. She said she was a huge theatre fan, to the extent that she had recently given up her job to pursue a career as an actor. After a couple of minutes’ pleasant conversation they indicated that it was time for ‘her’ performance to start. Then, five minutes later, I was called to pull aside a velvet curtain and step into a small room. In the room there were a couple of chairs facing a large mirror, and a small table with a bottle of water and some plastic cups, some action figures and a notepad and paper. I poured myself some water, put the action figures in relation to one another (as one does), and waited. Around me I could hear occasional buzzers and muffled voices. After a couple of minutes a man walked through the curtained doorway to my right. He was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, with a shaved head and a card hanging from his neck identifying him as a participant in the theatre festival. He introduced himself (he had a woman’s name, which struck me as odd) and asked me if I minded if he talked about himself for a moment or two. I shrugged. He told me that he felt a bit hemmed in by his lifestyle. He spent too much time in his flat watching TV with his partner, who didn’t share his hobbies. He said that he felt frustrated and deathly bored in his job in university administration, and that ultimately what he most wanted to do in life was to be creative. I sympathised with him, telling him that he should seize the day, follow his own path, etc. Presently a buzzer sounded and he thanked me for my time and invited me to step into the room to my right.

This room was similar to the first except that instead of a mirror there was a glass window, behind which sat a devastatingly attractive young woman who spoke English with what sounded like a German accent and who, in an extremely friendly tone, started to ask me some questions about myself, in particular about how I think I come across to others. I mentioned that people often mention that I look puzzled, and when she asked why this might be so I explained that sometimes I find life, other people and myself perplexing. She also asked me about my hopes and fears. This being July 2010, I probably talked about wanting to do a Ph.D and go to live in Brazil. I confessed some aspects of my insecurities around others but for the life of me I cannot remember any details of what I said. In any case after a couple of minutes a buzzer buzzed and I stepped into the next room.

There was another actor waiting for me (maybe 40, bald, plumpish, clearly gay), and in front of us a large screen on which we could see a youngish woman fidgeting, drinking water and occasionally scribbling something in a small notepad. To her left was a table with a bottle of water, some plastic cups and some small action figures who appeared to be involved in some sort of orgy. The actor asked me what I thought the woman was called. In response I told him that although I hadn’t asked her name, I had already spoken to her before. I guessed that her name might be Rachel or Rebecca. Rachel, I decided. He asked me what I thought she did. I said that I knew that she was hoping to be an actor, and then volunteered that maybe she had left it a bit late in life. I then made some unprompted comments about how actors always think they’re going to make the big time but then (if they’re lucky) the highlight of their career turns out to be that time they stood outside a shopping centre handing out McDonalds leaflets dressed in a Barney the Big Purple Dinosaur costume. I intimated that that might be as far as Rachel’s acting career would go if she did every actually decide to pursue her dreams, which was unlikely in any case, and threw in for good measure that her Essex accent might get in the way of her progress unless, that is, she managed to get a bit part in Eastenders. I think I was basically trying to be funny and to get him to like me as a person.

After a couple of minutes of this he invited me to move on into the next room. The room was dark and I found myself looking through a large glass window into another small room with two people in it. The one on the right was a young woman who looked Chinese, and the other a young casually-dressed man in his 30s who looked oddly familiar. He looked straight at me and then started speaking to the Chinese-looking woman. He asked her if she minded if he talked about himself for a moment, got some things off his chest. She nodded, nervously. He told her that people often commented that he looked puzzled. He went on to talk about some of his frustrations in life, like his so-far thwarted plans to go and live in Brazil and do a Ph.D, and his ongoing struggle to make sense of his identity. She sympathised, telling him in halting English (I would say late pre-intermediate, about mid-B1 or IELTS 5 on a good day) that she understood his plight (she obviously didn’t use the word plight).

Once more I was invited to step out of the room. This time I found myself in a corridor. All around me I could hear the usual muffled voices and the occasional buzz, and also an old-fashioned telephone ringing from behind a curtain at the end of the corridor. I pushed aside the curtain into a room where a geekish-looking man was quietly working on a laptop and picked up the phone. It was a male voice. He sounded like he might be German or Dutch but said his name was Rachel. He sounded a bit hurt, and said that he had been a bit dismayed about what I’d said about his prospective acting career, particularly about his age and his accent. I apologised profusely, saying it was hard to judge people on the basis of such a short encounter, and also wrong to do so. I wished him luck with becoming an actor and put down the phone, feeling a little crestfallen and a bit abashed. The man sitting at the computer silently handed me a freshly-burnt CD. Later that night I listened to a woman with a Chinese accent tell me all about myself. She said my name was Mark, or possibly Peter, that I lived in California, and wasn’t married. She said I looked like a happy person who likes driving cars and going to the theatre. Another woman’s voice asked her what she thought my job might be. She thought for a few seconds and said maybe I worked in advertising.

As previously mentioned, I think I got off very lightly indeed.

I have a shameful confession to make

Any readers concerned that my ongoing fascination with China is turning into an unhealthy and vindictive obsession might be relieved to hear that I’ve developed a new interest, and potentially a whole new hobby: Shoplifting. It came about because I have a student who works for a company which sells supposedly theft-proof security products to supermarkets – coded labels, advanced bar code technology, those almost totally irritating roundy plastic things they stick on bottles of spirits and the like – and who, in the course of a discussion of which Spanish supermarkets are easiest to nick things from (clue: it’s not El Corte Ingles), revealed himself to be something of an unreformed pilferer himself, claiming to have surrepticiously slipped thousands of products out of hundreds of supermarkets over the years.

It’s an aspect of life that I’ve never really considered, apart from a vaguely rebellious notion that there is absolutely nothing wrong with swiping whatever takes your fancy from the shelves of Tescos or Sainsbury’s or wherever. I’m even quite shocked when I leave a shop with someone who turns out to have helped themselves to a five-fingered discount. And the shocking and shameful truth, which it took quite a lot of courage and soul-searching to even admit to myself, is that I don’t think I have ever stolen anything from a shop in my life.

It’s certainly not been through a lack of necessity. I don’t have any problem with pathetically informing the person at the checkout that I’ll have to leave three of those eleven bananas and that 99 cents Neal Diamond – Live! cd behind. And in my mind I’ve always known that the risks of being challenged, let alone taken away and fed to the crocodiles, are almost non-existent – according to my Shoplifting Guru, the police never even bother going to the store if the value of what you’ve stuffed down your pants/hidden behind your earlobe/stashed inside the baby is less than €350. This article talks in some detail about quite how much fun and how widespread it is: I’ve obviously been missing out bigtime. Maybe I am all the same just a coward, but I can honestly say that when I’m counting my farthings in Dia or Lidl (of course, it’s not great for your social standing to be caught in the act in those 12p-for-a-can-of-beans supermakets, no matter how famous you might be), the thought of shoplifting never ever occurs to me. The only conclusion is that I forget to steal things.

So I decided to turn over a new leaf, and start helping myself to at least one item per visit to the Super. If I get good enough at it in my usual discount haunts, I thought, I reckon in a year or so I’ll have saved enough to upgrade to a weekly visit to El Cortin. Not that I’d be paying for it, of course. But then I reconsidered – I have, I realised, much nearer to my house, my own ready made Shoplifting Academy.

Just next to my building, right at the entrance to the local metro station is one of Madrid’s 400,000 Chinese shops, and the two kids who staff it are by far and away the doziest people I’ve ever encountered in my life. They speak notverymuch Spanish, don’t despite my very best vocal contortions appear to understand a word of Chinese, and my attempts to communicate with them in English were greeted with stares as blank as something totally, like totally, like one hundred percent blank. Plus, they seem to spend their non-serving moments hidden away somewhere beneath the counter. I think maybe it’s a better choice if I want a not-too-challenging initiation into the montaña rusa world of the habitual shoplifter.

So that’s where I’ll be starting off my criminal career. I know it’s not the most ethical option to start by picking on low-down neighbourhood establishments owned and staffed by recent immigrants, not to mention ones that are quite so badly-stocked and lacking in pesto. But bear with me, it is only a beginning, and before too long I’ll be setting my sights on the true temples of modern consumer capitalism and rampantly stuffing my pockets in an adrenaline-fuelled frenzy of premium product theft. That is, of course, if I’m not making a shame-faced extended detour to a different metro station every day for the next two years…