Where were you when? The cheese course question at every good dinner party.
If you’ve been to a dinner party lately (I haven’t, please invite me!) it’s inevitable that at some point the conversation will steer towards this question.
It happens towards the end of the evening when there’s a heady red-wine lull. Heads are lolling and tummy’s are full. Someone brings out the cheese platter and tries to reinvigorate conversation and distance themselves from the inevitable sense that it’s home time.
“Hey guys, do you remember when?”
It seems to be a universally human response to inexplicable tragedy and awe-inspiring events to somehow place yourself inside. It’s a need to connect; to belong to the delicate dew-dipped web of humanity, to know exactly how the story of your own life weaves into the bigger stories that we all share.
It’s also a good way to jump-start the dying embers of a dinner party.
In my parent’s generation it was Kennedy, Martin Luther and the Moon landing. Ask anyone in their sixties where they were at these points in history and they will inevitably pause for a moment, lift their eyes up into the clouds of their own memories and remember.
They aren’t just remembering the moment in history, they’re remembering where THEY were in that moment in history. Were they in bell-bottoms, side-burns or a mini-skirt? Had they just been to a dance and shimmied defiantly to the Elvis hit of the day? Remembering the event also reminds them of who they were, how they fit into history, how history fits into them.
My generation have their own global events. The following aren’t in chronological order, nor in a sequence of significance. They are just how they came to me when I pondered, where was I when?
You know as well as I do that this was going to be the first one I remembered. It’s the event that has now become synonymous with the question.
‘Where were you when?’ has become an unspoken reference to 9/11.
I was on a London tube. I had just finished a long day at a tough London school teaching tough London kids. The tube was packed with polite, suited Londonites; necks bent, brows knitted, legs folded, all tied up in the ‘Britishness’ of being British.
They were reading newspapers. 2011 was really pre-facebook, pre-smart phones and pre-being absorbed in technology in every moving moment of every day. People still read papers.
I was standing, observing the scene and feeling as though finally I was beginning to find my place in London; a city with people who demanded that you EARN their respect and even then made you work for it.
A phone started ringing. Then another. Then another. Within a minute, the entire tube rang in a cacophony of Vodaphone shrills. There was a sense that SOMETHING HAD HAPPENED. I didn’t know what. My phone wasn’t ringing.
A woman next to me became distressed. “Isn’t Mum in New York at the moment?” It seemed that she was talking to a relative and at that point in time it meant nothing than an overheard conversation on the Tube.
But then more phones started ringing. Slowly, papers were slid to laps, EVERYONE was on their phone. I got off, an eerie sense of urgency took me to the closest TV in the local Bottle shop.
I walked into a frozen room. Like sun-dials, each soul stood unmoved with heads upturned to the small TV above the fridge behind the counter.
Then it happened.
The second plane.
People screamed inside that small dark liquor store. Screamed.
I frantically asked the cashier what was happening and, as a gentle hand of darkness, he told me. In terror I ran home a block away to my flat with my dear Australian friends, who themselves were gasping open-mouthed in dead terror.
This is where I was. I was living a life as a young English teacher in inner city London. I was on the tube, which I was soon to develop a deep fear of.
It wasn’t too much longer after that horrific day that I made my way home to Australia; my own life path inextricably linked to that day on the Tube when the phones started ringing.
2.) The day the Queen Mum died
I call myself a Republican Monarchist. What in the world does this mean? Well it means that I voted for a Republic in the referendum, but I have had a young girl’s romance with the monarchy ever since as a six year old I watched Diana walk down that aisle in her diaphanous cream gown to become a princess.
I think I can be both.
I think that’s ok.
So, as a Republican Monarchist, it came as a terrible shock to me when after a full day of hiking in the Scottish Highlands that my dearest friend Belinda and I arrived at our B&B for the night to the terrible news.
Belinda had been living in London and I in Glasgow. We missed each other and we had wanted to plan a holiday together. We tossed up a week in Amsterdam or a week hiking with the hairy cows in the Scottish highlands. As adventure-loving types we chose the latter and began one of the most beautiful journey’s that the two of us have ever shared. Considering that we’ve also drunk Vodka from the bottle at Jim Morrison’s Parisian grave and chased Polar Bears through Arctic Canada, that’s saying something.
We had arrived at our B&B that night rather bedraggled. I had a particularly bad case of blisters that no foot bath or whisky could fix and we had just spent 10 hours tramping through misty heather in medium to extreme pain.
When we turned on our little TV we saw the news immediately. I think that we may have actually cried. Belinda and I had shared an entire youth together and our experiences led us to have a similar reaction.
That night we took ourselves to the local restaurant and made a toast to the Queen Mum. We also made a toast to our friendship, which had seen us share this experience together and has seen over a decade more since then.
3.) The Tsunami
In a world of instant and all-encompassing 24 hour news I didn’t find out about the Tsunami until over four days after it had happened. Why? Because I was in the dark depths of Africa.
The sequence of events that occurred in those four days was completely unbeknownst to me. While I was following lions in open topped jeeps I had no knowledge that back home in Australia I was on the official missing persons list and part of the ‘count’ of people who had been subsumed by the horrific wave that had wiped a world of people away.
On this particular adventure my family had actually flown from their hometown to see me off at the airport. To say that they were slightly anxious about my ‘don’t worry I’ll be fine in Africa on my own’ attitude is understating things. They squeezed me in a tight embrace that carried the weight of ‘we may never see you again tears’ with them.
Imagine their horror then, when the itinerary that I had given them before departing had me staying on the beach in Zanzibar; a location directly hit by the massive ripple from that deep and dark sea-bed earth-quake.
By some incredible stroke of luck for my companions and I we had adjusted our schedule the day before and had relocated inland.
The next four days we spent in complete oblivion. We had bucket showers, set up camp in scrub on the side of the road and traversed through pungent local markets. At no point did any of us have access to the internet.
Eventually, after a rough road trip of dust, deep muddy bogs and river-crossings we made it to our next Safari destination. There was a lounge, a bar, a TV.
The natural inclination to ‘check in’ when you have been offline led us to switch on that TV and to turn to CNN.
Again a room of people silently watching a TV.
My thoughts immediately went to my family. Oh. My. God. I rushed to the counter and asked for the internet. It was located in a shed on the outskirts of the camp and required an armed escort in order to guard for attacking animals.
My beautiful indigo guard and I made it to the shed safely and I immediately contacted my family, telling them that I was safe and sound. Yes, I had needed an armed guard to get to a computer to tell them that, but I sensitively left that part out.
This was an event that my life’s path had entwined with, but thankfully not closely enough to be grazed on the way past.
I think that the need to map our own lives to the world’s global events is all about being human. We need to connect in the same way that our ancestors had sitting around a bison-burning fire and chatting about where they were when the last asteroid hit or volcano erupted.
Well, I don’t actually have evidence for this but I can see it happening. Can’t you?
History is never just what happened. It’s what happened through our eyes; through the eyes of a young teacher, a Republican Monarchist or an adventurer in deep Africa.
Through the eyes of us all.
So if you want to see how different and yet the same we all are, if you want to see what binds us inextricably in the beauty of being human, then, offer to bring out the cheese course at your next dinner party and ask the question:
“Where were you when?”