The Number Twelve Tram at Midnight

Travelling during a pandemic is no fun. I’m not a huge fan of travelling as it is, by which I mean the actual moving from one place to another place. There have been some exceptions - not much beats crossing Argentina on the top deck front seats of a luxury coach - but on the whole, boring and uncomfortable is about the best you can hope for, and it’s downhill all the way from there. (Not literally. You can also travel uphill or along the flat.)

I particularly dislike flying and I think this is because it’s the mode of transport where you get reminded most often of the likelihood of your impending death. It used to be mainly that you were reminded of it while taxiing, during take off, and when landing (do not switch your phone back on while the plane heads to the gate or the plane might explode), over the last twenty years you were increasingly reminded of it while queueing up to go through security, placing all your tiny liquids in a plastic bag, removing your shoes etc, and now the reminders begin days before and last for weeks after as you get giant Q-tips shoved up your nose and down your throat just in case you have a deadly virus.

I have just been in Belgium for five days and by the time this is over I will likely have had seven Covid tests. There was an extra one at the beginning because my flight to Brussels was cancelled (because the plane was leaking - tell me again that I am wrong about flying) and I was rescheduled to the following day, by which time my pre-departure test had expired. Upon arrival in Belgium I immediately had to have another test even though I had one less than 24 hours previously, and then three days later I had to have another one to prepare me for departure. (If I’d stayed for seven days I would have had to have yet another one.) I was in quarantine the entire time I was staying in Belgium, but someone very wise in the Belgian government decreed that there is only one test centre in the whole country that will test foreigners and that’s the one at Brussels Airport, so in order to get my test I had to leave quarantine, travel from Antwerp to Brussels, and queue up with every single other foreigner for an hour and a half - easily the highest risk activity I undertook during the whole of my trip. Incidentally, the tests in Belgium are up the nose only, and they really go for it. Any further up there and I’d have been ready for mummification. Anyway, of course now I am back I need to take tests on day two and day eight, and I can opt to have one on day five in case I am missing retching and nose bleeds, or feel like going outside.

Add to that the endless form filling of where you are and what you are doing - one for each flight and one for every test - plus the phone calls from contact tracers that seem to only ever come when you are downstairs and your phone is upstairs - and like I said: no fun. I haven’t missed it at all.

Being in another country, though: that I have missed. I went to Belgium under a ‘cultural necessity’ exemption - yes, this is an actual thing - to work with Zwerm, a Belgian-Dutch guitar / electronica quartet, alongside percussionist Karen Willems and Iranian singer Sarah Akbari, to work on a music and storytelling show called Lalaei (lullaby) which we’ll be performing in Belgium and Holland, and hopefully the UK and Iran, next year. I hope Zwerm won’t mind me describing them as charming music nerds who delight in surrounding themselves with multiple effects pedals and boxes that beep and drone and who say things like ‘what if we stick knitting needles under the guitar strings?’ and ‘can you do the whale noise as an arpeggio’, while Karen turned up not only with her drum kit but a seemingly endless supply of strange instruments and noise-making toys, including a sort of wooden tray covered in coils and springs that she scraped, plucked at and bashed. Sarah has a voice which is like multiple instruments in itself, and then there was me, fiercely battling my imposter syndrome, weaving my stories in between it all and utterly thrilled on the day that the band concocted a ‘pedal organ’ from the beeping boxes and I was given my very own buttons to press. I was like a little kid on the bus who has just discovered the button that you ring for the next stop. Here we are playing a Kurdish lullaby on the pedal organ:

And here’s a little taste of the music we were making (this does not feature me but surprisingly it is worth listening to all the same):

Because of quarantine regulations I wasn’t allowed to leave the theatre so I had to sleep in one of the rehearsal studios upstairs, which was big enough that one day, with excess energy and nowhere I could go, I was able to take a satisfying run in it. I’d have liked to have been able to go out and explore the area, but even staying in one building, being surrounded by Belgians brought back the strange and magical pleasure of being somewhere where everything is different and feeling a little bit like an alien hiding in plain sight, half understanding and half mystified and learning happy new things that are habitual for them but not for you (I think my favourite discovery on this trip was learning a local expression which roughly translates as: ‘if we were all the same, we’d all be crammed on the number twelve tram at midnight’.)

I’m a novelist, so I am used to being and working alone, but I find that after all these months of lockdown I have close to zero interest in the solo contents of my one brain, and crave working with other people. I’ve been working with a group on some short films (if you are a more recent subscriber you might have missed the one I shared here) but a lot of that has been done remotely, and this was even more special because we were together, actually together, in a room. Repeatedly I just stood back and marvelled at the way that the songs seemed to grow organically from the mingling of all these minds, and I felt so overwhelmingly fortunate to be there, so ridiculously lucky that this is my actual life and I get to do these things, that I felt close to tears.

It’s worth it all - the two flights and the seven tests and the nine forms and the fifteen days of quarantine. Because even more than missing travel (though not travelling), I’ve missed other people, and their wonderful difference from me, how we are not all the same, not all crammed on the number twelve tram at midnight, and sometimes we can come together and create something that is greater than all of us put together.