Years ago when I was still a member of the corporate world, our Surrey based office travelled to a very nice hotel slash conference centre for a team building exercise with our Irish colleagues. I viewed it as a bit of a jolly and it turned out to be just that for the first half an hour. On the first morning we gathered in a light, air conditioned room and we were told to each take a seat randomly around one of the twenty or so carefully arranged tables, laden with posh bottles of water, biscuits and sweets. We were a very merry bunch, chatting and laughing, or to put it in corporate speak, we were ‘building bridges’. Objective achieved. I felt really relaxed until the facilitator jovially told us to introduce ourselves by sharing something interesting, something only a handful of people would know. I gasped silently, my stomach contracted and fluttery nerves filled it. Instinctively I knew this exercise was designed to separate the popular and creative people from the dull and incapable ones. I counted the number of people who had to tell a good story before me. Why, oh why had that stupid man started as far away from me as possible? The first few people were always able to get away with the less interesting stories on account of the limited time they had had to think of something. Pressure was on. I listened and laughed half-heartedly to stories of alcohol induced accidents and lots of ‘Top that!’ remarks, racking my brain for something good. I do not drink often or very much and I was certainly not going to share anything about my sexual life like the girl two chairs before me. It finally came to me…
… when I was in bed that night. I should have told them about the trip to Brussels!
One summer, when I was still a child, my parents took us there for a day trip. It was a really nice day and my sister and I had been bouncing excitedly for most of the journey on the back seat of our old Mazda. Apart from visiting an uncle in Germany once, we had never been abroad. The car radio had been on playing pop songs to which little sis and I had been singing along as well as we could. When we entered Brussels however, the radio was turned off. Maybe because my sister and I were getting overexcited, shrieking and laughing loudly. My parents might also have gotten fed up with our constant asking ‘are we there yet?’ But, probably, the music had to be switched off because traffic was busy, very busy, and my parents were looking around impatiently for a parking space. To my child’s eye the streets seemed utter chaos. Cars were moving in different directions, appearing out of small roads or disappearing into wide streets and round bends. People were crossing the road, running and motorbikes were zigzagging between cars.
All of a sudden we went from utter chaos to complete standstill. In my memory, there was a lot of noise one moment and the next it went dead quiet. Cars had stopped moving, people had vanished. It was as if the world had stopped for a few seconds. I have no idea what my sister was thinking during those moments, but I was holding my breath and was on full alert. Something that only ever happened on television was happening right here, right now. Never before had I heard such loud bangs, not even fireworks. I was certain I had heard gunshots. I looked through the window on my right and saw that we were gridlocked right outside a bank. Some men with masks were running away. Oh, wow! My dad must have seen it too, because he shouted – actually shouted at my sister and me to get down into the foot well. I was rather disappointed having to miss all the action, but did not dare disobey my father. Luckily for me, my mum was scared stiff and provided some form of running commentary. ‘Arr, there’s a policeman…. he’s got a gun… No! Get away from there! Ted, do something, they’re crouching next to our car!’ (That’s when I became scared.) Honk! Honk! My dad mentioned a few expletives, never before heard from his mouth, egging the car in front of us on to move forward and cursing the Belgian police force. The car started rolling and after a while my dad said it was safe to get back up again. We were all quiet. Then, someone turned on the radio and a self assured, happy voice sang:
Young man, what do you wanna be, I said young man….
I resolved then and there I was never going to be a police officer or a bank robber or even work in a bank. We all joined in with the chorus singing at the top of our lungs:
It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A. It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A
We soon found a parking space and got out of the car, safe and sound and happy.