Seoul -> DC -> NYC -> London -> Seoul … In Seven Days

Attempting to come out of a jet lag blur to say that I spent an incredible week in the Western hemisphere, which included a lot of time on planes and briefly, a train to New York. (After getting used to the bullet trains of Asia, the Amtrak feels like a damned stagecoach, not gonna lie.)

The notable thing about this trip was the lack of group activities; it was a lot of one-on-one dinners and breakfasts and coffee meetings with friends for whom I care deeply. And it all included a lot of freaking out about what is next for us in America and the world.

Things that common-law work spouse Matt Thompson said to me over burgers will stay with me, about how we need to lean more heavily into our archives and history, in general, to better understand what’s going at the dawn of Trump. And the work advice from people like Kate (who used to work with me) and Chuck (who is about to not work at NPR anymore) will make me feel better about the state of things in my career. Ultimately, the time in DC was so compressed that I had to fit in time with my BFF Sudeep by straight-up scheduling a walk together to the Triple A office, get a coffee to-go, walk to Treasury to get something back from an official, and then walk partially back to his office. That was the sum total of our reunion. For my other BFF, Sara, we scheduled a Chik-Fil-A dinner followed by a trip to Target. No joke. There was just no time.

On the flip side, the days lingered and melted into each when there were fewer people to see — in London, for a weekend with Friend Matt (seems everyone is named Matt, it’s all very confusing, but at least I can’t trip things up this way). He wanted to get to a top-ranked restaurant he hadn’t been to yet, and to go to an all-night barn party/jazz jam session out in the country, and since I was going to spend my final time in America just gorging on the fast food I’ve missed (Whataburger, where have you been all my life), it wasn’t too much of a burden to join Matt on his more classy trip to London, instead.

Serendipity and luck were in our favor all along: We almost missed our flight but didn’t, no belongings were left or lost, and little things happened to time out just as needed. We stayed at a flat* in Covent Garden near the theater district, and while walking home from a late night dinner we saw signs for a show featuring Sir Ian McKellen(!) and Patrick Stewart. When Matt checked about getting tickets the next day, he learned it was closing night, snagged two tickets and we got in to saw the dense and (obviously) well-acted show. I joked that it was about the frailty of existence for rich white men, and then we read a review, in which the reviewer explained that essentially the play was about the existential ennui of rich white men.

There was also delicious food, libation I so longed for and trips out into the English countryside, one night for the most random, bohemian jazz jam session-cum-birthday party filming. I can’t quite describe it except to say there were some ballerinas and lots of soldier costumes, plus a gong bath. My first gong bath!

* I try to code switch to British terms like flat and queue and crisps where appropriate.

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Hostile Environment Training In The English Countryside

View from my hotel room at the estate near Kent, England, where we trained for hostile situations.

View from my hotel room at the estate near Kent, England, where we trained for hostile situations.

So I’m back from a six-day trip to London and its outer regions, where I was sent for a hostile environment training course, which is something tailored for journalists who cover riots, natural disasters and war zones as well as non-profit employees who work in the same kind of areas. All my company’s foreign correspondents go through this, and usually every three years, to make sure our skills are fresh. It’s run by former British military people (the Brits seem to have cornered the market on hostile situation prep courses). They can authentically say things like, “I trained Peshmerga in 1991 and the new guard is really watered down.”

The training goes for varying lengths, but I was taking a ‘refresher’ which lasted three 12-hour days.

These courses cover everything from first aid (they do not let you leave without being able to quickly tie a tourniquet), to how to spot land mines, prepare risk assessments, handle sketchy checkpoints (where people are often fleeced or kidnapped), protect yourself under small arms fire or more serious stuff, like rocket-propelled grenades, avoid injuries while covering riotous protests and, of course, how to try and negotiate yourself out of a kidnapping/hostage situation. All this while doing your job, so the exercises also have you try and conduct interviews and record footage while you’re avoiding risk.

That time we made a makeshift stretcher with five of our coats.

That time we made a makeshift stretcher with five of our coats.

SAMPLE LESSON: “ISIS isn’t big into ciggies, so maybe have chocolates on you instead.”

To prepare you, the training team have bands of actors and real life scenarios (even a fake country with rebel factions and such) who are often catastrophically bleeding or disemboweled or stuck underneath actual vehicles or other assorted horrific situations so that you can practice your training.

SAMPLE LESSON: “There’s a certain amount of holes in your body and your objective is to come back without any additional holes.”

On the final day we simulated a convoy going into a rebel-held area of a fake country and ran into all sorts of intense situations. My four-man team hit a low point when we went running into a field of land mines because well, we didn’t really check. Gah! Learning experience.

SAMPLE LESSON: “Judge the right time and tactic to be extorted.”

The class is full of war correspondents and other assorted badasses. So hands do go up when a trainer asks, “Who was in Benghazi? Anyone do Tripoli? Remember when kids fired RPGs into the sky?”

Between the hands-on exercises are lectures from the military guys. One of them was Scottish and another, Irish. I could understand about 60% of what the Scot was saying, and about 75% of the Irish guy. Even the Liverpool accent was tough for me though, let’s be honest. This is some vocab I had to pickup along the way:

Boot: Car trunk
Bonnet: Hood
432 (I think?): Scottish emergency number

A sketchy checkpoint.

A sketchy checkpoint.

In addition, now I know how shrapnel flies up in an arc (hence the reason to get down really low if you can’t find cover), our first aid kids come with EXTRA packing gauze for those wounds where there’s an open cavity you need to pack and a special “Stump Dressing” for missing limbs.

I recommend this course, not only for the practical lessons but also because mine was in the most beautiful setting for a course like this. Apparently we did exercises where the Canadians trained for D-Day. And the band of classmates is going to be inevitably interesting, because, otherwise they wouldn’t be in this course. Afterwards you’ll know answers questions like “Can I elevate a stump?” and “How do I tourniquet myself?”

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Quick Jaunt to London Town

If you're thinking, ew, you put your shoe by your fish plank, I'd remind you that I was already committed to eating greasy fried fish off a piece of butcher paper.

If you’re thinking, ew, you put your shoe by your fish plank, I’d remind you that I was already committed to eating greasy fried fish off a piece of butcher paper.

Back from four days in London. Too bad I only hung in England and didn’t get over to Wales, cause my real obsession this year has been on the Welshmen Michael Sheen and Matthew Rhys. Sheen is the star of Masters of Sex, which I somehow worked into my talk at a London Wearables and UX Design conference on Tuesday. This is what mad crushes do to a person. And I am crushing all the time.

I didn’t have a lot of time to sightsee and I hit a lot of the touristy things before. Notably, the time I went to London at age 18 with six of my best pals from high school. I still feel horrible about our folly of indiscriminate youth while there: Clearly under the influence, we got on the tube and started chanting USA! USA! USA! to a crowd of irritated Brits. I am so, so, so sorry, England.

This time in London, I: enjoyed drinks and much catching up with my rival for 8th grade student council president, Billy Simpson, who now lives in London. Wandered the British Museum. Took a walk around Bloomsbury and Covent Gardens. Ate a fried fish plank as big as my size 9 shoe. Stopped by to see the Government Digital Service office, a cabinet level agency in the UK that’s revolutionizing government there by making it “digital by default.” Lunched and toured the BBC HQ with the intrepid Ari Shapiro, my colleague at NPR and our London correspondent. Met one of my Twitter pals in person and talked over drinks. Went the wrong way on a bus one morning, almost missing my talk at the wearables event. Made it just in the nick of time. Got purposely lost in a lovely bookstore called Foyles. Drank lots of iced tea with too little ice, because the Brits think we Americans are crazy to be so fixated on ice. Never got rained on. Really enjoyed myself.

Thanks, London, and sorry again about that embarrassing USA chanting incident so many years ago.

 

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