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Stories

About War

Hi there,

How are you?
You are brave, wanting to read my story after you have read the title.

In my childhood I was stalked by my father with stories about the Wars, one and two equally. He needed to watch all movies, series, documentaries. Not being able to watch something else on my own screen back then – I am that old 😉 – I developed an aversion to everything that had a connection with the war. So I missed big chunks of interesting history too.

Wars never stand in isolation.
It is almost as if they have roots
that grow invisibly underground,
before springing up somewhere else
to create a new conflict. We must not be blind
to the forces that set the machinery of destiny in motion
one hundred years ago.
To do so would rob us of the chance to discover
the patterns of the past that can help to teach us
the lessons we need for the present and the future.

By Erwin Mortier

Last year Belgium remembered the end of World War II. There were exhibitions, and old museums were renovated, among them ‘Flanders Fields‘ in Ypres. And that is where hubbie and I went to, last Saturday.

It was a rainy day, and I had been to Ypres once, but I couldn’t remember much of it. Ypres is a beautiful little town. And known for its history. We first had a coffee in the large cafeteria and then headed to the museum.

In the museum, you receive a poppy-bracelet which represents 4 identities of people who lived during WWI.

This poppy-bracelet can be used throughout the museum on a wide variety of interactive displays. Each display will show one of the aspects of living during the war of 1914-1918.

There are also testimonies, on videos, played by actors. But they looked real and were very touching. The movie of the Christmas night was the most moving, I thought, though I had heard the well-known story several times. In this testimony it was played by four soldiers, English, French, German and Belgian. How they, only for a short moment, ceased the war and sang together:

On a crisp, clear morning 100 years ago, thousands of British, Belgian and French soldiers put down their rifles, stepped out of their trenches and spent Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western front. In the hundred years since, the event has been seen as a kind of miracle, a rare moment of peace just a few months into a war that would eventually claim over 15 million lives. But what actually happened on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 1914 — and did they really play soccer on the battlefield?
Most accounts suggest the truce began with carol singing from the trenches on Christmas Eve, “a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere”, as Pvt. Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment recalled.
The next morning, in some places, German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out “Merry Christmas” in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading “You no shoot, we no shoot.” Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on “no man’s land,” the ground between opposing trenches.
By Time

Facts, as to how many Belgians fled to other countries during the Great War, have their value in being remembered. There were over 600,000 Belgians that found a home abroad, about 8% of the population.


The museum is located in the Cloth Hall (Dutch: Lakenhal), one of the largest commercial buildings of the Middle Ages. It served as the main market and warehouse for the Flemish city’s prosperous cloth industry. The original structure, erected mainly in the 13th century and completed 1304, lay in ruins after artillery fire devastated Ypres in World War I. Between 1933 and 1967, the hall was meticulously reconstructed to its prewar condition.

We also climbed up the 70 meters high (230 feet) bell tower. Even if it was windy and grey, it gave us a beautiful wide view over the city and the surrounding hills.

And around Ypres you can not go anywhere without seeing the numerous graveyards of so many people of so many different nations. In their silence and in their death, these soldiers are left with only one mission: reminding us of the horrors of war, then and now.

In a country where war was fought, it lingers, even if that war is already a century behind us. For each of the more than 600,000 dead who fell here, for each of the more than 425,000 graves and names on memorials and for the hundreds of traces and relics in the front region, for each of the millions affected (physically or psychologically wounded, refugees and displaced persons) there is a story of suffering, pain and ordeal somewhere in the world.

And let this memory shake us awake, make us realize there are still so many wars going on, and still so many people trying to find a safer place elsewhere.

Take care,

Sophie

 

Stories

Borders

Friday 

These weeks have been hectic. Not in an unpleasant way, but still, I had too little time to get everything done, to stand still, to write… And now I try to make time. If we only could – build more time – in our days, in our life? How much would you build? The bricks could be days, the windows would stand for rest, a stop in time. Would you build a big house, an open house with huge windows or a tower of mostly bricks?

Last week was my birthday, and I felt spoiled by so much attention, so many sweet words and original gifts. Hubbie surprised me with a positive vibes dinner. Daughter gave me a book : The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur (She is an Indian-born Canadian poet, writer, illustrator, and performer, who immigrated to Canada as a child).

Let me share a poem – We are not enemies:

Borders
are man-made
they only divide us physically
don’t let them make us
turn on each other

In my volunteer work at the refugee center, I am facing borders the whole time. This morning, when I was teaching Dutch, I felt so limited in what I could do. The three students I had from Ghana, Rwanda and Tanzania all spoke English and were learning easily. Then a student from Palestine joined us.  He only spoke Arabic, and I felt frustrated not being able to communicate. The woman from Tanzania told me she was here with her son of four years old: “You know, it can get very lonely, being here without your family.” Oh yes, I can only imagine. She said it with a smile and promised me she would study well the coming week so she would improve fast.

It is not necessary, but people praise me sometimes for my volunteer work. I also receive good advice. “Well, it will never be enough.  You need to set your limits. It is better not become too close to them.” I thought by myself: they have crossed so many borders, do we actually need to set another one?

On Wednesday I went to the center for our 945-in-beeld-project. I saw two girls crossing the site with their bikes. Maryama was almost fifteen, her friend Nasim a little younger. They wanted to fill in the postcard. On the card is a list of questions: Your favorite book, your favorite artist, what is your motto in life etc… Very diverse answers have been written so far. So we sat at the plastic table outside of the little house where we teach and I helped the girls fill in the cards. Suddenly Maryama looked back at me and asked, “Can we please sit on the other side of the house?”  We were sitting close to the huge gate of the center, and on the other side of the gate is a walking path.  Usually not many people pass there, but now there was a running contest. A lot of people from our hometown were passing, looking at us and the other inhabitants of the center, behind the gate.  Maryama said: “I don’t want the kids from my school see me here.”

More kids came – I brought cake, and word spread around – they all wrote the cards and told me where they came from, how many languages they spoke, where their parents came from, what they wanted to achieve here. Some families are split up, just one parent coming with one child, or a kid coming with an adult sibling.

Sunday

Today I joined Daughter and Oldest’s girlfriend at the center. Time for children’s entertainment. They were all very ready for some distraction. Yasmina brought her baby brother, Yussuf who just turned one today. He was brave, sitting in his stroller, looking at the kids running and dancing, moving his little legs to the rhythm of the music.


Snack time

While standing aside, two young Palestinians came to me to talk.  One was a fisherman in Gaza.  He first showed me a picture of the big fish he caught (the biggest weighed 70 kilos) then a picture of his boat that was damaged because of the war. The other one came from Lebanon.  He was a Palestinian but had lived in camps in Lebanon since he was born. They asked me whether I had heard what happened this weekend in their homeland.

In the meantime Daughter’s boyfriend and friends took a bunch of people with them, for a walk in the woods. People talked about the wars in their home countries, showed him pictures of damaged towns and about life in the center. A few teenagers were bored in the center; there are activities for small children and for adults, but not for teenagers. So here’s another mission 😉

Let me end with another poem – Immigrant

they have no idea what it is like
to lose home at the risk of
never finding home again
to have your entire life
split between two lands and
become the bridge between two countries

So long, Sophia

 

 

 

 

 

Stories

At Play

Nederlandse versie onderaan.

Life can be tough, being a volunteer:-) It is not that this is the only thing I do, but, I have been neglecting all my other activities lately, because this volunteering part just seems to have overtaken all the rest.

Last Saturday afternoon, Daughter and friends started with children animation in the Asylum Center. It was a beautiful day. I joined her, to show them around and also to take some pictures and to help, of course.

The weather was beautiful and warm, and so was the atmosphere. There are over 800 people living in the center now, among them over 200 children. They go to local schools, but, in the weekend there is not a lot of distraction. They sometimes live with two families in a trailer, so you can imagine it is hard at times.

It felt good to see so many happy faces. Children have the right to play, and these children have been through a lot. Another volunteer told me one of the children had lived for three years in Sweden separated from her family.  She was now reunited with her mother, here in the center.

The students from my class helped out too. Elena from the last interview helped with translating, she is from Lebanon, and speaks English, Arabic and French fluently. Mohamed from the library invited me for tea, and the men from Palestine offered a cup of coffee.

Did I tell you about the library already? I heard from Elena that she was bored, she didn’t have enough to read. So my friend-volunteer started collecting books in all languages: Arabic, French, Spanish, Dutch, English… And she opened a library in the center. The residents from the center keep it open now. Books in Arabic, Spanish and Farsi are still welcome.

Even if I am spending a lot of time helping out at the refugee center, the politeness, gratefulness of the inhabitants give me so much energy. They have been through so much, and even then they are positive and open. A good lesson for all of us, having so much, living in peace, and still complaining over minor things.

I want to end with something positive. While I was texting Elena, I saw she had written a quote on her profile picture, in Arabic. I asked if she could translate this:

Don’t be afraid to lose people from your life. What is important that you win your own dignity even if you stay alone.

I thought it was beautiful, coming from her, knowing part of her story. How she had to fight and finally had to flee from her home country.

Het leven kan hectisch zijn, als vrijwilliger 😉 Dit is niet het enige wat ik doe, maar ik heb al mijn andere activiteiten serieus verwaarloosd de laatste tijd. Het vrijwilligerswerk heeft al de rest overgenomen.

Afgelopen zaterdag zijn Dochter en een team met vriendinnen gestart met kinderanimatie op het Parelstrand. Er was al iemand enkele weken bezig, maar die kon wel versterking gebruiken. Het was een prachtige dag. Ik ging mee, om hen wegwijs te maken, om wat foto’s te nemen en om te helpen natuurlijk.

Het was uitzonderlijk warm, en zo ook de sfeer. Er wonen meer dan acht honderd mensen in het centrum nu, waaronder zo’n twee honderd kinderen. Zij gaan naar lokale scholen, maar in het weekend valt er niet zoveel te beleven. Soms leven ze met twee gezinnen in één trailer, je kan je dus wel inbeelden dat het soms moeilijk is.

Het deed deugd om zoveel vrolijke gezichtjes te zien. Kinderen hebben recht om te spelen, en deze kinderen hebben zoveel meegemaakt. Een andere vrijwilliger vertelde me dat één van de kindjes gedurende drie jaar in Zweden gewoond had, gescheiden van haar familie. Nu is ze hier herenigd met haar moeder.

De studenten uit mijn klas deden ook mee met de activiteiten. Elena van het laatste interview hielp met vertalen, ze komt uit Libanon en spreekt vloeiend Engels, Frans en Arabisch. Mohamed van de bibliotheek nodigde ons uit voor de thee en de mannen uit Palestina boden een kop koffie aan.

Had ik jullie al verteld over de bibliotheek? Elena vertelde me dat ze zich verveelde, ze had niet genoeg boeken. Mijn collega-vrijwilliger begon boeken in te zamelen in verschillende talen: Arabisch, Frans, Spaans, Engels… en ze opende een bibliotheek in het centrum. De bewoners houden de Bib nu zelf open. Boeken in het Arabisch, Spaans en Farsi zijn nog welkom.

Ook al spendeer ik veel tijd aan de organisatie van de activiteiten en de lessen op het Parelstrand, de dankbaarheid en respect die ik krijg van de bewoners, geeft me veel energie. De nieuwkomers hebben zoveel meegemaakt en ze blijven positief en open. Een goede les voor ons allen. We hebben zoveel, we hebben geen oorlog en toch klagen we vaak over onbenulligheden.

Ik wil nog graag iets positiefs meegeven. Toen ik een berichtje kreeg van Elena, zag ik dat er een quote stond op haar profielfoto, in het Arabisch. I vroeg haar of ze het wilde vertalen:

Wees niet bang om mensen te verliezen in je leven. Het is belangrijker je zelfrespect te behouden, ook al blijf je alleen achter.

Ik vond het prachtig, vooral omdat ik haar verhaal beluisterd heb. Hoe ze heeft moeten vechten en uiteindelijk haar vaderland is moeten ontvluchten.

Geniet van de lente! Sophia

 

Stories

The world in our backyard

Nederlandse versie onderaan!

Dear readers,

Our town has changed. It has become a city of the world. Not comparable to Paris nor Amsterdam, but still, in another sense. Around six hundred refugees from around the world are temporarily living here in a vacation park (used as an asylum center)  in my hometown.

Oldest is leaving this Summer. He will be traveling around the world for one year, together with his girlfriend. I told him he doesn’t need to because the world is in our backyard now (this trick didn’t work of course; his first ticket to Japan is booked).

Three years ago we had the same amount of refugees here, during three months. Six fabulous women took the initiative to write personal stories about the refugees (945 in Images), and I joined them. I also volunteered to teach Dutch once a week.

This time I am promoted in my volunteer work 🙂 I organize and teach the Dutch lessons. We started again with 945 in Images, to bring the stories of the refugees to the rest of our town and to the world. But things have changed, due to the GDPR law* (legislation on privacy) it has become far more difficult to put their testimonies online. Nevertheless we keep going!

But I don’t want to talk about what I am doing, I want to take you with me, to have a glimpse of the life of people who felt the urge to flee from their homes.

I started teaching two months ago. During the first lesson I introduced myself and told my students where I came from. The map of the world was on the table, so I pointed out Belgium. I asked the students to do the same. Fingers were planted on El Salvador, Colombia and Senegal. Two men looked at me frustrated, a little upset: “Our country is not on the map!” I answered: “All countries should be there, where are you from?” “Palestina!”

We started with pictures for the first Dutch words. I could communicate a little with the Spanish speaking students in English, with Gabriel from Senegal in French, but not with the two men from Palestina. But Haidar from Palestina could speak a bit of Spanish, as he had lived in Spain for one year, on the streets with his three children. So the girls and boys from Central America could speak Spanish to him, and he could translate to his fellow student in Arabic.

The Bible came into my mind – and that doesn’t happen often – or to be more precise, the story of the tower of Babel. Do you remember why we were punished? Because of pride and arrogance.

The world would have been an easier place if we all spoke the same language. But with the difference in languages comes the difference in cultures, and that is something to cherish, most of the time 😉

Back to my lessons.  The students are very motivated. We try to help one another with whatever language we know or we use sign language. While teaching I sometimes run into unspoken fear or sadness. I ask them an easy question, but the answer might be complicated. When I asked Haidar if he was married, he confirmed. But later on he told me the mother of his three children was not here, while his children were. The expression on his face told me not to ask further.

Compared to three years ago, more families are living here now. There are two young women in my class, always together, and both from the same country in Central America. I asked Juliana and Isabella if they were family. The looked at one another, a bit unsure : “No, we are friends. But we are so close, we feel like we are family.”

What have they all been through? This is what crosses my mind most of the time.

With 945 in Images we have done three interviews so far. When we talked to Alvin and Jazmina from Nicaragua, we were stupefied to hear what they had been through at such a young age. They were only students standing up for what they felt was right. Jazmina was in tears the whole time while she told us her story. When we left, packed in the small hallway of the trailer, she asked us with her soft and trembling voice: Can I hug you? She was missing her family tremendously.

Witnessing these people, hearing what they tell you or noticing what they cannot tell you, makes you feel humble. Also sad and frustrated at some point.

I certainly feel grateful that I was able to bring together a great team of volunteers. All people from my hometown. Some were (Facebook) friends and some of them I didn’t know at all. Some of them were hesitant in the beginning, because they hadn’t taught before or they didn’t know what to expect. But they all are enthusiastic and driven now. I get to hear their experiences, anecdotes, plus advice and suggestions. One volunteer suggested to make the refugees members of his sports team. With another friend we are still brainstorming on doing something on Saturday afternoons. Daughter might join the new team of volunteers. We keep going.

So I haven’t only met new people from all over the world these past months, I’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know new passionate people from my own town. An enrichment.

All these refugees made a big change coming here. It means just a small change in our daily life here in my hometown, but still, it is a change, a little step towards more understanding and empathy.

You also want to help?

Bye, au-revoir, adios, إلى اللقاء

Sophia

*All names are changed

Beste lezers,

Onze stad is veranderd. Het is een wereldstad geworden. Niet te vergelijken met Parijs of Amsterdam, maar toch, in een andere betekenis. Ongeveer zeshonderd vluchtelingen wonen tijdelijk in een vakantiepark (gebruikt als asielcentrum) hier in onze gemeente.

Oudste vertrekt deze zomer op wereldreis samen met zijn lief. Ik zei hem dat dit niet meer nodig is, heel de wereld bevindt zich nu in onze achtertuin. Helaas werkt dit truukje niet, zijn eerste ticket naar Japan is geboekt.

Drie jaar geleden verbleef hetzelfde aantal vluchtelingen hier. Zes fantastische vrouwen namen het initiatief om de vluchtelingen te interviewen (945 in beeld), en ik sloot mij bij hen aan. Ik gaf ook één keer per week Nederlandse les.

Deze keer promoveerde ik in mijn vrijwilligerswerk 😉 Ik organiseer nu zelf de Nederlandse lessen. We zijn ook opnieuw gestart met 945 in beeld, om de verhalen van de nieuwkomers te delen met onze stad en de rest van de wereld. Er is veel veranderd intussen. Omwille van de GDPR wet (richtlijnen omtrent privacy) kunnen we moeilijker de hele getuigenis van de vluchtelingen online delen. Maar we blijven ervoor gaan!

Genoeg gebabbeld over wat ik doe. Ik wil jullie meenemen, om een klein beetje meer inzicht te krijgen in het leven van een vluchteling.

Ik startte twee maanden geleden met lesgeven. Tijdens de eerste les stelde ik mezelf voor : mijn naam, dat ik getrouwd ben en drie kinderen heb en waar ik vandaan kom. Een grote wereldkaart lag voor ons op tafel, dus wees ik België aan. Ik vroeg de studenten om hetzelfde te doen. Vingers belandden op El Salvador, Columbië en Senegal. Twee mannen keken me gefrustreerd aan : “Ons land staat niet op de kaart !”. Ik antwoordde : “Alle landen staan erop, van waar komen jullie ?”  “Palestina ! ”

We startten met pictogrammen om de eerste woorden Nederlands uit te spreken. Ik kon een beetje communiceren in het Engels met de spaanstalige studenten, in het Frans met Gabriël uit Senegal, maar niet met de mannen uit Palestina. Maar Haidar uit Palestina kon een beetje Spaans spreken, hij had samen met zijn drie kinderen een jaar op straat geleefd in Spanje. De meisjes en jongens uit Centraal-Amerika spraken in het Spaans tegen hem en hij kon dan verder vertalen naar het Arabisch aan zijn mede-landgenoot.

Plots dacht ik aan de bijbel – en dat gebeurt niet vaak 🙂 – en meer specifiek aan het verhaal van de Toren van Babel. Weet jij nog waarom we gestraft waren ? Omwille van trots en hoogmoed.

Het zou er zoveel eenvoudiger aan toe gaan in de wereld indien we allemaal dezelfde taal spraken. Maar met het verschil in taal, komt ook het verschil in cultuur en dat is toch iets om te koesteren, meestal toch 😉

Terug naar de les. De studenten zij zo gemotiveerd. We proberen elkaar te helpen in elke taal die we kennen of we gebruiken gebarentaal. Tijdens het lesgeven stoot ik soms op onuitgesproken angst of onverwerkt verdriet. Ik stel hen een eenvoudige vraag, maar het antwoord is dat niet. Wanneer ik Haidar vroeg of hij getrouwd was, knikte hij ja. Later vertelde hij dat de moeder van zijn kinderen niet hier verbleef, zijn kinderen wel. Ik merkte dat ik beter niet verder vroeg.

Er wonen nu meer gezinnen, in vergelijking met drie jaar geleden. Twee jonge vrouwen uit Centraal-Amerika zijn altijd samen. Ik vroeg Juliana en Isabella of ze familie waren. Ze keken elkaar een beetje onzeker aan : “Neen, we zijn vriendinnen. Maar we staan zo dicht bij elkaar dat het aanvoelt als familie. ”

Wat hebben ze allemaal meegemaakt ? Die vraag dwaalt constant door mijn gedachten.

Met 945 in beeld hebben we tot nu toe drie interviews gedaan. Wanneer we spraken met Alvin en Jazmina uit Nicaragua, waren we verstomd om te horen wat ze allemaal doorgemaakt hebben op zon jonge leeftijd. Ze waren gewoon studenten die opkwamen voor hun rechten. Jazmina huilde bijna de hele tijd terwijl ze haar verhaal vertelde. Toen we vertrokken, opeengepakt in het kleine halletje van de trailer, vroeg ze ons met een trillende stem : Mag ik jullie een knuffel geven ? Ze miste haar familie verschrikkelijk.

Deze mensen ontmoeten, luisteren wat ze te vertellen hebben en aanvoelen wat ze niet kunnen zeggen, maakt je nederig. Ook triest en gefrustreerd soms.

Ik voel me alleszins heel dankbaar dat ik een groot team van vrijwilligers kon samenbrengen. Allemaal mensen uit mijn dorp. Sommigen waren al vrienden, sommigen Facebookvrienden en anderen kende ik helemaal niet. Velen twijfelden om mee te doen, omdat ze nooit les gegeven hadden of nog nooit in een vluchtelingencentrum geweest waren. Het is ook moeilijk, je weet niet goed wat te verwachten. In elk geval, iedereen is nu heel enthousiast en gedreven. Ik krijg hun ervaring, anecdotes, advies en suggesties te horen. Eén van de vrijwilligers stelde voor om de vluchtelingen te laten deelnemen aan zijn sportsteam. In het asielcentrum valt niet veel te beleven, vooral in het weekend vervelen de mensen zich. Samen met een vriendin ben ik nog aan het brainstormen om een activiteit op zaterdagnamiddag te organiseren voor de kinderen en ook de volwassenen. Dochter wil aan dit nieuwe team deelnemen, als vroegere leidster van een jeugdbeweging zou dat ideaal zijn. Zo blijven we goed bezig.

Ik heb niet enkel mensen vanuit alle windhoeken uit de wereld ontmoet de laatste maanden, ik had het geluk om ook al deze geëngageerde mensen uit mijn eigen stad te leren kennen. Een verrijking.

De vluchtelingen hebben een enorme stap gezet om naar hier te komen. Voor ons betekent dit slechts een kleine verandering in ons dagelijks leven, maar niettemin een kleine stap voorwaarts naar meer begrip en empathie.

Wil je ook helpen ?

Bye, au-revoir, adios, إلى اللقاء

Sophia

*Alle namen zijn gewijzigd

 

Interior happiness, Stories

Thorn

Dear readers,

Last Monday was a beautiful day. It sounds contradictory because I had to have a little surgery done on my foot by a doctor an hour away from my home. Luckily a friend volunteered to drive me. She suggested we make it a whole day and visit the beautiful town of Thorn first, which was located only ten minutes from the medical office. A great idea!

A newborn in Thorn

Have you ever been in Thorn?

The little town of Thorn is located in the south of Holland in the province of Limburg. It used to be a tiny principality; today it is one of the ten must-visits in Holland. Thorn is known for its old white houses and monumental buildings.
The history of Thorn dates back to the 10th century. Over the course of time it developed into a miniature convent ruled by an abbess and twenty ladies of noble birth. It had its own jurisdiction and its own currency, but this came to an end in 1794 with the arrival of the French.

The white town

It’s called the white town–a funny coincidence, because Ostuni, in Puglia is called the white town too: la città bianca. This is the town where Casa Vita is located.

But back to Holland 😉
Why were the houses white?
After the aristocratic ladies had fled, the French imposed a tax based on the size of the windows. The locals were often poor people living in large properties that previously belonged to the rich. To reduce the amount of tax they had to pay, many of them bricked up the windows and then whitewashed their houses to conceal the signs of their renovation work (‘scars of poverty’).

The town is so well preserved, the cobble stone roads, the roofs, the lanterns… We were there on a Monday, and it was very quiet. I suppose that during the summer it is filled with tourists. This was a good day, just one terrace was open for lunch, but that is enough. The only disadvantage was that the museums were closed too. They open as of April 1st. If you would like to go deeper into Thorn’s history, you better visit later in spring.

The Abbey Church was mainly built in the 14th century. 

Walking here felt like being in another era. It made me feel calm and at peace. Of course, I’d better not think of the horrific things happening in medieval times. Well, I would have preferred having been one of the twenty noble ladies who had the whole town to themselves. I could perfectly picture myself and my friends here!  “Noble” could be replaced by funny, creative, intelligent and a bit bold :-). Would you have joined me?

Cheers, Sophie