My inspiration for the Friend that Made Me Me series was wanting to honour the friends who made us into the people we are today; recognising the truths they helped inspire and the experiences they helped create. I also wanted to bring to light the point that we are really only ever a sum of our stories and of what people teach us.
I had been living in Germany just a few months. It was summer, and I was near the Black Forest, and it was beautiful. The days were long, the classes at University were easy, I was living with a great group of people, my German was the best it’s ever been (and that includes my final year oral exams, sadly). One night, I went to a fellow students’ house party. There was some animated discussion going on and a lot of beer. I was well into both. I was also on the lookout for a Boyfriend because I thought it would help my language skills and I wanted to meet people that weren’t just students, local people from the local community.
A good-looking, tall guy walks up. Despite what you may expect, I’ve seen many tall, good-looking guys in Germany, and they are not usually my type. I like the runts at the back of the class that make me laugh. I look out the window, acting disinterested.
And he’s talking to me. Asking me what my name is, why I’m here, where I’m from. Oh please. Every single international student’s conversation starts like this and it’s just not imaginative. I mumble a response and look elsewhere for conversation.
He’s from Kazakhstan.
My head whips round. Where? Crap, I can be so shallow. Suddenly tall, potentially-painfully-average guy comes alive with hidden mystique and possibilities. I shift up a gear. Kazakhstan, hey? I go from Ice Queen to intriguing and witty in about six seconds. He studies law, he lives alone, his German is flawless.
About four hours later he offers to walk me home which is nice. Chivalry is not dead. On our way out he gets into a fight, but I assume he’s just attempting to strut around secreting masculinity as some men try and do. I sigh, I ignore it, I figure that if he behaves like that again I don’t have to see him anymore.
The next day, he invites me round for dinner. Quite forward, but the flat is in a busy area and I do the usual “get my friend to do an emergency call two hours in” manouvere. I turn up at his flat. I knock on the door. He opens it and greets me warmly yet somewhat shiftily. He ushers me into the dining room.There is a large round table. Around this table are sat; in order; Stalin-esque Father, KGB-agent Mother, face-like-the-ceiling-crashed-down-on-her Sister, and Grandmother (or was it Grandfather? I couldn’t tell).
What? Didn’t he say he lived alone? Always one to throw myself in at the deep end, I pretend like this is no issue. I’m good with parents. I’ll be a natural. Granted, I speak no Russian, but roll with it. I am introduced by Potential Paramour as a “marriage prospect”. I bite my tongue for there is no escape and the KGB human-rights record isn’t exactly spanking clean.
After each bite, I am force-fed a shot of vodka, to “aid my digestion”. After half my zakusky I am absolutely trolleyed. After my main course, I am almost on the floor and to my dismay the Potential Lover has to ask KGB-Mother to go easy on me. Grandmother(/father) is still going a treat, knocking it back like it’s Evian.
Then we are asked to be silent. It is, apparently, time to show the cook our appreciation of the hearty repast. I naively think that all I have to do is say thank-you. Oh no. In turn, we each have to stand up and belch. Loudly. On demand.
What? I can’t burp on purpose! It comes round to me and I make a sort of strangulated sound and everyone looks at me disappointedly.
Post meal with Potential Suitor I decide to let the family thing drop. It was a rich cultural experience and I am not one to nit-pick. However, during the meal, his family had been telling me lots about him, in much detail, yet the last two years of his life lie completely unaccounted for. And the fight. And he’s living with his family. I cut to the chase whilst entangled in lengthy Slavic limbs on the sofa.
“Have you been to prison?”
Dumbfounded stare. “How did you guess?”
Call me Sherlock. “What did you do?” I asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it”
Right. Sounds great. Am entwined in the embrace of somebody who could well be a psychopathic killer. How am I going to get out of this one?
However, I reason it was only two years, so it couldn’t have been rape or murder, therefore it’s fine. Seriously. That’s what I thought. And it WAS fine, but still! So much for rationale! Now I understand why parents want to do MI6-style checks on their daughters’ boyfriends.
Our relationship blossomed over the next few weeks. He taught me to drink vodka Russian-style. He taught me my first Russian words. He introduced me to his friends, more family, his life. He mocked my German incessantly. We got lost in the Black Forest. He let me drive his car and didn’t even shout at me when I drove it into a field. He fed my insatiable curiosity as to what exactly it was like to be in prison.
I mean can you imagine it? To have you freedom taken away from you, to be let out of your cell for one hour in 24 to take a walk in a concrete yard just able to see a sliver of blue sky, to know you have given up everything you once knew because of one stupid mistake? It emerged that he’d stabbed someone in a fight (I realise I’m not selling him well, here). It didn’t even make me angry. It made me fundamentally reassess my views on prison, on rehabilitation, on justice. He made a mistake. He’s paid his dues. He was taken out of society. He was duly punished. He had a hell of a lot of time to think, enclosed in four walls for two whole years.
It threw up a lot of interesting questions. How long should somebody be punished? Should people be let out again? Is shutting someone up in a darkened room for a long, long time just a very simplistic solution to rehabilitate the complex mind of a criminal?
And reintegration into society is even more difficult to deal with. To have to interact within a society where so many people are bitterly prejudiced against ex-cons. It’s almost as if people are punished their whole life for one mistake; whether they are in prison or out of it.
Bertrand Russell once said; The reformative effect of punishment is a belief that dies hard, chiefly I think, because it is so satisfying to our sadistic impulses..
Is prison really the best solution or does it destroy people far more than we could ever understand?
This is the kind of thing exes should be making you think about! The really important questions! And I’m now working in criminal justice, and trying to answer those very questions, ten years on.
I left said ex-con after a few weeks to go Interrailing around Eastern Europe (with Catherine). When I flew back to the UK I got a call from him. “Send me a picture of you”, he said. “Something I can show my friends and family. All the pictures I have of you you’re laughing or doing something stupid. Send me a picture of you sitting on a chair, in a nice dress, with your hair over your shoulders and with make-up on”
The profanity I unleashed upon his misogynistic soul has no place in this blog. Stabbings, lies and fighting I can cope with. Sexism, not.