The week began with domestic British affairs; a ‘Musical Monday’ protest outside Westminster commencing with a Freedom of Movement campaign by a group of opera singers (including Sarah Connolly, who I later discovered is a famous soprano who has been very outspoken on Brexit). Later, two coaches arrived; one from Cornwall, which brought a roll of cornish translated ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ stickers which someone slapped with aplomb onto my union jack coat); and the second from Yorkshire (my home county) bringing a lively bunch of protesters bearing flags with the Yorkshire rose, sheets of reworded popular tunes (including Ilkley Moor Bar Tat) and a euphonium player. The two coaches had planned to stage a regional “sing-off” during the afternoon, much to the delight of the gathering crowd and media which had assembled. We were also treated to a bag-pipe performance by Alistair Campbell. When they promoted the action day as a “Musical-Monday” they truly meant it would be a musical. I have learnt from experience that with most protest events, the unexpected happenings are often the more valuable, or at least more exciting than those planned – this is why being alert to opportunity, prepared to respond and flexible with plans, are key skills of a professional activist.
My initial agenda had been to meet with a photographer, Joss, who wanted to document me “in action” at a protest for a project recording key figures in the Remain campaign. The protest outside Westminster turned out to be the perfect situation, as he simply wanted to observe me and there was plenty of activity to be engaged with. (We discovered that by coincidence, he was due to catch the same Eurostar as me to Brussels the following day, although the Eurostar lounge turned out to be too crowded to spot each other.) After a short period with the photographer outside Westminster I was due to meet a group of french school children outside the Natural History Museum; an engagement organised by one of my Twitter followers, Elizabeth, a Lib Dem candidate. To my own good fortune, they were running behind schedule which meant I could hang around Westminster long enough to watch the Musical-Monday activities climax and pose for press photos with Alistair campbell and the gathered crowd. ‘Where are you dashing off to?’ He asked as I grabbed my guitar and bags, ‘To meet a school group at the museum!’ I replied. ’You’re always busy doing something. Do you want to walk with me up to Milbank?’ He asked. ‘No i’ve got to hop on the tube.’ I replied with some regret. ‘Keep up the good work.’ He encouraged me as we parted ways.
I jumped on the tube to the Natural History Museum, and after getting confused by the one-way entry system, eventually reached the congregated school party – who had apparently all been busy googling ‘EU super girl’ on their phones whilst anticipating my arrival. They were about 13-years-old and spoke reasonable English, but I rapidly realised they paid far more attention when I spoke to them in French. ‘What do you want me to do?’ I asked the school teacher. ‘Can you sing us a song?’ So after singing them my most recent composition, ‘We Won’t Go Down Without A Fight!’, I distributed my #24ReasonstoRemain posters and presented the teacher with signed copies of my childrens books ‘pour votre bibliotheque de lycée!’ We then took group photos, and to my great surprise I was asked to autograph the posters and pose for selfies with all of the students – one after the other – which was a lengthy process! We parted company and I headed back to the protest outside Westminster, where I repeated the “Song-Posters-Selfies” process with another (slightly smaller and older) group of German students who a friend, Neal, a musician who works as a tour guide, unexpectedly brought along to the anti-Brexit protest outside Westminster. Which is now seemingly a hotly desired tourist attraction (at least for Europeans with an interest in British affairs).
The decision to travel to Brussels the following day had been made rather abruptly, as with many of my chaotic plans as an activist; My general rule is to delay booking for as long as possible – because the financial penalty of a later booking is usually less than booking in advance and having to change afterwards: When planning is impossible, plan for contingency. My colleague, Charlie, had messaged me with another of his typically outlandish suggestions; ‘let’s take the Bollocks to Brexit taxi to Brussels’ to protest at the next EU council meeting (where Theresa May was due to arrive on her knees, begging for another Brexit extension), subject to agreement by the Pimlico Plumbers team who own the taxi. I had been planning to travel through Brussels to Dusseldorf, and onto Texel, a remote island in the North sea, later that week so it made little odds to my schedule, to travel a day earlier, and stop in Brussels en route.
Pimlico Plumbers happily agreed to the little stunt. But suffering from car sickness, I declined the offer of a lift in the taxi on Wednesday morning and booked the Eurostar to travel the night before. This worked out in everyone’s favour as the taxi was severely delayed arriving in Brussels (taxis aren’t renowned for their speediness on motorways) and I was required to substantiate the protest for the first hour before the Bollocks to Brexit team eventually arrived). Within minutes of announcing my travel plans for the week: London-Brussels-Dusseldorf-Texel, on Facebook, one of my followers, SJ, known affectionately as my “Brussels Mom”, messaged me offering to put me up for as long as I needed to stay. I gratefully accepted – a decision which I was very pleased I took as it was a final opportunity to see her sick cat Edik, a rare-breed, bob-tailed, ginger fluff-ball, before he passed away shortly after my visit.
On the Eurostar, a message notification popped up on Facebook messenger “Hi Madeleina. I don’t know you but think I spied you in St.Pancras today. You walked past too quickly for me to stop and I wasn’t sure you’d appreciate it. I would have bought you a drink!” It turned out Amber was in fact also on the same Eurostar, as myself and Joss, the photographer, heading to Brussels where she worked. She happily agreed to attend the protest the following day, when I told her about it, so that we could actually say hello in person.
I arrived at my Brussel’s Mom’s flat, late on Tuesday evening, with guitar, satchel and dragging a heavy suitcase full of a week’s worth of clothes, costumes and superhero necessities. It had been raining and in the dark, barely-lit streets I had to be careful to avoid crushing the tiny Belgian snails with my luggage. I was warmly greeted by SJ, as always and after being provided with with more hospitality than I could possibly require, I watched the two kitties playing with their toys before I settled down for a good night’s kip, being careful to keep the door to my room shut because the cats had a habit of pooping on the carpets.
Heading down to the Euractiv building in the morning with all my luggage in tow (I had to make a speedy departure to the train station after the protest, so wouldn’t have time to return and pick up my suitcase later), I passed a gentleman on the way to the metro who was dressed in a striking all yellow outfit, including hat, who was talking animatedly to a less vividly attired man. I smiled, to myself. I appreciated how he animated the grey surroundings, he looked like the sort of interesting chap I would like to have a conversation with. And he must have been struck by the same thought as I walked past because about 50 yards down the road, I heard a man calling to me, “I want to thank you for bringing colour to this Brussels street.” He announced, for I too was attired in a vividly coloured outfit, including hat – of course, blue the colour of the European flag, not yellow like himself. I expect that to a passer-by, we made a charming little scene, the two of us with our complimentary outfits. He was a dual national French-Belgian citizen, named Philippe; ‘I lived in China for six years, but now I have come back to look after my mother who is in a wheelchair.” He informed me and it occurred to me that he might get on well with my “Brussels Mom”, who works on EU-China/India relations – her apartment was finely furnished with a selection of interesting artefacts from her travels to China. We talked a little while longer, the conversation naturally turned to Brexit, I told him I wrote protest songs and showed him a ’24 Reasons to Remain’ poster. He asked me if there was a protest in Brussels soon because he would like to attend. ‘There is one today.’ I informed him, exchanging numbers, I sent him the event link in WhatsApp and bid him good day, hurrying to the Metro, as I was now later than my intended arrival time.
I dropped my luggage at the Euractiv offices, where the pro-Europa press conference would later be held and headed outside with the group of Brussels-based anti-Brexit protesters to stage the rally. Unfortunately the Bollocks to Brexit taxi wasn’t going to arrive until the press-Conference was due to start – so I decided to lead the protest myself. Luckily, Amber promptly arrived with a small group of people she had dragged along from her office who eagerly took Pro-Europa’s placards and we set up on the roundabout outside the Berlaymont building – to perform a few songs. Within moments a small crowd of press photographers had gathered and passersby stopped, capturing footage on their phones. (A few hours later a photo of the stunt was published in FAZ, and then another in the Guardian the following day, of Amber reaching out to hug me before we parted company).
I remained on the roundabout until the arrival of the Bollocks to Brexit taxi, but hurried inside the Euractiv offices after posing for photos, to make my speech. I just missed Gina Miller skyping in from the UK – but was in time to see Richard Corbett, Molly Scott-Cato and Julie Ward, who are three of my favourite MEPs! After making my contribution, I headed back outside to the ongoing “taxi for May” rally. They had brought the portable amp and Theresa May puppet, so I joined Faux Bo-Jo for a couple of numbers, much to the hilarity of the gathered crowd. I was also delighted, when the man in the yellow outfit from earlier, having changed his yellow jacket for a blue one, appeared and posed with great enthusiasm for a photo with myself and Fax BoJo. My friend from Instagram, Oli, also came along to say hi after I had forewarned him of my activities in Brussels – he could only stay briefly because of work, so we took the customary selfie to prove we had finally met in person.
Conscious that I would shortly have to catch my train to Dusseldorf, I asked Charlie for my #24ReasonstoRemain posters and Bollocks to Brexit stickers which we had agreed he would bring to Brussels for me to collect and take on my travels to Germany and the Netherlands. He had also brought copies of my ‘Alba White Wolf’s Adventures in Europe’ book, which I also wanted to take, but realised would be too much weight in my suitcase. “Why don’t we come in the taxi to Dusseldorf?” He suggested, “I’ve booked tomorrow off work anyway because I figured i’d be too tired. I’ll come with Boris to your event tomorrow and then drive back to the UK afterwards.” I agreed this was a good suggestion, but pointed out there were another two passengers in the taxi who needed to return home that night. There was, apparently a solution because another colleague was due to be coming to Brussels in his van, who could then transport the others home to the UK. I was offered a lift with them in the taxi to Dusseldorf, but conscious of my car sickness and also having already paid for the train tickets, I declined but left the posters and books for him to bring. “I’ll see you guys later, in Germany.” I said and grabbed a coffee from Exki before hopping on the tube to Brussels Zuid-Station.
When I arrived at the station, I discovered to my frustration that the German DB train was running over half an hour late – and I would miss my connections at Welkenraedt and Aachen. German trains have a reputation for being very punctual, so I was surprised that once again my travel plans were being disrupted. I headed to the ticket office to talk to an assistant and whilst I was in the queue, phoned my colleagues in the taxi, “If they can’t sort it out, will you be able to give me a lift?” I asked Charlie. Yes, they could. But this turned out not to be necessary, My ticket was flexible, I could still use it and arrive an hour later than originally planned. Problem resolved. I waited on the platform and boarded the next train when it eventually arrived, now running 50 minutes behind schedule.
All was going fine until another problem arose: My colleagues in the taxi phoned to inform me they wouldn’t be able to make it to Dusseldorf, because the man with the van had not come to take the others home. “The Eurostar tickets are now £210 each, it would cost £420 to get them both home. It’s not worth it.” I pointed out that we still had a significant amount of money left from the Bollocks to Brexit bus crowdfunder – this would be a legitimate use as we were expecting a significant amount of German press coverage at the event in Dusseldorf. But they decided against it, heading back to London with all of my #24ReasonstoRemain posters and the children’s books which I had left in the taxi. Another lesson learnt: don’t rely on others. I was just grateful I had stuck with the trains, despite the lateness, rather than opting for a lift with them, otherwise I would not have made it to Dusseldorf either!
Arriving in Dusseldorf late, I eventually figured out which of the hotels was mine for the night, found some food and settled down in my room to make a placard for the following day. Sketching “Vote For Europe” out, I played around with incorporating the EU flag logo into the design numerous time. I usually carry watercolour paper, paintbrushes and a tin of travel paints with me for “emergency art sessions” on my EU super girl adventures. And it will be unsurprising to most people to know that I usually run out of the blue and yellow paint first. I was slightly concerned when I had a random nose bleed, as this is usually a sign of stress/exhaustion, but thought little of it, hoping to get a reasonable sleep before the event in the morning.
Meeting Chris Pyak, an MEP candidate at Dusseldorf station, his wife came to pick us up in their car and drive us to his canvassing event for the Neue Liberale party. He had invited a ton of press along: ZDF who were making a documentary on small independent parties standing in the elections, WDR, and Handesblatt who wanted to write a profile piece on me, as well as the local newspaper. So I dressed up in the full ‘EU Wonder woman’ costume for them – and fortunately the sun was shining, even though the wind was a bit chilly. Chris gave me a brief tour around the old town before we went to meet the young campaigners who were setting up their stall, where they would be canvassing every day until the parliamentary elections. We did the customary photos and interviews for the camera crews, and attracted some attention from passersby, including a group of school children shouting “Wonder Woman” and something else in German which I didn’t understand. Others stopped to ask for photos – of course, I obliged – that was what I was there for! I was chatting with the journalist from Handesblatt, when an older lady, Susan, arrived who introduced herself as my “groupie”, she was one of my Twitter followers and happened to be visiting her daughters who live in the city. This was subsequently reported in the article written by the German journalist who also described me as a “Jean d’Arc of post-modernism” – a quote that I won’t forget in a hurry! Susan’s daughter also joined us, with one of her grandchildren, a very young baby, in a pushchair. They stayed whilst I performed a few songs for the cameras and then headed off, I gave her a handful of my badges and a copy of my ’24 Reasons to Remain’ leaflet which she had asked for when I had got it out to show the journalist. I left shortly afterwards, grabbing a coffee with Chris, his wife and young son before she dropped me back at the station. I promised to send copies of my books and badges for the little boy when I got home to Sheffield.
So, on to the Democracy Alive festival on the dutch island of Texel. Except Den Helder was as far as I could make it that night. I had asked the organisers to book me into a hotel in the port town for that night so I could catch the ferry to the island in the morning. After a couple of train changes, I arrived in Den Helder as it was getting dark. Trying to figure out the location of the hotel on google maps, lugging my suitcase and guitar across the town, I was stopped by a man on a bike. ‘Are you looking for Hotel Antje?’ He asked. ‘Yes I think that’s what it’s called.’ I said checking my phone. ‘I have a booking by a woman and I saw you walking along and thought it must be you. It said arrival 7pm, so I waited for you, we don’t have a 24 hour reception because it is on a ship.’ I apologised for my lateness, pointing out that I hadn’t made the booking, but had informed the festival organisers I wouldn’t be arriving until 9pm. I was too tired at that point to take in everything he said, so when he escorted me to the dock and I finally realised the hotel was a boat, I was a little taken aback – it certainly wouldn’t have been my choice of accommodation! It turned out to be a lovely room, and I had a very peaceful and much needed rest – despite the flashbacks to the appalling experience I had on a barge holiday with my Dad where Alba kept drinking the canal water and puking up inside the boat.
The next morning, now in the daylight, I went for an investigative jog around Den Helder. Noted was the rich maritime heritage, which I photographed religiously, right down to the crushed shell pathways around the museum. These would make for some interesting social media posts documenting my travels in Europe. After packing up – once again – I dragged my luggage across the cobbled docks and took the foot passenger entrance to the ferry port . The journey to the island was surprisingly quick. Just enough time for a much-needed coffee, I duly noted the extensive selection of sheep paraphernalia sold on board.
Arriving on the island, I struggled to figure out which way to exit the boat, heaving all my luggage up and down staircases, I was one of the last off the boat. I then realised I didn’t actually know how to get from the ferry port to wherever on the island the festival was located. I started to feel a bit panicked, alone on a foreign island with bags of heavy luggage and feeling more than a little bit exhausted. I began scrolling through my emails, but in my constantly flooded inbox I couldn’t locate the necessary travel information. I messaged one of the organisers on Instagram to ask what I should do, and in the meantime dragged my sorry self around a nearby building which I guessed was an information office. Alas, I couldn’t locate an entrance to the building, and started to feel the rising panic in my chest, I found a bench to sit down. An overwhelming sense of helplessness and despair took ahold of me, and I felt in that moment entirely alone in my endeavours. I later reflected that I should have take the earlier nose bleed as a warning sign that stress and exhaustion were reaching critical levels and therefore the probability of a panic attack occurring was very high.
It always starts with harmless tears, but as the panic rises, it soon escalates into an inability to breathe, as your blood rushes to your head, a dizziness sets in – luckily I managed to keep calm enough that I didn’t faint, which has happened before. I checked my phone – there was a message telling me which bus I needed to get. When I felt steady enough, I got back up and hefted my stuff over to the bus stop, tears still pouring down my face, the bus driver asked me if I was okay. ‘Yes, i’m fine.’ – well not really, but there was no point trying to explain. I sat on the bus and followed the route on Google maps as it took me towards the centre of Den Berg, trying to keep my breathing steady. Once off the bus, it was a short walk to the Den Berg hotel. When I arrived there was no receptionist, only house-keeping staff who went to fetch the manager. I was still sobbing when he arrived, ‘Are you okay?’ I nodded. ‘Did you have a bad trip?’ He asked. ‘Yes.’ I replied, equally embarrassed and furious at myself. He helpfully carried the heavy case up to my room, where I took the opportunity to chill for a while before finally pulling myself together, sorting out the make-up which had smeared all down my cheeks and heading over to the festival with a team of the organisers who had come to collect me.
Once at the festival, I was bombarded with goodie bags and freebies including a mug with “Europe is my cup tea” written on it. We chatted in the office until my panel discussion on stage and afterwards I cruised the festival tents. The Google tent was not just offering free coffee, but free coffee with your face printed on it, so it was naturally a big hit. There were lots of stalls run by pro EU groups/organisations with more freebies and information leaflets, small tents running workshops and session discussions and stalls selling hot food, beverages and booze. I was also pleased to see a large inflatable unicorn which I slapped a bollocks to brexit sticker on. It was a charming, welcoming and well-executed event, the only issue was the lack of people to enjoy the experience… Possibly because it was being held on a chilly, inaccessible island in the North sea which was inhabited mainly by sheep.
Partly due to the small number of attendants and partly due to my reputation as an activist, I was constantly bombarded by requests from people to participate in activities, pose for photos or perform/speak at fringe sessions, which is at once flattering whilst also very draining. It also didn’t help that the festival organisers had created a little game which consisted of a competition to find various people and “take a selfie with them doing something silly”. EUsupergirl, of course was one of those people to find. I took refuge in a tent where my friend, Sara, who heads the #ThisTimeImVoting campaign at the European Parliament was hanging out. There was also a small sausage dog who immediately pinched the toy sheep out of the goodie bag I had been given and attempted to shred it. After wrestling my sheep from the dog, me and Sara went to the Google tent to print our faces on a coffee. We sat outside, where the sunlight alleviated the chilly breeze, our conversation about our respective efforts to increase participation in the EU elections was periodically interrupted by one person after another asking me to do something – including being dragged up onto a stack of wooden crates to perform some of my songs for an open mic session. Sara filmed the performance for me to put on social media later, but then proposed that she take me back to my hotel because I looked like I was “falling asleep”. Before we left she took a photo of me holding the salvaged sheep toy which later appeared in an article about the festival published by the Wall Street Journal, titled “Frigid North Sea island plays host to voter mobilization event: A bit odd”. I was quoted on the front page expressing my surprise at the choice of location for the event, “‘I thought it was a bit odd to put it on an island.’ Said Madeleina Kay, known as EU Supergirl.”
I spent the rest of the evening alone in my hotel room, posting content on social media and enjoying the peace and solitude after the constant attention I received at the festival. I was also trying to figure out travel options for my planned events the following week; Ljubliana, Timisoara and Sofia – except it rapidly became apparent that there was no feasible way to get to all three. I sent a message to the contact from the EP in Romania to cancel my attendance in Timisoara and apologise: Unfortunately, I can’t be everywhere. And as much as I would like to be a real super-hero with the ability to fly from one destination to the other, I am just a normal girl wearing a fancy dress costume.
Before I turned out the lights, I received a message from one of the festival organisers asking me if I wanted to be part of the ‘Brexit Breakfast Briefing’ panel discussion the following morning and also to perform a few songs later in the day at the end-of-festival party. I happily agreed and set my alarm to ensure I would get to the Breakfast Briefing on time. Thinking that I would be able to return to the hotel inbetween times to change into the EU Wonder Woman costume for the evening performance, I left my guitar behind, only to discover that they wanted me to perform to open the morning session as well. Luckily everything was running behind schedule, so I sprinted back to the hotel, grabbed my guitar, and returned to the festival – it must have appeared to unsuspecting locals like I was training for a bizarre kind of musical relay race. On stage, since the name of the festival was “Democracy Alive” and I find Brexit to be inherently undemocratic because of the illegalities of the Leave campaign during the referendum – I decided to kick off with a rendition of ‘Vote Leave Broke the Law’. Unfortunately, or perhaps fittingly, after singing the line; ‘Boris is a liar and Farage is a dirty cheat/ Brexit is the battle ground where the honest and deceitful meet.’ The G-string on my guitar broke. We laughed it off, and commenced the panel discussion – I had a spare set of guitar strings in my case, so I promised to restring before the evening performance.
After the discussion finished, I managed a few hours at the festival; visiting stalls, making t-shirts, taking photos for social media, before I was once again struggling with the constant requests. I had been pestered continually over the two days by a group of guys to participate in some sort of interview for a Euronews camera man. Eventually, we gathered in the centre of the tents, two other unsuspecting participants had also been roped into what turned out to be some game that had been divised about guessing the manifesto policies of different EU parties for the EU elections. Having short-thrift for games of this type and also conscious that my knowledge of European politics was insufficient to prevent me from looking like an ill-informed twirp, I pulled out. Much to the annoyance of the group of guys who must had been persistently pursuing me without actually clarifying what it was they wanted me to do – but I was too tired to care. A film-maker, who was working for the festival came over to ask me what had happened, he rapidly realised that I was exhausted and also being bombarded by people. We had a brief, supportive conversation, where he asked me “If you can do exactly what you want right now, what would you do?” Upon my reply, “I want to go back to my hotel just to chill out and rest.” he very helpfully extricated me from the festival, telling a man who had stopped me as I was walking out that “she doesn’t want to play board games, she’s exhausted.” When you are so keen to please others, that you fail to prioritise your own well-being, it’s reassuring to find other people who are looking out for you.
After (idiotically) falling asleep with my contact lenses still in, I awoke and attempted the task of restringing my guitar (something I have never managed to master). Usually I can manage a botch job that is sufficient enough to perform, but this time in my drowsy state, I got the tension wrong and the string snapped. Shit. I didn’t have any more spares. Where could I find a spare set of guitar strings at 5pm on a tiny dutch island? On the brink of tears again, I messaged Sara to tell her of my latest predicament. Luckily Sara is an incredible and indomitable force to reckon with. Hell bent on finding me a replacement guitar string, she began a quest to ask every person she encountered on the tiny island of Texel (including the festival security guards) if they knew a guitar player who might have a spare set to lend to a desperate young performer in an unfortunate predicament. In a stroke of genius, she tried a bar, who unsurprisingly had a contact with a musician who could drop off the spare strings in time for my performance in the evening. Indebted to Sara for saving the day, I must remember to carry multiple sets of strings in the future – And to learn to restring my guitar properly!
Upon my return to the UK the following day, my new gold crown (fitted just 2 weeks ago), came off and I decided to abandon all plans to travel that week, cancelled on Slovenia and Bulgaria as well as Romania, and headed home to Sheffield, to rest up and visit the dentist. Just as well as I was feeling decidedly wobbly for the duration of the festival, before I hitched a ride on the European Parliament’s “fancy bus” back to Brussels the following day, catching the Eurostar and then the train home to Sheffield.