Eat, Pray, Pad Thai (part two)

(Read the first half of my essay here)

Once I gave in to the flow of our daily rituals, the nausea that had been plaguing me dissipated. I even found myself offering tips to the constant revolving door of young backpackers staying in the one room not used by yoga students. I got used to the eggs, the menagerie of creatures I was surrounded by on a daily basis, particularly in my shower (frog, gecko, spider, cockroach – in that order); seeing the Buddhist monks early in the morning exchanging blessings for food in the streets. I got used to the rhythm of our days, all of us barreling into the back of a pickup truck to get to and from class everyday. I couldn’t believe how uncertain I had been at the start, and how quickly I’d assimilated. A few of the girls on the course generously donated a rotating selection of fruit to our morning coffee breaks, the mangosteens were great but the durian (stinky fruit) was not for me.

 Top: Monks offering blessings in exchange for breakfast (and Goofy’s canine behind); bottom: the back of the pickup truck

We went to a local restaurant offering Thai and ‘Western’ food one evening, pictures of a club sandwich next to a green curry in the menu. We were always the loudest in the restaurant, a gaggle of five dirty, sweaty yogis ordering nearly everything on the menu. I ordered my by now signature Chang beer, and a panang curry. The waiter wrote it down on a pad of paper, asked if I wanted it spicy or mild. ‘Spicy’ I said, then jokingly added ‘very’. She slowly looked up from her pad, taking in the colour of my skin and hair. ‘Thai food is very spicy, are you sure?’ I was like ‘yeah go for it’. What came out was definitely spicy – Thai chillies have a habit of lulling you into a false sense of security at first, then the slow burn. It was great.

 

A Friday evening brought the strangely titled ‘Night Walking Market’, a street market of curios, souvenirs, cheap-and-nasty cocktails, and noodle stalls. I’d now gotten used to the noise and smells of the place, but even this was busy for me. We ate delicious pad thai standing in the street, and once we’d taken in all the stalls found a man making fresh hand-made coconut ice cream. Retreating to a corner of the square, we watched a man beatbox amazingly well and later two boys do a Fawn Leb (traditional dance) and ate our coconut ice creams. Everyone had topped theirs with peanuts, I had sprinkles.

 

Top to bottom: pad thai, market, coconut ice cream, dancing

One evening we came back from dinner, I turned on the air conditioner in my room and suddenly everything went quiet and black. Outside; the crickets, frogs and whatever else sounded louder than ever. I stepped out to the main patio, and met the guy on my course. It seemed the power was out, only in our building. The housekeeper called Ronald* and our teacher. When they arrived, he proclaimed the fuse to have blown, that there was nowhere he could buy one at this time, and no way there would be an electrician working to fix it. I looked at my co-student: a night without aircon and phone charging was a bit too much after the long day. We sat on the patio in candlelight, and watched Ronald ‘jerry-rig’ a new fuse from a Chang beer can. How appropriate. He made a little handle for the fuse out of sellotape to prevent electrocution, and climbed up into the rafters of the roof with only an iPhone torch to attach the new fuse to the mains electricity. Amazingly, it worked, and he said he’d buy a new fuse the next day. On our last day we all laughed when what we’d suspected was true: he hadn’t bought a new fuse and we were still running on the Chang can replacement. This guy was the ultimate cowboy, a swiss-American ex-rockstar, avid Bitcoin ambassador and conspiracy theorist, dressed only in tatty chino cut-offs.

After lunch, we would have ‘Satsang’ (wisdom-sharing, or theory) sessions, sitting cross-legged on our yoga mats listening to our teacher talk about yogic and Eastern philosophy. Some of this tied in with Western medicine quite nicely: Qi-Gong states that every organ has an active hour (could be somewhat compared to cell circadian rhythms). Other stories were more esoteric, ranging from Buddhist monks meditating their way to being able to breathe underwater, to prisoners growing knocked-out teeth back. Sometimes this would be on seafront rocks, or visiting Ronald’s adobe (sandbag and earth) home’s construction site. Sitting on the mats on the floor during portions of the class not spent doing active yoga was nearly the most difficult thing, especially being told that Buddhist monks and real yogis can sit cross-legged for hours, concentrating on meditation to overcome discomfort. I felt like I’d failed, it was just so uncomfortable.

 Joined by a different stray dog, ‘nan tang’, for satsang.

Somewhere just before halfway through the training, we were let go early from class. How does one celebrate early freedom? We headed to a nearby beach club and drank sugary cocktails whilst swimming beneath the stars and frangipani trees in full bloom, the perfume sitting heavy on the breeze. We were celebrating: lounging on giant pool floaties, playing like kids.

 Beach club fun

On the second last day, the rest of the group decided to join myself and my coffee co-conspirator on our lunchtime coffee run. We went to an Italian restaurant for ice-cream, only to find it shut as is typical on a Monday in Samui. Walking back, disheartened, a waiter jumped out at us from the trees and gestured for us to come in. One of my classmates asked whether they had ice creams, the waiter gently assuring us they had ‘many flavours’. This sounded suspiciously like it might not be true. We were brought behind the bar, and the waiter’s face turned to a proud grin as she gestured towards a freezer full of mini ice cream tubs of every flavour imaginable: rum & raisin to durian, mangosteen to cookies n’ cream. I wondered what she must have thought about this bunch of 5 sweaty and dirty foreigners, walking in to a nice restaurant and demanding ice cream in multiple flavours and coffee.

 

The exam day, our second-to-last, came around quickly. We had to select a logical and cohesive flow of poses from the 90-minute routine we’d done every day, condense it to fit into a 60-minute session, and lead the full class. It was nerve-wracking, and I got reprimanded halfway through for not leaving the students to hold a pose long enough (three variations of half moon, my least favourite), but I managed to get into the groove after that and passed. Afterwards I was exhausted – teaching is hard! We all decided to do every one of each others’ exam class – four in total that day. By the last happy baby pose I thought my hips would never recover.

 Wat Plai Laem Buddhist Temple visit

Our last day concluded with two 60-minute sessions taught by two classmates, followed by a ‘posture clinic’ at a ‘waterfall’ on the other side of the island. This turned out to be less fun than we had anticipated: we took turns photographing each other holding each of the thirty poses we had practiced throughout the course, whilst balancing on the boulders within the river. In our subgroup, hiking upriver jumping from rock to rock, a young boy offered to lead us to the ‘proper’ waterfall, presumably for a small fee. He wouldn’t take no for an answer for a long time, and then sat bemused, watching us run through the poses on various boulders. The rocks trapped the sun’s heat, it quickly became very sweaty work. We finished with sandwiches like Vietnamese banh mi on the rocks, grateful for the posture clinic to be over.

 Top: the waterfall; bottom: my ’embryo’ pose

After the conclusion of our course – celerated by burning our wishes and yantras from day one – I left our little home and stayed in a nearby hotel. I’d planned this for months, as it was the eve of my birthday I wanted to treat myself (as if I hadn’t already, but oh well). I booked a beach suite, which I barely got to see but the morning views were worth it alone. I was so sad leaving, everyone was so kind and friendly. I have to go back soon – if not for the yoga then definitely for the noodle soup and Changs.

Final night’s accommodation

It will take a while to digest everything that I learned in Thailand. For a short while I completely went with ‘the flow’ (I flow with the rhythm of life – second chakra mantra). Our little band of students got surprisingly close during the intensive teaching, we laughed near-constantly and managed to lift each other when things got a bit tough. Being home, I feel the same as before, and yet completely different. Yes, there were beaches and trips to Buddhist temples, but the yoga and teaching were a different level of difficulty. My body ached, and yet I kept going.

Samui airport transport

I always thought I was good at getting outside of my ‘comfort zone’ but realised that I never truly had as an adult. I still always had control, had always planned a trip so that I would be comfortable. I was able to see the privilege in being able to go on a yoga retreat, and the privilege of being able to be comfortable. Going forward I promised myself that I’ll make sure to be more uncomfortable in all the right ways, and be better at getting out of situations where I’m uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

 

Thanks for reading!

Eat, Pray, Pad Thai (part one)

I recently spent some time in Thailand, my first visit ever, to train to become a yoga instructor.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I kind of reached the point over the years that it seemed like I would never get to do it, so one day in May I cracked and booked flights as a few weeks off work. Waiting in terminal 5 in Heathrow, again my first time (South African Airways operates out of T3, and that is the main reason I hit Heathrow in the first place). I wrote the majority of this on the day of my return flight, my birthday, drinking mini bottles of prosecco in multiples.

 

The flight to Bangkok was uneventful enough, despite some pretty intense turbulence that lasted the width of India and the Andaman sea. It seemed that we’d never get past India, I knew it was big but not hours worth at 30,000ft. I arrived in BKK confused and tired. All I wanted was coffee, but I didn’t have it in me to try order one (ridiculous, I know, but hey I was tired). On the 50-minute domestic flight to Koh Samui we were rapidly served a full meal of spicy shrimp and rice at 11am. No options, no meat or vegetarian choice, no lacto-ovo-paleo-whatever else option. I tried the food, the chillies were enormous and it was pretty delicious. I just couldn’t go on though – all I wanted was the coffee, dark and bitter. I sipped this and watched the islands pass by as we flew over the Gulf of Thailand.

 

Flying over Koh Phangan

Hot, humid midday air hit me as I got off the plane and stepped on the golf buggy/childrens fun train hybrid to bring us to the terminal. Samui airport is small and surrounded by tropical flowers. It’s also mostly outdoors – there are few walls (something I would soon get used to during my trip) so it really was one with nature. I was here at last, to learn to teach yoga, and perhaps even ‘find myself’, who knows.

 

I collected my baggage from the ‘international’ carousel – one of only two. My teacher was waiting outside as promised with my name on a mini whiteboard to bring me to our accommodation. She kept mentioning how she was a slow driver, however as we weaved through moped traffic, potholes, and at one point directly on the runway (a shortcut) I realised this may not be the whole truth. Either that, or people in Thailand drive faster on average.

 

The international carousel at Samui airport

At the accommodation, I fell straight onto the bed and slept fitfully for a few hours after the flight, surfacing only in the early evening. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast over Myanmar at dawn. The walk to the main beach road was short, lined with small shacks, shops, and stray dogs napping in the glow of dusk. There are no traffic lights or pedestrian crossings on Samui – apparently there was one traffic light on the neighbouring island Koh Phangan but locals destroyed it, preferring the game of chance they’ve played for years. 

 

I knew the beach was on the other side of the main road, but was obscured by buildings. I finally found a path through an overgrown car park area, then realised once I was on the beach how hilariously dodgy that would have been back in London. I’m in paradise at last, but the entrance is through an abandoned stretch of dodgy land. The beach was beautiful – I’ve seen some beaches in my time but have always pined for the perfect tropical paradise, lined with coconut palms. This was it – a toe in the water proved what I’d read, that it is as warm as bathwater.

 

Bangrak beach at sunset

I fell back into a fitful sleep back at the accommodation, and was woken by a female voice calling out late in the evening. I waited for the longest time, hoping they would go away, before finally heading out to find two Dutch girls. They were leaving, they said, because there were millipedes on their bedroom walls. I assured them I didn’t work there, and that also there seemed to be a lot of millipedes around anyway. The teacher had told me there were 4 other students joining class the next morning, I thought these girls were part of this number. After they left, I sat in the dark in bed wondering ‘what on earth have I done?’ ‘Is it really that bad?’ ‘Should I also leave?’ In my notebook, I constructed a calendar with which to tick off the days, as if I could even tick off hours passed it would get me home sooner.

 Top: my room for the duration of the course; bottom: a chill-out area on our patio

The next day meditation started at 7am. Three other bodies found their way to the patio from their respective bungalows. Turns out the Dutch girls weren’t students, we were awaiting one more girl to join us a few days later, and the other students were fairly normal. Thank goodness.

We sat on the beach, joined by a friendly-ish stray dog our teacher called ‘Goofy’ (his real name was Moo Ping which means BBQ pork, his favourite thing to steal from the food stall he hangs out by). We meditated on the root chakra mantra ‘lam’; although I meditated on the beach, the view, and the little hermit crabs scuttling across the sand in front of us.

After meditation was a coffee break initiated by me – I had brought a tin of Nescafé Azera from the UK, my only comfort – I could not deal with caffeine withdrawal symptoms on top of culture shock and jet lag. This post-meditation coffee break became a daily ritual for us, necessary energy for the day ahead.

A 90-minute yoga sequence followed coffee – on the first day it was a welcome novelty. There was a lovely open-air shala (yoga studio) at our teacher’s house deep in the Samui jungle. The following days, when I realised we would repeat the same sequence every day I felt disheartened – the humidity, sweat, mosquitos seemed too much at times. 

 Our own jungle shala

We learned about yoga philosophy, sat on the patio and drew our own yantras (like Buddhist and Hindu mandalas) for the elephant god Ganesh, and wrote down 10 wishes. This was the perfect time to do so, our teacher told us, as the course started on the new moon which is intention-setting time. The table – a standard issue wooden picnic table – was nicknamed the ‘yoga’ table due to its propensity for collapsing to one side if someone got up. I later worked out it could not be a yoga table for that very reason – it should have widened its stance.

 My yantra

Our fifth student joined us a day or two later, a spur-of-the-moment flight from Boston. I felt for her, we had already become accustomed to doing the yoga sequence amongst the millipedes. Turns out I had nothing to worry about – she was a plucky Russian native who fitted right in to our motley crew.

Over the following days we meditated and asana-d our way through the chakras from root to crown. The second day (sacral chakra), I struggled with moving my body in the heat, some emotions during the tough yoga practice, and with unexplained nausea that sat in the pit of my stomach for days. I thought: this is going to be a long slog.

 

We had breakfast and lunch during our school day, served initially by the accommodation’s housekeeper. The usual cook, Ronald (not his real name), was in Phuket trying to bail a friend out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit, apparently. Once he was back we enjoyed salads with exotic dressings, jerusalem artichokes and blue rice noodles. After the first few days of an egg-heavy ketogenic diet, and suffering with this nausea, I spoke up. ‘I don’t mind eggs, I just barely eat them at home. I’m struggling with having them every day’. I asked for at least a smaller portion. It became an in-joke with my classmates every time we were served eggs, I’d brace myself and mix each small bite of egg with as much of the exotic local veg garnish as I could fit on my fork. Eggs or tofu, or eggs and tofu – we had it all.

 

A typical lunch

I found a kindred spirit in the only guy on the course, a half Brit-half Singaporean who had been through the UK private boarding school system. Every day after food during our lunch break we would sneak down the road to the local French bakery for good coffee, and every other day a buttery pain au chocolat or chocolate-laden sacristain twist. We chatted about home, our jobs, and shared stories of boarding school shenanigans. At dinner, it was always us ordering Chang or Singha beers to quench our thirst. We’d decided early on that we’d need every little bit of fuel and comfort to get us through 11 hours of yoga every day, and as drinking tap water isn’t a thing you may as well order a beer.

 

One dinner-time restaurant stood out to me, a small unassuming spot close to our local 7-11 store. In front was a cart where broth for noodle soup was made, and in the back were a few basic chairs and tables. The chicken noodle soup was cheap and delicious, the fried morning glory on the side (kind of a cross between kale and tenderstem broccoli) spicy, crunchy and rich with garlic and oyster sauce.

 Chicken noodle soup, morning glory, and fried pork.

One Sunday evening we were taken to the local ‘green market’ after class, where our cook and co-host (who had returned from multiple trips to the mainland and Phuket to save the friend from jail) had a stall selling salads and a range of kombuchas. ‘He’s a microbiologist and an ex-rockstar’ our teacher assured us. I took this with a few grains of salt, this guy apparently lived in ‘a shed up the mountain’ and wore tatty, too-big chino cut-offs. The green market was in the back garden of a bar, and attracted a strange mix of eclectic expats getting drunk on wine and smoking cannabis. ‘Cannabis is now legal on Samui’ we were assured, however a quick google search proved this to not be the case. We would certainly not be taking any chances.

 

After the first few days I’d gotten used to our daily routine, my body slowly becoming stronger with every sun salutation I did. I got used to being sweaty – dripping off me at every opportunity, and not wearing makeup. I also got used to big, ugly mosquito bites all over, and dark blue residue from the yoga mats sitting underneath my nails. I didn’t look at myself in the small mirror in the shared bathroom, preferring to get in and out of there as quickly as possible. Early on I discovered that I shared the bathroom with a tiny little jumping frog, and that the pipe from the sink just drained onto the bathroom floor. It had very few walls, as did the bathroom at the yoga shala.

Bathroom frog

From the beginning, I had to accept that I was here, I’d chosen to be here, and pretty much had to see it through. I had to surrender and just go with the flow, something I realised I’m not good at. Back home I felt like a bit of a hippy in the city, but here in the jungle with locals and on the beach with dreadlocked, tye-dye wearing gap year students I felt like a type-A control freak.

To be continued, read part 2 here

Exploring bridges: burning them, building them, and what it all means.

I literally took a trip down memory lane the other day. I was asked to drop a file off at a building across from where I lived when I first moved to the city. At first, the thought of going there filled me with absolute dread – it had been a really weird time in my life when I lived in a grim, box-sized room. I had been overwhelemed by the city, threatened to be swallowed whole by the dirt and the noise; overstimulated but also lonely. I was young, with no coping mechanisms in place – it is not a time I remember fondly.

I saw the pub on the corner, the familiar trees on either side of the road. I walked slowly down the street, expecting that feeling of dread to fill and suffocate me. What happened next was weird – it didn’t happen at all. The large Georgian building made me feel next to nothing. I was merely an observer, and it was merely a building. I realised I’d given it so much power in my mind, only to realise it was just bricks and concrete.

It seemed that perhaps without the shadowing of subjective memory, all these bad times that I hold in the back of my mind with near reverence were the same, just times. Would it be the same for some of the other periods in my life? The flat in Greece we were burgled in, the inner-city hospital that saw my first big loss? The school I struggled to fit into? Have I been carrying all these bad memories, cards tightly held against my chest, for nothing?

As a third culture kid (TCK), I’ve become used to leaving places and likely never going back, leaving people and likely never seeing them again. It’s my modus operandi, my protection; never looking back was something I thought was beneficial. The other day made me realise, however, that sometimes going back is good. Sometimes confronting the skeletons in your closet, or the places that saw your perceived worst, can be beneficial in order to truly move forward. Sometimes, on closer inspection, they don’t actually look like skeletons at all.

Jus Sanguinis and Soli: Traversing borders and privilege

I recently completed an IELTS English test for academic purposes, and it was an eye opening journey for me into the privilege I am afforded by being a white European. Disclaimer: I am neither a journalist, nor an expert in border control or privilege, I just really want to share my experience.

We sat the IELTS (International English Language Testing Service) exam in London. Passports that sat on candidates’ desks ranged from South Korea, to the Philippines, from India to Argentina. What struck me was the sheer scale of people wishing to complete an exam, with over 100 in our group and more on other days and at various other locations. The test questions were simple enough to a native or proficient speaker, however a lot of testing relied on the ability to understand a host of complex instructions. Let’s just say it was a pretty weird day. After discussing my favourite season and which city I thought was the most beautiful in the speaking test, similar to what I would have done in high school French, I reflected on the people surrounding me.

The IELTS test, ‘the world’s most popular English language test for higher education and global migration’, is one of the gate keepers of migration to many English-speaking countries such as New Zealand, the USA and Canada. These countries can also be desirable destinations for foreigners, as was shown by the commitment to a nearly 8 hour test process.

Maybe I’m looking too far into things, but I guess it felt different being a native speaker doing the test because I wanted to, because of potential opportunities. And others were too, but I wondered about where they were coming from, and their reasons for being there. Where were they intending on heading to after this test? Why were they leaving their countries of birth?

I am a white European. I have free movement across the EU and Schengen areas, I moved to the UK simply by boarding a flight and opening a bank account. I easily complete a quick ESTA form to visit Canada or the US. However, I am also a South African citizen with a South African passport. My family are South African, I know about their struggles with visas, embassies, and bureaucracy. I know my little green passport gets me into far fewer places than my red EU-member one, which delivers 165 countries  without a visa in comparison to 98. Brexit has already made me think about this issue, it’s brought it firmly close to home. An atmosphere of closedness, of closed-mindedness is in my view detrimental to any country. Especially for the UK, relatively successful in recent decades due to free travel and connections with the world.

I’m keeping my options open, particularly for academic opportunities. I have that luxury, that privilege to up and leave when I prefer a change of scenery. Open borders are currently a privilege, a luxury. For those with citizenship to a ‘powerful’ passport through jus sanguinis (blood right) or jus soli (birth right), this privilege is closely guarded. Borders are kept tightly closed to people with less powerful citizenship, only ‘desirable’  candidates need apply.

Looking back through history, powerful western nations time and again have taken from other countries and made them poorer. Colonialism and slavery clashed cultures with a heady power imbalance. Jamaicans thought themselves to be fully British subjects, and felt immense pride in fighting as part of Britain in WW2. Cut to now, where the Windrush scandal threatened to take the rights and dignity away from members of an entire generation.

On Instagram I’ve seen the hordes of influencers and wannabes travelling the world to tick off as many countries as possible or to get the ultimate photo. You have to be beautiful and relatively well off to see the world to cure your #wanderlust. However with conflict, climate change and economic difficulty causing more and more people to uproot and head abroad, perhaps we need to review our perception of travel and borders. Of course no country could have completely open borders, each country needs to evaluate what is best for its citizens. But we have to see that travel is not just a luxury, but a necessity for everyone.

Freedom to pursue opportunity; be they in western countries or if powerful economies were devolved to developing nations; should be every single person’s birth right, not just through luck of the draw.

Exploring darkness in the polar night – Tromsø, Norway

I went to Norway for an environment that made me feel small and insignificant. To be awed and inspired, to be close to the edge of the earth. Think that’s a pretty niche travel requirement? Let me explain.

I’m obsessed with landscapes of extremes, so far mostly deserts. This time, I wanted to try something different and visit the arctic circle, the most northerly of circles of latittude surrounding the north pole. I live in a big western European city, where we don’t see many extremes of weather. It sometimes feels, as a newly minted adult (I say newly, but I’ve had some years’ practice) that the world is on my shoulders. The city can be a fast-paced place of ego, where things happen mostly if you make them. It’s easy to get stuck in my head, stuck in a state of anxiety about some thing or another. Lather, rinse, repeat. Also, coming from the Southern Hemisphere, I still struggle with the deep darkness of a northern winter. I wanted to see what made people tick this far north, where lettuce certainly doesn’t grow all year round, and where for a couple months per year the sun barely tops the horizon all day.

The polar circle

When we landed in the dark on a Saturday night in the tiny Tromsø airport, my husband hilariously but also pretty aptly asked me ‘WHERE ARE WE?!’ It felt like in the three hour flight from Gatwick we had truly flown into the unknown. We went straight to the local supermarket, which I guess is a pretty brave choice, and stocked up on groceries for our Airbnb. A search for dairy-free milk involved desperate comedy-sketch levels of Google translating.

Dressing on morning one to head into town involved base, mid, top layers; two, three pairs of socks, and outdoor gear. Having to succumb to the weather gave me a vulnerability that felt different. This wasn’t scared walking home alone at night in the city, this was an adversary you could prepare for but that could also beat you with no effort.

We came to Tromsø at the tail end of the polar night, when at full midday the sun barely makes it over the top of the peaks surrounding the island Tromsøya that the city sits on. This daylight is a suspended dawn of blue light leading directly to a soft bubblegum dusk sky. 3pm felt like dinner time, 7pm felt like bed time. We were reduced to basic survival (millenial style, á là Airbnb): eating when we needed fuel, sleeping when our bodies told us to.

View from the harbour of Tromsø

We arrived with a far smaller itinerary than normal, I had very few things I wanted to actually do in Tromsø. I wanted to see the elusive Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), go see a nearby ice hotel, try spot a reindeer, and clear my head for the rest of the time.

The second night, I booked a last minute Aurora tour with Brynjar from Arctic Breeze. On the night of Imbolc, the Pagan festival of light in the darkness of winter, we saw the most fantastic display of lights within barely half an hour of leaving Tromsø itself. Surely this was not possibly real, I am still having to check the photos our guide took to remind myself. We celebrated with hot chocolate around a fire on a fjord beach, under the dull remains of the lights. The experience certainly felt real when the -15’C temperatures started settling in to our boots and our bones.

Photos from our tour taken by the guide, Brynjar

The following day we got on a bus south towards the Tromsø Ice Domes, a new-ish ice hotel in a valley around an hour away. As we peeled away from the steaming fjords (cold arctic air hitting the relatively warm water) and headed inland, we watched with grim glee as the temperature display on the bus dropped from -12’C. When we arrived at the ice domes, the reading was -18’C.

Inside the hotel

The tour was lovely, so was sitting in the ‘warm dome’ afterwards with soup and spirits (Glenfidditch for him, Baileys for me). The arctic cold was really starting to set in, and the novelty wear off. As the sun begn it’s descent below the mountaintops, the temperature dropped further. If I remember anything of this trip, it is the sudden change from hospitable to the opposite. My phone died, my digital camera died. My jacket zipper broke clean off, like when movie crooks break into a safe by freezing and smashing the lock. Any exposed skin, like my hands desperately trying to take last pictures, felt the burn of near-frostbite in just a few minutes. On the bus home, the temperature reading was -25’C. I could definitely believe it.

Wednesday brought the first overcast skies; one day of snowfall. Wednesday also brought on a cold I’d been fending off for weeks with Vitamin C. We stayed in and claimed a snow day with endless Netflix.

Snow in our neighbourhood of Breivika

Waking the day after a snow storm is so exciting still – although I’m sure the novelty must wear off. We took the Fjellheisen cable car to the top of a peak overlooking Tromsø. What looked from the bottom to be quite a height turned out to be the first of many small peaks towards the true summit of Mt Storsteinen. We walked to the next peak in single file through the shin-deep snow, falling in to the Fjellheisen summit canteen after for a burger and pints of pilsner.

View from the top of the Fjellheisen cable car

The Arctic Cathedral near the base of the cable car

It’s funny how pushing the body in the cold takes so much more out of you. We joked every night that the reason we couldn’t keep our eyes open at 8pm was because of ‘all the fresh air’ breathed that day. It’s true though; the tap water tasted glacial, the air a special brand of crisp. Facial moisturing started taking on as many layers as my socks had, the cold a different level to any I’ve felt before. Traffic lights changed especially quickly for pedestrians – almost to get them in out of the cold quicker.

Ski jump towers at the University of Tromsø

What will I remember the most? The lights from Tromsdalen twinkling at us from across the water. The taste of beer (we had to sample all of it of course), the sighting of reindeer on the university campus. The cut of the cold, the warmth on getting in to the flat, how kind the people were. The feeling of being somewhere different to anything else I’ve experienced, and the feeling of being ever so slightly changed and not knowing quite why.

New Years’ Eve: My Favourite Way to Celebrate

Even better than Christmas, or the summer solstice, New Year’s Eve (capitalising it to show it the respect it deserves) is my single most favourite time of the year. Why? Do I love making self-punishing ‘resolutions’, or drinking overpriced sparkling wine masquerading as champagne? Well, of course not. My love for this time of year goes way back to when I was a little kid.

My parents were business consultants, constantly evaluating processes and striving to improve them. Sometimes this resulted in an embarrassing moment trying to pick up a hire car, and sometimes it resulted in a series of reflections on the past year over a new years’ eve eve family dinner. I remember when I was ten, twelve, fourteen, they were generally only school-related. It’s strange and sometimes odd to reflect on your year as a kid, you have had no real bearing on what you participated in and therefore it’s tricky to make any real plans for the next year. My parents picked the summer holiday destination (Greece), I just went to school. Okay, I had received an A sometimes (sometimes!), and sometimes I got grounded. This New Years’ reflection ritual was boring and tedious for me then, and possibly even a bit cringe-y. Fast forward to adult life, I realised I had never really learned these skills of reflection, they were just assimilated from watching my parents. I’m definitely a culprit of having some seriously deep thoughts on any long train or plane journey, but New Years’ eve is the time to wallow in self-reflection and planning for the next twelve months. I’ve become the reflector I never thought I’d be!

I may seem biased because I made some major personal strides in 2018, and am excited to see where 2019 will take me. It can seem that New Years’ is to celebrate accomplishments, however this is not necessarily true and once the previous year has been reviewed and the emphasis moved towards plans for the next, there is the possibility of feeling less like a victim and feeling more in control. Even if just for one night.

I know, that even on the bad years, especially on the bad years, it was nice to have a ritual to separate ‘now’ me from ‘old’ me going through whatever it was. I know that some years may be good, some tedious, and some downright terrible, but no value can be placed on this point of rebirth and hope. True, though a lot of this excitement often dissipates on Jan 1st, whether due to alcohol or the novelty wearing off when actually being in the new year; it never detracts from the moment of pure anticipation the 31st brings. It’s one night to dress up and celebrate in any way (on the sofa or in a restaurant, alone or with friends) and be reborn.

New Year’s reflections should focus on the year just completed, and plans to do more of what worked or felt good in the next. No new gym memberships, or nicotine patches required. Did you like seeing a specific friend? Text them and make plans to do more! Did you enjoy how waking up 15 minutes earlier every day made you feel? Keep doing it, and maybe throw in some meditation or listening to a podcast! Did you like how you said no to something you did not want to do? Remember to bring that tool out again in the next year if you need it. It’s all about feeling good, and letting your New Years’ reflections be a beacon of light guiding you back to who you are when they are most needed in the next twelve months.

The Art of Simple have a fantastic set of New Year’s Reflection questions, that can either be answered in a journal, or cut out and pulled out of a bowl as a bit of a group exercise. I look forward to doing this particular set of questions with my SO tomorrow, and will definitely keep the answers to compare with this time next year. Give it a try!

An Admission

I have an admission of sorts; it’s been an interesting summer. I’ve taken a break from social media, from viewing my life through a lens. I’m still not sure if it’s made me more, or less happy. Only time will tell, I guess.

Why did I do it? Did I do it to make a stand against an ever-increasingly online world? To protest against knowing what an old school friend had for brunch, but not what they do now? To limit the confidence-busting pictures of unattainable perfection? To ease the pain of waking up on a Saturday, seeing the intimate details of a night you were not invited to be a part of? Some or all of those statements are true – I’ll let you decide.

Mostly, I just would rather spend my time doing something constructive instead of The Endless Scroll. Maybe it was that BBC Panorama documentary about social media and smartphone use. However you look at it, I feel social media heightens certain aspects of interaction. This can be great, but it can also leave a bitter taste. It’s easy to go from feeling worthwhile to worthless in just a few minutes. The conundrum of the social media age: I have 650 friends, so why am so alone? I would rather try shape my world view myself – without the intrusion of story upon story, scroll after scroll, like and heart and still nothing to show.

I’m not an influencer, a Kardashian or a boss babe. I am me, I write and I read and I worry about Brexit (as an EU national – shock horror I know!), and I cook dishes that get eaten and sometimes not photographed.

I have drawn my boundaries, spent some tome cold turkey, and feel I am ready to return to Sudden Stranger on my own terms. No one needs another #travelbae, and any more reasons to be jealous of a life they don’t have (or judging one inferior to theirs).

I have found some difficulty in trying to find my place in the world as a third culture kid, struggling to find a ‘tribe’ that share some of the experiences I have had. I have decided to embrace my place between the grey of here and there, in between continents and nationalities, and instead I guess I will ‘build it and they will come’.

So I would love to work on creating a platform for people who feel the same.