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.

Blending in and Belonging: a Third Culture Kid’s Story

I was born in urban Johannesburg, South Africa to Irish and South African parents. At the age of nine, the family relocated to suburban Athens, Greece. After a few years, we relocated to rural Ireland. I went from swimming pools to giant forests in my backyard with just a few years inbetween. The countries separate my developmental stages, child, pre-adolescent, adolescent, and young adult. Every move I sought to reinvent myself, but found myself mostly staying the same. The same, but indescribably different.

I have always been confused about where home is to me, I both resent and exploit the eccentricities of my upbringing. When in one of My Countries, I tell people I’m from The Other. I have always wanted to belong, blend in, wave to neighbours in the street. I also like to be the new girl, the blank slate, the one who makes small, silly blunders of colloquialism and translation. I am a walking naughties flick chick caricature.

Learning about bugs, or something

I have reached a point where I have stayed in the same city for seven years, and the same country for ten (gulp). I have itchy feet, wanderlust, and dream of foreign shores daily. Yet I am still here. Here but not here. Always I wonder: do I not belong because I don’t put down roots, or do I not put down roots because I feel I don’t belong? I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer; and yet I remain untethered, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. I too am a Millenial, a member of Generation Rent, does that help me or hinder me?

Actual, barefoot me

I was born into Apartheid, was barely past a toddler when South Africa had her first black president. I have travelled deserts, walked barefoot without my feet touching shoes for days on end, and felt the feeling of nearly drowning many times in the Indian Ocean. I have seen wild fires ravaging parched land, ancient archaeological sites with marble smooth and shiny from millenia of footsteps. I have snowmobiled in Yellowstone, and skied in the shadow of Mount Olympus. I have made and lost more friends I can count; some great, some merely transient anyway.

How can I possibly tell anyone everything I have seen? Everything I know, everything I worry about? People who have stayed in the same city all their lives – with a back-catalogue of friends from playschool to present – how can I possibly compare, communicate? My language is Greek and English, art and Afrikaans, weather, music, starry nights and French and Spanish. I grew up bilingual but also learned foreign languages before both my parents. As a ten-year old my juice stall in a different alphabet, language and currency than what I was born into.

The final question, is can this void in me ever be filled? I plan holidays and I travel. When I travel, I travel incognito, with my local’s disguise. I dread someone finding out who I am – what I am – but what am I? What is it I live in fear of being discovered? A fake, a fraud? Or someone who knows ‘home is where you hang your hat’? Do I try and blend in, or do I open my messy self up for examination?

Do I tell them who I am?