A year in Geneva

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22 February 2015 was my one year anniversary of moving to Geneva. I celebrated this by trudging through the slushy snow to go to work (yup that was on a Saturday but don’t worry I don’t make a habit of it) and later I met up with a friend for a drink. I forgot to spend any time reflecting on the momentousness of the occasion as I experienced a pretty normal day without spectacle. So I’m using this week’s blog post to consider what failed to register at that time and offer a retrospective on my year in Geneva.

When I first moved here this city seemed so strange and alien to me, so far from ‘normal’ life that for my first few days, well probably first six months actually, I was constantly noting the passage of time and questioning whether coming here was the right move or not. (Parlez-vous franglais per favore, mein leiber dich?)

My first few months, when it was just me, whilst my fiancé tied up loose ends in the UK and prepared to join me, was quite an intense experience. I lost quite a lot of weight through a combination of discovering meat was too expensive to eat and going running most evenings, not because I’m an exercise freak but because I had nothing better to do. In my first flat I didn’t have television or radio so most evenings were spent watching a DVD on the laptop, reading, running and an early night. (“Boldness has genius, power and magic in it”)

I strove to make friends and discovered this was a pretty exhausting process when driven by compulsion. If I stopped to think about it I have to admit I was pretty lonely and I needed some friends in the flesh, although was grateful to remain in contact with those friends I’d left behind. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder)

But it started to pay off and relationships that maybe had to be forced a bit in the early stages developed into something more genuine and I’ve met some very cool people. Although some of these I’ve also had to say goodbye to as their expat adventures have taken them elsewhere. And that hasn’t been easy but the great experiences we’ve shared more than make up for my sadness at their departure. (An expat among expats)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI found a lovely flat in an area I really like that suits me well. It is close enough to walk to the centre of Geneva but enough out of town to be pretty quiet and it borders on some truly beautiful woodlands along the river Rhone. We navigated arrangements, which were surprisingly straightforward, for the cats to fly out to join me, travelling as cabin baggage from the UK to Switzerland. I had no idea that animals could even travel in the cabin on flights, probably because you can’t do this coming into the UK, but it was a pretty easy process. And with the cats and then our UK life shipped out to me in boxes, my new abode started to feel more familiar. Normality was creeping up on me, gradually seeping into the day-to-day.

I had a period of illness when I felt completely sorry for myself, nothing serious but a flaring up of multiple minor ailments that I was left to fend to myself. Nothing is worse than feeling a bit grotty and not having anyone to complain to about it (that can’t escape from the whinging by just hanging up the phone). I also didn’t understand how the health system worked, but fearing the financial cost of seeing a Doctor I potentially couldn’t communicate with decided to stick with home remedies and sweat it out. Literally. (Why I’m not great with doctors)

I now had the cats for company but Jasper chose this moment to develop an infected abscess and force me to figure out how vets work. However, having someone else’s needs to focus on stopped me from indulging in so much self-sympathy. And not needing a loan to pay for his vet’s fees was a pleasant surprise! (The forlornest looking lampshade)

Jasper lampshadeEventually the fiancé came out too and my world started to right itself a little bit more, although his being there after several months of living apart did take a bit of adjusting to. (The arrival of the fiancé!)

We settled into a bit of a routine, disrupted by a few trips back to the UK including for my best friend’s amazing wedding. (The art of public speaking) And also a trip to Portugal for another great wedding. (Strangers are friends you haven’t yet met) I’d work, he’d job hunt, keep the flat in good working order and cook for me when I got home. I definitely got the better end of the deal.

His job hunting has been a bit frustrating with nothing resulting in paid employment to date but we’ve scraped by on my salary, and spent a lot of time speculating on how great it’ll be when he’s working and we can buy this, go there and enjoy that. A bit like playing the game of ‘when I win the lottery’ just with better odds. Even on a budget though, we still managed to try some fun new things. (The fears we all share)

Christmas and New Years were spent in Geneva. We had a nice time with great friends on those days and enjoyed a leisurely period of blissful nothingness for the days in between. I’d thought it would be weird to have such a friends and family-lite Christmas but actually it was really relaxing not rushing around like lunatics trying to see everyone, and after quite a disruptive year it was easy to appreciate a bit of quiet time. (Going somewhere nice for Christmas? Well, bully for you!)

This year, has felt a bit strange with personal challenges and exciting work opportunities but these have been absorbed into the new normalcy of life in Geneva. (Resolving on a great 2015, The tedium/tremendousness of travelling for work) I’m not quite settled here yet and don’t think I will be until the man finds a job and can start to find his own way to a regular life here. But the fact that my year’s anniversary here was so unremarkable is a good sign. It doesn’t feel quite like ‘home’ yet but it doesn’t feel like another planet anymore either.

Ten Reasons I Didn’t Need Valentine’s Day To Know He Loves Me

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As last week’s ten reasons was pretty much why I hate Valentine’s Day I thought I’d counter the idea that I’m a bitter, love-hating, unromantic wench and set out a slightly more romantic ten reasons this week: ten reasons why I didn’t need Valentine’s Day to know he loves me. This doesn’t so much contradict my Valentine loathing ways as reinforce the idea that the day is essentially pointless. The following might not be your textbook romantic gestures but to me couldn’t be better examples of what love is really about. And all examples occured last week.

1. He patiently spent 30 minutes tweezing a shard of broken glass out of my foot whilst I winced and cursed him constantly.

2. When I spent two days working from home and was an intense bundle of frustrated, tired and agitated charmlessness he didn’t hold it against me when I would be vile to him for such irritating things as breathing and bringing me a cup of tea when I didn’t want one.

3. On said charmless days he also didn’t hold it against me when I chose to spend my lunch break watching yet another episode of Pretty Little Liars on Netflix, which he hates, rather than watching a show with him that he liked.

4. When I was looking on the verge of another neurotic sleep/Pretty Little Liars -deprived meltdown with another evening of working late he would systematically bring me a cat for a quick stress-busting cuddle/outpouring of affection.

5. He spent several hours helping me get ingredients and make cookie-dough brownies for a party he wasn’t going to.

6. He reassured me that I haven’t ruined his life by dragging him to Geneva for my career ambitions even though he hasn’t been able to find a job here and is patiently forced to tell people over and over again that he hasn’t found a job yet whilst still pretending to be upbeat and positive about it so that other people won’t hold it against me.

7. When my tooth was aching, scabby-nositis (impetigo) flared up and a cold took full hold he made me my favourite homebrew remedy of fresh lemon, ginger, honey, cinnamon and cayenne pepper without my asking.

8. He made me dinner every evening, including judgement-free-stodge-based-but-endorphin-inducing pizza and potato wedges when I was feeling most sorry for myself (with virus/work combo).

brie, hot dogs and sausages (640x384)9. When heading back to the UK for the weekend and thus leaving me in Geneva by myself he made sure the fridge and cupboards were suitably well stocked so that I wouldn’t be tempted to eat brie straight from the wrapping, uncooked hot dog sausages or just spoonfuls of sugar in his absence. I’d like to pretend I’ve never done any of these things but he learnt the trick of leaving me with well-stocked cupboards from experience.

10. He still gave me a Valentines Card and chocolate even though I told the world I hate the holiday and he wasn’t even here on the day so could totally have used that as an excuse if I had decided to hold lack of card against him.

Going somewhere nice for Christmas? Well, bully for you!

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We made the decision not to head back to the UK for Christmas and will instead be experiencing our first Genevan Christmas.

I have come to understand that Geneva will be a quiet place for Christmas. Being a city that is comprised of approximately 40% expats it is natural that a lot of these non-Swiss will return back to their respective homelands for a Christmas with friends and family. Other residents will be running to the hills, as heading for the snow-capped mountains is a popular holiday tradition. This means there wont be many people actually left in Geneva.

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 2.24.47 PMI’m actually quite happy with the idea of a quiet Christmas this year. Yes, Christmases filled with friends and family are lovely and magical times but they can also be quite tiring.

As so much of Christmas is a time for thinking about loved ones there is a great deal of pressure to find time to catch up with everyone you care about in this condensed holiday period. Whilst this is wonderful it also entails lots of travelling around, events and activities and very little rest time. Factor in the reality that if you are taking a decent amount of time off over the holidays (and I’ve always been lucky enough to do so) this means there is always a lot of work to be done before the end of the year.

So you are usually tired approaching the holiday season and by the end of it might be more exhausted starting the new year than you were ending the old one. Having had a quite eventful year (moving country, starting a new job, enjoyable but demanding trips to the UK and a wedding abroad) I’m quite looking forward to a quiet Christmas this year with my bearded man and cats.

However, when chatting with various people about their plans for the upcoming holidays a lot of people have expressed surprise at my staying in Geneva for the entire duration of the holidays. A surprise that suggests that this is a mistake and it will absolutely be the worst Christmas I will ever have. Or if they don’t say as much they might pull a face that looks like this:

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At the book club Christmas party last night I was speaking with a friend who said he was staying in Geneva but added the explanation, because clearly he felt he needed one, that he would be going skiing in the mountains. To express my frustration at having to yet again explain and defend my holiday plans I uttered four little words: ‘well, bully for you’ and then started laughing. Aware this was a pretty rude response I tried to explain it was a private joke between me and …er…me, or to be more accurate between me and the memory of my Granny.

Several years, actually decades, ago, when I must have been somewhere around six or seven, I attended a family party for my uncle’s 40th birthday. My Granny and Grandad had divorced long before I was born and generally did their best to avoid each other, however this was one of those rare occasions when both happened to be in the same place at the same time with the same people.

My Granddad, no doubt in the spirit of family goodwill, came to where me and mum where chatting with Granny and started a conversation. He started to tell us about a recent holiday he had been on and my Granny just looked up at him from her wheelchair, said ‘Well, bully for you’ tartly and promptly wheeled away.

I’m not really sure exactly what it was about the scenario that I found and continue to find quite so funny. I think there was a lot of genuine ill-feeling as my Granny delivered her damning one-liner to my Grandad and moved away. But over the years both mum and I have come to adopt the phrase and liberally use it to express mock indignation at anyone we perceive to be potentially bragging about any experiences, circumstances, etc. And every time I say that phrase I remember my Granny and it makes me laugh.

Last night after making a pathetic attempt to explain why I just insulted my friend’s holiday plans and then started laughing about it the memory stayed with me and continued to amuse me. Walking home later that evening, I recalled the conversation and the phrase I’d used and started laughing to myself all over again. I’m grinning away to myself as I type this right now.

Just saying those words or thinking about them brings a smile to my face or laughter to my lips. And, even though when my Granny uttered them she didn’t mean them to be quite so amusing, it also fills me with a very happy feeling about Gran that I can’t fully explain. Perhaps it is just that in repeating those words I can recall her so vividly in all her wonderful, flawed and complete humanity that it makes me feel close to her. There are lots of great memories I have of my Granny, particularly playing a lot of Mahjong or Rummikub, but that particular ‘well, bully for you’ memory surfaces most frequently when that phrase she bequeathed me slips off my tongue so easily.

I wonder if others have such equally bizarre triggers for remembering someone who is no longer a part of our lives for whatever reason? So if I ever seem to guffaw at your new watch, holiday plans or whatever with those particular words don’t take it personally but know that I’m remembering someone I loved in my own unique way.

Dining with the dead

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“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” Marcus Tullius Cicero

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast Sunday I took part in a free walking tour of my new home city, kindly organised by the City of Geneva. This particular walk was focused on Geneva’s parks and gardens and took the group on a meandering tour from the Brunswick Monument on the left bank of the lake across to the newly reopened Musée d’Ethnographie.

One of our last stops was the Plainpalais Cemetery, known locally as Cimetière des Rois (Cemetery of the Kings) in tribute to the notable personages buried there which include John Calvin, figurehead of the 16th century protestant reformation; Jean Luis Borges, famous Argentinian writer; Sofiya Dostoyevsky, daughter of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and many more illustrious personages.

I already knew the cemetery well, as it’s close to my work place, and I had passed through and visited on many an occasion. So when the tour guide told us that in the summer this was a common picnicking spot I didn’t exhibit the surprise of some of my fellow tourists. I had seen that with my own eyes and have in fact consumed lunch in the cemetery on more than one occasion.

When a colleague first took me to eat in the cemetery, on a beautifully sunny October day, she seemed almost apologetic for bringing me there. I think she thought I might find the idea of eating our homemade food amongst the dead as somehow unseemly.

I don’t know why people have an aversion to cemeteries or fear of the dead, which is presumably where the aversion to their resting place comes from. I don’t know if ghosts exist or not but if they do I don’t see that there is any reason to fear them. If there are ghosts then I imagine them to be a sort of reflection or echo of the person they once were and as I have a tendency to believe all people are pretty decent at heart I see no reason to think that their spirits would be any different.

It also seems strange to me the idea that there ought to be a respectful distancing of ourselves from the dead whereby the idea of showing any happiness or joy in these places of death is to be severely condemned, as though the deceased would want us wailing over them forever.

My only negative experience in a graveyard revolved around a primary school incident of trying to raise a particular spirit from their grave, which ended badly in getting me grounded for two weeks for returning home two hours later than I was supposed to (we were waiting for it to get dark).

But the truth is, I have always rather liked cemeteries. I have many fond, and wholly unsqueamish, memories of walking around burial grounds with my parents from an early age. I liked the flowers, the calm and trying to read the inscriptions washed away by time on the oldest tombstones. But mostly I liked reading through the names, the dates of birth and death, the families recorded in the same plot and taking a moment to stop and think about the once living people who now lay beneath the earth.

I think my love of history comes from the same basic root of wanting to find a way to connect with those of the past. To think how their lives may have been, what they may have felt, to imagine myself in their shoes and to wonder if anyone in the future will ever try to connect with an historical version of myself?

I suppose that is also why I have a strong desire to one day write a great novel in the same way others desire to make their mark in film, be renowned for scientific discovery, bring about a revolution or raise a legion of children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. It’s the desire to be remembered and, in recognition of the truth that our lives are but fleeting moments in history, to think that there is a way in which we may continue to live on beyond our allocated time.

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So, I explained to my lunch companion that I felt no compunction in enjoying the autumn sun, eating my sandwiches and relaxing in a cemetery. I think the idea of the living mingling with the dead is somehow a rather comforting thought.

Those of us picnicking in Plainpalais cemetery probably haven’t chosen the spot because we have some sort of morbid fascination with the ghoulish, we have come because it is a pleasant spot to be in. And if, whilst we are there to enjoy ourselves, we take a moment to look at a few stones, to read the names carved upon and to take a moment to think about the people they memorialise then that seems a more honourable way to remember the dead than to keep a ‘respectful’ distance.

 

An expat among expats

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“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” – Alfred Lord Tennyson

One of the things I liked when I first came to Geneva was that the city is full of expats from every region of the world. I had the sense that no-one really belonged here but in this communality of not-belonging we all did.

And whilst invariably you would get pockets of certain people from the same country coming together more often than not the groups I would meet would be a real melting pot of different nationalities.

For example the first four friends I made here were Lebanese, Chinese, Dutch and Maltese-Australian. There are about 25 people in my office that represent around 17 different nationalities and you’ll hear a number of different languages floating around the corridors. Coming from my previous job in the UK, primarily made up of white British staff, the cultural mix here was quite new to me but something I warmly embraced.

Events like the World Cup are so much more fun when not everyone around you is rooting for the same team. And I have really enjoyed discovering what experiences and cultural practices are commonly shared amongst this mish-mash of people and what things are unique to each nationality (People in Geneva do have Christmas tree but I was stumped when trying to explain sherbert to a group of co-workers the other day). The office universally shares a love of chocolate but has fun debating which country produces the best or worst chocolate.

I’ve been an expat before when I interned in Cambodia but there we were small in a number and had a tendency to stick together. But being an expat among expats is an entirely different experience with a lot of positives. However, there is a downside as well.

A few months ago I met a chap from abroad who told me that until he and his wife had children they didn’t make any Swiss friends. When I asked him why he explained that with so many people coming and going those that were more permanently based here didn’t want to invest their time in getting to know people who would ultimately leave.

At the time I thought that it was a bit heartless not to make an effort to welcome newcomers into your lives just because they might leave again. But as expat friends of mine have now started to leave or announce upcoming plans for departure I’ve started to understand their thinking. It’s not that they are heartless but rather that its heartbreaking when someone you’ve come to know and care for is going to be gone from your life and possibly never re-enter it.

I’ve always been a selfish creature, for example uprooting the fella and abandoning all UK based friends and family to chase my dreams in Geneva, but it never occurred to me until it started happening to me on a frequent basis how hard it is to be left behind.

A number of people that I’ve met in Geneva that I’ve taken the time to get to know and have gradually forged fledgling friendships with that I thought had the potential to develop into full-on chumminess have announced that they will be leaving in the next few months and I’m honestly gutted.

From a selfish point of view I want everyone to stay and be my friends forever and if I decide to move again for them all to decide to move with me. Is that too much to ask?

I grudgingly accept that not everyone’s lives revolve around me, much as I might like them to, and I understand why certain people are leaving and obviously wish them well in their future adventures. It’s just I feel like someone has grabbed the trunk of a flimsy tree I’d built a nest in and shaken it violently, with the unsettling effect the departure of these people will have just as I was stating to feel comfortable here.

I think it’s good to put yourself out of your comfort zone but it’s harder when other people do this for you. Whilst I know not all my friends are leaving, there will always be constants in my life and that I’ll undoubtedly meet new and interesting people to form new friendships with there’s a part of me that wants to protect myself from future hurt by simply shutting myself off to the opportunity of loving and losing more people.

But then I think, well if I’d done that I’d never have met these wonderful people in the first place. If I hid my heart from other potential friends I’d be letting fear rule my life and that’s against the whole philosophy of what this blog was initially supposed to be about (see ‘The Why’).

So rather than feeling bummed out about the fact that some of my friends will leave I ought to make the most of them whilst they are still here. And it’s quite exciting to think that ten months ago I didn’t know any of them and in another ten months there could be more great people in my life I haven’t even met yet. Plus the further my friends disperse themselves around the world the more excuses I have to go and visit new places. It might be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster but it’s a wonderful world.

 

The Blog Hop

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I have been nominated to participate in a blog hop by WA Woman to World, which entails answering the questions below and then nominating two other blogs to share their responses.

Firstly, thanks Michelle for the nomination. I met Michelle at my very first Geneva International Book Club meeting. The club is a lovely(ish) group of people whose warm welcome to Geneva, where every comment is welcomed and valued if not necessarily agreed with, made me first feel at home in this strange city. And Michelle was one of the first people here in Geneva I really connected with. I was delighted to discover her blog and get to know her better through this medium as well as regular book club meets and to discover what a warm-hearted, funny and inspiring woman she really is. I loved her blog so much that it motivated me to start my own and her words of support were really encouraging.

What are you working on?

That really depends on how you want to define ‘work’. If we are going for the traditional sense in terms of societally-defined gainful employment for which I exchange skills for the money to pay rent and eat, then I am working for an international NGO for the advancement of human rights.

Human rights has been something I’ve been passionate about since we had a talk from a representative of Amnesty International when I was in secondary school. I felt a pull to do something about the global inequality where the rights I take for granted are denied to so many others. This started with my joining a local Amnesty group, later I undertook a Masters Degree in Human Rights, an internship with the Cambodian Centre of Human Rights followed in 2013 and now I’m here in Geneva hoping to put my organizational skills to use for something I care about.

In terms of the broader sense of ‘work’ well, I now have this blog but, my biggest non-work-work is ‘me’. It’s an ongoing project to try and be the best version of myself, not to let myself be held back by fears and to open myself up to new experiences whilst at the same time learn to appreciate the here and now. It’s an ambitious challenge I suspect won’t be finished anytime soon. At the moment, to provide slightly more specific examples, it includes learning French, enjoying a healthier version of me through improved diet and increased exercise, practicing drawing and trying not to be so darn addicted to social media apps on my phone and at work.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

In terms of the blog writing, I wouldn’t say I have a unique voice or perspective, because I doubt whether there is any such thing as a truly original thought or piece of work. Even if you think you are being radically different from everyone else there are probably loads of other people with exactly the same idea, which may or may not have been put into practice or vocalised yet. Or perhaps I’m just not original enough to accept the concept of originality in others.

I started my blog thinking what I was saying was revolutionary, that no-one would have heard anything of the like before. I was quite astounded by the amount of people who came back to me saying this is exactly how they feel. At first I felt a little put out by that but actually I’ve realised how great this is and now I love the idea that through opening myself up on the blog others may find things they can relate to. Through doing my part to create a little interconnectivity I hope we can all feel a little less alone and a little stronger.

But even if we share the same ideas with others which ideas we have in common, how we voice these, how these affect us and shape our own understandings is unique to all of us. I’m trying to hold onto the thought that I am both nothing more than a snowflake in a blizzard and nothing less than a one of a kind snowflake. It’s a dizzying vertigo effect of trying to balance one’s own sense of self-importance with the realisation of one’s insignificance.*

Perhaps my work is different in not trying to be different and not really trying to be anything more nor anything less than mine? Or perhaps it’s the same as everyone else’s in this respect?

Why do you create what you do?

For some time I’ve thought there is a novel or two inside me but it occurred to me that I wouldn’t become a bestseller anytime soon unless maybe I started writing a bit more frequently. I then met a couple of inspirational bloggers and I thought I’d start my blog as a technical challenge to polish my writing skills. However I completely underestimated the effect that blogging would have on me and this developed into a passion in itself.

I wasn’t sure, and still aren’t, exactly where I wanted to go with the blog and what I wanted to say. But I did know that I wanted to write honestly about who I am and how I understand and interpret the world around me. Through trying to truthfully address my sense of self and then put it out there for others through this blog it’s actually helping me to understand myself better.

The concept of the blog was to spell out my life philosophy and how I’m applying that on a daily basis. Since starting the blog I discovered my philosophy isn’t as concrete as I had imagined and is constantly evolving, so this will continue to be something to work on.

How does your creative process work?

Deadlines are pretty essential to how I operate. I’m very good at wasting time and can spend whole weekends doing nothing more than flitting between television, books or perhaps having a little wander outside. I blame my dad, he is king of the procrastinators and passed that particular talent on to me.

So I imposed a weekly deadline on myself, which I’ve actually managed to stick to reasonably well, and try to avoid the trap of thinking ‘oh well it doesn’t matter this week’. I know that sort of thinking will be a slippery slope for me because if I start to make excuses it gets easier to keep on making excuses and before you know it months will have gone by without a single new post.

Knowing I have the weekly deadline means my inspiration drive is pretty much always whirring away in the background looking for ideas for the next post. Sometimes it’s obvious and I’ll see, experience or feel something that moves me to write and sometimes I have to work a bit harder to try and find anything worth expressing. I’m starting to develop a little store of rainy day blogging ideas to avoid moments of panic about what the heck I’m going to write about next, which has happened a few times.

Book club has also been a useful muse by pointing me towards reading books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, thinking about books in greater depth than I used to and most importantly from getting insights into others on how they have interpreted the same texts I’ve read. We all have the same material but our brains make quite different work of it, proving humans are pretty amazing and providing plenty of food for thought.

My nominees

I have chosen to nominate the blog ‘Lori and the Caravan.’ Lori is a truly inspirational person who is not afraid of a challenge and shares her experiences openly and honestly through her blog. Amongst other things she is a loving mother, a historical geek, a passionate vintage promoter, and, obviously a blogger. I worked with Lori in London and then our lives took us in different directions and we drifted, but I’ve been able to reconnect with her through her blog. You can also check out her shop and start thinking of little people you can buy Lori’s great vintage finds for.

My other nominee is the brilliantly insightful ‘Self-styled life’. This was one of the first blogs I discovered when I started my own blogging adventure and it really resonated with me. Despite the fact Jean and I have never met, live on different continents and have very different lives I have felt a connection with her through her writing. When first starting out it was really encouraging to find a blogger that could entertain and move me (my last blog post was directly inspired by one of hers). Her blog was the first stranger’s blog I dared to comment on and I have really appreciated her warm and thoughtful responses to my random comments. It’s nice to know the internet isn’t such a scary place full of trolls under every article.


*This is starting to sound either a bit profound or super self-indulgent and poncey, sorry if it’s the latter.

The age-old question

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I recently read an interesting post ‘In Defence of Aging’, which has got me thinking about that age-old question, which is really two questions: 1) Am I getting old? And 2) Do I care?

What is old?

Age is a funny thing and the perception of old-age is a fairly fluid construct, in that the closer you get to it the further it moves away.

When I was five and the 1990 World Cup was taking place I remember my dad telling me that the next World Cup would be in four years time. To my five-year old brain four years might as well be the end of the world. And from a five-year old’s perspective, when one year is a fifth of your life, then four years is a lifetime.

If we compare that to now, when the 2014 World Cup finished with yet another disappointment for England (and to be fair every other team that wasn’t Germany), my perception is slightly different. It’s only another four years to the next World Cup, barely a wait at all and only a fraction of the life I’ve already lived.

At the age of 10, 50 sounds ancient. At 20 the gap between youth and old age both narrows and widens. 30 sounds terrifyingly old but at the same time 60, which used to turn people into Old Age Pensioners, doesn’t seem nearly so old now that we’ve seen parents and friends surpass that particularly year without curling up into a useless mass of pointless existence.

My grandma is 93 but she has only just accepted that she might be old and only a few months ago she threatened to kick anyone that dared to suggest she seemed to be doing very well for her age. ‘What do they mean,’ she’d indignantly ask ‘at my age?’ 93 does seem pretty old but perhaps when, if, I’m in my 80s I’ll probably be thinking ‘90 isn’t old but 100+, now that is old’.

Am I getting old?

So next year I’ll be 30 and with this upcoming change of decade I’m not entirely sure whether I ought to be feeling:

  • denial (‘no, I’m not 30, I’m 29 (again)’)
  • anxiety (‘I’m going to be so old I wont be able to enjoy childish things like going to the zoo anymore unless I actually have children or borrow someone else’s’)
  • disappointment (‘I thought I’d have done more with my life by now’*)
  • relief (‘thank god, I’m no longer in my twenties, I pity those young’uns searching for jobs, trying to save up for a house’)
  • anything in particular at all (‘maybe I wont transform into a different person with a whole new perspective in life’).

I think feeling old is something we put upon ourselves. Last year, when I was in Cambodia doing an internship I was conscious of the fact that the other interns were all younger than me but it really didn’t matter. My being a few years older didn’t mean we had nothing in common and couldn’t relate. In fact, one of the people I was closest too was one of the youngest of the group but we connected as people not as age-brackets and no segregation of years (or geography for that matter) affects our continuing friendship.

Currently, I don’t feel old but I don’t feel particularly young either and actually that’s okay. I’m a lot more confident now than I was in my early 20s and care a lot less about what other’s think so I don’t really want to go back to that more anxious, albeit slightly younger, version of me.

Do I care?

Laughter linesHere is a picture of me taken up a tree during the rope course adventure I tried recently and at first glance, I thought that’s a nice picture (judgement criteria being: I don’t look fat or overly shiny). On closer inspection I note the laughter lines around my hair and a few grey hairs wisping around my head. Does this proof of aging make it less of a nice picture? Again, it depends on your perspective.

What I liked in the defence of aging post, referred to above, was the idea that the lines on our faces don’t so much add character as show our character. I love that the lines around our eyes are called laughter lines because that’s such a friendly non-threatening concept. Yes, I have quite a lot of laughter lines but I’ve spent a lot of my life laughing and as they show up most when I’m grinning away is it such a big deal for other people to see them? Not really. Yes, I have grey hairs now and every so often I will dye these, but does existence of these prove I’m past my sell-by-date?

We recently had vast amounts of ‘expired’ chocolate donated to our office. It still tastes great, and even the resident Belgian (by birth a chocolate connoisseur) agrees. So I might be old in the eyes of some but that doesn’t mean I’m actually past-it.

I was filling in a form at work recently with a colleague who misheard when I gave my date of birth and wrote 1995 rather than 1985. I laughed and expressed thanks for making me 10 years younger and then I instantly took that back because I realized I don’t actually want to be 19 any more. On the whole I’m reasonably happy with how I lived the last 10 years and the 19 before that, for that matter. I don’t want to be 19 again and I don’t really want to look 19 again.

There’s a poem I like, written by someone who set himself the challenge of writing a poem a day, on the topic ‘If I could do it all over.’ The subject of the poem reflects on the ups and downs of his life and decides that if he had the chance to live his life again he wouldn’t change a thing because then he wouldn’t be the person he is today. If I were offered the chance to relive my life and return to my ‘youth’ I think I’d rather stick where I am as I am grey hairs and all!

I’m not saying I’ll happily accept the continued greying of my hair and wrinkling of my skin but I am going to try not to worry about it. It’s part of who I am, evidence of who I’ve been and evolution of the person I will become. And aging is definitely better than the alternative.

Getting older is inevitable but if getting old is a state of mind and my mind is willing to show flexibility in this area then I don’t seen any reason to have to feel old any time soon or, actually, ever.


* Granted the fear I haven’t done enough with my life is going to affect me, but that’s because this is something I’m already worried about, have been worried about since leaving University and will probably continue to worry about in the future. That’s pretty much what this whole blog is about.

 

The Still Life

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Following on from my little self-discovery last week that I’m not overly great at living in the moment I thought I’d try and open myself up to some tasks that might force me to do just this.

So yesterday I participated in a life-drawing class where attendees take it in turns to pose for one another for 10-15 minutes stints whilst the others sketch them so that the group are provided with models to practice a bit of artwork. (In case you were wondering, no, this wasn’t nude life sketching.)

I used to love doing arty things when I was younger but one year of art A/S level at the age of 17 was enough to put me off it for almost a decade. I had thought that art would be a relaxing, or at least different way of engaging my brain, alternative when picking a-levels. A balance to the History, English Literature and Psychology I was also studying. But it was actually the most stressful of all these subjects as the workload was immense and I felt constrained by my teachers perspectives of what did and did not constitute art, in their narrowing definitions of uninspiring assignments.

Recently, however, I have been picking up the odd pencil, paintbrush and pritt-stick (after all, what’s art without a little cutting and sticking here and there) in attempts to make thoughtful presents for friends. For those unfortunate few with a Pottsy original art piece I can only apologise and hope that what I lack in skill I made up for in effort. And should that piece of art accidentally get lost in a house-move, randomly set-alight by art-hating anarchists who broke in or just be destroyed by the dog, I will understand.

However, having re-found my love of artistic endeavours, if not achievements, I thought perhaps I could attempt to actually improve my abilities. I don’t deny that a lot of artistic aptitude must come naturally to talented artists but it occurs to me that regular practice might help here as it does with so many other things in life, such as learning a language.

The life-drawing class afforded me that opportunity to practice. I wouldn’t have to spend hours pondering what I might draw, only to change my mind seventeen times as each sketch deviated further and further away from the vision I had. I would have to make a number of quick sketches of people. I wouldn’t have the problem of not knowing when to stop or how to start. Much like an exam, I’d simply have to get on with it once the clock started.

The fact we’d be sketching people, something I’d always tried to steer clear of even when I used to love art, added another element to the challenge and I was looking forward to* trying something new and opening myself up to the perceptions of others, both in how they drew me and what they thought of my attempts to draw them.

However, whilst I did want the chance to practice my sketching, what really motivated me to sign up for the event was the trial of having to sit still for 15 minutes with no distractions, when it became my turn to pose for the other students. No talking, no checking the latest facebook updates or emails, no reading a book, no televison, nothing, nada, rien. Just me, myself and I.

A drop in the oceanGranted 15 minutes isn’t actually a very long time but when sat in one position with nothing but my thoughts it seemed infinitely longer. I tried to think of meditational-ly things, thinking of myself as a star, unique but one of a multitude in the universe, or as a drop in the ocean. All the while focusing on a tiny patch of the floor, black and white speckles on the grey linoleum. When the specks started to blur and my eyes started swimming I thought I’d better change my tactic so I resorted to my usual strategy for passing the time in situations which make me slightly uncomfortable, like waiting for the tube on a crowded underground or having a massage. I started counting in French, slowly, to one hundred and then back again.

Before I knew it my time was up and I could move again, but actually although my thoughts, or rather my counting, may not have been the most profound they did root me to the moment and I was quite content, in a semi-trance like state, of just being. It was quite a calming experience.

The actual sketching highlighted the fact I need to practice more, but aside from this was, in a way, as meditative as the posing. Whilst there wasn’t time for profound thoughts about stars and oceans or even the Swiss French for the number 79, because time was so limited and concentration was so demanding, there wasn’t space for any other thoughts either. So the usual internal dialogue about what I’m doing with my life, what’s for dinner, does everyone at work secretly hate me was completely silenced.

Whizzing away on my bicycle at the end of the evening I felt a sense of tranquility that’s been absence of late. I can’t wait to go again.


* By looking forward to I mean in the abstract sense where I liked the idea when I signed up and it was too far on the horizon to actually be happening and then with every minute the actual event got closer the dread gripped tighter and tighter and I desperately willed a last-minute cancellation. I couldn’t just not show up that would be poor Glocals etiquette. (Glocals is a Geneva expat forum which, amongst other things, provides a space for organizing activities, where this particular event was listed. For friendless people new to the city it’s a treasure trove of ways to fill your time.)

The exhausting adventures of an over-organiser

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The last week or so has been something of a whirlwind as the fiancé and I came back for a wedding and decided we would stop in the UK for the following week and visit as many people as humanly possible.
In 11 days we clocked up around 1500 miles between us, which is about 4 times the length of England, as we traversed the South East, Midlands and North. We managed to visit both sets of parents, my grandma, Tom’s grandparents, my aunt and nine separate meetings with friends.
This logistical feat of pulling off the who, how, where and when of maximising UK friend and family absorbing time has caused me to finally accept that I am good at this sort of thing. So in acknowledgement of my true self I’d like to say ‘my name is Briony and I’m an organiser!’
Despite the fact I have been in a number of jobs where organisational skills are an absolute must I never really think of myself as being an organised person, because I have always felt I could be better at this. But this doesn’t really make sense. It’s like me saying I’m not a runner because even though I regularly run 5k a couple of times a week (brag brag) I could be better at this. So yes, I could be a better runner and I could be better organised but this doesn’t stop me from already being both of these things.
An essential requirement of being disorganisedly-challenged (desperately trying not to keep repeating ‘organised’) is the ability to plan ahead. The amount of people we managed to fit in on a relatively brief visit was a result of my spreading out the charts and forming a touring battle-plan, if you will, carefully scheduled to within an inch of the agenda’s life.
Had I left the UK trip to the fiancé we’d have gone to the wedding and then just pootled about in London for the rest of the week and seen a couple of people. Granted, this might have been a relaxing alternative but, having been an expat abroad for almost 6 months now, would have seemed a wasted opportunity.
My methodical and systematic approach to work, holidays and so on definitely has its place but I know that I’m capable of this sort of thing because it comes naturally to me, which means I can’t really turn it off. And always going about my life in an orderly and controlled manner isn’t necessarily a good thing. For one thing, it sounds pretty dull. Nobody wants to be described as ‘organised’, even if it does get you jobs and has practical purposes. For another, I’m also pretty rubbish at spontaneity and just doing things on the spur of the moment.
However, the most debilitating aspect of being Queen of the Planning is that I find it almost impossible to live in the moment and actually just take stock of where I’m at without constantly question where I’m going.
On a day to day scale I can do this to some extent, I can enjoy a nice leisurely walk and stop to take in the view and think how great it is to be in the here and now. But I can probably only manage this for an hour or two at best before the brain starts going into overdrive with thoughts of ‘what’s next?’
I’ll eat lunch and even as I’m eating it I’m already thinking about what’s for dinner. If I’m having an evening out with friends I’m perfectly capable of enjoying myself, and it’s not that I’m wishing the night were over its just that I’ll probably also be thinking about what time I’ll be home and what I have to do the next day.
On a small scale the over-planning’s not so bad, on a bigger scale it’s exhausting. Moving to Geneva happened fairly quickly and there was a lot to sort both before I went and then after I arrived. This preoccupation worked pretty well at distracting me but now I’m more settled here I can’t stop contemplating the future.
Should I start studying again? Where do I see myself going within the new job? Will we come back to the UK in a couple of years and if not, do we stay here or go somewhere else? Should I have a career figured out by now or at least have all required training out the way before thinking about children? And on and on it goes. I don’t know how to just sit back and think well Geneva is nice and leave it at that.
When I was working full time in the UK and also studying part-time and trying to see friends and family and sometimes taking on voluntary work it was pretty manic. I often look back and think how the hell did I manage that? So now I’m kind of enjoying a more relaxed pace of life, and think my hair is greying at a slower rate, but I’m also kind of hankering after those activities that serve so well as distractions. Always working towards things in the future means you don’t really need to think about what your place in the world is now and what the point of it all is.
I clearly need a new project.
We had a great time back in the UK and loved every minute catching up with those we got to see, although still missed a fair few off the list, but the whole thing was a little hectic. To ensure we get round everyone at a slighlty more leisurely pace I’ll have to plan a number of trips over the course of next year. I hope it will be enough of a diversion for now.

The ambition to be human

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“It comes to this,” Tarrou said almost casually; “what interests me is learning how to become a saint.”

“Perhaps,” the doctor answered. “But, you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.”

“Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.”

– The Plague by Albert Camus

As promised to one brother I am returning this week to a less heavy-going, non-political, more happy-go-lightly post. This will probably disappoint my other brother but hey ho, you can’t keep all of the people happy all of the time.

This week in book club we were discussing Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which led to a discussion about post traumatic stress disorder and then about why some people care more about certain things than others.

There was general acceptance amongst the group, perhaps more readily by some than others, that to shut oneself off from the traumas of the world is an essential human coping mechanism.

I agree it simply isn’t possible to constantly feel for all the tragedies that are enacted out across the globe at any given time. Right now, current tragedies include the two Malaysian passenger air line disasters: one missing one shot down; the Air Algerian plane crash; the situation in Syria; the fact that there are now estimated to be more refugees than at any other time in history; the situation in Gaza; the rise of Boko Haram and the missing schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria; travesties of democracy in Cambodia; and Isis’s latest announcement that FGM will be mandatory. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are simply too many awful things for us to focus on at any one time, even if we wanted to, and so we don’t.(Perhaps this post isn’t quite so happy-go-lucky as I had intended after all – sorry bro.)

One book clubber asked does it take a crisis to make us care? Certainly when a crisis takes place many people are great at demonstrating that they do care. When I was a student I worked at a call centre, which often volunteered to man donation phone lines in response to global disasters or for Comic Relief. I took donations from a wide range of individuals, from all walks of life, many of whom giving sums they couldn’t really afford precisely because they did care about what was happening and wanted to help. So people really are wonderful.

And some people dedicate their lives to making the world a better place for others, providing their time, money or skills for the benefit of others. These people are exceptional. These people are saints.

But it doesn’t make the rest of us bad people because we don’t dwell on these things all the time. Yes, there are many terrible things that happen but there are also many wonderful things that happen too and it is important, at times, to hold onto the horror and the beauty. But being able to enjoy life at the same moment in time that someone elsewhere isn’t enjoying life doesn’t make us the antithesis of saints. It makes us human.

If you are a dedicated fan of my blog (a.k.a. my mother) you will be aware that I called the blog fearofthereaper and started all this as part of an ongoing evaluation of how my life is progressing. More often than not my focus tends to be on positive things I have achieved to become the person I want to be, but it is also important to reflect, from time-to-time, on the things I’m less proud of and on the kind of person I do not want to be.

I do not have the ambition to be a saint, I do have the ambition to be a human. Like so many things in my life, this is something I have the power to realise.

Let me give you a recent example: I had just moved to a new area in Geneva, my French was worse than it is now (which still borders on Yoda-like gibberish) and I was walking to the nearest shopping centre when I walked past an elderly woman who called out to me in French.

Thoughts that ran through my head went something like this: oh no, a human being wants to interact with me and I’m not in the mood, she probably wants something of me that I don’t want to give, she might be selling magazine subscriptions, my language skills are so bad I probably won’t understand anyway, someone else is bound to help, not my responsibility.

And I carried on walking. After about 10 metres I turned to look back, saw no-one else had stopped but walked on a bit further. But then it hit me that I didn’t want to be the kind of person that would just ignore someone calling out to them and so I stopped pretending not to hear and turned around and walked back.

I understood enough French to feel guilty when she thanked me for coming to help her (guilty for not stopping straight away) and to understand what she wanted, which turned out to be directions to a place I didn’t know. So it turned out I couldn’t help her but I did wait until we could find someone who could at least speak to her intelligibly in her language and I did, eventually, try.

I believe all humans are capable of both wonderful and terrible things and the capacity for good and let’s not say evil but instead let’s say less-good is something that resides within all of us all of the time.

How much we are influenced by the good over the less-good depends on a lot of factors: what’s going on in our lives, how we are feeling, how others are treating us and so on. Often we can’t control these factors but we can control how we respond. This I think is what it means to be human, if we take being human as deciding to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.