An Image of Youth Unbroken

Standard

In memory of Megan Biddle


Whilst we live, you are immortal;
Apart from us but a part of us for ever more.
To you minutes and hours take no toll,
But march on us, unwanted and unasked for.

Like a flower pressed between
Two perfect sheets of glass and frozen;
You are free of time and yet trapped within,
An image of youth unbroken.

Unconcernedly the world keeps spinning,
Pulling us further and further from you;
It cannot erase what once had meaning,
But takes from us what we never knew.

Grey hairs will never leave their trace,
Although years dispense us this aging gift;
Wrinkles will never crease your face,
But fold in ours the dates you missed.

And when we are blurred, and fade away,
And are extinguished one-by-one,
Your memory will burn bright until the day,
That final flickering image too is gone.

When we too are liberated from our time,
Then you shall move from this eternity into the next;
Today’s sorrow will be redefined,
And we shall be reunited for all the rest.


On Monday I received the terribly sad news of the death of my parent’s neighbour, Megan. Megan was an eighteen year old woman I had known since she was a little girl. Her mother used to babysit for me and my brothers when we were small and when they moved next door to my parents house some years later I had the opportunity to babysit Megan and her brother Jack. It had amused me to think maybe someday she would babysit my children.

I knew Megan as a happy girl, full of love and life and laughter, like her whole family. Whilst I did not know Megan well as a young woman, having moved away by this point, I never saw her without a smile on her face and believe she grew up in the same spirit of happy adventure I knew when she was younger. It is overwhelmingly sad to think that she is no longer with us and I cannot imagine what her friends and family are suffering.

Her friends have organised a paypal collection to raise money for a commemorative bench, festival-style bands to remember Megan and for anything remaining to go to a charity Megan would have liked.

If anyone would like to donate you can do so through Paypal to the email address:
alice-rose.brooks(a)hotmail.com *

*replace the (a) with an @ – Writing it as above limits the likelihood of that email address getting spam.

An expat among expats

Standard

“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 virtual unreality?

Standard

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein.

A friend referred me to an article about a woman who spent three months convincing her friends and family that she was backpacking around Asia, when in fact she never actually left her apartment. She said that “My goal was to prove how common and easy it is to distort reality. I did this to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media.”

What’s interesting about the story is not so much the deception of it all but the lack of shock that she could actually pull something like that off. How she did it seems pretty straightforward, why is perhaps another matter.

We all choose to present ourselves in a certain way and make umpteen decisions on how we do this on a daily basis without even thinking about it. For example, we choose what clothes we want to wear when we meet certain people, we retell an event a bit more vividly than we actually remember it or we engage in certain conversations to make a better connection with others. It’s not that we are necessarily misrepresenting ourselves so much as presenting one version of the reality that is us to an audience.

In the same way we might answer ‘I’m fine’ to the question ‘how are you?’ or smile for a photograph we know is being taken even when having a truly awful day. At these times we are more consciously presenting a slightly less genuine version of ourselves. So the idea that we twist the perception of the reality we present to others isn’t new. What is new is how much easier it is to do this on a much larger scale with the multitude of social media options available to us.

If you only took everyone at face value of their facebook pages you’d be led to believe that everyone is constantly experiencing a wealth of fantastic things from amazing parties to random items in supermarkets to adorable pet moments to amazing adventures.

What you don’t always get is that contrary to the smiling party pictures the happy-go-lucky attendee pictured were wishing she’d stayed at home to catch up on the latest Doctor Who. That the fascinatingly shaped carrot amongst the vegetables was the amusing perk of a long and tiring day and an hour trudging around the shops looking, and unable to find, the right kind of flour. That two seconds after the lovely cat photo was posted the owner then spent 40 minutes chasing said cat round the house to get it to give up the half dead mouse it had just brought in. That the amazing adventure mentioned is contrary to all those less than amazing non-adventures, that haven’t been shared as status posts, sat at home in front of the tv.

Not that I meant to say every happy image presented is a lie and secretly we all lead very miserable lives with no real joy to be found anywhere, my point is more that the moments we choose to share have been selected by us to present a certain impression. Not necessarily a happy impression, there’s many a ‘worst day ever’ tweet, but a somewhat distorted image of our reality.

Although most of us don’t go as far as faking an epic adventure abroad over a period of several months. Or do they…? Perhaps I never left London at all and am just hiding out in my Greenwich flat taking pictures of cows pretending they are special Swiss cows and photoshopping myself into pictures with mountains in the background hoping no-one has the geographical ability to identify the mountains pictured as Himalayas rather than Swiss Alps?

Swiss cows or just cows?

Swiss cows or just cows?

If we all know that social media is to be taken with a pinch of salt then it doesn’t really matter if we want to use it as an opportunity to present the kind of person we want everyone to think we are. If we accept that online updates are more qualified than absolute then there’s no real risk provided we make the time to scratch beneath the surface for those we really want to know. The problem is when we get lazy and become content with clicking a like button here and retweeting there without making a real effort to engage with those we care about.

I was talking to my other half the other night about the perils of social media. My argument was that as technology gets ever cleverer and makes our lives easier by doing so much for us including human interaction it may start taking away the humanity from us; in that the easier it becomes to communicate online the harder it is to do so off-line. He was proving my point somewhat, by flicking through various web pages on his tablet whilst trying to dispute this, but argued that social media and online communications were our reality now.

He gave several examples of real friendships he’d forged and maintained in the virtual universe that he was unlikely to have made otherwise, He also pointed out that when living away from many friends and family it’s pretty great that you can still feel connected to them and know what’s going on in people’s lives without having to always try and find time for a lengthy phone call. He also mentioned that without the wonders of modern day technology my blog wouldn’t exist.

I grudgingly had to admit he may have a point. Certainly, without the cyber-sphere my blog would be nothing more than an unread journal or an annoying round robin novel issued once a year at Christmas. So I guess the way we communicate and present ourselves online is a reality. Or at least a very persistent illusion.

Strangers are friends you haven’t yet met

Standard

When I was about seven we moved from Surrey to Oxfordshire and a friend of my mother’s presented her with a plate with the words ‘There are no strangers here only friends you haven’t yet met’ curling around the edge and a picture of two presumably stranger friends in the centre.

plate

To my seven year old brain this just didn’t make sense. For one thing I’d had it drummed into me from an early age that you don’t accept sweets from strangers* but if strangers were just friends in the making could you still not accept sweets from them or did that mean you couldn’t accept sweets from friend’s either?

But mostly the plate’s advice just seemed impractical. There are an awful lot of people in the world and most of them are strangers, if they were to become your friends how would you possibly remember everyone’s name and if they don’t become your friends then is that just a massively wasted opportunity? Granted new friend’s made since the tender age of seven have started off as strangers but surely that’s no reason to try and befriend everyone you’ve never met?

I learnt another saying at school that all medicines are drugs but not all drugs are medicines. Now steering clear of debates around benefits of homeopathic remedies this one actually made sense to me and could perhaps be adapted for the plate’s purpose? Something like ‘all friends start off as strangers but not all strangers are your friends’?

Or perhaps the plate just needs a couple of additional lines of text to complete the phrase ‘There are no stranger’s here only friends you haven’t yet met, except for the weirdo’s you should definitely avoid rummaging through the bins looking for razor blades and laughing hysterically at anything David Brent says’ (there go any potential Office fan friends I could have made).

However, last week I was forced to concede that the plate may have a point. The fiancé and I were invited to a wedding in the Algarve, the groom-to-be being a good friend of my fella’s. Aside from the man I’d packed in the suitcase and bought with me, I was going to be spending the week with eight to twelve strangers in our villa and an additional ten in another villa a few minutes down the road.

We arrived a few hours after everyone else to be met with a barrage of people whose names I thought I’d never remember. Afraid of potentially awkward small talk after a long journey and general bewilderment and, being a lover of all things watery, I decided to go for a dip in the pool.

As I bombed into the water and started swimming a few lengths in the cool waters on that first evening, marvelling at the sun setting behind the awesome pine trees fringing the golf course view, I was unsuccessfully trying to pretend the others didn’t exist whilst being overtly conscious of not knowing anyone.

Fast forward to the end of the week and my final swim. That last swim in the fading light, at the same time of day as the first, with the same light shining through the same trees, I couldn’t help but reflect on how different I now felt. I compared that initial awkward swim amongst strangers with the much more enjoyable relaxed swim in the familiar surroundings of the villa where I had shared so many happy memories with new friends.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd I had shared a wonderful week, including the most intimate wedding I have ever attended, with all those people I didn’t know who became my friends.

I believe that there are different friends for different times of your life (see ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’) but that doesn’t take away the significance of these friendships. Some of those friendships made will last and some won’t but it doesn’t matter as all of them were important. This particular bunch of strangers actually were all friends in waiting I’d simply not met before.

I like to see the best in people and like to believe that hidden within everyone, admittedly deeper in some than in others, is a decent person. And that is pretty much the same as the plate would have me believe.

So maybe all strangers are potential friends we haven’t yet met or had the chance to get to know properly? Perhaps there is simply more truth in chinaware than we realised? But then again those razor blade hunting bin people do seem pretty weird. Maybe I should get that printed on a plate?


* Interestingly that rule completely goes out the window once you hit adulthood when you can accept all sorts of random things from complete strangers without any qualms. Even where those strangers are obviously trying to influence or entice you in some way: free pens at conference/cereal bars outside stations/ free gifts when you spend a certain amount ring any bells for anyone?

The age-old question

Standard

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 art of public speaking

Standard

This weekend was the wedding of one of my very best friends and, with her other Maid of Honour, I was tasked with delivering a speech to celebrate the occasion.

People laughed. I was told the speech was extraordinary, that people had never heard anything like it, that it was quite exceptional. The bride didn’t hit either of us. I’m pretty sure that counts as a success.

The bride was an old school friend who lived less than a hundred metres away from me as a child so we were foisted upon each other from an early age as a convenient drop off zone for working parents. She knew my folks pretty well so they had been invited to the wedding. One of the guests on their table said that the Maids-of-Honour should be a comedy double-act and I’m sure they were in no way simply being polite to my parents. There was definitely talk with the bride’s mum about sell-out shows at next year’s Edinburgh fringe festival and I’m sure that was also meant seriously. We were evidently a knock-out.

Perhaps this doesn’t  need to be pointed out,  but public speaking isn’t a skill that comes naturally to me. However, I wanted to do a good job and make the bride proud. (I might have failed there.)  I asked mum for advice, who told me to make it funny so I thought I’d start with a joke or two to keep it light. The bride’s only request was to include the groom in the tribute so I bore that in mind when starting work on the speech.

I didn’t have much time to coordinate with the other chief bridesmaid but at the hen-do (bachelorette party for you non-Brits) we came up with a vague plan that we’d chop and change so that one of us would talk then the other and so on. As it happened we thought that approach might ruin the flow of our sentimental texts so we decided to just go one after the other. I was to go last.

I had planned and written out a speech, which I think balanced the humour and sentimentality reasonably well. Unfortunately that wasn’t the speech I delivered. I thought my speech might be a bit on the long side so tried to cut it down a bit the night before the wedding, and then again after the ceremony. But it wasn’t until the father of the groom gave his speech that I realised just how long my speech was. So when the other Maid of Honour decided to put down her speech and ad-lib I thought I’d do the same.

Her speech was a little brief,  mine wasn’t brief enough!

I didn’t want to go straight into the mushy stuff so started by telling everyone how much I used to hate the bride. Remembering to include the groom I also spent some time explaining how much I also didn’t like him very much when I first met him. I did at least manage to briefly touch on the fact I liked them both now but completely forgot all the sentimental wishes for the future and faith in their love stuff, which would have probably rounded it all off a bit better and made me seem less like I loathed everyone there! 

In retrospect it may have been better not to drink quite so much before the speeches began.  I was pretty nervous and thought  a little Dutch courage in the form of vast quantities of wine was the way forward. On the plus side I could use drunkeness as something of an excuse later. 

So if you were wondering how not to give a speech at a wedding then follow my example and focus on how you don’t like the bride or groom and see how well that goes down! Ideally with a suitable co-wedding party personage dancing behind you the whole time. If the father of the groom feels the need to give an impromptu speech to try and save the day you’ll know you’ve struck exactly the wrong note. 

I’m not entirely sure it was what the bride had in mind. I’m fairly sure in hindsight she wouldn’t have asked us to give a speech. Still, she did say that fear of us ever giving another speech again was a darn good incentive not to get divorced. So in our own, unique way, I think we can proudly say we have contributed to a lasting marriage! 

You’re very welcome Mr and Mrs C!

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Standard
The saying goes: ‘absence makes the heart grows fonder’ but this is only true up to a point. Certainly, absence makes you keenly aware of being apart from those you are fond of, and a return after a relatively short period away makes you appreciate those you have missed all the more intently. Although more often than not this heightened sense of appreciation is only of a limited duration.
However absence over a longer period of time, say for those that up sticks and move away from the job/area/country of those they care for can have a different effect entirely. In time fondness alone can fade away into an affectionate memory of a part of your life that no longer exists.
Just as some friendships will stand the test of time, and you will meet people you know will be there for you no matter how much of a plonker you are at times, some friendships won’t last and absence won’t do these any favours. There is nothing wrong with this. I believe that it’s perfectly natural that you may have bonds with certain people only at certain periods of your life. It takes a lot of time and energy to preserve relationships and for most people it just isn’t feasible to keep up every friendship that has been acquired.
But absence can also take fondness and transform this into something far more substantial. After university it was the very absence of one person I had known there, who went to work abroad for a couple of years, that really established our relationship. Before she left I liked her but didn’t know her very well, by the time she returned our friendship had transformed into something solid, which is still strong some eight years down the line.
Whilst she was away we took on the seemingly now old fashioned approach of communicating through letter writing. What sounds like a distant means of staying in touch was the most liberating correspondence I have ever had. Sitting down and taking the time to think about and write a letter but not worrying about the immediacy of a response, and with someone I knew but initially wasn’t emotionally invested in, meant that I felt free to really open up and expose a very honest side of myself. What could have taken years in a more naturally evolving friendship began to take shape in about six months. Absence in that instance took mere fondness and transformed it into a long-lasting friendship.

buttons write

I haven’t been an expat long, only a few months to date, but knowing that this is a longer term move for me, likely to last a couple of years if not longer, has made me very aware of those that I have left behind. Facebook is great for being able to keep in touch with lots of people and share details of your life and take in aspects of theirs, but it can be too easy to rely on this and think that because you have kept up with a few snippets of people’s lives that this is the same meaningful connection that may have led you to add each other as Facebook friends in the first place.
Now that I know friends and family aren’t just a quick bus or train ride away, even if I didn’t actually make those journeys all that often, for the first time in years I’m consciously working on keeping these relationships going because I’ve realised I don’t just want them to fade away into distant memories.
I’m calling people far more frequently than I ever did in the UK and I’m making greater efforts to meet up with people in person in Switzerland, the UK or somewhere in between. Now that it has become harder to stay in touch, my efforts to do so have multiplied to meet the challenge.
If nothing else my little adventure in Switzerland has made my heart grow fonder and has energised me to realise that, like with so many other aspects of my life, my friendships are worth working at. If I want to keep relationships with friends strong (family too, but they kind of have to be there so it’s a bit different) I can’t just sit back and expect these to flourish all on their own. If I don’t keep them going, and my friends are similarly content to sit back and simply assume we’ll stay in touch, then we will drift apart due to the sorry excuse of just not making an effort.
My whole fear of the reaper philosophy has been great at motivating me to take on new challenges and to try things that scare me on a sliding scale from slightly intimidating to down-right terrifying. But I wouldn’t want this motivation to keep on moving forward to come at the cost of losing sight of the valuable things I have acquired in the past.
Just as what I achieve, or at least have a go at, each year is down to me so too is the art of maintaining bonds with those I care about. Obviously friendships do require an effort on the part of those I want to be friends with, or at least a weary resignation, but this doesn’t mean I can shirk my responsibilities in this regard and nor would I want to.