Choosing Simplicity (When Applicable)

As the summer winds down, a funny thing has happened for the two of us. For as long as I can remember, the academic calendar has provided the framework for my sense of time. The year was a double marathon of two semesters, split on either end with recovery time: the intermission of winter break and the longer pause of summer. Even after I finished graduate school and drifted from the semesterly ebb and flow, my husband’s academic schedule held it intact as the background music for our lives. But since he finished his doctoral coursework in the spring, we’ve been cut loose from its contrasts for a while. Our pace held steady as we worked through the summer, and the impending change of seasons won’t hold as much significance for us this time around. Back-to-school sales and the return of students to campus don’t register as much from where we stand. I take note momentarily, then carry on as usual.

What’s left is the sense that the end of summer is a time for reflection. Even if the temperature is the only thing that changes for us between here and September, I can’t shake the urge to take stock of what I’ve learned in the previous year and what I hope for in the year to come.

A little over a year ago, I settled into this space with a question or two about simplicity. What is it, exactly? And how does it work? And is it really even possible?

Of course, I didn’t find all of the answers, but I did catch sight of a common thread as I wondered aloud about simplicity in different contexts, from eating to writing to making a wedding. It’s a thread that’s become even clearer as I make my way through the book I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Bird by Bird.

It’s that most things, from eating to writing to making weddings, are not particularly simple. It would be naïve to imagine that we could ever simplify our feelings about the daily rituals, momentous occasions, and creative errands that shape our lives. Each is layered with memories (our own and others’) and colored by place and time, culture and nostalgia. And even if complexity is often a source of stress, it is also a source of richness and depth.

The opportunity for simplicity, then, is in the process, and we get to choose when and how we’ll make it work. Even if I can’t simplify how I’ll feel about writing on any given day, I can know when and where I’ll write, what tools I’ll use to do it, and what I’ll do before and after. And while we can’t simplify our own and others’ feelings about life cycle events, we can seek out opportunities to simplify the material aspects of the occasion. And although every dinner will not be simple, we can discover simplicity in the fact that a meal may be composed of whatever is at hand and that we’ll have a chance to try again at about the same time tomorrow.

My task, I think, for the coming year, is seek out those spaces where simplicity is possible and to find beauty, too, in the spaces where it isn’t.

A Taco and Something to Drink

A Taco and Something to Drink

By Catherine Close

Last night, I got together with a friend for dinner. I ate a greasy taco and washed it down with a beer. Tacos — in fact, almost any kind of Mexican food — are my happy food when I need a little culinary comfort. While crunching on my taco, my thoughts ran to my grandmother Frannie, as they so often do. Frannie introduced me to Mexico, and at the end of her life, I supplied her with tacos.

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Homemakers

By Nora Hill

When I was eight years old, my mama went to Atlanta for four days. I gave her my journal to take with her and write in every night, so that when she got back I'd know what she'd been doing and thinking. That's the first time I remember being at home when she wasn't. When we were little, she was the one who took my brother and I camping in Maine, brought us to visit relatives in Pennsylvania, drove us twelve hours to Toronto to see our cousins. Dad got two weeks of vacation a year; as a teacher, she got the whole summer. And so when Mom went away, we were with her.

When my mother goes away for the weekend, the rhythms change. There's coffee left in the press at the end of the day, since I'm the only one drinking it. At dinner, there's a hesitation before I remember that it's up to me to say grace. Small things, to be sure - but they cause a slight disturbance in the force, a difference in the way home feels.

With a weekend trip, the difference is negligible; my mom comes back after three days, and we slide back into the rhythms of home. But my family has reached an age of change, when 'home' is being redefined for all of us. Three years ago, my brother went off to college. For the first weeks after he moved out, the house felt empty - until my parents and I adjusted our habits around his absence. When he comes home each summer, we must adjust again, imperceptibly shifting to make room for him in our daily lives.

A year from now, I'll be preparing to head off to college myself. Chief among the myriad worries about that huge step is the fear of leaving home. I have lived in this house since I was four; I know the precise creak made by every step of the staircase and the every crack in my bedroom ceiling. But I'm realising it's not the house I'll miss, it's the way I live in it. What makes it home isn't the kitchen table — it's knowing where to sit. It's not the food — it's making and eating meals with my family. Home is as much about the people I share it with as it is about the place. The habits we share, our rhythms of interaction, are what makes the place we live become our home.

On Gardens

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By Allison Valiquette Today the air is of the perfect quality; it’s cool with a hint of summer behind it, showing potential for warmth once the sun settles in the sky. I always think of my grandma on days like today. When her neighbors across the street left for vacation, they invited us to come by their garden to pick all of the green beans we wanted. Not wanting them to go to waste during their long trips, and knowing my grandma would put them to good use in a summer stew, they sought it fit for us to be invited in. Those summer days were always just like today. There was a sweetness in the air that I could swear was just a natural side effect of a perfect day, but was probably just my head spinning with a belly full of too many eaten beans.

With our gloves in pocket and wicker baskets in hand, we made our way to the neighbor’s backyard, and it always felt like we were breaking in. We both delighted in thinking that this was the case, and we giggled as we entered through the wooden gate. We piled our baskets high with beans and marched home, proud of our collection. I would always ask if we could stay in the garden forever, instead of going back home. She would laugh and tell me no, that our time in the garden was over, and that’s just how it goes.

And when the wind is blowing in nice and steady and the grass smells in that perfectly dewy way that summer grass smells, I miss her. When I try to cook and fail miserably, I miss her. When I find a random piece of jewelry in my vanity that was hers, or a photo of her holding me close to our perfectly matched faces, I miss her.

I would never again watch her curl her hair, or cook in that big yellow kitchen. When missing her becomes unbearable, I want to run to that green bean garden and live amongst the tall plants forever, where no one would find me. And if Grandma needed me, she would know that’s where she could go to see me again. But in my dreams of escaping to that garden, she never came looking for me.

But since she died, life has moved on, too quickly, as it seems. I lived to be sixteen to my grandma. She left this world with that as her memory of me forever. But I’ve lived a whole other life since then. I graduated high school, went to college, got a job, and became an adult. I’ve had boyfriends, travelled across the country, wrote stories, and lived as a whole other, grown-up self, one that she will never get to meet. I regret not soaking up every possible moment that I could with a woman who taught me that life is beautiful. That everything has a beginning and everything an end, and that is just how it goes.

I’ve been back to her old neighborhood just once since she died. The neighbors across the street put up a large fence and I couldn’t tell if the garden was still there. I like to think that it is, growing tall and feeding someone else’s family. It will continue to grow, and die when the ground gets cold, and grow again when the soil is ready. My grandma never saw me grow up all the way, and I will never see her through any more of her years. But there is still growth here, and there always will be. We all see pieces of the growth that we each have to give. Some see all of it, others a little less. But Grandma taught me to love and enjoy things while we have them, just as I loved and lived happily to have her while she was with us. And even if that green bean plant we loved so much is long dead and gone, at least I was there to see a part of its very special life.

Meet the Local: Accra, Ghana

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we travel to Ghana, where it's typical to have both a Christian name and a local name---so meet Jane, or Nana Ama Nyamekye.  She was born in Kumasi, and now lives in Accra, Ghana's capital, where she works at The Hunger Project, a NGO that focuses on empowering people to end their own hunger.  

Meet the Local, Ghana

What do you like about the place you live?

The people around are quite warm.  They show their communal spirits, and I communicate well with them.

What don’t you like so much?

The roads.  They are untarred, they are dusty.  When it rains, it becomes quite difficult to get anywhere, to even walk, because it’s muddy, and there are a lot of potholes so if someone is driving and someone passes by, you can get quite wet if the driver doesn’t avoid it.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I like local porridge, it’s made from millet and ginger and a little chili pepper.  We call it koose---it’s made from black eyed peas.  You can eat bread with it, but I feel like the bread is too heavy, so I mix it with the porridge.  Sometimes I have hot chocolate with it.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m into small scale banking, so to speak---I’m in micro finance.  I work with a NGO whose goals I really admire.  My job makes me feel fulfilled in that I grew up in an environment where people could be very intelligent but because they lacked the financial ability, they couldn’t reach whatever targets or goals they set for themselves.  My job looks at ensuring that people are economically self sufficient.  It aligns with myself, my personal feeling and hope for the world.  I expect people to be okay, I expect people to be looking out for a world that embraces people, that people will be given opportunities to make ends meet.  I believe that everybody has potential, and that, given the opportunity, they can meet the goals they set for themselves.  This job allows people to be uplifted.

What do you do for fun?

I like to be with kids---they’re adorable.  I like to admire their innocence.  But mostly, I unwind my day with a movie, or sometimes I end my day by listening to gospel preaching.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

The last time I saw my family was in the end of May, a little while ago, but I will see them this weekend.  With my cousins, they are a little older than me, but they are all involved in corporate institutions, so first I try to talk about how we can help women, and women in the workplace.  But sometimes we just talk about family.  Last time we met, they asked me to help plan my auntie’s birthday.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

My dream is to be able to get a PhD, something that will be beneficial to other people. I want to do research, and maybe to lecture as time goes on, so that the experience that I’ve gathered can be combined with the academic world so that I can be efficient and effect change.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I always want to be in Ghana, because the people are warm, and because I have the chance to improve upon the systems.  I want to make it so most people can go to school, and then most people can give back to society, especially in the rural areas.  So yeah, I would want to be in Ghana.

 What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of being a change agent.  In my line of work, I work with people who want to take a step forward in their economic adventures.  I get so happy and proud when people tell me how their lives have changed from nothing to economic self-sufficiency.  I have more than a hundred women who had nothing, no savings, but have saved now amounting to more than 500 Ghana cedis (approximately $250 USD).  They’ve been able to send their children to school, some to the tertiary levels.  I get so happy when I realize that people are not always just sitting down folding their arms but they are always trying to work, to change their lives.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I would say I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, even though I haven’t gotten to my limit yet.  There is always room for improvement.  I know that I’m working in a good team, and my team members are all working together to achieve the same goals.  In my home, there is peace---with my husband, everything is okay.  When I go to the field, I meet my women who embrace me with huge smiles because of the changes they’re seeing in their lives.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo, Sydney, and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

Marriage Rules for Little Girls

peanut m&ms

By EBK Riley The other night, as my daughter Delia rearranged the peas and chicken on her dinner plate to make it appear that she was actually eating, she announced that she "wanted to marry a rich husband." Swallowing my chicken and the jolt of fear that arose because she is already contemplating marriage at six, I asked her why she thought that was a good idea. She was very matter of fact, noting that if she married someone rich, she could have a big house, go on vacations, and get lots of clothes and her own car and anything else she might need. This is the first year she has seemed concerned about our family's comparative lack of stuff, and apparently it is shaping her ideas about a lot of things. Because she has visited the houses of school friends, she is less satisfied with our apartment, and as every girl who has had to share a room with her sister is bound to do, she is lobbying for her own room. "We could all have our own rooms if we had a house," she says, though she graciously allows, "you and Daddy could still share, if you wanted to..." We do. Thanks. But before we could turn the discussion away from lifetime commitments to talk about how having a lot of stuff isn't always so important, Fiona chimed in, "M used to have a lot of money, but he doesn't anymore and I love him anyway."

Fiona is in an imaginary committed relationship with a three foot tall plastic display version of a yellow peanut M&M. He was gifted to her before we left Boston by my CVS manager, who not only wanted to get it off his sales floor, but who was also touched by the true love of a girl and her candy pal. She can call him just "M" as a nickname, because he's her boyfriend. All of her dolls and stuffed animals are their children and she tells us often what he thinks about situations that arise with 'their kids' at school and about stuff happening on television. M has a lot of strong opinions, and I don't agree with all of them, but at least I know he's from a good home and he doesn't have a motorcycle that I have to worry about Fiona riding on the back of. We hope they're very happy together until she's about thirty, which is the age my husband Mike has decided the girls will be allowed to date.

The discussion of marriage continued when I asked Delia, "Don't you think love is more important than money when you decide who to marry?" Mike was also interested in the answer to that one. Again, she was matter of fact, "Well, if he was rich, he could buy me lots of presents and then I would love him." She paused for a minute, pretending to chew some peas, and possibly because she realized that this might be kind of shallow, she added, "I'm sure I could find someone who is nice and rich, and I would love him because he was nice, and he would still be rich. Then I would have the best of both." There it was, the admonishment of parents through the centuries: It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. Out of the mouths of babes, right?

We were at the table for a while, because Delia never did really did make any progress on her dinner, so we discussed the possibility of her becoming rich herself. She had taken this for granted, assuming she would have a career (as a rock star or an astronaut or a professor) and her own money, but she was clear that her future partner should have his own too, because then they would not have to worry about money for sure. "And I might want to take time off to stay home with babies, or he might, so we both need to have money."

It all seems so simple when a six year old explains it to you.

Still, as we finally cleared the plates, after Mike and Fiona had gone in to muck out the girls' room in preparation for bedtime, I told Delia that even though it does really kinda suck to be poor, the real trick to marriage is finding the person you want to be with, no matter what else happens. "Yeah," she said, "like they say on a wedding, for better and worse, for richer and poorer, and then they both say I do and they kiss."

"Yeah, just like that," I said. And she giggled, because she's six.

The Price of Fear

mind the gap

I first mentioned the lump to my boyfriend after it had been there for a month.  "I thought it was a pimple," I said.  "But it's not going away." "Go get it checked out," he said.  "We live in England, so why not?"  Why not, indeed?  In the four years since I graduated college, I'd spent more time than not uninsured.  I'd chosen the path of freelance work and enterprising startup jobs, which, while rewarding, came laden with different types of concerns then I'd ever been faced with before.  One Christmas, I stared at my pinky toe, which, after a run in with a table, had now grown to the size of an apricot.  Hospital visits were going to be several hundred dollars, at a minimum, I knew.  I decided that I could walk it off.   Another time, I fainted at a cafe, the back of my head absorbing the weight of my whole body on the concrete floor.  When my right pupil grew slightly but perceptibly larger than my left---a potential sign of a brain bleed, which can quickly turn fatal---I was told by my doctor friend that I needed an MRI, which would cost upwards of $1000.  I found myself playing the Russian roulette of What If games.  What if I spent over a grand that I didn't have and they found nothing?  What if I didn't spend that grand and it was something, and then I was nothing?  Eventually, fear won out and I got the MRI.  When they found nothing out of the ordinary on the scan, my relief was surpassed by anger, guilt, annoyance.

Now, though, I was in England, where the NHS ensures that all medical care is free.  Yes, you heard me---free doctors, free dentists, free prescription medications, free physical therapy, free surgeries, free outpatient care.  I scheduled an appointment with my primary care doctor, and I waited.  And I waited, and I waited and I waited some more.  Non-urgent cases are often given appointment weeks---if not months---out.  When I finally saw my doctor, he told me that his roll, essentially, was that of a gatekeeper.  "I think it's just a cyst," he said, "but that's just an opinion."  He couldn't diagnose my arm lump, but without him, I couldn't see a specialist.  "I've put into the system that you need an ultrasound," he said.

"Great." I nodded.  "When will I get that?"

"It's in the system," he repeated.  "You'll get a letter in the post once they book you an appointment."  Ah, the post.  The British are fond of the post, and use it almost exclusively for the scheduling of medical appointments.  Three to four weeks after you see your doctor, a letter arrives.  On it, is a single time on a single day.  Can't make it?  Only then can you call a hotline, where a slightly exasperated person (who are you, after all, to be too busy for their carefully arbitrarily scheduled appointments?) will offer you a different slot.  Maybe.  If there happens to be one open.

Six weeks after my initial doctor's appointment, I went to the hospital, where an ultrasound technician looked at my arm.  "This is definitely not a cyst," the man I'd never seen or met before said.

"What is it?"  My eyes were wide, fearful.  I would not cry in front of the businesslike ultrasound man.

He snapped his gloves off and shrugged.  "I don't know," he said.  "You've got to get it out.  I'll make an appointment for the surgery."  Seeing my wet cheeks---my attempts to hold back tears had clearly failed---he sighed.  "It's an in-office procedure," he said.  "It won't hurt."

He entered into the system and three weeks later, I got a slip of paper with my appointment time and not much else.  The appointment was still six weeks out, a month and a half I spent worrying over what the lump in my arm was and what the surgery entailed.  Did I have skin cancer?  Was I going to be under anesthesia?  Could I eat in the 24 hours before?  Would I have normal use of my arm immediately after?

The day of the procedure, I woke up early to make my way to the hospital across town.  I rode the elevator up to the sixth floor, and made my way to the dermatologist's office.  "Are we doing the procedure in here?" I asked, looking around.

"Procedure?"

"I didn't eat last night or this morning," I said.  "Just in case."

"Oh, honey.  This is just a consultation."

"But the ultrasound guy said---"

She shook her head.  "For this kind of thing, you don't even need an ultrasound.  Look: there are 350 dermatologists in the whole of the UK.  We're hard to get appointments with, so they like to put obstacles in the way."  She poked at my arm, and determined that it was, indeed, just a cyst.  "The ultrasound guys don't know what they're looking for," she said, and then: "Don't worry, we'll get this thing out of you."

The kind dermatologist walked me through what it will entail, finally filling in one of the many black holes that have surrounded this experience.  I haven't received my appointment yet for the final procedure, although I'm told it should be within the next four months, or approximately nine months from my initial appointment.

In the US, I likely could've had my cyst diagnosed and removed within a week, likely for a cost upwards of a thousand dollars.  In the UK, I'm receiving care free of financial worry but laden with every other kind: six months of not knowing what a strange lump in my arm was; months of back and forths to different doctors; a disconcerting lack of clarity from most parties; being at the beck and call of a scheduling system that likely hasn't seen any change in the last fifty years.

What is the value of fear?  What is the value of convenience?  I feel incredibly fortunate that I can even ask these questions; I realize the amount of people in the US who wouldn't have gotten the MRI ever, simply because the cost was completely prohibitive.  But as our health care system is changing in the US, I think these are questions worth considering.  While I remain in favor of free healthcare for all, I now know that free does, sometimes, come with it's own price.

A Guide to the Many, Many Markets of London

mind the gap

Columbia Road Flower Market

London loves markets.  More than any city I’ve been to, London has a market for everything: for food, for vintage clothes, for Sunday strolling, for flowers, for techno music for children (no, really).  They’re full of shouting British shopkeepers and one of a kind souvenirs, of puddings made of blood and maps from the 1600s, of fresh crepes and live guitar music.  They offer an experience of London at its finest and most distinctively London, but there are so many that it’s often hard to figure out where to begin.  This week, Zack and I are hosting our first visitor (hi, Matt!), for whom I’ve narrowed down the London market experience to its best and most diverse:

For anyone who likes to eat their way through the day: Borough Market, Borough Market, Borough Market.  A definitive London foodie experience, Borough Market has been operating in its present location by the Thames River for almost a thousand years (2016 will mark the thousandth anniversary).  You’ll find fresh baguettes driven over from France that day, pistachio kibbeh, pitchers of Pimm’s Cups, venison burgers, Spanish chorizo, fresh fudge, and all of the fruit and vegetables you could ever want.  Go hungry and sample your way through the stalls with a cocktail or cider in hand; if you commit to one of the more meal-like options, the grass in front of Southwark Cathedral makes a great place to settle.  Borough Market is open from 11 – 5 pm on Thursdays, 12 – 6 pm on Fridays, and 9 – 5 pm on Saturdays.

For people who have at least one plaid shirt in their closet, and maybe a pair of black rimmed glasses: Brick Lane has basically everything, from amazing live music to all types of prepared food to vintage bric-a-brac of all sorts.  Flip through a vintage record collection, slide on a fifteen-pound fake leather jacket, and grab yourself an Eton Mess (a jumble of the biggest, most glorious meringues you’ve ever seen, whipped cream and strawberries).  Pick up a CD of techno music designed specifically for children, and then make your way through the Indian restaurants, where proprietors will shout as you walk by to lure you into their establishments.  While you’re there, pop into Sunday UpMarket (with more established shops, as well as many design stalls and amazing Tui Na massage) or the Old Truman Brewery Vintage Clothing Market, the name of which says it all.

For those with green thumbs, or craving a slice Dickensian London:  You’ll hear the scene on Columbia Road before you see it.  Thick British accents are shouting through the air: “Every-fing for a fiver!  Don’t trust the other fellow – you want leaves that are dead already, go over there.  You want brilliant, bloomin’ blossoms?  You know where to go!”  Even if you don’t want to buy anything, the flower market is worth a trip for the characters that fill it, and for the feeling that you’ve somehow stepped a century back in time.  Columbia Road itself is worth a peek too---it’s filled with charming old map stores, little vintage shops, and more than one saliva inducing bake shop.  The flower market is every Sunday from 8 am till 3---come toward the end if you’re looking to buy as the prices drop.  On a sunny day, there’ll be live music as well.

For lovers of antiques and/or Hugh Grant:  Perhaps the best-known market in London, Portobello Road has been featured in many a movie, including the aptly named Notting Hill.  While the street is winding and picturesque any day (even if the said hill is more like a light slope), Saturday finds vintage dealers from all over the country pulling out their wares: I’ve seen boxing gear from the 1930s, pocket watches from the 1700s, a collection of bells from the sixteenth century.

For people who want what’s cool before the cool thing even knows it’s cool: Brixton is currently in the middle of a (wanted or not) gentrification, and its market is no exception.  Tiny, trendy restaurants featuring all that is free-range, organic and innovative mix with shops halal meats and Reggae CDs, wigs and exotic spices.  With far fewer tourists than other markets, Brixton is worth a stop on any day of the week, although Saturday brings a rotating flea, craft or baker’s market, and Sunday a more traditional farmer’s market.

Because punk will live forever:  Famous and famously funky, Camden Market is the place to go for the most comfortable possible version of an alternative scene.  Fight your way through the tourist oriented stalls selling Union Jack flags and screen printed T-shirts and you’ll find one of the most renowned Goth stores in town, vintage furniture worthy of a movie (one of the stalls, in fact, is owned by a studio set designer), and plenty of people inconspicuously selling cannabis of all kinds.  Grab a liquid nitrogen ice cream (the lychee rose with cardamom pistachio topping is to die for), or pop into my favorite teashop in London, Yum Chaa – I recommend the Om Tea, a white-nutmeg-blackberry blend.

This, of course, is just a sampling of my favorites---I could go on for days, including Spitalfields Market, Angel Market, Greenwich Market, Piccadilly Market and more.  Have you had a chance to explore the many markets of London?  What’s your favorite?

xxxix. provence

postcards from france

There is an opportunity to take cooking classes in traditional provençal cuisine with a local, professional chef, and I jump at the chance along with many of my ACCP classmates. The chef is an aixois named Didier, sleepy-eyed and flirtatious in his 50s, who owns the most expensive restaurant in the city. Supposedly there is an interior garden courtyard where you can eat your 60 Euro a bowl bouillabaisse. For this class we are making ratatouille, my favorite dish, but I am distracted by the way Didier is hovering over Alice, touching her hip lightly and leading her hands to chop the vegetables. She is obviously uncomfortable, but he doesn’t move away. He is so close that his breath stirs Alice’s light hair.

With much urging from the rest of us, Alice tells Helen what happened during class. Helen tells her that in southern France, men are just more forward, and that there is nothing wrong with what Didier, dear, sweet Didier, was doing. The next time he comes to the center, she hangs on to his arm as well as his every word.

Alice doesn’t go back to the last class, and I wouldn’t have, either.

Meet the Local: Sydney, Australia

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we meet Ben, a hometown enthusiast who has figured out the key to his happiness.

Meet the Local Sydney

What do you like about the place you live?

A million things.  Sydney is a terrific place.  It’s a very active place mainly because we have such a great climate, even in the winters.  You can always get out and about and be in the sun.  And there’s just tons to do---the bush isn’t far away, and the whole coastline is beach beach beach beach . . . It’s a really active lifestyle.  There are a ton of musical festivals every summer, there are pop up bars left right and center.  I quite like that Sydney is geographically quite disparate as well.  There are little valleys and basins and beachy areas that have different sorts of people so it’s not one flat lump; it’s a really interesting sort of tapestry.

What don’t you like so much?

A current gripe of mine is that Sydney and Australia as a whole is a very, very big nanny state.  There are rules and guidelines for everything.  As an example, I contribute so much money to the council coffers in the form of parking fines and speeding fines---it’s just silly little things.  They’re trying to make you behave a certain way---and it’s a terrific standard of living, don’t get me wrong---but you have to play within the rules.  It gets a bit stifling, a bit claustrophobic.  If you’re not of that mindset, if you’ve experienced different things, if you’ve been to third world countries, you just find it a little annoying.  It feels intensely civilized---a little too civilized, personally, for me.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

Two pieces of toast with butter on them, and Earl Grey tea.  It used to be coffee, but I’m trying to stick to one coffee per day and I need to get over that 3 PM wall, so that’s my coffee time.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m called a Community Manager.  I work for a company called Yelp, and as a Community Manager for Yelp I do a couple of things.  I throw parties, I teach people to use the website, I write a newsletter that goes out every week (I particularly enjoy writing, so that part is really appealing to me).  They often refer to it as the unofficial mayor of the city.  You know the places that are opening, you get asked so many times: where’s the best place for tourists, or for dates, or to enjoy a summer’s day, or for a bush walk?

My job is very important to my sense of self.  I used to work in advertising agencies in the corporate world and then I got to the point where I was making ads for a living and I did everything I could outside my work life to avoid ads---I just hated them---so there was that weird disconnect there.  It was really good money, but everyone was polluted, was whinging about not having a life, and working too hard.  It was the same sort of record on repeat.  I’m a natural optimist but I heard myself getting into this really negative mindset.  So I quit my job and was looking for something else, and then Yelp came along.  I really like the idea of setting my own schedule, and try new ideas.  Being able to have that freedom is really nice.  It has a real people power, which is what I was looking for after the corporate world with everyone just chasing money.  There was a lot of talk among my friends at the time going back to when you’re young, when you have to go to school and get good grades.  Why?  To get into university.  And then you have to do well at university---why?  To get a good job.  And then you have to get a good job---why?  To earn money.  And then you’ve got to get promotions---why?  To earn more money.  Money is just the root of all evil.  What we’re doing at the moment, it’s not the antithesis of that, but it’s more about community, being hyper local.

What do you do for fun?

I like being in nature, so I play a ton of sport. Swim and surf and beaches are so close that every weekend I go for a swim.  I really like music; I go to a lot of music festivals.  I read a lot.  I really enjoy writing.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I’m trying to buy an apartment in the city right now, which is shockingly difficult.  I think we’re the second most expensive city in the world right now to buy real estate – a half a million gets you nothing.  So I moved back home with my mum to try and save, otherwise it’s just an untenable position to be renting and trying to buy.  So I see my mum a lot.  My twin sister lives in Denver, and my brother lives in London, so we’re quite spread out, but we Skype at least once a week, maybe twice.  And we try to have at least one family holiday a year, where we all meet up in some destination.

 What’s your biggest dream for your life?

I want to keep traveling and I want to write, whether it’s for my own amusement or professionally.  Other than that, it’s fairly simple.  I don’t want to invest in properties or anything like that – I just want a house I can live in and a life in the sun, a family at some point down the track, definitely a dog – a pug – and that’s it.  That’s pretty much it.  And to live somewhere I can be in touch with nature.

 If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I really feel an affinity for second and third world countries, where the boundaries are a little bit looser and you can do more things.  You can go shoot a gun in the hills if you want, you can take a car and drive wherever you want, you can camp wherever you want, because the land is free – not everyone owns every single inch of land like they do here.  So somewhere like Mexico or Morocco would be incredible.

 What are you most proud of?

This might sound quite trite, but I’m quite proud of figuring out what makes me happy and adjusting my life to follow those lines.  I’ve figured out that the more simplistic life is, the easier it is to be happy.  If you have worries and stresses and bigger things to look after, you can’t focus and you can’t really get true happiness.  The people that have the least are the happiest.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I’m a massive optimist, I can see the good in anything, so I think I’m probably a nine.  I was probably around a seven before.  The downside of being a natural optimist is that you tend to stay in situations longer than you should because you can always see the good in them, even if they’re crap.

The change happened over the course of a year.  I had a really shitty year a couple of years ago where my dad died.  He’d worked so hard to provide for the family and it was really, really sudden.  He was riding a motorbike in the Himalayas. He was a mild mannered accountant, and he went on this trip of a lifetime and didn’t come back.  That was when I sort of found myself at a crossroads, asking myself if the corporate life was right for me.  My dad was a self-made man, an immigrant from Pakistan.  He came here with nothing and built a whole life up and all of the sudden, things were taken away.  So it sort of gave me a bit of immediacy and made me value my time a bit more.  I realized you can work and be happy at the same time – so that was my epiphany.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

 

XXXV. Provence

postcards from france

Bridget’s host family has one of those beautiful provençal country houses that you see on the covers of Peter Mayle books. From Agnès’ apartment, it's a 45-minute uphill walk to get to it, which is one of the reasons I love to visit. On the way I pass Cézanne’s old painting studio, and once I crest the final hill, I am rewarded with a view of the Mont Sainte-Victoire over the olive groves. It’s not something I see every day.

Élodie, Bridget’s host mother, is stick-thin, blond, and tan. She knows that Agnès and I don't get along, so she frequently invites me over to their house for Sunday lunches. She smokes constantly, comme un pompier. Like a firefighter. My memories of Élodie are of sweet smoke wafting out of the kitchen, her whisking away at something that she probably won’t each much of, an apron tied tightly around her small waist.

Every time I arrive at their house, out of breath and slightly sweaty but beaming, Élodie and Isabelle, her equally blond and beautiful daughter, seem just as baffled as the last time I walked through the front door. You walked all the way here? Uphill? We can come pick you up!

No, thank you, I say, feeling like I’m repeating my lines in a scene. I’d rather walk. I like being outside. They shake their heads and laugh at how American I am.

Before lunch starts, Isabelle sneaks away to smoke cigarettes out of Élodie’s sight. She is only 15 years old and thin like her mother, but obsessed with losing kilos. The Sainte-Victoire winks at her where she is hiding behind the chimney, but she pays it no attention. Flicking ash onto the rosemary bushes growing around her, Isabelle checks her phone, stubs out her cigarette, and heads back inside to push food around her plate. 

Things Remembered Over Ragu Sauce

ragu_sauce

By Eliza Deacon I’m cooking dinner on the stove, a 3 hr slow-cook lamb ragu with a bottle of good Chilean Merlot thrown in to help it along. The kitchen is dimly lit, soft sounds on the radio, I have a glass of wine on the surface next to me. The house is surprisingly quiet; my nephews asleep, tucked up in the room that was once mine, its eaves still painted with clouds.

I’m in my father’s house in England, the house I grew up in. A house that still carries, in its very fibres, all the memories both good and bad: a happy childhood, sunlit days like old 70s images, a little faded around the edges now but still remembered, and the loss that shaped all of our lives.

I flit through memories as I stand here barefoot on the wooden floor. As I stir the pot, I can see my mother sitting at the kitchen table in front of a stand-up mirror. She deftly applies her make-up, her “modeling face”, before she leaves to catch the train to London. I watch her transform, big eyelashes that make her eyes appear huge, a perfect mouth that kisses me before she goes, her scent---Rain Flower---lingers on after she has left.

She comes home and cooks us crispy pancakes for supper, the ones with the cheese filling which we love. Kate and I are both bad eaters, fidgety and easily distracted, so Mum leaves out what she calls our “bird table”. We come and go, furtively for whatever reasons at the time; she pretends not to watch as slowly the plate empties.

She and Dad gently coaxed us through our childhood. Soft, sweet memories: a handsome father, a beautiful mother, both slightly unusual in their own ways, a little different from other people’s parents and I will always wish I had appreciated it more at the time. Dad with his wealth of stories and personas: depending on his mood he could either be a ballet dancer to rival Nureyev, a brain surgeon, a Great White Hunter in Africa (he still tells people he ‘taught me everything I know’), a Russian count, an Arabian sheikh, a BBC language advisor, hired to help radio announcers properly pronounce world leader’s names such as Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Ndabaningi Sithole. Funny, I still remember all that as clear as day. He loved that people would often believe him, but Kate and I were wise, we would have him hold his left-hand little finger up in the air if he was telling the truth; needless to say we were never really that sure.

When Kate and I were new babies, and we lived next to London’s Regent Park, he used to take us there every day in the big old-fashioned double pram. “Meet my sons Tom and Jerry” he would say, or sometimes we were “Knightsbridge and Kensington”, Knight and Ken for short. Mum would just shake her head and raise her eyebrows with good humour.

I remember the parties they gave where my sister and I would sit at the top of the stairs listening to the strains of Lester Lanin at the Tiffany Ball whilst the guests mingled below us. Trips to the sea where we ate hot sausage sandwiches and walked for hours through “elephants graveyards”, the rock pools exposed when the tide went out. I remember we were always wrapped up in many layers of clothing, or perhaps we never went there in the summer, although I’m not sure that would have made any difference knowing the vagaries of British weather.

As children we were given a free rein, far more than is considered common sense now. But this was the 70s when playing in the woods near our house never raised even a thought of the horrors that it does now. As a teenager I used to cycle for an hour each morning, leaving the house pre-dawn to go and ride my horse, a flighty thoroughbred, bareback through the fields; no hat, no saddle, no cares in the world.

All this I remember clearly, like I’ve only just walked backwards a few steps to find it. This house that is the caretaker of all our memories and carries them physically and soulfully: pictures on the walls, Mum’s modelling finery in the closet, cloudscapes on the wall. In this evening light, it all blurs, then slides into sharp focus then blurs again. Beautiful, soothing, healing. I know I’m home.

This piece was originally published here and is being republished with the author's permission.

Meet the Local: Lisbon, Portugal

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, we meet Jose, a former teacher who is making a new living in tourism after being laid off during the economic crisis.  

Meet the Local Jose Guerreiro

What do you like about the place you live?

I don’t really know how to explain…I just feel like it’s here, where I belong.  I lived in Spain for a few months, I lived in Romania for a few months, but I always feel the need to come back home.  I feel I have my family here, and I have everything here.  I really feel at home here.

What don’t you like so much?

The politicians.  Because they do all of this to our country.  The economic situation of Portugal, I think it’s their fault.  Because we work, we do all of the things we have to do, and they ruin everything.  I think this is very common in Europe, the politics are each time less credible, so the people don’t really trust anymore in politicians.  In Portugal, 40% of people don’t vote.  So the people who do vote don’t really represent anything, and the politicians can do whatever they want, because the people don’t care.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

Three slices of bread with butter and chorizo.  Coffee with milk.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I was a teacher, teaching sports.  I really like to work with children.  It was nice, I was doing something different than other people, because I used to work in summer camps too so I was taking the way of teaching in summer camps inside the school.  So I was not teaching sports, I was teaching games, and I was trying to teach values with those games.  First I would read the story, then I would do a game, and then I would relate the game with the story and real life.  I went to a small village to teach, but I was not from there, so when the crisis started, the people who don’t have friends are the first to leave.  So they asked me to leave.  Now, I do tourism, I run a walking tour company.  I really like it, because I can stay in Lisbon where I like to live.  I meet a lot of people, so even though my friends are leaving to get jobs in other countries, I can make new friends.  Of course, it’s not the same thing, but it’s okay.

What do you do for fun?

I go out at night, I go to the cinema.  I like to climb, but I don’t climb anymore, since I started the tours.  Because most of my friends that climb, they do normal jobs so we don’t have the same schedule.  I also like to run with my father, my father and I run together.  And travel.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I live with my father.  I see my mother one or two times a week, just to talk with her.  I see my sister when I see my mother – they don’t live together, but she’s always there.  My grandmother also lives with us.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

Right now, I don’t have many dreams.  I just want to make sure the situation doesn’t get worse, or at least the tours keep running as they are now so I can at least have a stable life.  Some of my friends, they are really bad in their lives.  They were married and have children but are living back at home with their parents, or they have moved to other countries and don’t really like their jobs or the conditions that they live in and I don’t want that to happen to me.   So I don’t have a dream, I just don’t want to have a nightmare. But if I had a dream, I would want a small house with a small garden where I could sit in the plants.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

Here.  When I was younger I always wanted a house with wheels---a mobile home---so I could travel, but I think if I had that now, I would always come here.

What are you most proud of?

Now, it’s the tours.  When I came on and my friend was running them, they were almost dead.  Nobody would trust them---if you asked someone about our tours, people would say, “don’t go!  It’s terrible!”  And now we’re the sixth most popular thing to do in Lisbon on TripAdvisor, and I’m really proud of that.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

From 0 – 10, I would be a 6.  I think everything is going well in my life, but I would like to have more friends, and a girlfriend.  My friends left---but the girlfriend, well, I’m a bit shy.

Check out previous answers from a local in Sarajevo, and a local in London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

Nobody Puts Baby Under a Cover

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm the proud mama of a 2-month-old little boy, and I'm happy to be exclusively breastfeeding him.  I'm often in public places when it's time for him to eat, and I'm generally happy to feed him (without a cover, as I find them annoying and difficult) wherever we find ourselves---be it a park, cafe, or friend's home.

However, my husband feels uncomfortable that I do this, and it has sparked tension between us.  I don't much care what random observers think about my practice, but I do respect my husband's opinion.  On the other hand, I feel as though he's being prudish and controlling...

Signed,

Baby Mama

Dear Baby Mama,

Honey, you gotta let those girls fly.  Take the puppies out of the basket.  Give your boobs some breathing room.  Breastfeeding is hard enough---what with the pumping and the cracking and the soreness and the wardrobe restrictions---you can’t also be worrying about what your husband thinks about Rando Calrissian seeing a nip slip while the baby is getting his lunch.

I can see your husband’s perspective---up until 2 months ago, your breasts were highly sexualized body parts, and, even if you are currently not thinking of them that way, what with the bleeding and leaking and all, he might still be.  He is certainly worrying that other men are.

But just to put it in perspective for him, here is an incomplete list of all the men I breastfed in front of, in my 15 month stint: my priest, my father-in-law, all my male friends, my dance instructor, the guy who cleans the laundromat, everyone at every park and restaurant in my neighborhood, the dude sitting horrifyingly close to me on an airplane, my boss, and my city’s entire baseball team.  They could all sing to me that snarky little song Seth McFarlane thought was so clever at the Oscars, “We saw your boobs!”  And how many shits would I give?  Zero.  I would give none of the shits.

I found breastfeeding to be alternately the greatest thing ever and shockingly isolating and difficult.  So, I began brazenly breastfeeding everywhere I went---I mean, how many dicks have you seen in public, when men whip them out to pee in a corner/on a bush/by the side of the road?  WAY too many.  Why should they be allowed to relieve themselves wherever, whenever, when I was just trying to give my child some nurturance and get her to stop wailing, for everyone’s sake?

I have no idea how my husband felt about this.  It was actually not something he was allowed comment on.  It was my body, and I was working so hard to give our baby food from it that my husband would never dream of saying, “Honey?  Could you cover up a little?  Homeboy behind the counter is giving you a stare.”

But that is my relationship, and this is yours.  It is fine for your husband to state his opinion, and sweet of you to care.  However, what I’m not game for is him inflicting any kind of shame on you about your choice.  Body shame is serious problem, and the oversexualization of women’s lady bits has led to a society rampant with the kind of prudish, controlling behavior you suspect your husband of on the one hand, and a violent underbelly of objectification and rape culture on the other.

Your body is your own.  Your breasts are only yours, and what you choose to do with them, especially when you are quite innocently feeding your baby, is your business.  I hate to say it, but welcome to the contradictory experience of being a mother, where you’re damned if you stay at home for being too smothering, and damned if you work full-time for being abandoning.  You’re damned if you breastfeed in public without covering up, but you’re damned if you pull out a bottle of formula as well.

Like Bob Dylan said, everybody must get stoned.  You might as well embrace it now, and get used to mothering this child however you want, making peace with yourself despite those (in this case, including your husband) who may not always understand or agree.

In Mammorial Solidarity,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

xxxi. normandie

postcards from france

My regular spot in Bernay is Brin d’Zinc, a bar that Clémence and her friends seem to have been going to since they were in collège, the French version of middle school. Smoking indoors is still legal, and the yellow interior is full of French teenagers lighting up over their beers. I am immediately a part of the crowd; with Clémence as my host sister, I came to Normandie with a ready-made group of friends waiting for me.

My drink of choice is one that Fréd introduced me to: pression pêche, a draft beer with peach syrup. Stereotypically girly, sure, but it’s delicious and fresh and I get one every time we go in, Clémence ordering one for me along with hers. On our third or fourth visit, I work up the courage to stride up to the bar and order my own. Une pression pêche, s’il vous plaît!

But I am nervous and tripping over my words. The “r” in pression turns flat, hard. American. The smiling barman laughs and makes me repeat the phrase until I get it right — not in a mean way, but still. It takes me two more tries before he slides the beer across the bar.

Face burning, I carry my drink back to the table and take a sip while Clémence pats my shoulder encouragingly. The beer still tastes good, only slightly tainted with humiliation.

If not now, when?

In the Balance

‘I need a mental health day,’ I thought to myself in the late afternoon.  This desperate impulse came after the last in a series of indignities, mounting responsibilities and frustrations surrounding work, travel and family.  I was standing in line, waiting for coffee, when I realized my breathing was a little too shallow and my stomach was churning.  My mind scrambled and slid over panicked thoughts of work that would get pushed forward yet another day.  I clutched my iPhone in a death grip and it felt white-hot in my hand, having already recharged it once since pulling it from the wall eight hours earlier.  DING, went the insistent alert tone, indicating another new email.  When it occurred to me that I am my own boss and I could technically, literally fold the laptop closed and shut it all down for the day, I felt a glint of relief.  Of course, if you ask any person who works for herself, you will hear about the sensation of near constant pressure and generalized anxiety that does not defer to the bounds of the hours between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM. As you might expect, despite a clear recognition that I am suffering the ill effects of stress, I didn’t turn tail at that point and head back to the apartment.  I persisted in working through the day and even felt some perverse sense of exhilaration knowing that I had beat back the creeping beast.  There is apparently some distinction in ignoring the warning signs of a mind and body teetering on the brink of collapse.

While this may sound melodramatic, I am ripe for a break down.  I tell you this not to burden you or try and arouse sympathy.  I have a superb and dynamic support system.  I say it because we all have to start taking better care of ourselves right this very minute.  Most of you are like me and you don’t do it well enough---it might even be something that never enters your conscious thought.  You might never have deliberately considered, ‘How am I doing?’

I was reminded this week---in the way you hope you never have to be---that life is invaluable and that the people living it are fragile.  It can be a slippery slope from suffering the strains of the daily grind to taking your own life.  When something like that happens, it feels irresponsible, disrespectful not to take a personal inventory.  You owe it to yourself and the people that love you.

The Fundamentals (I am not a doctor.  I am not a sleep expert.  I am not a nutritionist.  I am a clinical social worker, but mostly these reminders are derived from my personal investigation.):

1)   Get enough sleep.  I am averaging 5-6 hours these days and a grown adult needs more like 7-9.  Even an hour or two less than your body requires can have devastating effects, including putting you at increased risk for a range of psychiatric conditions.  Learn more about your sleep needs here.

2)   Drink mostly water and lots of it.  Stay hydrated.  Your body uses water for everything and needs at least 8 glasses a day to run effectively.  Sugary, caffeinated drinks do not count toward hydration (my delicious afternoon coffee notwithstanding) and often serve to dehydrate you.

3)   Eat in a way that nourishes your body.  Eat frequently – small meals with protein, fresh fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates.  Eat what’s in season.

4)   When you begin to feel overwhelmed in whatever domain in your life, stop and reprioritize.  Figure out only what absolutely needs to be done.  Then give yourself even more latitude with that short list.

5)   If you are experiencing physical symptoms---headaches, stomachaches, short of breath, ruminating instead of sleeping---take immediate action.  Take a day off, if you can.  Consider yourself in a state of emergency and respond proportionally.

6)   Reach out to others.  Instead of caving inward, turn to those around you and ask for help.  Particularly if you are person who is stoic or simply presents well under duress, you would be surprised to learn how few people close to you are aware of your struggle.  This is partly true because each of us is so immersed in our own.

7)   Talk to a professional.  You and I and a million people like us can help de-stigmatize therapy.  We can say out loud that we are vulnerable and benefit from added support.  If you had heart disease, you would go straight to the cardiologist.  If you are struggling with your emotional or mental health, why wouldn’t you go see a therapist?

I am going to get through this weekend’s big deliverables and then take some time for self-care and family travel.   Just knowing I am going to do this with intention is already helping.  I am also going to see my therapist when I get back, because why wouldn’t I?  What could possibly be more important?

Meet the Local: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, meet Neno, who was born in Sarajevo and has lived there ever since, including four years spent largely underground during the siege.

What do you like about the place you live?

I like, first of all, the people.  The people and the size of the city.  Sarajevo is a quite good city to live because it’s quite a small city---it’s only 400,000 people---so you know everyone.  It’s like one big family.  And also the history, the culture.  But mainly the people.  The people are very friendly in this city, so you can always count on someone helping you in the city.  I like that feeling.

 What don’t you like so much?

I don’t like politics in the city, and the politicians.  It’s affecting the every day life---we could have better public transport, we could have more investments, we could improve many things in this city.  But unfortunately we have a lot of bureaucracy.  We have three governments, and three presidents.  It’s a small country---only four million people---so to make one decision when you have three presidents. . . it’s quite impossible.  Nothing gets done.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I drink tea, or sometimes coffee.  Then scrambled eggs, with cheese.  No pies!  Because people think we are eating the pies for the breakfast.  The pies are more for the lunch or for the dinner.  People think we are eating pies every day, but it’s very, very heavy on your stomach.  It’s more like a fast food things.  I eat pies only maybe two times in a week.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m a student of political sciences and diplomacy and international relations, getting my masters.  I lead walking tours when I have free time from my studies.  I think I will stay in tourism.  I’m studying political sciences, so people always think I will be involved in political life but I think I like history, I like the political philosophy, but I don’t see myself in a political life.  I want to send a message from this city, this country.  I think we have more to offer than just the recent history.  That’s the reason I started doing walking tours.  Unfortunately, this country still has a reputation as a war torn country.  When you say Bosnia, the first image people have is the war in Bosnia, Sarajevo under siege, but I truly believe this country is a country with a long and rich history, friendly people---I think we have a lot to offer.

My job is very important to my sense of self.  It’s very difficult life in this country.  You know, I’m 27 years old and I’m still living with my parents.  But in some ways, I have freedom because I earn all of my money.  So for my self-confidence, it’s very important that I also earn something.  Most people live with their parents till they are married, because they are close with their family, but also because of the economy.  It’s a very high unemployment rate---43% at the moment.  So unfortunately people can’t afford to have their own flat.  And also Sarajevo is a very small city, so even if I rented a flat, I would go every day to my mother’s to eat something.  So at the moment, I think it’s better to stay with my family.

What do you do for fun?

I like to hike, when it’s sunny weather, in the [1984 Sarajevo Winter] Olympic mountains.  I also like photography---I like to walk around and take photos.  I like to bicycle---there’s one part of the city that has bicycle infrastructure, so I go there and I bicycle.  I also like bowling, so I go there with my friends for bowling very often.  I also like to read, and to travel.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I live with my family.  We are very close, because I was here during the siege so we were always together then.  The sense of community in this country is very strong.  The people are close to each other; the neighbors are close to each other.  The siege made us closer, because we survived together the most horrible moments. I think the siege of the city affected people in a positive but also negative way.  I think that people in this country appreciate small things more.  Maybe like some other countries or the younger generations in this country, one small thing is nothing.  For example, I like to eat everything.  I’m not choosy, but I have a niece, and she was born after the war.  And we all have a Sunday lunch together and she is so picky---I don’t like that, I don’t like that---and I get so frustrated, like, you need to eat everything, because you don’t know the feeling of when you have nothing to eat at all.  I appreciate the food.  I try to enjoy small things.  But also the war had negative effects---like, I never celebrate New Year’s Eve on open squares.  I don’t like fireworks.  Whenever I hear fireworks, I get flashbacks, because it’s the same sound as the shells exploding.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

To travel around the world.  Now, I’ve traveled almost all of Europe, except the UK and Ireland.  Personally, I think that’s the best spent money.  When you learn about other cultures, you start to appreciate more about your own culture, and your own life.  But after traveling, to again always return to this country.  No place like home, no place like home.  I experienced the worst things in this country, so why not stay?  I think this country deserves a better future with smart and educated people.  We will not have a bright future if all the smart and educated people leave the country.  So we need to stay, and we need to fight for the changes.

 If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I like Spain and Portugal.  The people are very similar to us here---they’re also very friendly, very open.  They also have not very good economy, like this country, but they’re like, let’s enjoy life!  Things will improve!  I can imagine myself living in Lisbon for one or two years, but like I told you, I then want to come back to Sarajevo.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my family.  I’m proud of my mother, my father.  Because I think they directed me in a good way, they raised me to be a good guy.  My mother for me is like a big hero because I was with her during all of the wartime.  She was also working every single day, walking back and forth through the snipers, because she needed to do something, to occupy her mind, to not be in a basement all the time.  She was working not to lose her mind, and a little bit to keep her job position. She was working for free.  Sometimes she got paid in cigarettes.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I am very happy because I have a good family.  I have my mother, my father, my sister, my niece.  It’s a very small family, but we are very close to each other.  That’s my biggest happiness.  Also, I’m happy because I live in Sarajevo.

To read the answers of a local Londoner, click here to meet Carleen.

Lessons from a Big Box Hotel...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

On this recent trip to Mexico, our last few days were spent in what I tend to call "big box hotels".  Big, behemoth structures on the beach that cater to hundreds---if not thousands---of sun-seekers at a time.  Some people love them, but I typically don't.  It's just not my style.  I prefer something quieter, something less engineered to be a not-quite-right replica of home.  But after one time in Tunisia where, after a desert adventure that nearly went awry, I paid the ludicrous day entry fee for the luxury of a clean shower and an afternoon spent next to a beautiful pool with a lemonade, I realized that I needed to change my approach to these hotels.  They are still not my favorites that I seek out, but life will bring you to them in some form or other.  Maybe you have a wedding to attend, maybe you have points to use up, or maybe there is a family vacation.  Or maybe you find yourself far away from home, and like in Tunisia, it happens to be the best place to cure homesickness.  In any case, here are a few things I keep in mind to make sure I have just as good a time:

  • Manage your expectations: Big box hotels are not quaint, and often times, but not always, they are not particularly personal.  Don't look for those qualities here as you won't find them.  You can likely guess well what will or won't be there, and what might or might not happen from a service or food or entertainment perspective.  Manage your expectations accordingly---pleasant surprise is always a better feeling than unprepared disappointment.
  • Play to the hotel's strengths: While a larger size might prevent the hotel from doing certain things, it does enable them to do other things well.  Maybe they organize activities of some sort, maybe they have a grocery store on the property. . . Any big hotel has some things that they are good at---seek those things out and make them a priority for your time.
  • Make a smaller world for yourself on the big property: Carve out a small corner for yourself where you can find one.  You'll find that no matter the size of a hotel, there is always a terrace or a part of the garden or the library corner that largely goes unnoticed by all the countless other patrons.  Make those spaces of calm your own.
  • Claim your chair early: If there is one thing larger hotels do well, it's usually the beach and pool scene.  But everybody knows that.  It's worth getting up a little bit earlier to stake your claim on the best chairs with the gorgeous views and a bit of fruit or coffee.  Enjoy the cooler morning view or breeze on your chair, and as things get crowded stake your claim while you leave to have a late breakfast.  If you have breakfast first, you will always have second tier beach seating.
  • Pack books: Several of them---when the world outside with all the people and hustle and bustle becomes too much, you can create your own world in the pages you choose to bring.  I like to bring books that are particular to the destination---while a big box hotel doesn't lend itself to leaving the property easily, you can still continue to learn about it through books.
  • Find ways to eat off the property: A break in routine is always a good thing, especially when hotels are bigger or more generic.  Your taste buds and waistline will thank you.
  • When in doubt, look out at the ocean: Big box hotels are often amongst other big box hotels and the sight can be overwhelming.  So many stories, so many people, and it makes you wonder how different it all must have looked when the coastline was bare.  When all this development feels too much, just look out in front of you rather than the world behind you.  The ocean and the horizon will always give you a sense of infinite possibility.

All my love,

Mom

 

 

Meet the Local: London

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a new series, designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  In the next few months, I'll be traveling to Zagreb, Sarajevo, Spain, Portugal, Ghana, Morocco, and Scandinavia.  In each place, I'll interview someone who lives locally (although they may have originally come from somewhere else, as you'll see in today's post; I find that to discount people who have immigrated is to deny a core part of a city's makeup, especially in places like London).  I'll ask the same set of questions everywhere.  This week, meet Carleen Macdermid, from London, England: Carleen Macdermid, Meet the Local: London

What do you like about the place you live?

First of all, I love that it’s London, because I’m Australian---I moved here about eleven years ago.  I love how central it is.  I walk everywhere nowadays. I almost never get in the Tube.  It’s a 40 minute walk home, but I’ll still walk, because you see so much more of London.  I’m right by the river.  I’m in the middle of everything.  I love it.

What don’t you like so much?

It’s made me harder as a person. Australians are notoriously chilled out and easy going.  I’ve not become more English because to an Australian it’s very important not to be English but I’ve definitely become a Londoner.  I’m hard.  People get in the way in the Tube.  I’m always in a hurry.  When I first moved here, I would see celebrities all the time and now I just see idiots that are in my way and I don’t like that about myself.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I almost never eat breakfast.  I’m terrible at it.  I’m fully aware that it’s the most important meal of the day but I so enjoy my sleep that breakfast gets sacrificed every morning and has done since I was about fourteen.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your career to your sense of self?

I currently don’t really do anything, because I’m in the process of being made redundant.  I did get kids into apprenticeships for four years, and I was a teacher for seven years, and now I’m on the cusp, so if anyone thinks I’ll be useful to them, they’re welcome to contact me.

I worked really hard over the last six months to get that balance back.  For a long time there, my work was absolutely everything, it took all my free time, it took all my focus, and I kind of think if you’re working with young people, that’s important. Now, I like the fact that my focus is more on myself.  A better social life, a better work/life balance.

What do you do for fun?

I was a drama teacher for years, and for a long time I didn’t do any of that at all.  Now, I do improv, I rehearse with groups, and I’m just in the process of trying to write, to attempt for the very first time, stand up comedy.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I see them very rarely---they’re on the other side of the globe, so the last time I saw them was three and a half years ago, and I helped them pack up and move out of the house I was raised in and move to the other side of the country.  My sister and my niece get here in two weeks, and it’ll be the first time they’ve ever visited me over here.  After that, I’ll be redundant, so I’m going to pop home to see mum and dad, and it will be the first time in three and a half years.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

To find something that really satisfies me.  I’ve always had jobs that I’ve enjoyed elements of, I liked working with young people, but I’ve never really had anything in my life where I’ve kinda sat there and gone: yeah, I do that, and I’m really happy about it and really proud of it.  So I’m determined to track that down, be it in my work or be it in something creative.  It’s out there, and I’m gonna find it before I get too old.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I would invent a magical place that was similar to London and had the lifestyle and the get up and go but had my parents a lot closer than 24 hours away by airplane, and had some of the warmth of Australia without turning into the awful, shabby parts of Spain where people go and conglomerate and do awful things.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the fact that my job has always contributed to young people.  I spent my entire career in education and training and I can point to literally hundreds and thousands of kids that I’ve helped.  I’ve got young people now who are teachers like I was, and other young people that have really good professions because they did apprenticeships with me, and I’ll always have that to be proud of.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I’m gonna go with 85%.  Even at my most unhappy, I never manage to drop below about 65 or 70%, I’m just naturally an upbeat person, but I like the fact that I’m starting to do more for me for the first time in a long time.

An introvert in the kitchen

header_akiko

By Magdalena MacinskaIllustration by Akiko Kato

The kitchen is home to an introvert like me. Perhaps because of the nature of cooking---as much as it can be a solitary, contemplative act---it connects me to the people I am cooking for.  I feel excitement and anticipation as I wonder if my family will enjoy this new recipe and the relief that my cake will provide a safe and pleasant conversation topic at a party.

No words are needed in the kitchen. The bubbling sound of the water boiling, the rhythmic chopping of vegetables tells me that I am in a process that has a purpose and yet is beautiful in itself. If I want to, I can play in my mind the images of the dish I am making, or I can simply meditate on the texture of the slippery dough and breathe in the scents of herbs.

We used to have a big kitchen where, during the holiday season, the whole family would gather to prepare food for the festivities. Everyone was working on their own dish, at their own paces. I never felt as cozy and relaxed with my family as in those moments. I would listen to the happy hustle and bustle and feel part of something big.

Things changed after I lost my mother. I have a much smaller kitchen now.  Even though I could still cook together with my siblings, I usually do it alone, and not just because of the size of the kitchen. Cooking has become about being in control, about coping with the fact that the person that used to whisper recipes in my ear is no longer there and I have to find my place in this new constellation. Sometimes it even turns into a quiet competition---the way introverts compete, with actions not words.  I remember  how one Christmas my ambition drove me to come up with a roasted goose for dinner, which meant figuring how the damn bird would defrost when it didn’t fit into the sink and how to sew the wings to the body before putting it into the oven, as the recipe said.

The kitchen is also the place where I learn to match expectations with reality. I might spend hours rummaging in the refrigerator or looking through cookbooks for a perfect recipe, but once the pot is on, once the doors of the oven close, I am with what there is here and now. Proportions will go crazy, tastes will get confused and dough won’t grow. In the end, the food becomes what I manage to make of it that day, not what the name says.

And then there are those moments when I open the cupboard and the comforting scents of tea and coffee lure me into the world of small pleasures. It is time to sit down, to stare outside the window and just be. Or better yet, call someone to have a cuppa with me, an introvert’s way of saying that she needs to give and feel some human warmth. . .