Uncharted territory

bwsailingAs we move through life, two things are said to be certain: taxes and death. Of course, everyone must die and any rational person will realize, at the very least, they will lose someone they love and/or are related to. We know that our grandparents and parents will one day pass away, we just don’t know when. Those of us who are particularly unlucky may lose a sibling, a partner, a friend, or the worst kind of loss, a child.

I have been lucky so far – having never actually attended a funeral due to being overseas despite having lost three of my four grandparents, a good friend and three other friends from my university days who passed away (from murder, two car crashes and one mystery). These stung less because I wasn’t in touch with them and hadn’t been for years.

I wasn’t sure how to feel when my mother recently relayed the news that a childhood and family friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and been given two months to live. This came just weeks after an old colleague and flatmate died tragically on the roads at Easter. At first I was in denial, thinking my mother had her facts wrong and that with treatment, his outcome would be better – if he couldn’t be cured, surely the doctors could extend his life by at least a year or more? But no.

I haven’t seen this friend for many years and barely even thought about him. But now my childhood memories come flooding back – we shared baths, games, holidays, Christmases together. He has just entered his 30’s, is married, and has a young son. I glimpsed his Facebook timeline to see that he had posted a photo of himself and his son sharing some moments on a lake, with a caption about how precious life is. I cried twice over that photo.

I thought about his kind mother who just recently lost her husband after unsuccessful heart surgery. His sister, who was once my closest friend in the world moved back from overseas to be with him in his last months. Their lives will forever be turned upside down.

I told a good friend about the situation and how it had made me feel very sad. She then asked a profound question: “What would you do if you had two months to live?” While this horrific situation is not about me, I did start thinking and realized that I would want to visit all the places I had never been. To spend time with loved ones. To definitely not be in my current situation. But at the same time, I have to be grateful that I am alive and healthy and am lucky to be in my current situation.

Having absorbed the information and come to terms with my friend’s fate, the next challenge is to consider how to reach out. What do you say to someone who you haven’t had any contact with for two decades and who only has weeks to live? I don’t have the luxury of time to sit around thinking about it too much. But in the meantime, I think we could all agree upon this message: fuck cancer.

Rebirth of cool

best-grunge-songsThere comes a time in every adult’s life when they have to look in the mirror and stare long and hard at themselves, asking the life-altering question, “When did I become so fucking uncool?” For me that time is this weekend (as I type this from my bed at 9pm on a Saturday night). And really, being single with no children, I have no excuses.

This has been nagging at me for a while – when I started to realize that my Google searches consisted mostly of “What does YOLO mean?”, “What’s a hashtag?”, “Who is Taylor Swift?” and “What does ‘bae’ refer to?” Still don’t understand that last one.

Let’s go back fifteen or twenty years. I was into grunge. I had pinkish hair. My friends told me I resembled Bjork. I was in love with Damon Albarn from Blur and Jarvis Cocker from Pulp. I watched edgy films. Even as I entered my 20s, I still dressed cool, had good taste in music, was a bit of a scenester. I was kind of a platonic groupie. I got free tickets, backstage passes and hung out in recording studios. I worked for a couple of musos who had toured the States with Sonic Youth and Pavement. I dabbled in illicit substances. Hell, I even drank alcohol! I wore red lipstick and high heels (no actually the heels part is a lie – too clumsy, some things never change). In my late 20s, I once flew from Seoul to Tokyo for the weekend to see friends, hung out in one of the hottest clubs and got upgraded to business class on the flight back on Sunday morning, all of this with my aviator sunglasses on. It was perhaps the peak of my rockstardom before the decline began.

I suppose the decline from cool to really, ridiculously uncool happened gradually so the changes were almost imperceptible until one day recently I found myself talking with an attractive male friend. Instead of flirting and dropping names and retelling tales of my international party girl days, I started lecturing him about the travesty that is female genital mutilation. Yeah, if you ever need a buzzkill, that’ll work pretty well. Oh, but I didn’t stop there. No, I took it a step further and segued into a rant about pedophilia. I really know how to reel ’em in. And all this in Asia where it’s hard enough to get laid as it is, without my making it worse. Needless to say, I went home alone that night, like every night. This wasn’t always the case in my young carefree 20s when I could spend Friday night with one guy and Saturday night with another. But I digress…

So, all this calls for a solid ‘recooling’. This means that I must buy some cute new clothes without worrying about the price and fact that they are made by children in Bangladesh. I won’t go on a tirade about how morally bankrupt fashion is. I will buy and wear make up like every other female on the planet without bitching about the cost or how it’s false advertising. I should listen to a wider range of music and not care if it is low brow or high brow or shit American pop music (seriously though, I don’t look like that at 7am). I shall not worry about misogynistic lyrics in rap songs. I will waste several hours of my life in a dive bar without telling the patrons about the virtues of AA. I will no longer judge hipsters. I will not use the word ‘vapid’ in relation to anything pertaining to popular culture. I’ll bust out the soundtrack from my life circa 2000. I will finally watch Singles and rewatch Chasing Amy, which used to be my favorite movie before I became an idealistic tree-hugging, polar bear-saving bore. The first mission: to sit through that new documentary about Amy Winehouse and not lecture the next person I encounter about the perils of addiction. Wish me luck.




Thinking about home

st. clair beachIt’s that time of year again when it’s bitterly cold and dark on the side of the world I happen to be on and warm, sunny and beachy on the other side – the side I think of as ‘home’. It’s summer holidays down under and everyone has Christmas fever – the shopping, the decorations, the parties, the boozing, the shirking of work. It intensifies my feelings of homesickness which usually simmer beneath the surface, but for these few weeks in December boil hot and almost force me to charge several thousand dollars to my credit card so I can be part of it, too. Almost.

This year seems to be a particularly poignant one for thinking about loved ones – friends, family, belonging. I feel the need to be part of a community stronger than I have in a long time. One that is so familiar to me, I feel it in my bones. A rough year abroad will do that to you.

Musing on this, I’m reminded of a situation I experienced some years ago back at the end of the world. It was cold, dark, in the midst of winter. My friend was graduating from university and we were celebrating with his family and their friends. It was a bohemian port town, full of hippies and working class wharf workers. The house we stayed in was an old wooden villa, cold and damp as only a house in New Zealand can be. The owners were artisans and we sat around their dimly lit living room swilling local beer and wine.

There was a man there, an older gentleman with beautiful toffee colored skin, the color that signifies he was of mixed Maori-Pakeha stock. He introduced himself and told our little group some of his story. It turns out he had only recently returned home after many years of living in Europe. Based in Milan, he was a clothes designer and dresser – he had, in fact, dressed Princess Diana. He relayed tales of his adventures in the high fashion world, all the while I struggled not to choke on my merlot.

Why, I wondered, would he leave such an interesting and glamorous life in the fashion capital of the world to return to the end of the world, a place that was so isolated, where there were more sheep than people, where you have to drive for five hours to get to the nearest international airport and where you have to fly for at least five hours to get to the nearest neighboring country? Ca-raay-zee, I concluded.

It transpired that as he aged, he felt a very instinctual and visceral pull back to his homeland to ‘discover his roots.’ It seemed bizarre to me – I, at that time, was extremely interested in doing exactly the opposite – running as far away as possible to leave behind my working class roots and the parochial, provincial, incestuous town I had grown up in. And indeed, months later I was on a plane headed for Japan.

Now I understand what he meant. To know where you come from, to feel that primal sense of belonging to a community. To be immersed in the banal and the familiar. To bump into old school friends while running errands on the main street. To walk for twenty minutes to reach a pristine, empty beach. To go to sleep at night in complete darkness and silence and to wake up to a chorus of birds singing outside of your window. To pull open the curtains and look out onto a large, green front yard with piles of flowers spilling over. To greet the neighbor as you walk to the mailbox to collect the newspaper. To have a petty argument with your sibling. To take the dog for a walk past kids on bikes and people toiling away in their vegetable garden. To have fresh seafood for dinner. To see your friend’s band play. To go to the public library and know how to borrow a book. To go rifling through second-hand bookstores and thrift stores. To walk through the art gallery and have a decaf latte at your favorite cafe next door, the one you got fired from because you were more interested in flirting with the customers than being a good waitress. To go to the independent cinema and watch old films. To drive out to your family’s cottage on the weekend and have a barbeque with the neighbors. To go to your cousin’s house for dinner and play with her kids. To go to a public lecture with a well-known local or international author. These are the things I associate with home. They linger in my memory and whisper to me that I should return.

Of course, it’s a common dilemma for any expatriate – the longing for ‘home’, for comfort and familiarity. It grabs my hand and tugs me towards it. As the years go by, the tugging becomes stronger and my resolve weaker. One day my feet will touch the sand of home again.

Part of a journey

337461_10150452988241853_755705957_oSeveral years ago I went on a little journey. I was visiting my uncle who lives in one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world near Queenstown, New Zealand. It was not far from the little village where I spent several happy summer holidays as a child. During one of those summers when I was about 12, my father decided to take me and my younger brother on a hike through the rivers and over the mountains to an old, abandoned settlement from the gold rush days. I remember the walk, under the hot central Otago sun, as being grueling but incredible. We were pushed beyond our physical limits to traverse the terrain, to wade through chest-deep freezing rivers and to walk for some eight hours almost vertically. I felt a great sense of accomplishment upon arriving at our destination, a few ramshackle buildings, piles of rocks really, hidden among the tall, dry grass.

I set out that bright and early morning in order to revisit this place. I was encouraged by the blue sky and calm breeze. I made my way by mountain bike to the entrance of the hike, stopping for an apricot and chicken pie on the way. I decided that I would do everything from memory so I didn’t do any prior research, I would just see where my intuition would take me. Things started off well enough but then I realized after about an hour, as the stony hills became progressively steeper and the sun started to beat down on my pasty skin, leaving a pink ting, that it was perhaps a bit ambitious to be walking all that way alone on such a hot day with minimal supplies. Still, I persevered and paddled through rivers and clambered over rocks. Marveling at the sheer beauty of it all. I eventually noticed that there was a kind of road, probably leading in the direction I was going. As if I had willed it, two minutes later a black SUV came roaring along and stopped next to me. A woman in her late 40’s or early 50’s appeared as her window in the passenger’s side slid down. We exchanged pleasantries and it turned out her and her husband, visiting from Australia, were heading to the same place. They offered me a ride. I thought twice – I had wanted to walk and feel that same sense of accomplishment I had felt all those years ago, knowing that the destination is not as important as the journey. But, I knew that I wouldn’t make it if I tried to walk so I jumped into the backseat and off we went. Mr. Australia skillfully navigated the rocky, narrow road and after a few minutes found a couple panting up the hill, weighed down by giant backpacks. We stopped and picked them up too. The man was from NZ and his wife was from England. They were tan and fit, having been hiking around all of New Zealand for the past few months.

We drove for at least thirty minutes and ended up in an open field with the long, yellow, dry grass that I remembered. Together we sat near the abandoned, restored structures that were once houses, a bakery, a schoolhouse. Things seemed smaller than I remembered. The older Australian couple had recently sold their environmental sustainability consulting firm for a lot of money and had been travelling around the world. The younger couple had also sold their artisan cottage industries and their house and were planning on backpacking around the world and then settling in the Caribbean to restart their businesses again. Both couples spoke of their dislike of children. Of how they never wanted them and will never have them. “I tell my friends ‘I’ll look after your dog, but I won’t look after your kids!'” said the Australian woman. There was too much of the world to explore.

They exchanged heart-wrenching stories of those near and dear to them who had passed away too young. They shared the same philosophy that you can’t delay things like travel until retirement. They’ve known too many people who have died from heart attacks, cancer and other illnesses before they’ve had the opportunity to explore the world.

And there I was, listening, observing, wondering. I was at a cross-roads in my life. Wondering where I would live next, what I would do, if I wanted to have children. At that time, everything was so up in the air. I wasn’t sure. Three years later, things are still confusing and unsure, but now I think the child piece has been put soundly to sleep. As for traveling, I’m grateful I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot while young. Still, I think there’s a long way to go.

Leaps of Faith in Venice

10703716_10152232332981853_2837997001685255358_nDuring the Summer of Love, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit one of the most magical and enchanting cities in the world – Venice. Don’t hate me, but it was actually the second time in my whole life. While I spent three days there, two of them alone, I of course became reflective. It had been sixteen years since I had trotted through the labyrinthine streets and over the little ponti. Back then, I had taken a leap of faith and began working for a family near Amsterdam as as au pair. Not long after my arrival, they announced they were going on vacation and I would also have my vacation time. I didn’t have much money so I booked an extremely cheap all-inclusive trip to the coast of Italy, near Venice. It took 24 hours in a bus to get to the ritzy seaside town. It was the kind of trip I could probably only do in my youth. I slept alone in a tent, although it was too hot to sleep. I made friends with three Dutch girls who were also on the trip. They were nurses from a town near the south of Holland. During our time together, we ate a lot of pizza and I felt very European as we strode among the waves at the beach in only our bikini bottoms. Once I got so attacked by mosquitoes that my ankle swelled up to the size of a baseball and I had to be injected with something. At night, we hit the discos, along with hoards of multinational young people – we looked like a giant, drunk United Colours of Benetton ad.

At first I was unnerved by the young, ripped North African men (boys?) dancing in wrought iron cages suspended above the dance floor, and the dancing that looked like it was influenced by National Geographic mating videos. But soon I understood that thisĀ  too was grist for the maturing mill. Wait until I tell my friends back home at the end of the world about this! We got to spend only one fleeting day in Venice, but it was like a dream for me – in the sense of being in one and of achieving one. Just a few weeks earlier I had no idea that I would have the opportunity to realize this dream – a childhood fantasy. I have a photo somewhere of me standing in front of the iconic Rialto Bridge, wearing my favorite blue tank top and grey trousers that I bought for $10 dollars in Australia some months earlier when I attended my uncle’s wedding. I have an impish smile on my face and the same long, two toned blond-brown hair that I have now. I was infinitely cooler back then.

And back to the future: I chose the busiest time of year to go. I caught a train directly there and of course got motion sickness on the canal taxi ride to the hotel. Yes, there was no ghetto tent for me this time. I was living the high life and stayed in a very beautiful hotel. I figured it would probably be the last time in my whole life I would visit there and so I splurged. I walked around in a daze, camera in hand, dodging the hoards of other privileged people from all over the world. I got my bearings and walked around and around the narrow streets, just walking, looking, thinking. The food is overpriced here, I thought. The waiters are rude. It’s so commercial, with an H&M and Disney Store tarnishing the elegant buildings that have watched over the canals for hundreds of years.

I went into a quaint little paper store and bought an exquisite little blue notebook from a very well dressed man with silver hair who looked like he’d been working there for about 300 years. I went back to my airy, plush hotel and I wrote in it. I wrote down all my fears and insecurities. I wanted to see myself, to see how I was back in this context after so many years. To see my progress. As the writing spilled onto the paper, I could still see that I had the same issues as that naive eighteen year old girl standing on the bridge. We are two different people but we are the same. I was again taking a leap of faith.

I trudged around. I explored. I escaped the heat in shops and restaurants. I healed an old wound from the first time I was in Venice when I had very little money and couldn’t afford to purchase anything more than some little glass ornaments. I went to a mask store of some renown and it took me about ten minutes to buy four exquisite Venetian masks. Every time I check my bank account I’m reminded that I still have to pay for them. But the highlight, the climax, the crescendo was walking alongside the largest canal one night in the dark, waiting for a boat to arrive. On that boat would be my sweetheart who had worked all day then driven some hours to be with me. At his arrival, we embraced and I shut my eyes tight, never wanting the moment to end. It was perhaps the most fairytale moment of my entire life, and in that one moment, I could say that love, with all its messiness, is worth it.

As I write this, I have just re-read for the third time a favorite memoir of mine by Vanessa Woods that entwines three stories – her personal love story with her husband, their work together in the Congo with Bonobos, and the heartbreaking history of the region. One passage struck me, and I should write it down in that little blue notebook full of my anxieties: ‘If there are those you love, whoever or wherever they are, hold them. Find them and hold them as tightly as you can. Resist their squirming and impatience and uncomfortable laughter and just feel their hearts throbbing against yours and give thanks that for this moment, for this one precious moment, they are here. They are with you. And they know they are utterly, completely, entirely…Loved.’