Monday, July 22, 2013

The love letter to Sydney

The Germans call it heimweh, and literally translated, it means an ache for home. I ache for many places I’ve called home—south Germany at the end of spring when the strawberries are in season and the lakes are full, Stockholm in winter when the darkness is covered in snow and the windows are full of Christmas candles and on certain wet, rainy evenings, I even long for London with its perpetually grey skies and grimy glory. But never has the heimweh been greater than for my hometown of Sydney.

When I am away, my ache for Sydney is a year-round thing. I crave its beaches in the summer, the smell of SPF50+ heavy in the air and the horizon littered with so many surfers, watched by red-capped lifeguards and tourists alike. In winter, I miss the glittering harbor, and the dull blue sunshine glinting off the sails of the Opera House. Never do I cross the Harbour Bridge and not find my heart beating faster, the adrenaline akin to a first date. Every time I see the Pacific lapping at your shoreline Sydney, you take my breath away.

I miss my childhood home, in a small leafy suburb filled with two decades of memories. This suburb was where my First Fleet landed—my family arriving here as migrants and settling forever in this corner of what I truly believe is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I know we don’t have Gaudi’s architecture. I’m aware we don’t share Italy’s ancient history, and I understand that if it’s culture you’re looking for, the theatres of London and the galleries of New York may have more to offer.

But every day, I am reminded of how lucky I am to live here. In South Africa, one in three women are the victims of rape. In Syria, the UN has declared that the greatest human tragedy of our generation is unfolding in the refugee camps strewn across that country. In the States, gun crime rises daily while a corrupt government, run by corporate self-interest, does nothing to protect its citizens.

I know we aren’t perfect. Our treatment of refugees and our refusal to legalise same-sex marriage are a shameful part of our public policy. But I am inspired that these issues also remain a headline of our public debate, and that we continue to argue the merits, rather than remain a nation placid and placated. I am grateful to live in a country where such public debate doesn’t result in government sanctioned massacres or public stonings for dissidents.

I am proud to be part of a nation where we truly live the values of successful nationhood, able to take care of our weakest members. Our public healthcare system is world-class, and our social outreach programs part of an ongoing private and public overhaul to become world-class. We take care of our old and our sick and our poor, and we should.

So why am I leaving?

Because it makes me afraid.

The pursuit of happiness has become a first world obsession. We’re talking about it, searching for it, blogging and instagramming about it. So obsessed have we become with finding happiness that we’ve forgotten that it’s ok to be uncomfortable sometimes. That pain, anxiety, anger, sadness and fear are a natural, nay essential, part of the gamut of emotions we are supposed to feel. We don’t have to always medicate these emotions away, nor is happiness the sole measure of a life well-lived.

I was happy. I had a lovely life with a good job, wonderful friends and a brilliant family. And then one day I realised that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been afraid. Which meant I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done something new or learnt something new. Happiness was well and good, but as an old boss used to tell me, “Pressure makes diamonds.” What if there was more to me than simply being happy and comfortable?

I realised that I'd forgotten what I was capable of doing, that I hadn't pushed myself in too long. That my comfortable cocoon had resulted in a cycle where one day resembled the next, flitting between new wine bars and fancy restaurants and yoga studios in the pursuit of nirvana. And I was struck with the sudden uncomfortable thought that maybe I'd swapped happiness for comfort. That maybe I had stopped growing in any meaningful way. Because ultimately, personal growth and happiness are not found in a yoga studio or a meditation camp any more than they are found in the bottom of a glass at the newest hotspot. Life was there for the taking, and I'd stopped taking.

So this is it.

I’m leaving Sydney.

People keep asking me if I’m excited and I want to shout “No! I’m freaking terrified!” Tomorrow, I land in a city where I don’t know a single person, I don’t have a place to live, and I’m going to a job where I’m worried I won’t be nearly as good as people seem to think I am. I'm scared. I'm so unbelievably sad. I'm riddled with doubt about this decision. I’m starting from scratch, and I’m doing this all alone, armed only with two suitcases and a new red lipstick. (The lipstick is called Lady Danger, and it really does make me feel brave.)

My longest, greatest love affair has always been with the city of Sydney. Whatever happens, whatever adventures befall me, my steps will always return here, to this place filled with people I love, to a city so beautiful it needs no architecture to adorn it, to a country many risk their lives to belong to. Sydney, you are the north to my compass, the ache in my bones, the anchor to my restless ship. And how blessed I am to call you home.

See you soon. xx

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Life Lessons

I'm about to turn 30. I'm not where I thought I'd be (want to make God laugh? Tell him your plans), but I've learnt a few things along the way. So here are 30 life lessons from a gal who's still figuring it out:

  1. The only people who deserve your unconditional love are your children. Your happiness should always be a condition of your love.
  2. Travel. It forces you to be an outsider, and this can only make you a better person.
  3. Know the difference between compromising and being a doormat.
  4. Save money. Savings give you freedom.
  5. Own a signature scent. People who love you will be reminded of you when they smell it.
  6. Have an ill-advised love affair. Broken hearts remind you to be grateful for good partners.
  7. The world doesn't owe you anything.
  8. Dress well. If you can't be bothered to take care of yourself, how can an employer expect you to take care of your work, or a partner expect you to take care of your family?
  9. Have good manners. They are always fashionable. Write thank you notes, hold doors and give up your seat for old people.
  10. Learn to cook. There's nothing cool about an adult who can't feed themselves.
  11. Have alone time. If you don't like your own company, you can't expect anyone else to.
  12. Love someone who believes you are the greatest thing that ever happened to them. The view from a pedestal is wonderful.
  13. Love someone you believe is the greatest thing that ever happened to you.
  14. Walk places. It's good for the environment and it's good for you.
  15. Recycle. It's the least you can do for your kids.
  16. You can know everything about a person by what they like to read.
  17. It only hurts as much as it is worth.
  18. When everything seems dark, or envy creeps in, remind yourself you won the lottery. Only 1% of people don't worry about where their next meal is coming from.
  19. Sleep. Your body (and your mind) need it.
  20. Learn CPR. It saves lives.
  21. Live simply. (Travel reminds us how little we need to live.)
  22. Life isn't a single endeavour. Even if you work hard, someone needs to promote you, support you, whatever. Be grateful to these people.
  23. Love your reflection. You are what you tell yourself you are, and goddamn, you're beautiful.
  24. Know what you'd take if your house was burning down.
  25. Floss. Those teeth need to last a lifetime.
  26. Never ask someone to do something you aren't prepared to do yourself.
  27. Believe in magic. The very fact you exist is proof.
  28. Have regrets. They make the best stories.
  29. Buy welfare meat. Eating animals is part of the food chain, making them suffer is sadistic.
  30. People may not remember what you said, but they always remember how you made them feel.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Elizabeth Gilbert meeting

I was leaving with a one-way ticket to Vietnam when my friend Suzy thrust a copy of Eat, Pray, Love into my hands. It was already a bestseller, but not quite the "super book" it was going to become.
"Read it," she said. "I think it will help."

Devastated by the collapse of a relationship with the boy I thought I was going to marry, I didn't know how to start re-imagining my future. So I was taking off to South-East Asia for as long as my money would hold out, hoping that the backpack on my shoulders would provide the answers I was looking for.

I read the book in one sitting, on the plane ride over. In the darkened cabin, while gliding over continents, I sobbed into its pages. "Someone else understands," I thought, feeling relieved that this grief and failure were not limited to me. And like so many others, I fell in love with the author. I felt like we could be best friends and I knew that if we ever met, we would be.

So when I hear that Elizabeth Gilbert is going to speak in Sydney, I buy tickets the second they go on sale. I would have camped out at the Opera House overnight, but the kindly man at the Information Booth assures me that these things all happen online now, and that I can take my sleeping bag home.

In the hour long Q&A to a virtually sold out Concert Hall, Gilbert proves that she's a performer as much as a writer. She's self-deprecatingly funny, diplomatically opinionated and incredibly candid about herself. Her story about being interviewed by Oprah has us in stitches. And when she says, "I am not tough at all, and I always felt like that was a liability," I think, "Me too! We are so going to be besties."

But this is Gilbert's magical power--the one that catapulted her book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for a record 187 weeks. Everyone in the Opera House that afternoon thinks of her a friend, just like everyone who read Eat, Pray, Love thinks they know her.

Gilbert claims to be gullible, but I suspect it's self-imposed. She's the childhood friend who knows the cake you're serving is imaginary, but agrees that it's the most delicious thing she's ever eaten. She even helps you convince the skeptics ("It's got pink icing. Here, lick some off." And they find themselves licking the air and nodding, "Mmmm, yummy.")

I had already rehearsed my open gambit to my best-friend-to-be, Liz (I had presumptuously started to call her that in my head.)
"I read your book and I feel like I know you," I could have said. But no, everyone thought that.
"Thank you for writing this. You made me feel not-so-alone at the loneliest point in my life," I wanted to say. But those sort of confessions could wait until we were having tea together in my kitchen. After all, I didn't want her to think I was emotionally unstable.
So I settle on, "You make me laugh," because that's the greatest compliment anyone could ever give me.

Afterwards, my friend and I wait with about a hundred other people--all women--to meet her. I am struck by how different we all are. A mother and daughter on my left are from rural NSW and have driven two hours to see my friend Liz. On my right, an Italian girl who barely speaks English clutches her Italian copy of the book, which is highlighted in several places.

Liz herself is actually funny, and unbelievably gracious. Earlier, on stage, she'd told a joke about her shoes, and I hear thirty different people make the same joke back to her. She plays along every time and doesn't even roll her eyes and say, "Dude, I made that joke with Oprah."

"You are so funny. You are so funny," I practice to myself while waiting. I want to make sure I deliver it correctly. Each time someone tells her how much they love her book, or gives her a compliment, she seems slightly surprised and sincerely grateful. This surprise is disarming--after all, the book did sell 10 million copies. But again, this is part of her charm, a humility coupled with this child-like excitement about the world. Liz could describe paint drying and make it sound like something thrilling. No wonder so many women thought slumming it in an ashram would be fun. It translates into an overwhelming positivity, and I suddenly understand when people talk about being 'bowled over.' Her enthusiasm is a physical thing, and it seems to be unflagging.

She has a crooked smiley-face tattoo on her back. "My sister gave that to me when we were 15 with a needle and ink," she reveals, making us all wish our sisters had maimed us. When asked the somewhat impertinent question about the state of her marriage, she tells us her husband is 'wonderful', pointing excitedly at her ring. She is so emotionally generous, and treats everyone as if they are old friends.

"I love your shoes," says one girl, after she makes the shoe joke and Liz has laughed. "Where are they from?"
"They're Miu Miu!" Liz looks down at her gold pointed flats in delight, as though it's the first time she's ever seen them, and clicks her feet together like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

When we get to the front, I open my mouth to say, "Hi, you are so funny," and promptly, inexplicably, burst into tears.
"I don't know why I'm crying," I sob, while gasping for air. Liz is nonplussed, but recovers seamlessly. "That's OK, it's nice to meet you," she replies, giving me a hug.
"I thought I'd be so articulate when I saw you," I continue, still crying because she's being so nice and actually hugging me. "You are beautiful!" I understand those sentences are totally unconnected and I am rambling, but I can't seem to control my tears or my mouth.

"Oh, you are so lovely!" Liz exclaims, and doesn't even call her bodyguard to haul me away. Now this is a total lie, because I see myself in the mirror afterwards and my face is red and puffy and I have snot coming out of my nose and my mascara has run all the way down my cheeks. I was never a pretty crier. But my friend Liz is so sincere, I truly believe I am lovely.

She, on the other hand, is beautiful. I hadn't expected that. Her book, as many have pointed out, reveals an insecure, uncertain woman who over-analyses everything, and somewhat ridiculously, we don't expect beautiful people to think too much, or have insecurities. Besides, it hadn't occurred to me that someone so self-deprecating, and such a fine writer, could be so gorgeous. Her skin has this dewy glow, and while she's tall, there's something fragile and fairy-like about her. I promise this isn't even my crazy girl-crush talking; all of us, even the Italian girl who couldn't speak any English, agree she is luminescent.

She kindly asks if we want a photo.
"Yyyeeesssss," I sob, trying not to cry and crying even harder. (Isn't it a good thing I didn't want her to think I was emotionally unstable.)
"This is so humiliating," I whisper to her, and she quips back, "Yeah, because I am such a stranger to humiliation," which makes me laugh and promptly gives me hiccups. Someone had clearly decided that I didn't deserve dignity that day.

So we take a photo, and I apologise again, and she says I'm lovely again, and kisses me on the cheek.

I guess I don't need to tell you that my friend Liz probably isn't going to call me, and we probably aren't going to have tea in my kitchen. That's OK, because I got to meet her, and it's nice to know that someone you fell in love with is exactly the way you imagine them, except funnier and more beautiful. And my friend Liz thinks I'm lovely.

Besides, I'll always have the photo of us together. In it, Liz has her arms around my friend and I. They are both smiling and look wonderful. And then there's me, face crumpled, mouth down turned, sobbing red-faced at the camera, clutching my (now signed) copy of the book and thinking, "You are so funny."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Word Collection

My father, being something of a hoarder, collected lots of things—stamps, coins, books, old photographs—you name it, my father had it. He was a collector of collections. Perhaps it was this childhood spent in accumulated junk that has made me love minimalist spaces, bare of anything but a fresh coat of white paint. But Dad insisted we collect something, suggesting it was both a hobby and an investment. You never knew when your collection could be worth something, he told us.

“I will collect words,” I told him when I was eight.
There were two reasons for this. Firstly, words don’t take up any space. I could collect for a lifetime, and never run out of words and never run out of room to keep them. But more importantly, I adore words. Learning to read is, to this day, the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. (Well, that, and my ill-advised affair with a gorgeous French boy, but that’s a different sort of pleasure altogether.)

So I carry around a battered little notebook and whenever I hear something that seems worthwhile, interesting, new or profound, I add it to my collection. And each year, I find one sentence that trumps it all.

Last year, I didn’t think I would find that elusive sentence.  “We are the sum total of our parents,” I read in a book. “Hearts are made to be broken,” my girlfriend Bea told me. “You make everyone you love feel safe,” a friend’s husband said to her. (How lovely a sentiment. Would that I could make someone feel like that one day.) But none of these felt like The One.

Then, at the end of the year, I took up Italian lessons and learnt the most wonderful sentence of all.
“C un bar all’angolo.”
It rolls off the tongue, full of unfamiliar sounds. It is a sentence requiring gesticulation.When I say it—c'è un bar all’angolo—I feel foreign and exotic and possibly fluent in Italian, and what a feat that is, to be exotic to one’s own self.

It means, “There is a bar at the corner.”

There is a bar at the corner. How wonderful! How comforting to know that whatever situation we find ourselves in, there is a bar at the corner. As a child, my mother’s sentence was “Let’s make a cup of tea.” It was how she greeted news both joyful and disastrous. From cancer to her first grandchild, my mother’s cups of tea marked every significant occasion of my childhood. To this day, I believe in the improbably curative properties of a hot beverage.

But now I had my own sentence of comfort. “Not to worry,” I told my friend when she called me to say she’d lost her job. “C un bar all’angolo.” And then again, when she found a new job, I reminded her that “C un bar all’angolo.” It is a sentence heavy with promise, an unlikely collection of vowels that suggest honey coloured sunshine and doe-eyed Italians.

I spoke it sternly to my reflection in the bathroom mirror, right before a big meeting. It calmed my nerves to hear it—as the words rolled off my tongue with the fluency of regular use, I felt like the aloof, disdainful, exquisite Italian women I had come across in Florence and Milan, women for whom uncertainty was surely an alien quality. “C un bar all’angolo,” I told myself again, and it sounded almost like a threat.

This year has been a lot more forthcoming. Three days after New Year, I found the sentence.

“It hurts as much as it is worth,” wrote Zadie Smith in an essay for the New York Book Review. The words rolled around in my head for a long time afterwards, and I whispered them to myself as I walked home. The universe felt like a different place after I collected that sentence. Suddenly, the two years I had spent mourning an ex-boyfriend was no longer a waste. Instead, it was a triumph! I had loved someone so much, it hurt for two years.

Later, when I went running (an activity I absolutely loathe but force upon myself to justify the copious amounts of cheese I inadvertently consume), I felt I simply couldn’t go another step—the air was burning into my lungs and my muscles screamed for redemption. “It hurts as much as it is worth,” I reminded myself, and continued up the hill.

So you see, it is not so ridiculous a collection to own, my notebook of words. Over the years, they have provided me with advice, giggles and comfort. They have made me wiser and one day, just as my father plans to leave his collection of stamps and books and coins and photographs to his children, I hope to leave this collection of words to mine. Until then, I share them as needed. Last night, a friend came over in tears, her heart broken by a casual love affair. “It hurts as much as it is worth,” I reminded her gently. But wonderful though that is, she needed more immediate consolation. So I told her, “C un bar all’angolo,” and indeed, that was comforting a thought for both of us.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Dating Triangle

A friend of mine recently announced that there were no decent women in Sydney.

"What are you talking about?" I scoffed. "There's a Man Drought."

"It's not a shortage of women," he clarified, "it's a shortage of decent women."

And what is a decent woman I hear you ask? Turns out there's an equilateral triangle for that.
I've written before about the Fatal Flaw--that thing the perfect guy has or does that's a deal-breaker-- but this puts it into pictorial perspective.

"I've come to the realisation that you can't have it all in a relationship," she a girlfriend who recently started dating her swimming instructor. "Why do we expect one person to give us everything? My guy might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he's nice and he's really hot." I guess that's why we call him Hot Pool Guy.

She might be on to something.

Matt over at The Modern Savage actually ran a survey to see what people thought, and the findings are possibly unsurprising:

Men would overwhelmingly sacrifice intelligence in a woman, while women are happy to settle for intelligence and emotional stability, and give up the good looks.

So ugly guys and dumb girls are in with a chance, but if you're batshit crazy, then you're going to die alone.

Having thought about this from every conceivable 45 degree angle, it's hard for me to choose which quality I'd give up. But I think, if I absolutely had to, I would sacrifice the intelligence. It's no good if he can read me Dostoyevsky if I never, ever want to him naked.  If it's an intellectual challenge or witty repartee I'm in need of, I have work and friends. No, when it comes to stimulation in relationships, it's not the mental kind I'm looking for first.

How about you? What would you give up?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

How to tell if he's a keeper

A friend of mine recently watched the movie 28 Days Later with her boyfriend, and they ended up having the following conversation:
(for those unfamiliar with the movie, it's about surviving a zombie apocalypse)

Him: Man, why is he going back? He should be running as far away in the opposite direction as he can.
Her: He's going back for the girl. She's still there, maybe getting turned in to a zombie!
Him: She's probably already a zombie by now.
Her: Yeah, but he has to be sure. Are you saying that if I was possibly a zombie, you wouldn't come and at least TRY and rescue me?
Him: (joking) Babe, if you turned into a zombie I'd have to kill you! It's the only way...
Her: (very much NOT joking) I always knew you were a selfish jerk, but now I have proof!
Him: Proof? It's a zombie apocalypse! And besides, where are you? If you aren't a zombie then why aren't you trying to find me?
Her: This is the last time I ever do anything nice for you, because it's clear that you don't even love me that much.

I've had similar arguments. I had one boyfriend tell me, "I love you, but I'm not going to avenge your death if that's what you're asking." Well, I wasn't asking that, but now that we're on the topic, why wouldn't you? If I was murdered, I'd want my lover to devote his life to bringing my killer to justice. Sound demanding? Well, I'm prepared to put the same offer on the table.

The thing is, I don't want a mate who's only in it for himself. I want to know that he's going to be there when it gets tough, or scary. I want to know that when I turn into a zombie (usually when I'm stressed and haven't had any sugar that day), he's not going to run away. I want to know that he would do anything to secure my happiness, and sometimes, that means doing stuff that's difficult, or scary or just plain inconvenient.

Another friend of mine recently had a baby, and she said that once you have a kid, things can get real ugly, real fast. You need to make sure you're with someone who is there for you in a crisis.

In the absence of a baby, if you're trying to figure out if the guy you're dating is a keeper or not, maybe you just need to ask yourself, 'What would he do in a zombie apocalypse?' And if the answer is 'Run away', they maybe that's exactly what you need to be doing, right now.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sex with the ex

A friend of mine recently came out of a long term relationship.

"It's over, it's definitely over," she lamented, knocking back gin like a sailor on shore leave.

"Good for you!" I cheered. "A clean break is exactly what you need!"

"Errr....yes," she agreed tentatively. "I guess so. Except..."


Despite the fact that their relationship was surely, definitely Over, they were still sleeping together.

As it turns out, this girlfriend is not alone. An extremely unscientific poll of the women I know concluded that almost all of them, at some stage, had sex with an ex.

"Every relationship has a mourning period," explained one friend. "And as you go through the stages from grief to acceptance, sex helps you get closure."

And then there's the thrill. One girlfriend gushed, "It was the best sex I've ever had. Even better than when we were together. It's sort of illicit and exciting, so it's like a passionate one-night stand with someone who knows what turns you on."

Yet when I asked all of them how sex with the ex turned out, the universal answer was 'Badly.'

It's easy to get closure if there's a clear reason for the break-up. Like if he's abusive. Or there's someone else. But sometimes, the end is a long time coming and the cumulative effect of many small things. There is no one reason why it ends, no single reason to walk away except a belief that it isn't going to work.

And regardless of how it ends, rarely do we simply, abruptly stop loving someone. So as we wean ourselves off love, we also have to wean ourselves off our lovers.

"It's just hard to go cold turkey," was how one girl put it.

When women orgasm, their bodies release a hormone called oxytocin (also known as the 'cuddle chemical') that makes them believe that that man they just shagged is their perfect mate. Naturally, the more sex, the more oxytocin, the more deluded you become.

Men also release it, but in far, far smaller doses. Which is why they are able to separate the sex from the relationship you once shared.

So ladies, the lesson here is that if it's closure you want, it's definitely best to start with your legs.