If you ask me where I’m from, I’ll always hesitate. I never know where to lead with. If I know a little about you first, I’ll know in which order to start. Grave northern accent? I’ll say my family is from Yorkshire. Slightly reserved demeanour, speaking French? I’ll tell you I grew up in Nyon, Switzerland. From (anywhere in) Latin America? ‘I was born in Chile’ I’ll start with a smile, ‘and my husband is Puerto Rican’. Aussie twang? ‘I spent a while in WA’, I’ll say, nonchalantly. (‘yea, I thought you sounded slightly Australian!’, you’ll say, inevitably). Scottish? ‘I grew up there too’, I’ll say, really quite wistfully.
You see, I want to bond with you. Bond over memories, words that I’ve picked up along the way, places that have shaped who I am.
But, you ask me where I’m from, or where I feel I’m MOST from (many of you put the intonation on that ‘most’), with emphasis on that deep down allegiance… and I have no answers. The countries that build up my identity are constantly jostling for first place, but they never settle. And I’m never able to pick.
Answers that come naturally to some are mysteries to me. What does patriotism feel like as a sensation? Why do I feel hurt when distant family members say I sound American? Which team do I support, why does it matter? If I have children, how will they identify? Am I a migrant, or an expat? I feel like neither. Dual-national, third generation, third culture kid? Will these titles matter in the future? Maybe so many of us will be kaleidoscopes of experiences that we won’t lead our conversations by ‘where are you from’ and we won’t expect only one or two answers. Maybe breaking down these boundaries in our heads may break some boundaries in our hearts. Maybe.
Carlos fondly calls me an identity mongrel, living on the fringes of nationalities. And it’s true that most of the time, I feel like I’m living on the fringes of a variety of different clubs. Clubs I can access the basic membership for, but never the premium version, the version in which you truly belong. In every place, I’m a little too ‘other’.
I’m fine being on the fringes of these clubs; I am not complaining. It does not escape me that I have access to other clubs which oh-so-many do not. I’m just exploring the borderless space on the outside, hoping that there are others out here. Hoping that we can make it a tolerant place to be. Maybe some of you have some questions. Maybe some of you have some answers. Maybe we can be friends?
Here is a picture of me, embracing 2017, in the warm Andaman sea. A very welcome, special holiday, to celebrate a marriage (a late honeymoon), and a huge year.
The second half of 2016 felt like the fast lane. Working full time and studying part-time, my brain felt pushed, electrified, frazzled. I got to the end of the year, guilty about how many times I had dropped the ball with friends, about how many invitations I had turned out. Guilty about how I couldn’t manage to maintain a conversation about anything too far beyond the boundaries of the humanitarian sector. And guilty about procrastinating in my little time off, for lack of creativity or energy. No time for blogging, no mental space for creation.
The final days of 2016 were slow, sweet and quiet. I rolled out my dusty yoga mat and started to reconnect with the untended corners of my self and work through the kinks of stress. I’ve done the occasional yoga class for years, but never often enough to notice any change, or to reap more than small moments of calm. Every time I did it though, I heard a voice in my head ‘you should do this more often, you should do this more often‘.
So, I thought, as the New Year grew closer, what if I did do this more often? What if I did it every day? For 31 days? For 100 days? For a year? What would happen if I could turn down the constant whirring of my mind, shut off the demands of the day, and carve out some quiet, every, single, day?
I didn’t want to make a resolution, as resolutions inevitably fail. But I signed up to Yoga with Adriene’s January challenge, with 31 days of yoga videos. Each video, complete with a theme, emotional or inspirational, arrived in my inbox every morning. As I packed to leave on my holiday, I fitted my mat into my suitcase, along with some extra t-shirts and leggings. And suddenly I was off, and I was practicing yoga every day.
I practiced in my hotel room at 11pm after 24 hours of flying, when all I wanted to do was shower and sleep. I practiced on a balcony overlooking the Andaman sea. I practiced in the torrential tropical rain, under a giant wooden roof, in a class taught by a fierce Thai teacher. I practiced in the corner of a treetop hut, between the bed and the door, in one of the oldest rainforests in the world. I practiced on the 24th floor in my hotel room, over-looking the sun setting on Bangkok. And then I came home, and I kept going. Before work, between essay writing, last thing before bed.
Some days, all I could manage was 15 minutes of a slow, relaxed practice. Other days, 40/50 minutes of something stronger. Most days, somewhere in between. Some curious things started to happen. Instead of hearing the voice in my head ‘you should do this more often, you should do this more often‘, the voice became quieter, with less to say. I began to see change, a little more strength, better posture. I felt the millennial plague of needing to reach for my phone lessen. It became easier to listen. Easier to remember who I am, who I want to be.
Now it’s February the 14th, which means I’m 45 days in. This weekend, I went to the mountains with friends, and a few of us practiced together. My friend Tamara even took pictures of me: pictures that reveal postures to improve, feet turned slightly wrong, shoulders to relax.
I intend to keep going, both with Adriene, and with some classes. Hopefully, this will help me glide through 2017, with a little more rhythm, a little more peace, and a lot more deep breaths.
One year. They call it the Paper Anniversary, so we chose Easyjet boarding passes.
For five days we wandered around the capital of Sardinia, Cagliari. We meandered through colourful cobbled streets, queued for the best restaurants down in hidden alleys, and revelled in agenda-less days and bright blue cloudless skies.
We tried the local Sardo cuisine, from ‘pasta-bombs’ stuffed with pecorino and nuts (culurgiones), roasted pig (su porcheddu), tiny circular pasta that looks like lentils in a seafood stew (sa fregula), more pecorino, dried meat, and more pecorino. It was delicious, but somewhat…heavy.
Culurgiones with pine nuts (ie. pasta bombs)
We stayed in an Airbnb, a few streets removed from the main centre of the old town, so we did spend a fair bit of time speaking Ital-nish in corner shops to buy tickets, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible (or lack of adherence to) timetables and running after the number 6 bus. The public beach, Poetto, was absolutely packed with Italian families and their deckchairs. We took our trusty volleyball with us every day, which was a surprising (to me at least, who has never taken more than a book to the beach before) amount of fun.
Luckily we did manage to escape the hustle of the city one day, as we went on a little adventure with our good friends H & Q, who were also holidaying in the same spot. They had hired a car and so we went off to find a more secluded beach. Obviously, being August in Italy, this was no easy task, but we managed to find a beautiful spot on the rocks. We spent the day snorkeling, reading and eating ice-cream.
Cagliari wasn’t the most picturesque of all spots I’ve visited in Italy, and felt a bit run down. But it had some wonderful details that stuck out: pink flamingos flying in the distance at over the deepest orange and crimson sunsets, poems typed on papers stuck to the walls of the city, all the ways possible that you could ever eat pecorino, ice cold spritzes, and on our final night, a local man named Carlo who overheard us speaking Spanish and saw an opportunity to practice the language he was learning, showed us the city from a special viewpoint, taught us some words of Sardo (the local language), and introduced us to the mayor of Cagliari. Wonderful.
Above all, it was a perfect opportunity to spend quality time together, and reflect on and be grateful for our first peaceful and happy year of marriage. On that note, I revisited my favourite words from our wedding ceremony, written and led by my dear sister-in-law one year ago:
“We are here to celebrate the wisest and holiest paradox of humanity: that the greatest individual freedom can only be achieved by connecting us with, and committing to, other human beings.
This is the profound truth we are here gathered to acknowledge and to celebrate:
that the best of us can only be achieved with the help of an Other.
An-Other, who, like a mirror of clear water, can return us to ourselves. Because we cannot stand face to face to ourselves.
An-Other, who puts our lives at risk: who makes us question all we thought we knew about ourselves, suffer the loss of our identity and become someone we never thought we could or would be.
An-Other, who is willing to embrace our continuously changing selves, not out of worn-out or prescribed loyalty, but because they know our transformation also brings them forward.
An-Other, who does not expect us to follow them till the end of time, but who would ‘simply’, humbly, wish our company on their way to eternity – so long, and as long, as we want to.”
For the past three months, it’s been all go, trying to navigate an internship in a humanitarian organisation and a masters degree at the same time. I’m starting to get into the rhythm of it all, coming up with ideas rather than just pleas for clarification at work, getting my essays done in little chunks rather than cramming sessions the night before. However, I have been operating somewhat on survival mode and so I’ve been stumped to find a topic of inspiration to blog about.
Luckily, oh so luckily, this weekend I managed to slow time down a little, and enjoy some peace, as Carlos and I escaped to the mountains in the Valais. On Saturday we set off ready for my favourite hike in Evolene, which involves taking the cable-car up and then walking down across a barren mountain top, through lush forests, past a lake and then down back to the village. Prepared we were with our picnic packed, only to find that the cable-car was closed. However I pulled my bottom lip back in soon enough, as we meandered with no particular aim for a while, taking pictures of little wonders found by the walking trail.
My mum is an excellent photographer (check out her main website here!) and so for many many years of holidays and traveling, I have never picked up a proper camera or attempted at more than a few heavily filtered instagram snaps on my iPhone. But after appreciating many wonderful blogs lately, and feeling a need for some creative exploration, I decided to bring Carlos’s camera along. While I have no notion of photography beyond the difference between manual and automatic focus (embarrassing to admit – I know plenty about refugee law and would be happy if anyone wants to do a tandem, any takers?!), we all have to start somewhere! It was wonderful to walk slowly, notice the movement and colours in the various wee nooks and crannies on the way.
Walking slowly in nature is what my main man Carlos does best. As an evolutionary biologist, he spends much time in the lab and in front of impossibly complicated looking datasets on his computer, but his spirit lies outside observing different species and pondering the majesty of nature. He also has an uncontrollable need to get as close as possible to these different species, as demonstrated in the following photos. (Disclaimer: no animals were harmed in this post, they all scuttered, swam and scrambled back off to their pals after a few terrifying seconds in the hands of a very gentle biologist)
Look how happy he was to catch a lizard, salamander, frog, and to see a snake:
We then decided to make an effort and climb up half the mountain.
It was definitely worth it when we got to a tiny hamlet with a cafe selling ice tea in five decilitre glasses. Again, stoked:
Now we are back to the world of humanitarian crises and datasets, but with a renewed burst of energy and peace. A bientôt, Evolène.
I’ve started a new internship. And it’s great, and I’m learning so much, absorbing a new field and a new set of unpronounceable acronyms, meeting new people, and feeling fried by the end of the day. But there’s no time to kick back, as I’m also doing a Masters degree (albeit part-time and via correspondence, but still), so at the end of the day, I’m back in front of the screen, reading even more reports on protracted crises, and defunct protection schemes. My eyes feel ready to go on strike, and my head feels strangely as if it was stuck in a clamp.
And then this week, my mum went in to hospital, as did a friend, both for silly accidents. They will both be fine. Everything is still manageable. Everyone’s ok, I don’t want to play up any drama.
But it’s a little overwhelming.
So I sat on my balcony this evening as the sun set, and took in some deep deep breaths. It was only then that I realised the flowers blooming beside me. I know, it’s spring, no big deal. But you see, this is a little bit of a big deal.
I was given a bouquet of flowers on my birthday, the 26th of January, in the midst of dark winter. Long after the other dahlias and roses in the bouquet had wilted, these orange flowers didn’t seem to be finished. So I put them in a wee pot of water, and left it on the balcony. And despite the cold, the wind, the lack of attention, despite the fact they were cut in winter, probably brought over from Holland or wherever, they flowered, and flowered, and flowered. Now, on the 5th of May they still haven’t finished.
A little miracle. And a little push to go on, flowering, flowering, despite the elements.
“I was listening to a podcast the other day and they were talking about this really interesting idea…”. This is my new line. I utter it approximately five times a day, to the extent that now some of my nearest and dearest roll their eyes at the mention of the P word.
I have always been in favour of distraction from the more mundane routines of daily life. When I was a child I used to tie my shoelaces with my foot clamped down on the middle of an open book, to be able to continue reading as I got ready for school (much to the despair of my mother, waiting at the door). While my commitment to children’s literature was certainly laudable, teeth brushing, cereal eating and hair drying often took twice the time than it should have. What’s more, having my head in a book is no longer the most suitable “routine-distraction”, as the requirements of adult life demand free hands. For laundry, kitchen cleaning and walking to work, new methods needed to be employed.
“I just can’t seem to get into podcasts”, “I always choose boring ones that I think will be educational” are some of the comments I’ve heard from friends. As an answer to these cries for help, I’d like to share my extensive and ongoing research into the best stories, with narratives that weave emotion and suspense into their journeys, presenters who I would like to have a glass of wine with, and topics that spark ideas galore. This is Suzy’s Best of the Internet Airwaves I. They can all be found on iTunes, downloaded on to phones/pods/computers and you’re off on your way.
Podcast 101 for the amateur listener, or alternatively launch pad for the international affairs enthusiast, this half-an-hour programme is the lazy way to get a feel for the daily news. That is, if you like your news liberal/left-leaning, euro-centric, and with a bit of cynical humour. I tune in daily to hear the short debates and opinions from expert analysts on the top stories, and I always come away from listening a little bit more informed, and with a few more questions as to how global issues will unfold. Midori House is one of the programmes from the media company Monocle, which mixes serious journalism with hipster flair for design. For more in-depth analysis of foreign affairs, check out other Monocle podcasts such as The Globalist and the Foreign Desk, but note that these are a little more serious.
My love for Radiolab runs deep to the extent that I ration my listening of their archives for lucky days. Their tagline says it is “a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience”. Hmm, ok. Radiolab basically picks apart interesting stories and explores them, asks difficult questions and stirs up suspense.
It’s not quite art, it’s not quite journalism, yet the pace, the sequencing of the story, the humour of the presenters and the execution of production, to me, feels like the modern reincarnation of the ancient tradition of storytelling. I would suggest starting with Update: New Normal, which asks the question “will humans ever stop fighting wars?” (or in other words, will human nature ever change?), and Nazi summer camp which is a super interesting discussion about the real value of international law. But…it’s fun. Promise.
More news analysis, this time from the Editor in Chief of Foreign Policy and his pals, Washington elite and top thinkers from top think tanks. They are all extremely cynical and don’t leave you with any hope in international negotiations and diplomacy, yet the politics nerd in me loves tuning in for an update and a giggle. My previous post references an episode with an interesting discussion on the social media generation and grassroots emotion.
“What if I told you…” (“I could change the world with this fifteen minute speech”), sound familiar? Those clever guys and gals from TED created a programme on general topics (fear, money, love, death, change) from extracts of the best speeches on their platform. Some of these are really great. I particularly enjoyed the ones on tending to mental health, and on what screentime does to our minds and relationships. However, a word of warning, TED Radio Hour episodes, just like TEDtalks, are a bit like Easter chocolate. They must be consumed in moderation; otherwise they just become a bit sickly.
These are wonderful little discussions for anyone struggling with creativity, or lack of. Liz Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, has recently written “Big Magic”, a sort of self-help book for creators suffering with writers block (musicians block? artists block? you get the drift). People phone in and explain their problems with getting down to finishing that book, or starting that album. Usually the problems are more than time management, Gilbert seeks out the emotional baggage behind and helps the caller to tackle the barrier. She then calls back in six months to see the progress. Whatever you think of her writing, Gilbert is a terrific mentor with her down-to-earth attitude and sense of humour. I really enjoyed listening to these conversations and realising that everyone can be creative, and that everyone needs to create, even if it’s just for themselves.
First things first, let’s make things clear: this is a parenting show, I am not a parent, nor do I intend to be one any time soon. However, I know I am not the only non-parent who enjoys this podcast, because although the stories are about pregnancy, labour, infants, crazy tantrums, and the wacky things children say, they are also about humans, stress, love, families, and how everyone reacts differently to different hardships. Just as books and documentaries help us to see how other people live, this podcast helps us to understand the reality of bringing up children, of how families and marriages change, of how other people survive life’s tests, and how most of all, we should all just judge a little less.
So far this is the only non-US/UK based podcast I listen to and I would definitely welcome others if you have any suggestions. Radio Ambulante is a Spanish language podcast telling Latin American stories, made by journalists based across the American continent. So far the episodes that I have listened to have included beautiful testimonies and tales on different topics such as migration, crime, and family. A good place to start would be with the following entertaining discussion about those who dare to criticise Peruvian cuisine, and what the backlash says about national identity, or this story from the only international correspondent covering corruption and impunity in Honduras. It is a privilege to listen to such stories and to be able to access journalism of this quality for free on the internet.
Happy listening, and I welcome your feedback and recommendations for the next time it’s my turn to clean the windows!
Last Sunday night, I went to see the documentary “Voyage en Barbarie” with my good friend Zelal, about human trafficking of Eritreans from refugee camps in Sudan to torture detention centres in the Sinai desert. It was a truly horrific exposure into one of the most brutal current criminal activities that I have seen throughout all my film-going and studying. I highly recommend the film for awareness and for the quality of the storytelling, yet it was the discussion that happened afterwards that is the subject of my post. As we left the film feeling so helpless and troubled, Zelal asked “what can we do?”. This question has been my underlining train of thought for months now.
I have spent so many years “upholding”, “defending” and “being interested in” human rights, and studying and discussing has been an essential part of who I am. Yet despite this, and aside for the occasional volunteering, marching in the street or signing petitions, my interest has never been actively expressed by my actions. 2016 needs to be the year that I graduate from student to actor. I’m starting with my clothes and would like to share my story with you. I realise, and would like to include a massive disclaimer at this point, that this subject has been overblogged about by wonderful writers more experienced than me. Yet I have chosen to write about this for those who do not spend as much time procrastinating on the Internet as I do, on the off chance that this is an unread story for them.
A few months ago, at the beginning of the year, I opened my wardrobe one morning and found nothing to wear. I spent a frustrating half an hour trying to pair tops with bottoms and shoes, and left the house, late and wearing an outfit that wasn’t quite right. I ended up stopping off at H&M on my way home from work, to buy a little something that would fill that frustrating hole in my wardrobe. News flash: that cheap new top did not solve the problem.
While I know that I’m certainly not the only one who has these moments, for me, it was one frustrating moment too many. I’m lucky to have lots of clothes (too many to store and constantly falling off the shelves of my small apartment in the city), yet I only have a few things that I actually like, and too many of my garments make me feel, well, meh. My lack of style, and lack of simplicity in the mornings, was taking up more mental space than made me happy.
So I started to pay more attention to my consumption patterns and the value that I place on the things I wear. I realised that the cheapness and disposability of my clothes enabled me to not care about them: I didn’t feel too bad about buying mediocre garments and so inevitably these did not make me happy. I researched, I observed, and the internet taught me all sorts of things about capsule wardrobes, minimalism, second hand buying and so on. For those interested, check out these links here, here and here. I decided to downsize my possessions, and to only keep or purchase things that I truly loved, in an attempt to curate a style and a simpler range of choices.
Among this research, uncomfortable truths kept popping up. Safety conditions in factories, measly wages, water contamination, child labour, desertification due to intensive production (for cashmere for example), human trafficking and landfill pollution are among the issues linked to the fashion industry. I realised that this was more about being uncomfortable with my personal style; this was about being uncomfortable with my purchases and their impact. About how my values and my actions were unaligned, and despite tragic events such as the Rana Plaza disaster popping up in my newsfeed, how I still popped down to H&M whenever I was mildly unsatisfied with morning routine. I was kidding myself if I thought it was a matter of streamlining my wardrobe and carrying on as usual.
With this reflexion in mind, I went to see the film “The True Cost” at the Geneva International Film Festival on Human Rights, which was followed by a debate with the representative of the Bangladeshi textile industry, the head of the International Labour Organization, a spokesperson from the Clean Clothes Campaign of the Berne Declaration and from the CSR department of the shoe company Bata. While I’ve read about this film on English speaking blogs, I don’t have Netflix so I hadn’t got round to watching it (it’s also available on iTunes!). I recommend checking it out, it’s one of those documentaries that tells you what you already know, yet is still very entertaining and moving. Some of the conclusions drawn are simplistic, and many of the scenes provide great sound bites yet lack nuance, but I think that the film is worth seeing just for seeing the reality of the conditions our clothes are made in. To listen to the interviews with factory workers in Bangladesh, to see footage of unionised workers beaten to the ground in Cambodia, and to see the chemicals from leather tanneries poured into rivers in India. To understand the toll that 52 “fashion seasons” per year have on our planet, to realise how the constantly cheap prices of clothes in our shops are affecting people’s lives. And also to grasp the numbers behind the industry: fashion being the world’s second most polluting industry after oil, with deaths of workers due to safety issues in the thousands in the past few years alone and minuscule salaries for those sewing our clothes. This contrasted with those at the top: the main shareholders of Zara and H&M worth a net 70 billion and 30 billion dollars respectively.
So how to start not only loving what I wear, but also respecting those and the resources that made it for me?
First of all by understanding that I need less. A few excellent garments far outweigh the value and enjoyment of many mediocre ones.
Secondly by purchasing clothes from companies whose business models include and value the human and environmental capital in the creation, transportation and sales of their products. I am not advocating for a boycott of certain brands, I will just not be buying their products until they demonstrate that they are taking these issues seriously and have found solutions. Although many companies have signed agreements and have busy CSR departments, change is not happening fast enough, and this is from the mouth of the head of Bangladeshi textiles himself, on behalf of the people stitching our seams. I don’t agree with the argument that stopping fast fashion purchases will be detrimental to workers themselves, as I believe that if companies see that their customers are serious about wanting quality, decent labour conditions, and inevitably are prepared to pay the price, the agonisingly slow changes will be implemented and decent wages will become a reality. I choose to open my purse to those who have already understood this. Luckily, the Internet is a great resource for finding brands and companies that approach fashion in a different way and do provide valuable livelihoods for those employed. The prices are often higher, and while price is not an indicator of quality or of commitment, I am happy to pay more for clothes if I can be assured that the money is being allocated down the supply chain. After all, I am buying less!
Thirdly, I’m looking for garments that will last and will be versatile. This may sound like an absolute no-brainer to generations older than me, but ma foi, I am a product of my age. My teenager years were spent buying cheap outfits with friends on Saturday mornings, and I have never once in my life checked at the seams of a piece of clothing before buying it. Well-made, quality, durability and taking care of my clothes are new phrases to my vocabulary, ones that I am sure my mum and my granny will be happy to hear.
Finally, I am learning to shop for second-hand clothes, which satisfies the cravings for new and cheap additions to the wardrobe without having any impact on the environment. In fact, as most clothes aren’t biodegradable, they spend up to two hundred years rotting in landfills, so buying second hand is the ultimate form of recycling. In the past month I have bought a practically new The Kooples jumper and a wool J Crew jumper, as well as an awesome denim jacket, each for less than 20.-. For those living in Geneva, check out this wee second-hand shop where you can buy and sell clothes.
My aim through this is to create a wardrobe in which each and every piece has been made in decent working conditions through sustainable practices that value both humans and environment. Obviously, this may take me several years, as throwing all my clothes out and starting from scratch would be entirely missing the point. Yesterday I listened to an interesting Foreign Policy podcast about the social media generation, which highlighted that grassroots feelings were strong amongst our generation, yet grassroots action was extremely weak. Many of us know what we are against politically and socially, but the question should be: what are we for? I’m against violations of human rights, dire working conditions and the destruction of our environment, and I’m for acting and purchasing in a way that doesn’t perpetuate these practices. While the cynic in my head cackles, “how sweet and millennial of you to think that you can make a difference”, I’ve chosen to brush scepticism aside. These small changes are my first steps into living more aligned to my values, and to answering the question “what can we do?”. And it feels really quite exciting.
The International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights has opened in Geneva, Switzerland. I’ve bought my week pass and reserved my seats for a fascinating line-up of films. Inevitably, the majority of my selection is composed of extremely serious and sobering films, and I am bracing myself for a week of learning, and being infuriated and saddened. Yet last night I had the pleasure to watch a wonderful, uplifting, funny and beautiful film that I can only urge you to go and see. It will be shown again on Monday the 7th of March at 18.45 at the Grütli. For those who do not live in Geneva, keep an eye out for “Trevligt Folk/Nice People” in upcoming film festivals close to you.
In a small town in the middle of nowhere in Sweden live three thousand Somali refugees. Having lived there for a few years now, they speak good Swedish, yet many of the locals are less than impressed by their presence. Their concerns are briefly voiced, “they don’t want to integrate”, “they hang around all day stealing bikes”, and “we feel invaded”. In comes Patrik Andersson, a local Swede with a flair for management and marketing, and a preference for wearing tight colourful trousers, crocodile boots and for dying his hair platinum. His wish is to integrate these men through the medium of sport, and to create an opportunity for Somalis and Swedes to interact. His idea is to train some of these young men in “bandy” (a type of ice-hockey), and for them to represent Somalia for the first time in the World Bandy Championship held in Siberia in nine months time.
Comedy is a strong component of this film: from scenes of the Somali men’s first time on ice, scrambling around like baby giraffes; to wacky yet endearing moments with Andersson who relaxes at the end of the day by driving through car washes; to phone calls to Somalia where bandy is referred to as “football on ice”. Comparisons to “Cool Runnings” are inevitable.
Yet the journey isn’t straightforward for these men. Some of them take practicing more seriously than others, and a lack of commitment initially slows the team down. They start off sitting in a classroom, touching a hockey stick for the first time, and stumbling around forest paths on rollerblades, spending more time on the ground than actually moving forward. The stakes are high to demonstrate their capabilities: the team leader reminds them that they must practice and concentrate, so that the townspeople can see that they are not a burden, and a local businessman, originally from Hong Kong, sponsors their efforts and asks them to do their best “to prove that immigrants aren’t shit”. Some of the men take the opportunity with great pride. My favourite scene was of the eldest team player, who struggled the most with balance, practicing rollerblading while pushing his daughter in a pram down the grey wet Swedish streets at dusk. The directors get close to several of the men, who describe their stories of escaping war-torn regions of Somalia and missing terribly their family members who were unable to follow. One young man is asked what the best thing about Sweden was, his response was that the possibility of having a future was exceptional.
The championship in Siberia hosts a series of experiences for the Somali bandy team, some surreal, hilarious and others infuriating. They experience both racism and solidarity from the locals, good sportsmanship and cheating maneuvers from opposing teams. Although I won’t spoil the outcome of the team’s journey, I can assure you that it does involve them skating around a Siberian ice-rink, representing their country and holding up a Somali flag, with white frost stuck to their long dark eyelashes.
The message of “Nice People” has been told before: sport can be a way to integrate and unite people living together. This is not an intellectual film, and the slickness of its filming and production may hide an intent of the filmmakers to convey a particular political message. Yet in an age when reports of hostilities between locals and immigrants is high, and the refugee debate is so toxically politicised, an uplifting film about an earnest effort to create integration and human connection in a Swedish town is more than welcome. I left the cinema emotional and humbled, and ready to participate in local initiatives that would bring me closer to those inhabiting my city.
Nice People will be shown again on Monday at 18.45 at the Grütli, at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights, Geneva.
Carolyn and I spent our childhoods on stretches of wild, beautiful Scottish beaches, clambering over rocks and coming home in the evening with tangles in our hair. When at the age of ten I moved to Switzerland, and Carolyn then moved further north, we kept in contact through parcels, containing loaned books and letters of reading recommendations. The cost of posting such heavy goods certainly took a toll on our piggy banks, but the glee of receiving a good book recommended by a friend wrapped in brown paper does not begin to match that of receiving a Facebook inbox notification. A decade or so down the line, it is only fitting that my first post on this shared blog of inspiring gems is about books and beaches.
“Buddha in the Attic”, written by Julie Otsuka in 2011, is the type of book that needs a recommendation, another one, and then a few more. It’s a book that should be passed around until tatty and sellotaped on the spine, compulsory reading at school, even surreptitiously printed in instalments on billboards of bus stations, just so that everyone gets to read it. It’s the story of the Japanese women who arrived as picture brides on the shores of San Francisco in the early 1900s. These women leave Japan by boat, meet the strangers who become their husbands and settle into their new lives in a foreign land. They suffer unspeakable abuse and violence, and navigate economic hardship and local hostility. Years go by, and as they finally start to build stable livelihoods and roots in the US, the war breaks out. Fear of the enemy leads to the establishment of labour camps for Japanese residents in the US, and the women are on the move again.
What is truly remarkable about the novel, is that rather than being told through one or several narrators, each sentence tells a different women’s story. Each destiny is entirely unique, each experience distinct, yet the variety of voices results in a chorus. It feels entirely feasible for the reader to imagine their own destiny somewhere amongst this chorus, as each woman’s story is so different from each other’s as they are to our very own. It becomes evident through reading if war were to come, how easily I could find myself as an enemy in a foreign land, how people could become suspicious of me and how fear could create deathly divisions in my community. Within the symphony of these voices, my position of safety as a reader is broken down, as one of these voices could be mine. The quiet voices of these women have a lot to teach us about fear, division and the necessity of questioning our relationship with “the other”. This book is truly a masterpiece; innovative, yet unassuming.
My second book recommendation for early 2016 is a good crunchy and satisfying story, the perfect tome for a bookworm to bring on holiday. “Purity” by Jonathan Franzen may be a bestseller, but as so many people asked me what the big brick I was carrying with me was, I felt I could justify a recommendation. Franzen is a controversial author to say the least, and reviews for Purity range from “Dickensian masterpiece” to “Irrelevant piece of shit”. It’s an epic novel involving a “Julian Assange-type” internet warrior, an investigative journalist digging into a conspiracy on nuclear weapons, a toxic marriage of gendered power struggles, a millennial graduate burdened with student loans, flashbacks to life of a high powered family in East Germany, mental illness and a hacking powerhouse hidden in a Bolivian forest. Franzen writes novels that are impossible to summarise and impossible to remember coherently what happened once the last page is turned. However, this complexity creates complete and fascinating characters, and their inner monologues provide endless entertainment. Make yourself a fabulous cocktail, get comfy, and enjoy the intellect and scathing wit of this skilled storyteller.
As to the beautiful beach to read these books at… Dreaming of the sea and warmth is a preferred pastime of mine on a rainy, cold February afternoon in Switzerland. At the beginning of the year, I was extremely lucky to visit a place that deserves a special mention under the “gem of happiness” category of recommendations. On a small island called Culebra, off Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, lies Playa Flamenco. To get there, the intrepid travellers must rise early at five am, queue at the ferry terminal at the far east of Puerto Rico and hope that they rose early enough to buy a golden ticket. The sleepier ones at the back of the line will have to wait for a cargo ship. After the hour-long ferry journey, the campers will board and tentatively balance their tents, sleeping bags, snorkeling gear, food coolers and boogie boards onto a little golf cart. With the wind in their hair, they drive on small windy roads over and across the green hills of the small island, past the tiny landing strip and small town. All equipment will be unloaded, carried past food shacks selling fried fish and plantains, past rudimentary toilets and open showers, and down a sandy track past tents under shady trees on one side and beach shrubs on the other. When a spot is finally found and the tent is pitched, the water supplies are already over, and the entire operation has taken nine hours.
The rewards for said travellers are found through the shrubs, on to the most exquisite beach that no photo can do justice to. The sand is cream in the bright sunshine, and silky and fine under the feet. Turquoise water, blue sky, reefs for snorkeling, surrounded by green, rolling hills, it ticks the Caribbean beach boxes. But even more magical are the white butterflies that dance over the water in pairs, and the shooting stars across the sky at night. On Playa Flamenco, I met wonderful souls, I was still and pensive, light and unburdened. It is a memory to treasure.