A Walk About Town: Part One

What else can you do when invited to embark on a treasure hunt but tie up your boots straps and set off on the adventure, keeping your eyes open at every turn. Marching down the main street in Aberdeen city centre a couple days ago I set off with a smile on my face and an open mind ready to get engaged.

Promising to “challenge the way we all see the Granite City“, the Look Again Festival has certainly done just that and I must write to the organisers and pass on my congratulations. Subtle yet creatively conspicuous in the city, the diverse programme of exhibitions and events spread out beyond the confines of the city centre to one of the university campuses and a number of art spaces in the surrounding area. As a pedestrian this was the perfect introduction to the small galleries whose existence had been unknown to me prior to this weekend, with the keen volunteers at hand to offer directions and navigate highlights at the different sites.

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Starting my cultural trail with perhaps the most accessible project, the ‘Mirrored Pavilion’ situated was in the Castlegate and beautifully reflected the historical architecture of the area. Designed by Lucy Fisher, second year architecture student and winner of the Look Again Architecture Design Competition, the bold and elegant sculpture caught the eye, draws the attention of the public into the festival vibe, as well as played the pivotal role as information hub for the festival and exhibition space for the Look Inside Design Collective. I found the ‘Mirrored Pavilion’ to be charming, prominent without being ostentatious and I saw how it caught the attention of members of the public more often inclined to keep on walking whilst minding their own business; the perfect focal point to catalyse enthusiasm and promote the ethos of the Look Again Festival.

Sharing the Castelgate location, the ‘Diabolical Dance‘ installation found particularly poignant staging at the Mercat Cross. Shelagh Brown, a final year Contemporary Art
Tactics student at Gray’s School of Art here in Aberdeen, created a hauntingly moving spectacle which drew inspiration from the history of the city. Twenty-four pairs of shoes, embedded in concrete, were position around the Mercat Cross to represent twenty-four named witches in Aberdeen in 1596 and 1597 accused of ‘dancing round the Mercat Cross as Halloween’. I was unfortunately unable to make it to the official talk with the artist at the Town House but had the good fortune of meeting Shelagh Brown herself at the actual site of the installation and a short discussion with her gave fascinating insight into the thought process behind the piece.

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Little fun fact, a number of the pairs of shoes used as moulds were the artist’s own, including the fur lined boots she was wearing when we met. The cast and sculpted pairs of concrete shoes actualise the ‘impossibility of defence against the accusations’ and cleverly invite an audience to feel the weight of such persecution and empathise for the victims, centuries on but not without forbearance on modern times. By asking the public to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, I think Brown wonderfully connected with the sentiments of Look Again Festival and I applaud her for doing so in such a modest and gracefully striking way.

Feeling Inspired

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I set out today to my favourite spot to write, a little café tucked down a side street in the less fashionable end of town. Stationed on a large, wooden up-cycled communal table I set up office with black coffee and a delicious wholemeal scone as big as a man’s fist. The weather outside had subdued from intense hailstones coming at you at a sideways tilt to thick, fluffy flakes of snow giving a whole new meaning to the image of April showers.

I do not love the city that I live in. I do the best with what I have, if you put out positive vibes in life you’re more likely to feel positive vibes back in return, but Aberdeen is lacking as cities go. Where other Scottish cities are applauded for their integrated and dynamic cultural heart amidst a hubbub of commerce and trade, Aberdeen is like the poor relation in the family tree. In recent years something has gone awry, and the Granite City has lost her sparkle.

I set out this morning to have a day to myself, to get out of the house and to go find inspiration. And lo’, inspiration I did so happily find in the form of a poster advertising a festival of visual art and design here in Aberdeen this very weekend. The by-line for the Look Again Festival: “become a tourist in your own city”, caught my attention hook, line and sinker, and before I had even finished my coffee I had looked the festival up online, plotted out a map of the projects sites around the city centre, and set off on a treasure hunt. Seek and you will find.

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The Look Again Festival premiered in 2015 as part of a three-year project to showcase the best of visual art and design from the north east of Scotland. Recognising that the region was “crying out for a large scale festival celebrating its innovative visual art and design projects” the cultural community combined forces and resources. The festival seeks to encourage creative connections locally, nationally and internationally, and support and promoting the existing and next generation of artists and designers here in the north east.

Having spent many years looking at this city in a certain light, I want to give it a chance to change my mind a little and open my eyes to the creativity and cultural atmosphere that I always felt Aberdeen has been missing. I intend to follow the motto in the by-line, to become a tourist in this city and the Look Again festival is a fantastic platform to help me see the potential Aberdeen has to offer. I hope to write another post in a couple days to reflect upon the exhibitions and creative spaces which I come across over the course of this weekend, and from what I’ve seen so far, I already have so much positive words to say.

For more information on the full festival guide take a look at the Look Again Festival website linked here.

Floor It

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As is so often the way, it came to mind seemingly from nowhere tonight, a memory which opened a door to another memory which sparked nostalgia for a moment of shared novice romance and silliness.

A number of years ago, whilst lying in the dark and still talking long passed the decision to turn out the light, my dear friend E. told me how she always loved the moment in our teenage years when I told her of how, when I grew up, I wanted to have a room in my house which would be near empty of furniture. In this room with wooden floorboards would sit a good sound system, a record player, and some really top notch speakers. The vision I had as a teenager, to spend my spare time in my future adult life zoned out of reality whilst lying on the ground zoned in to music, lived on long passed the teenage dreams, as well as the prematurely nostalgic reminiscing of my early twenties, to my far more ‘together’ mid-twenties and I still want that room in my own house. When E. told me then that she remembered something that I had said no doubt in adolescent off hand conversation about our hopes and dreams for life, I was touched that she thought that it was a significant remark, and that she was right to think so. I think it would be heavenly, and that’s just a little just something about me.

Tonight, I lay on the carpeted living room floor of my parent’s house at twilight, the daylight lingering thanks to the long anticipated Scottish spring. Track of choice to start the spiral of absorption into music was ‘Really Love’ by D’Angelo. Closing my eyes, with a smile on my face and in my heart I remembered the night he (the crush of the moment) first played that track to me as we hung out in the wee hours in his garage, after a night of ridiculous dancing and fairly hilarious unsteady cycling in the dark. Surrounded by beer cans, garden furniture and surfboards, me and that blonde man with the best smile in town, it was the Australian dream. We talked, we laughed, we shared music and the memory will always be special to me, that track will always take me back to that summer of fleeting novice romance and silliness.

Podcast Mania

“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.

Midori House

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.

Radiolab

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.

FP Editor’s Roundtable

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.

TED Radio Hour

“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.

Magic Lessons

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.

The Longest Shortest Time

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.

Radio Ambulante

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!

Values, actions and embracing slow fashion

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.

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Scene from the film “The True Cost”

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.

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Nice People: A Somali Ice Hockey team in Sweden

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.

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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.

Today

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It’s okay to find yourself cast adrift,
No one said so but you’ll see.
If only I had known that sooner.

Why opt for the storybook sequence of life,
A blueprint making no mention of the grittier details.
Give me the grit. Life is for living.

Pull down emotional barriers and just let the rest unfold.
Listen, stop talking. Stop over thinking your way through uncertainty.
Oh, to have an ocean full of oysters.

Always look on the bright side.
Smile, it might never happen.
You’ll never know if you don’t give it a go…
Give me the grit. Life is for living.

Oh The Possibilities…

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I spent a couple weeks at the end of last year in and around New York City, the city where dreams are made of. The city was shining at its festive brightest bedecked with twinkling lights and decorated to the nines in festive “holiday” cheer. It wasn’t my first visit to the big apple, so there were several sights I sought out to return to and a great number of new things yet to discover.

When visiting destination cities such as New York, I have my own little “must”’ for what to see and do, not the obvious tourist sights but the little rituals which for me really give a place its own identity. In London, I’ll stroll around a museum and find a little café to indulge in tea and a slice of cake; Paris calls for falafel pockets in the quirky third arrondissement with a glass of wine after shopping and perusing the book stalls along the Seine, and Bangkok cries out for trying pad thai bought on a busy street corner after spiritual contemplation in a temple and relaxing in the luscious, tropical gardens. With each little ritual in a new place, I imagine what it could be like to live solely in that moment and how life might unfold. It’s fun to connect with a place in this way, even if my time there is limited, taking in each detail and feeling very je ne sais quoi, very “insert location here”.

Engaging my imagination in this way opens my heart and mind to other possibilities not just for travel but in all aspects of life; a little self reflection goes a long way. If life can be likened to the longest journey we’ll embark upon, then we need to remind ourselves not to be unsettled by uncertainty nor fear change that will inevitably occur, but to dive in and embrace it all. On a small level this might mean we make the choice to try something new, we might be pleasantly surprised and we may even like it. Perhaps we’ll meet someone new, we’ll listen and learn from them and let them make an impression on our heart and mind. It becomes a very playful way to live life.

We will undoubtedly find ourselves face to face with serious and unalterable realities on our journey through life. Surely the only way to counter balance these sometimes harsh realities is to allow our minds to wander from time to time, to simply imagine what life could be like if we allowed it to unfold in a different way, even just as a supposition. So I invite you to pause, to relax for a moment and switch your mind off from what you’re doing to muse over how things could be…

Two Books and A Beach

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.

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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.

A Simple Introduction

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When thinking about starting a blog with my friend Suzy I mused over things that inspire me and make me happy, things which inspire happiness in my day-to-day life from various platforms no matter how insignificant they might seem. I make lists and spider diagrams for my thoughts when I need to make decisions and simplify life which extends from the running of daily errands and academic study, to going on holiday and moving abroad; the list, as they say, is indeed endless.

So in order to arrange my mind to even begin contemplating creative writing on a regular basis, I sourced myself a new notebook and etched “inspirations” inside a cloud outline on the middle of the first page. In no time at all the page began to span a monochromatic map of thoughts springing to the foreground of reflection upon my creative interests; avenues of inspiration which I would choose to share with others arranged together in a way that both makes me happy and also highlights my natural tendency towards organisation. Now I have a whole library of one word inspirations to help my mind single out simple joys to focus on when the chaos of everyday life starts to take residence and distract.

The second spider diagram in my new notebook asked me “why write/ why share?”, and a number of failed attempts have had to pass for me to reach a coherent conclusion: I want to write because I want to give time in my life to something “other”, something separate to my job, my friends, to trials and tribulations of adult life, and I have come to the realisation that writing as a creative expression brings a unique happiness to my life. Collaborating with my oldest friend to create a space where we can focus our attentions to the good, positive, and simple pleasures in the world sounds like a fun hobby, something we can share and do together despite living miles apart. The internet is an open platform, and has such a one-sided impact on our lives that we thought we should try to utilise the expansive space for something of our own.

So here we have it, a shared space for creative expression by taking a moment in the day to focus our attention on things which make us smile. We find inspiration in all aspects of life and see this as an opportunity to herald a great number of interests. To Suzy, I’m excited to start this new adventure together. To the reader, I hope you enjoy the pieces of writing which follow and that you, like us, find something amongst our writing that makes you smile.