So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

I finished my undergrad degree!

There are moments that I wish I had kept a diary for the past three years. It would have given me a more accurate record of my time as a student in England than my memories, which mostly seem to be based on long afternoons spent writing essays, broken up by absurd moments and conversations I’m not always sure actually happened.

However, the question I get most when I tell people I study abroad is not what it was like, but simply why I went.

It suffices to say I felt, and still do, that sometimes, taking a leap out into something completely unknown is the best way to get a grip on yourself, and hopefully find some direction. Beforehand, you never really know what is going to happen, despite all your expectations.

Living by yourself for the first time, especially in a different country, is pretty confrontational. My first night in Leicester I spent sobbing into a take-away curry. I wished my mom and dad would come back to take me home. My room was small, the other residents hadn’t arrived yet, and I was suddenly sure this was going to suck.

one of the first evenings, october 2010

one of the first evenings, october 2010

Long story short, it didn’t, and here’s what I got out of it (besides my degree and a great boyfriend):

The best things I’ve discovered have come, generally, when I’m not really looking for them, but from being open to other people, their interests and whims for random activities. I went to bars to see bands I had no particular interest in, attended a national football game, a Christmas world food market, bar crawls, Chinese supermarkets, a mock UN conference, and even a puppet show (in a misguided attempt to overcome my irrational fear of all things masked, perhaps?).

In particular, the flatmates I’ve had in shared university accommodation stand out, as  their personalities have turned out to be a luck-of-the-draw kind of thing. There was the Texan who showed us how to fill a watermelon with Vodka, a prissy French girl with ongoing boyfriend troubles, an anti-social Marxist with a limp, and one with no face or name but with a penchant for making off with other people’s possession, particularly my blue jeans.

I learned from the girl with the bird tattoos on her back that there is always a point in keeping at writing this blog, even when no one but my parents were reading it (thanks guys!), as a source of strength when you might feel alone or powerless. I met a boy who called himself a writer, and speedily found out he never wrote anything at all.  Chance encounters both, but I did take away something from these that I couldn’t have picked up from just going to my classes:

I learned that I love to write,  and that doing so daily makes my thinking clearer, helps me work through problems, keeps my eyes open when I’m going around my day, makes me listen closer to what people say,  and gives me a ream of ideas to draw from when I’m stuck.

It is never one decision that turns your life around but rather the habits we make our own, and the people we spend time with.

“We are what we repeatedly do.” (Aristotle)

20120101_152651

Goodbye, spring-time campus!

What good things have come your way this year?

[on another note, I will be away on holiday for about 10 days or so. I’ll be back with some stories, pictures and a post on how to keep a journal, so I’ll see you then!]

Five Dragons, No Teeth: Why I Need a Hero

Dear readers, it’s time for a confession. I’ve finally come back to reading novels after a busy period, only to instantly have my heart trod on by my ex-favourite (recent) fantasy series. I have done some soul searching since, and I’ve realized that I need a hero.

A_Dance_With_Dragons_USThe devilish heart breaker in this case is George R.R. Martin and his series A Song of Ice and Fire, which is now also airing on HBO (A Game of Thrones) and so hugely popular that I was convinced to take  A Dance with Dragons, the 5th book in the series,  off my shelf. I’ll try not to discuss the plot for those of you still enjoying the tv series, but I have just reached the half-way mark (at 680 pages) and it’s pretty safe to say I won’t be sticking around for the end.

Why? Well, I foresee some pretty big plot problems, but that’s not the reason. For that, we need to go deeper.  Much of the reason I liked the series, and a lot of other people with me judging by how well the series has done on HBO, were the characters. For those who havent read the books, they cleverly set up a cast of about 8 main characters or so, and dedicate every chapter to a different characters’ point of view (POV). This is clever, because :

1.) It keeps the tension going by ending chapters on cliffhangers,  getting you to keep reading just to get back to that thread of the story.

2.) Because every chapter is written from a different perspective, it enables you to get to know a set of characters very well and feel closely involved with them, while also widening the story by shifting between geographical locations and periods in time.

Thanks, George. (meme thanks to diylol.com)

Thanks, George. (meme thanks to diylol.com)

It also means that technically, any one character is expendable, something George Martin has gratefully made use of (particularly if their name was Stark). Some fans are now complaining that the shock factor of all these sudden deaths is wearing off, but I don’t think that’s really the issue a lot of us have with books 4 and 5.  What is beginning to really get to me is that even the surviving characters aren’t as compelling as they used to be, caught – sometimes quite literally- in places of deep inertia, utterly unable to find their way out of the mire GRRM has created for them. When they have changed, it has so far only been for the worse.

Beginning with the eponymous Dragons, for instance. I’m not spoiling anything if I say that half-way through A Dance, there hasn’t been one meaningful scene featuring Daenerys and her dragons. This means that the girl, previously the teenager who raised three mythical creatures from fossilized eggs and conquered cities, now sits around snivelling and behaving like the average sixteen year old would. No change, no progress.

Meanwhile, another character who shall not be named here sets off on a drunken mockery of the Odyssey, cursing a lot and bemoaning something that happened hundreds of pages ago over and over again. After a while, you will be praying for the ship to sink, no matter how much you previously liked them.

I have realized that to truly enjoy a book, I do in fact need a hero, no matter how edgy, complex or flawed characters are. By hero, I mean a character who is still human enough to involve you in their hopes and fears and ultimately rise to the challenge presented by the plot by taking action, even if they must eventually be defeated. Inertia, on the other hand, makes villains of the best of anyone’s fictional creations.

Or, to quote that other pop cultural phenomenon, “you must die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Will you be returning for The Winds of Winter (book 6), if it ever comes out?

220px-Bat-signal_1989_film

source; wikipedia

Little Boxes, Personal Spaces

What do you do when you’re tired? And I don’t mean the kind of weariness you can just sleep off in a night, but the kind that makes you feel mentally stretched across too many projects, until your creative energy just fizzles out. All the words I would’ve written are probably stuck in limbo somewhere like in the movie Inception, and the ones that I do think of pop ineffectively,  like an obnoxious teenager blowing gum.

I’ve spent the last few months in little boxes, living in a yellowish room a couple of square feet big with all my possessions piled on top of each other. Most of the time, I’ve been working at essay assignments that require the same structures-  introduction, premises, argument, conclusion. My neighbours all live in similar spaces, with the walls so thin I can listen to their music videos or Chinese broadcasts.

little houses over the hill side

little houses over the hill side

As I’m working through the last of my assignments, everything begins to seem a  bit surreal. It doesn’t help that there’s this very annoying little song on a tv advert I hear a lot lately, which features badly animated cardboard boxes floating around while a woman sings:

And the people in the houses / all went to the universities/ where they were put in boxes / and they came out all the same

Pretty ironic considering they’re trying to sell us phone contracts, but even more so that they’ve forgotten that the whole point of this university thing is to learn how to think critically.

But it is not an easy thing to stay creative when your days are spent solving set problems until you’re so tired you can’t think straight. Maybe this is why I love to write fiction – because it’s all mine, and there are no expectations.

Better yet, there are no rules. If I want to take those boxes and turn them inside out and fold their parts back and paint them orange, no one’s going to stop me.

Personal space, to me, is about that moment of silence between the things you think and say, a lack of  stress and clutter, thinking about things without any direction.

I wish I was able to do this

I wish I was able to do this

It’s the space memory and imagination work best in, which I sift through to refill these boxes for later use, like the Pensieve in Harry Potter.  These are the things I would put in ;

A fox on white feet in the road at night,

the coincidences that bring different people to the same town, a rainy spring day and the smell of moist earth, green dollars bills stapled to the wooden ceiling of a Virginia bar, orange peels, a brown cow chewing dried grass along a Pyrenees trail, sitting on a park bench with my chin on your shoulder

unstoppable laughter at an inappropriate moment, a snake tattoo across a man’s calf, the deer that come out to graze in the woods behind the house when they think no one is watching, a tropical fish with a bump on its head, rain on the canals, red paper lanterns, handwritten postcards with a silly picture on the front.

I’ll be writing again – soon.

Take Me Out

The low sun’s crowding us out of the cafe, blazing through the glass walls on three sides. The lamps come on with their artificial yellow light to remind us all we’re still in the library – ‘silent, academic, serious’ – except it’s not silent at all, but crowded with students chatting on the brown sofas. These sofas are worn, like old beasts of burden, their leather hides badly stitched together around sagging bodies, and faintly ridiculous in the modern grey interior. I like to sit at the raised bar at the serving counter, where the same ladies in black aprons serve coffee every day, with a view of the tables at the window. A pair of builders wearing identical fleece sweaters is sitting next to me. They look lost, while the Mandarin spoken at the next table cheerfully drowns out their occasional one-line grunts.

A woman dressed in a red cardigan is leaning across the one of the round tables to better make out what her companion is saying. She stands out among the grey slacks and subdued hipster knits, her  blonde hair flying out to all sides as if she has been running her ringed fingers through it all day long. She is tapping a fire-red pen against her painted nails, as if she matched the colour with her outfit on purpose. I can’t tell if that is a good sign for the young man she is sitting with. He is bent over the table, trying to involve the woman in what he is saying, waving his right hand as he speaks. His stub nose turns up cutely at the tip, spoiling the impression of his crisp white shirt and tie. Two notebooks and an empty coffee cup are stacked in the space between them like a small castle. She is careful to rest her arms on her half, but the look she gives him across the open pages is alive with interest. She passes a hand over her chin, settles it back on the table, and cups her face again as like she’s trying to hide the slight sag of skin around her jaw line. The conversation falls still for a moment. Under the bright cafe lamps I see the glint of a gold ring around his finger, polished as if new.

A large photograph of the Queen hangs on the wall over my shoulder, not far from a framed advert for the original ham & cheese panini. The university’s red emblem is lost in the top left corner,  the cheese dripping through the frame and around a printed banner promising us it’s Back by Popular Demand. I study the Queen, who is looking somewhat bemused with her hands crossed in front of her white dress, as if she is guarding the tall gilded door in the background. Her name is signed in green ballpoint on the picture’s white border, the E curling up in salute to her photographed self. I wonder what she would think of us now, as I get up to slide past the woman in red.

Queen_Elizabeth_II

kind-of-creepy portrait courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


This week’s writing exercise over at the daily post – absolutely swamped with work over here so writing this from the library. I live here now…

Hack my life, please

What do you do when you find yourself at a point in your life when you can make any one of a dozen choices, and you know each one will carry you down a path you can’t reverse and that will impact your life significantly?

When I was younger, I used to own a few of those “choose your own adventure” books. They usually were something along the lines of “for dragons, turn to page 36; for a dinner date with Mark, page 18.” I found these books upsetting, because this meant that I’d compulsively spend the next four hours following through every single choice pattern, all leading to somewhat disappointing pay-offs (Mark dumps you at a McDonald’s drive-through). Oh god, is this what my choices are going to be like?

If you're lucky this kind of stuff happens in your adventure book, but usually it doesn't turn out so great. (Picture credit Pixar)

If you’re lucky this kind of stuff happens in your adventure, but usually it doesn’t turn out so great. (Picture credit Pixar)

I’m finishing my BA degree this summer, which means I get to move town and country again, choose a master’s degree, and  wonder what will  become of my relationship. It’d be enough to give anyone a lump in their throat. But, when things get too much, I find the internet a reassuring place to be- especially the websites dedicated to so-called “life hacks”.

Life hacks are simple solutions to your everyday problems and annoyances, usually made from household objects; tennis ball-pegs for the eternally lost car keys and frozen grapes to cool white wine without watering it down.They make me wish everything was that easy and practical, just a brief oh-why-didn’t-I think-of-that moment away. Application letter to a university? Write your letters in green ink and tell them how you love books.

life-hacks-how-to-make-your-life-easier-18

Mind Blown. Why don’t have we have these for everything? (Picture: theboredpanda.com)

Sometimes, I get the feeling that I don’t really know anything at all. I wonder how I should be making my choices (rational schemes, intuitive leaps?) or even give advice to others facing similar decision. But then, of course I did learn a hand full of things by now. Call them my personal hacks:

That if you screw up today, and feel like you want to die – chances are you’ll laugh about it tomorrow. Celt is always pronounced with a hard C, unless you’re talking about football. Always ask questions – ”no” can’t hurt you. The first draft of everything is shit.

Always write in your own voice (if you don’t know how to do that, read what you wrote aloud). Don’t drink milk when you have a cold. If the deadline of an academic essay is coming up, only read the first and last paragraphs of articles and book chapters for the argument- the rest is just proof. Real tragedy lies in ignorance (ask Oedipus). Be loyal to your friends.

Camping is an inexpensive way to travel, especially in countries so warm you hardly need to eat. Ink from a bottle is cheaper than fountain pen cartridges.  And, finally – never be afraid to choose.

———————

How do you deal with stress and difficult choices?

“Iconic” – Penelope’s gift

Ithaka, Greece (2008)

Ithaka, Greece (2008)

As she weaves the faces of the gods into the  fabric of the funeral shroud, she listens for the rush of the tide and the wind in the top of the olive trees. Most days the bay is silent but for the laughter of  the fishermen and the slapping of their nets on the pebbles, but sometimes the snap of sails on a bigger ship make her sit up and drop the spool from her hands. She has imagined her husband returning many times, leaping onto the beach, his hair laced with salt and grey, perhaps, but he has not come.

The old king Laertes sits outside in the shade of a tree, resting his trembling fingers on the head of an equally aged dog. The younger men tolerate his presence because his milky eyes, covered in a gelatine layer of film, don’t see much of what goes on in his hall, and they all agree he isn’t long for the world. There is nothing she can do for her father-in- law; yet his coming death is the pretext for delaying her second marriage, for all the hours she spends alone, up in the small room facing eastwards, weaving a shroud she does not intend to finish.

Some days, she wakes up feeling a slight disturbance, as if something is off about the island, and its reality is slowly becoming undone around the smallest nicks and flaws in its fabric – like someone is pulling the thread of their story on to a different course. Objects move around and disappear, only to turn up on the beach or in her clothes chest. A gnarled old tree that was felled by a winter storm in the first year of her marriage reappears in a different spot on the hillside, but when she points it out to her maids they shake their heads and say things are the same, the way they have always been.

At night she listens to the roar of the men drinking in her hallway, probably laughing about her skirts and her son they love to wind up, sending him scurrying furiously up the stairs. When she is sure they are truly drunk, she steals out of the bedroom and down the hall. The shroud sits ominously on its frame, a shadow against the stars outside. She lights a torch and the flame dances across the weave, illuminating the maze of King Minos and the glowering face of the beast inside.

The eyes of the minotaur shine yellow in the halfdark, the pupil a dark slit, more like a snake’s cold stare than a bull’s. When the textile flutters under her touch it looks like its nostrils widen and fall with the force of its breathing, sniffing out its prey.  She slips her fingers under the thread, coaxing out the ocean blue and dun strands until the monster unravels and drops away harmlessly, leaving Theseus alone with a jagged string into the labyrinth. Heroes walk along the centre of her shroud, Hercules waving his club and loved by everyone, even the gods.

Nearer to the bottom Laertes himself is sitting on a throne, cross-legged and mellow. Odysseus stands beside his father. His face is turned away, towards the sea, obscured by his thick mane of curls. If she closes her eyes, she catches glimpses of what he was like – a mocking half-smile, or the corners of his dark eyes crinkling with laughter – but the face never comes into focus, remaining hazy, so unlike the man. For the first time, she wonders how he will be remembered, if he should be dead at sea.

Penelope strokes the weave and then pulls the thread loose, watching her husband fall in a tangle among the icons at her feet. When the sun comes up over the mountain, the maids will come and spin the colours of the heroes back onto the spools, to be reassembled during the days. Silently, she slides back through the hall on her bare feet, vowing that his name – Odysseus- will be remembered as the name of a  hero, even if her own must pale and unravel over the years like one of her tapestries.

????????????

Taken as we were sailing somewhere between the Ionian islands, Greece – possibly on the way to Lefkas

Written for the Weekly writing challenge. This week’s theme was ‘iconic’. I chose Greece  because particularly the Homeric epics are an icon of story-telling to me. They make me wonder about all the moments that aren’t described in the Iliad and the Odyssee – and of course, for the stunning landscapes  🙂

English for Expats : 3 signs you’re not fitting in

I originally started writing blogs when I moved to England, to keep the homefront updated on my adventures. Of course, this early blog died a quick death due to the 101 other distractions that came with exploring a new country, but it was also written in my native Dutch, which I found couldn’t quite capture the challenge to my English language skills living in Britain has at times presented.

Britain is rightly famous for its linguistic eccentricities, and its wide range of accents and (slang) vocabularies provide a never-ending source of entertainment and inspiration. However, we all get that moment when something just doesn’t feel quite right and the conversation comes to a stutttering halt. And if you’re anything like me, it’s likely to be for any one of these three reasons:

1. From the Rain in the Drip
(Translating expressions to English that only exist in your native language)

All nationalities tend to do this, but in Holland we are generally a bit overconfident about our English, with sometimes embarrassing results. I’m not even joking when I say people call this brand of Dutch English “Dunglish” – and it’s hilarious. A popular passtime here in Holland is collecting the blunders of your colleagues and friends for everyone’s entertainment in books or on the internet. My favourites include:

“we should stop coffee thick looking” (we should stop guessing)

“I have not fallen on my behind head!” (I’m not stupid)

“The meeting is walking out” (The meeting is running late)

“Please thank your cock for the excellent meal” (Unfortunately, ”kok” is Dutch for cook…)

1450_07_9---Clogs--Keukenhof--Holland-The-Netherlands_web

we’re also real good at fashionable footwear.

2. Oi, W*nker. (You’re careless with your insults)

I know, I know. The best thing about any new language is without a doubt learning all the best swear words  (you don’t want to know how many times I’ve been asked for the Dutch for the F-word by now) As it happens, English has an enormous range to choose from, especially to describe the  male genitalia. While words like “bollocks” or “bell end” are pretty generally applicable, it’s surprisingly easy to take it too far, particularly if you speak in a Germanic accent.

In fact, the art of the British insult lies in slipping it by your victim unnoticed. You should always beware the understatement (“we have a bit of a problem” is code for “a catastrophe”) but nothing stings like the the back-handed compliment, and the isles have mastered it.

So the next time someone tells you, “wow, you speak English much better than I expected”, give it some pause before saying thank you.

Sherlock understands this stuff. Watch the BBC more.

Sherlock understands this stuff.

3. Come again? (Local accents confuse you)

Oh, god, I’m really bad with this one. Let’s say I was really not prepared for the enormous range of accents between different parts of England. They’re everywhere, tv, on the bus, the people you meet during the week. And naturally, every geographic region uses its own slang as well. Ever heard of a “Scouser”? No, I hadn’t, either.

On the other hand, all these different ways of speaking give the UK a lot of colour, and you will never cease to hear something that surprises you.  To quote David Mitchell, who is a much better dialect writer than most:

The relationship between dialect and place [is] really rich. I can’t think about the North of England without thinking about the Northern accent… because of course the grammar is different too. Dialect is a landscape feature.

But fear not, for the British Library has an entire website dedicated to telling the difference between a cob and a scuffler, and tracing the connection between the ‘Geordie shore’ and Scandinavian Vikings (we ain’t got nowt). It makes for some fascinating listening and, more importantly, will prevent you from “standing with your mouth full of teeth” the next time you ride the London tube or accidentally find yourself in Liverpool.

And you thought you guys on the Jersey shore had it hard?

And you thought you guys on the Jersey Shore had it hard? Try the Geordie Shore

What has your most awkward foreign experience been? Let me know in the comments!