Save me

My feminist self would have never in a million years imagined to hear me say these words, but I’ve reached the point in my life when I come to terms with the fact that there’s a wound that no one will ever heal.  And it’s something that I don’t often talk about, because I wish it was healed but it’s not.

A year and a half ago my partner and I filed for adoption in the country we lived in.  We got through most of the process and were ready to meet our baby girl when we were told that it wasn’t going to happen.  For a stupid bureaucratical reason.  We would have been amazing parents, she would have been saved from a life of misery (and please refrain from commenting “you don’t know that”: it’s my job, I know that) and yet it didn’t work out.  We even picked a name for her.  We bought her clothes, we read books about what to do with babies, we learnt how to change diapers, we made plans.

This keeps haunting me.  It’s not my fault, it’s nobody’s fault, but I still think of her every day, she’s almost two now. I try not to think about what my life would be like with her, but the truth is that it would probably be happier.  I would be more settled, quieter and less in the constant search for something.  I wouldn’t be running, I wouldn’t be reckless, I wouldn’t be as professionally successful and French Village Boy wouldn’t have found a place in my life and in my heart.

I’m currently attending a training in Europe, on my way here I watched a movie on the plane without much expectation.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s own way it’s a little gem – I will talk about cultural shock in my next post.

There’s a specific scene that has really hit me: in a church the American lady travelling with the French man (the two main characters) explains how she lost a child 39 days after he was born.  She then parted from a her first husband, who didn’t cope with the pain in the same way she did and married someone else and had another child, but she never forgot that one, gone so long ago.

In the church she says something that resonated with me: “When I’m in a church I always light a candle for Virgin Mary, only who has lost a child can understand how it feels to lose a child”.

I haven’t technically lost my child because I never held her in my arms or carried her in me, but I dreamt about her, I bought her clothes, I worried about her cultural shock of being from one country, being raised by parents from two different countries and in a number of other countries, I worried about her health when I learnt she was sick, I pre-worried about when she would have friends and fight with them, I pre-worried about racism against her, I pre-worried about the men who would see in her only a pretty Asian girl and planned ways to prepare her to fight back.

I did lose a child.  And I’m inclined to believe that the root of some of the big issues (bigger than French Village Boy, but that include him) come from the sense of loss and loneliness I felt after that.  My partner suffered, in his own way, and then moved on.  I didn’t move on and probably blamed him, albeit subconsciously, for not being closer to me and feeling my same pain.  But can someone ever feel the same pain?  Can pain be measured?  Can pain come out years later, as something that was forgotten in a drawer and suddenly comes out?

I recently found out that a friend of mine is pregnant.  She has been very close at a certain time in my life, one of those friendship that grow strong very fast more due to the circumstances than to the actual similarities between two people.  She is very different to me and I have been mostly a support to her than an actual friend. I needed a friend who didn’t belong to my professional context (as it turns our humanitarians ALWAYS hang out with other humanitarians) and she needed someone who would behave as friend, without a hidden agenda.

I don’t have a good relationship with several new age techniques (or rather blunt appropriation of millennia-old philosophies, like Qi Gong, Tai Chi and the likes) and therefore I tend to process change while running.  Running in Africa comes with a perk: life around you.  If in the West people have dedicated places for running, or the most narcissistic choose to run in the middle of the shopping areas of their towns (honestly dude, you are just showing off), in Africa there are no running tracks, often not even sidewalks, so you run where you can.

Running in your neighbourhood can be quite an experience.  First of all because of the pace, most of us usually drive everywhere and miss the details of life around us.  Of course we notice a beautiful tree in full bloom, but we miss the lady selling roasted corn on the side of the road, the stray dog with a litter of puppies behind a bush or the massive stork nest on top of your head.

These are the small things that, while I run, put the problems I went to run to process back into perspective.  Life is beautiful, not because of the big scheme of things, it’s beautiful for the small things that decorate it. Quite possibly Life can be compared to an average apartment in a very average neighbourhood, but what you manage to see around you, the details you can grasp, make it a dream home or a shithole.

The other thing you notice when running in Africa is that the only one person out of context is you.  Whether you run to lose weight or to steam out stress, anger, frustration, no one around you shares your same concerns.  Most people around you don’t have such sophisticated problems (and the fact that your problems are sophisticated, in this context, is unflattering, trust me) and, by the end of your run, if you have looked around you, this difference affects you.



You looked better as an hypothesis

I took a few days to reflect about where I am and where I am going, a rekindled friendship with French Village Boy –who seemed genuinely interested in my next career moves and took an unexpected interest in me being stranded in Amsterdam- has forced me to take a deep breath and look at things as they are.

Everything about French Village Boy is appealing to me: his literary tastes, (to a certain extent) his music tastes, his sense of humour, his fast-paced intelligence.  And yet he is so much better in an hypothetical world than in the reality of his day to day life.  Which is what he chose, and I am no one to judge, but I have this feeling about him, that he is a perfectly fit general turning their back on all the wars to fight in the world.  He would tell you he simply chose a different war, and to be fair a vast part of me envies his balance.

I would love to be able to plan a life in one place, pick my battle and fight it until the end.  Instead I’m a mercenary, not for money but for the adrenaline rush, and my battles may seem driven by the final objective but really they are mostly driven by novelty.  I want to change the world I live in, yes, I want to fight side by side with women to ensure that by the end of my life, meaningful steps towards gender equity will be achieved, but I’m unable to stick to one thing.  As soon as I arrive in a new country I start looking at where I would like to go next, as soon as I start a job I start applying for others.  I’m restless.  And reckless.

And the fact that I get so upset at all of French Village Boy’s wasted talent for wanting do his bit, while carving out enough space for himself, to go surfing, probably comes from the fact that I wish I was able to do the same.

The truth is that I live for passion (which has the same root as patience – being able to feel pleasure comes from the same essence as being able to suffer while waiting) and unless I wake up with a fish tank full of sharks in my head, maybe not every morning, but often enough, I really struggle to keep up.  In order to have the highest of peaks, which I live for, I need to go into the deepest of depths.

I could train myself to be different, I guess, to equalize my expectations and feelings, flatten out the peaks but also raise those depths.  But once that is done, once I have learnt to keep a job for several years, I have friends that don’t change cyclically, once I have a lease agreement for a house that lasts longer than a year, what’s left of me?  Who am I without my peaks and depths?

I would like to find out but I’m also scared, and I envy French Village Boy, and for a time I thought that if I had to embark on this journey I could only do it with him, but the truth is that I don’t want the journey.  Or the outcome. Not yet.

“You looked better as an hypothesis” and “a fish tank full of sharks in the head” come from this song by Italian band Lo Stato Sociale.

We are siblings of the same pain

It was a simple realization, I was running the other day and it just hit me.  I need pain.

It’s not some emo phase, I had to keep running and think about what had crossed my mind to fully understand what I meant.

My friends have prompted me to meet other people to try and push French Village Boy out of my mind.  They know about all my healing path (urban parcour, rather, considering the piroettes and face smashes that stand between me and “getting over” French Village Boy) and they are convinced that another person would ease the pain and eventually make me re-define FVB for what he has been: a pleasant four days in the French countryside.

What most people struggle to see – and don’t get me wrong, I have no answers, I struggled to see it more clearly until a couple of days ago- is that the connection between me and him has been sparked ten years ago and rekindled a few months ago by the need I have to find someone who understands my pain.

As Tolstoj says “All happy families look alike, but every unfortunate family is unfortunate in its own way”: the same goes for pain.  Everybody thinks that their pain is more piercing, more intense, more difficult to overcome.  Over the years I discovered that more or less we all suffer the same amount of pain, but we suffer it in different ways.

I lost my father when I was 17, which in itself was a horrific amount of pain, but what came after is what shaped me and took me the remaining fifteen years to overcome.  The next fifteen years are the void I need to recognize in someone else’s eyes to be able to trust them with my heart.  And once that agony is recognized in the other person it becomes very difficult for me to detach myself from them.  It’s about finding comfort in pain, it’s about knowing that even without speaking the other person knows exactly what you are desperate about.

It’s not about sadness, not about having a bad day.  When the void manages to grab you again, after a period of relative tranquillity, it does it with claws, and right into your guts.  There’s nothing you can do about it, but let it rip you apart, until it’s done with you and moves on.  You have no control over the void, the best you can do is to wait until it has torn you apart and got tired of you.

Perseus. My liver is being torn to shreds by a pain I can’t describe, and it feels – it felt- comforting to know that next to me there was a person who didn’t need to ask, but looked me in the eye and took me for a walk.  French Village Boy has been through a similar pain, and though it’s not my place to disclose details of his personal life, I can tell that all this running to finally end up in a small village between the sea and the forest is his way of finding a safe haven.

It hurts to say that I don’t know him well enough to tell whether this is really a final destination, or simply a shelter from the storm.  I know that all the safe havens I had thought I found in my life have turned out to be temporary solutions, because when the storm is inside you there is no shelter strong enough to keep it at bay, there is nowhere to run.

The reason why I struggle to find other people interesting, in the end, is because fortunately the world is full of people who have gone through some degree of pain but in a physiological way.  They have overcome it and they worry about other things.  They may be angry, stressed, frustrated, but they are not unarmed facing an enemy.  We are.  And we ran for long enough to have learnt how to deal with the beast on a day to day basis, but let’s not fool ourselves.  We deal with it only because the beast lets us, not because we are stronger than it is.

Astral connections

“Zahir means, in Arabic, visible, present, unable to go unnoticed. Someone or something that, once it has established a connection, ends up inhabiting our thoughts little by little, up to the point there is nothing else we can concentrate on.  And that can be considered sanctity, or folly”

– Paulo Coelho, The Zahir

I have been swinging between maintaining a friendly relationship with French Village Boy and avoiding contact with him.  Partly because I wanted him to look for me and partly because I needed to put space, mostly mental, between us.  The other day he sent me a picture of a dawn, beautiful and pink, very romantic.  The irrational side of me thought he was thinking of me as he was talking a walk at dawn, whereas the more rational side of me thought it’s just a picture followed by the question: who was he awake with, to watch sunrise?

The thing is, as much as I try to put space between us, something about him keeps coming back. In an attempt to look for change (the irrational kind of change – move move move as long as moving keeps you from staying still) I have applied for a job in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and got an interview.  As I applied for it my mind was split into two: on the one side I felt empowered as I may be embarking on a journey with no return, on the other I am terrified because I may be spiraling down a journey with no return.

Same journey with no return, different feelings about it.

In order to prepare for the interview, which I’m going to do as best I can regardless of whether I will accept the job, I have asked on the expat facebook group of the city where I’m living if any French native speaker would be willing to have lunch with me and give me a mock interview.  An hour later I got a response and today I had lunch with her.  As it turns out she comes from a small French island in what the French (oh, the French) call the territoires d’outre mer.  Since French Village Boy’s sister worked as a midwife on said island I mentioned her.  It goes without saying, they know each other.

Now, as I apply for a job in the literal middle of nowhere and I find someone from an equally obscure middle of nowhere willing to help me, I come across the only person in the whole of the country that has been his sister’s friend for 10 years.  I do try to move on, but somehow life keeps bouncing him back to me.

I think that there’s a lesson to learn here.  I’m not sure what it is, and I’m afraid to say out loud that the lesson I need to learn is about closure.  But the truth is that life keeps throwing hints about him, his village and his family members to me, not because it’s pushing me towards him, but because it’s trying to make me come to terms that whatever there was, or wasn’t, is over.

It’s over.  Whatever there was or wasn’t is over.

And this bitch of a life keeps putting glimpses of him in front of me as if it was saying “you can’t sweep him under the rug, you have to say the words out loud.  That’s the only way you have to move on”.

But the truth is…  maybe I don’t want to move on.  All this pain has taught me so much, it has put on my way people who live half way across the world who recognized my pain as their own (thank you Kostas!) and without knowing me are offering me their support and their love.  This pain has brought closer to me friends who were already close but whose friendship had never been tested.  Likewise, it has pushed away friends who proclaimed their undying friendship but then weren’t able to handle a heartbreak.  This pain has opened a door onto myself and I slowly come out of it stronger and more self aware.

This pain is in a way comforting, and while I can say out loud that between me and French Village Boy there will never be love, I am unwilling to let go of the feeling that there may be.

How much are we willing to compromise, for real?

Compromise.  We are all extremely open when it comes to negotiation and concessions, until it hits close to the heart.  A lot of people claim to be ok with an open relationship, especially if distance is a factor, or with adding another person to some of their sexual interactions, or to try swinging.  Very few actually act on it and fewer still are able to manage a, de facto, intruder.

Of course, a sexual intruder can be kinky and at the same time extremely dangerous, but what most people don’t seem to realize is that only in a fraction of cases compromise relates to the sexual sphere.  More often than not we are called to compromise in our daily lives.

I am struggling a lot with the realization that I want to be in a relationship, but I also want to accept none of the clauses that come with it.  I want to have a partner who is willing to put his career on hold for mine, but I also want someone who is successful in what they do. I want someone who wants to build a future with me, but I also don’t want to be bound to that person. I want a poet, better if a revolutionary AND a poet, but also someone practical who cooks dinner and doesn’t forget to pay the electricity bill. I guess that, in principle, I want everything.  Then in practice I will have to agree to some things and stand my ground on some others.

I really envy people who naturally fall into each other’s needs.  I always felt that I had to fight for what I have, and I’m irrationally afraid of losing it.  And it’s irrational because I was born privileged and I have worked hard to be where I am, but as hard as anyone who works hard, I have done nothing exceptional to be here.  However, there has been a time when I thought my dreams would never come true: it was a difficult time for my family and I had stepped up to be more responsible.  Like many people I didn’t see the end of a tough time and thought that was going to be my forever.  I even fell in love with someone who would fit into that narrative (a doctor, from my same city, very attached to his family too) so that I wouldn’t be tickled to stray and change everything.

But then of course life happens, people get better and you are less needed and that perfect partner you had found yourself is not so perfect anymore and you move on.

After being dumped in Ethiopia (Yeah, I get dumped a lot) I remember I felt nothing for a while, and then I felt this amazing sense of power: from then on I could do what I wanted because I only had to respond to myself.  And I did.  In the process I found a man who was exactly like me and fuelled my super power with ideas that I didn’t even dare dream.  We acted on them and had an amazing ride, but then we had to be amazing on our own. I got dumped again (this time in Zambia) but mostly because of my inability to compromise and give space to another person.  Again, I wanted everything.

The thing is: I literally understand everyone who dumps me/tells me they don’t want me, because I wouldn’t date me, let alone spend the rest of my life with me.  I’m unpredictable, mostly, sometimes unreliable and majestically selfish.  But also demanding.  So yeah, not relationship material.  And yet I really do want a relationship, I’m just unable to do what it takes to accommodate the need of another person.

And this is, I think, one of the main lessons that I have to learn (it only took 32 years to get there): compromise is not always a bad word.  Accommodating literally means “making space”, I need to learn how to make space for another person, because learning to love is nice, because it’s to each other’s mutual benefit to be able to live together and not always run after the next adventure.

Because sometimes the war inside us has to end, even when it has gone on for so long that it’s comforting to know that there’s one place in the world – the inner war- that identifies us.

All you need is love – But is what we need really what we want?

I think most people often ask themselves the other question: is what we want really what we need?  And the answer to that is probably easier, because it basically revolves around the of superfluous needs. If you ask yourself if what you want is really needed it means that you probably already know you don’t need it, but you still want it.

In the case of wanting what you need the questions are at least two: is what you need going to make you happy even if you don’t yet know you want it? And Can you need something without wanting it?

After months breaking down the question in a million fragments I still don’t have a clear answer, I’m more secure when I’m in a relationship, but also more compelled to make compromises to stay in said relationship (and if I found a partner who allowed me to do just what I want without mediating between our needs I probably wouldn’t be able to love them).  But I love my freedom, four years in a long-distance relationship have taught me that I want to be willing to make compromises, but I’m not good at it.  I do want to meet someone half way, but then I struggle more than I should.

During one of our conversations I told French Village Boy that my job is taking a serious toll on my life: living continuously in developing countries leaves me in awe every time I visit Europe but makes me unable to live there and comply with all the rules a developed country has.

My life is harder in so many ways (power shortages, water cuts, being faced with cultures that are so different to yours and in some cases inherently clash with your ethics, but which you still have to understand and work with, and the occasional person pulling out a gun in a random place, to name a few).  But it’s also so much easier in other ways.  It’s my life, that’s it.  But sometimes I wish I was more similar to my friends in Europe, and less of an attraction for them.

It probably goes back to the issue of perception vs. perspective: would I be as interesting to my friends if I were talking about my mortgage instead of the snake I found on my doorstep?  Would their children be as thrilled to see me if I brought a toy they can find anywhere instead of a cool African artefact?  The bottom line probably is: does it matter to me to be the centre of attention when I see them, or would I be ok with being just another number on their phonebook?

Europe has a lifestyle that I cannot grasp, I’m happy to be European and grateful to know I can go back whenever I want, but when I’m back for more than two weeks I long for something different.  My life style is ever changing: every couple of years I move to a different country and re-invent myself (within the same sector, of course, and crossing paths with several of the same people I’ve met over the years, but with a certain degree of novelty nonetheless), and I am profoundly afraid of a more stable life where this doesn’t happen.

We all change over time, and the trick is probably to adapt your change to the context around you, to grow older, and wiser, with a group of friends who move in the same direction.

I do the same thing, but get to add a layer of change that make it easier on me to accept my own change: I can blame frustration, unhappiness, sadness on the context.  I don’t have to face my own failures as much as others do.  I wouldn’t say I’m immature or not fully honest with myself: I think that I’m pretty good at analysing my own life, mistakes and failures included.  I don’t put the blame on someone else or on the situation.  What I do is escape.  As much as I don’t like to admit it I know that that is my weakness: I’m confrontational and deal well with conflict, but then I grow tired, or bored, of it and move on.  And whatever is on my way gets taken away or left behind.

Living in one place and giving it my best shot, if I knew there was no way out of it, is something that still scares me because I don’t know how it’s done.  I can pack a house in 12 hours, keep in touch with people I’ve seen years ago for the last time, I can cut branches to signal a car break down in the middle of the African forest, I can start a fire, I can learn local dialects fast and I know what to bring at a wedding, funeral, teeth filing ceremony, cremation and initiation rite of passage in a dozen different countries.  But I get anxious when I see the same people, talking about the same things and going to the same places week after week after week.

And it’s ironic, because that’s exactly what a part of me is dying to have: the safety residing in the certainty that nothing will change.

When paths cross at the wrong time

During a particularly challenging time, right after having left France and having received a mild “let me think about all this” rather than the expected “Yes, yes to everything, move here and let’s be poor but happy and breed children and puppies”, I went through the conversations me and French Village Boy had over the months that preceded our encounter.

Although he said he was (pleasantly) surprised to find out that the four days we spent together could entail a substantial amount of sex, he also said he hadn’t expected it.  The French translation of to expect has a slightly different meaning: it’s not so much as demand as it is I didn’t imagine it would occur.  Then, when I said “I love you”, he said he didn’t see it coming.

I went through the conversations at a time where I would (and I did) read into any message, written or verbal, looking for something that would suit my need to know that there was something more than “ok, we are friends, we had sex for four days, and now we can go back to being friends”.  And I invariably found it, like you do every time you look for something you need to find.

But then my heart was shattered, brisé, I grieved, I cried, I ran about 200 km in a month (I was literally out running every hour I didn’t spend at work) and then I healed.  I went back to talking to French Village Boy as friends and, after many tears and many blog posts I know that I’m still very attracted to him and to the idea that he represents, but me and him would survive one, maybe two, months as a couple.

As my belief that we are not made for one another became clearer I went back to those messages.  Many times in life I questioned myself, and asked friends, if things really happened as I perceived them.  And I think it’s a very human thing to literally “read into” things.  But sometimes second guessing yourself takes you to an even more complex realization.

Yes, things really did happen.  People really said what they said, even if they may not have meant it, or didn’t realize how the other person would take it.

It’s a pretty simple realization, no pearls of wisdom here.  But sometimes it’s important to take time for a reality check.  People around us may say things they don’t fully mean or on the spur of the moment (and be absolutely genuine as they do), but that doesn’t make how we receive them less true.

To be honest no one told me in this instance that I read into things, but it definitely is something that I’ve question myself about.  Have I read into things?

I don’t think I did.  I think that French Village Boy, for a vast number of reasons, has enjoyed reconnecting with an old friend, who is now more mature and more self aware, he has enjoyed the slight thrill of seduction and was somewhat aware that sex was on the table.  I think that French Village Boy has been deeply scarred and unhappy about his life, when his life was more exciting, and he is looking/has found a solution, in his little village, that responds to his need of changing the course of his life.  But when you’ve stared into the void the void has entered you, and a piece of him will always be tickled by what he has left behind.  I think his choice of moving to the countryside and working for his little community rather than some corporate job in a tentacular European capital makes sense, but I also think that the past always catches up with you, whether you want it or not.  And there’s always going to be that one thing that is so close to pushing you back into where you came from.  I respect him for sticking to his plan, but I finally understood where the deep connection we had came from.  I believe he felt safe pouring his heart out because he knew there would be distance and whatever we had would not interfere with the new village life he is building for himself.  The feeling, as I came to discover with a two months delay, was mutual.  Neither of us can fit into the other’s life, but exactly for this reason we are both exciting to one another.

That being said, what was said cannot be taken back, and even if now it is read under a different light, I see how the myself of two months ago would wait for his messages with excitement.  Plenty of times in my life I misread or misunderstood the message, not this time.  What I think happened this time is that the messages were hinting at something but not saying it out loud, when we saw each other we came to two different conclusions (for him the life he had chosen for himself was more important than anything he could have with me, and for me everything he had to offer – a house in a wood, quiet, no people dying, no days long-power cuts, fewer peaks in emotions but more stability- seemed like a dream come true) and that was it.

But this taught me not to always second guess myself.  Sometimes things are exactly what they seem, but they just happen at the wrong time and in the wrong place.  I honestly think that French Village Boy and I could have been happy, but our paths never crossed when we stood a chance, they crossed at the wrong time.