Tag Archives: my generation

A weekend in London: three encounters

This weekend was a great London weekend – and I’d been longing for one for a while. Few things beat this town’s diversity. It’s international and yet so British. It’s full of unexpected encounters. I’ll share three of them. They made me think.

On Friday night I was walking home. It was just after eleven. People who live here know that this is a dangerous time to walk about. It’s the time pubs close – or rather the time they used to have to close, and most still do. After closing time it’s common to see guys too drunk to stand on their feet, and girls unable to manoeuvre their platform shoes.

From afar I could hear the noise of the karaoke bar around the corner of my flat. It was the sound of breaking glass accompanied by the screams of teenage girls. When I came closer, the fight erupted in full. About ten teenage boys were taking turns to smash up one guy, until he managed to escape. He ran straight onto the high street where he was nearly run over by a car. Dazed and blinded, he staggered back into the arms of his attackers. The whole bar had gathered outside to watch the fight. No one intervened.

So I rang 999 for the first time in my life. My stomach was weak and my voice trembled as I saw one of the gang kick in the head of the boy. These kids seemed to operate in some sort of lawless video game. A police officer at the station told me the next day that the usual thing happened when they arrived at the bar. No one had seen anything. ‘It’s a gang fight, that’s what happens,’ the officer said. ‘We’re powerless.’

So I cycled on to Chelsea for a pedicure. The beautician turned out to be a lovely young woman from Sri Lanka. When she came to London about ten years ago, her Sinhalese boss was not intending to pay her any wages. She and some of her colleagues successfully sued him. She now works full time to support her one-year-old baby girl and stay at-home-husband, and is all smiles and sweetness.

The girl was a perfect nightmare during the first three months. She tried to force her into a rhythm and all the girl did was cry. After reading a child psychology book, she made the girl trust she was in a safe environment where food and sleep were guaranteed. It’s been perfect harmony ever since with everything happening at regular intervals.

She also shared her thoughts on the situation in Sri Lanka and how the Sinhalese people have taken preconception seriously. ‘Yet,’ she said, ‘I don’t know whether this is for the best because it means that we don’t grow as fast as India. We don’t have the population size and it’s the Tamils on the island who still have large families.’ I said, ‘Yes, you can see the same thing in many countries, such as Israel, Turkey and also in Western Europe.’ The question is whether moderate modernity catches up with the new generations in time.

On Sunday, I met an elderly English lady at church. She had a Lady Thatcher hairdo and said she wouldn’t attend the feminist reading group because she doesn’t consider herself a feminist. I said, ‘I wouldn’t either, but I’m sometimes shocked at the lack of progress made in breaking the glass ceiling. So very few women make it to the top in firms like mine and there are hardly any role models. It seems very difficult to combine a career with being a mother.’

She responded, ‘Yes, that’s true, it’s very hard. That’s why I decided not to have children. I wanted to be the best school headmistress I could be.’ I don’t think she realised how exceptional it is to hear her say that and how few people in my generation accept that as a legitimate choice.

Return to Sénanque: a summer retreat

In August I went back to Notre Dame de Sénanque to spend five days in silent retreat. This time, the valley was drenched in the scents of summer. It was also much more crowded in the abbey than when I was last there during the Christmas holidays. The hôtellerie monastique was full and every day hundreds of tourists toured one of the Provence’s most iconic places. In the evening, quietness would return to the valley and abbey. Only the chants of the monks occasionally filled the air. The silence was easy to bear and the pattern of the services now familiar. Yet I also found myself facing more profound concerns about taking the next step in my faith. Being raised in a secular and rational environment, it is not self-evident that that next step is adult baptism.

I was welcomed back heartily by Frère Jean, the hotelier, and quickly settled into the rhythm of monastic life. Every morning I was woken up early by the chants of the monks floating through the courtyard into my open windows. I’d have breakfast while the morning flavours started to stir. Then I’d head out on my morning walk, climbing 40 minutes to reach the village of Gordes, have my coffee and write my diary. I’d walk back just in time for mass, organise lunch and write my book in the afternoon. After a few hours, I’d climb up to my secret sunning spot, quickly covering up my bikini if I heard footsteps approaching. Dinner would follow, and evening service. With the last light and the heat disappearing from the valley, I finished every day with a run through the mountains.

When I arrived hitchhiking on the first day, I had to wait for two hours before Frère Jean had time to receive me, a good introduction into the different pace of time in the abbey. Then he remembered me and expressed his profound happiness to know that I was considering baptism. He had been very anxious over my soul. He was still puzzled that I hadn’t chosen a Catholic community  but an Anglican one and tried to steer me to the right faith. I was firmly resolved when explaining that it was very important to me to have found a church that was actively involved in the community where I live. Moreover, I feel much more comfortable in a faith that allows priests to have wives, and women to become bishops and priests too. Frère Jean settled the matter with a joke. He was looking forward to the day when he would receive me back at Sénanque as a Anglican bishop.

Meanwhile, I got a much more beautiful double room and Frère Jean put me in charge of coordinating lunch and dinner time food service. He often asked me to come into his office to translate some bits of English that he didn’t understand. ‘What does this word ‘hi’ mean?’ ‘Well, it’s like salut which isn’t perhaps the way you would expect people to address a monk but then the English written language is much less formal than the French.’ I asked him whether we could have a small performance for the Assumption of Virgin Mary day by a classical pianist who often comes to stay at Sénanque. Frère Jean had to ask the prior for permission. When we all gathered for the concert the next day, he said: ‘You see there is a French saying that whatever women want, that is what God wants.’

So we enjoyed a lovely private Liszt concert in the abbey. But Frère Jean later told me that those moments were rare. That life at the abbey is hard. I said that I had rather been struck by how animated and fulfilling their lives seemed with the rhythm of prayer, study, work on the fields and giving people spiritual guidance. He said, ‘Yes but the early morning hours after vigiles at 4.30am, they are the longest period of meditation. We never travel anywhere, the world only comes to us.’ We were conversing against the backdrop of a picture of the Alps covering the whole wall of the parlour. He continued, ‘Very few people nowadays can stand this type of life. We need more people in the abbey to manage all the work. Last year a monk joined us but he left after a month and we haven’t heard from him since. Now we’re expecting four new monks from Vietnam but God knows how difficult it will be for them to settle in such a different culture.’

It was harder for him to respond to my search to make sense of religion at a later stage in life. I had been struggling with British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s stance on religion: ‘When one can’t find out whether something is true or it isn’t, one should suspend judgement’. I was much impressed with his book ‘The conquest of happiness‘ which is a great example of a philosopher translating wisdom to a wider audience, and therefore thought I should carefully consider his opinion.

I find the church the perfect place to remember the ebb and flow of life and going to church for me is an existential touch point which I prefer to experience as part of a community in my own culture. As my parents didn’t have me baptised when I was a child, to become a true part of this community I have to negotiate my faith being an adult. And while many adult Christians may confront doubts time and again, they are already part of this community, whereas I have to consciously agree with all the teachings of the church to be baptised. So, for example, I find it hard to believe God is merciful. I perceive of God as a force field randomly distributing good and evil. Equanimity and faith are the key to maintain happiness in face of a world where many cruel things happen. Some of them turn to good, and others never do.

There is another very emotive strain of faith which I find even harder to negotiate. This is to have a dialogue with God when I pray. It’s not that I don’t have this dialogue, it is just that I’ve always mistrusted it. I remember when I was about 12 years old I decided that it was better to talk to Freya than to God because of some viking book I had been reading. When I was 16 and a hippie, I decided to address fairies instead. Philosopher A.C. Grayling made some great points about fairies in his book Against All Gods: “Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.” He explains that people up to the 19th century believed in fairies and thought that they were much more present in their lives than God was because things that would go missing, such as shoelaces or a teaspoon, were believed to have been stolen by them.

In short, I find it very hard to acknowledge that this is anything more than an overactive imagination. Yet when I pray answers appear out of nowhere. Many Christians believe this is one’s personal dialogue with God. I’m still trying to figure out how to make sense of these questions, and reconcile a rational point of view with a spiritual one. It’s quite an adventure.

Turn! Turn! Turn! (January)

Tomorrow will be Monday 23rd January, aka Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. Cardiff University’s Dr Cliff Arnall empirically established that we collectively hit a low point because of the cold weather, fading Christmas memories and broken New Year’s resolutions. On top of this, more accidents happen than on any other day of the year, and more people are ill. On my part, I’ve tried hard to beat SAD (Seasonal Affected Disorder) by doing something fun at least once a day. Yet last night I caught myself cursing the chirping birds because they promise spring while there is no end in sight to this cold and dark season.

So for all these SAD people, I’d like to share two sermons that picked me up today. The first was a secular one by Lord Layard at the School of Life, and the second was at Southwark Cathedral during Evensong. Lord Layard, LSE Economics Professor, preached the start of a mass movement. He aspires to a happier society in which people get their happiness from helping others. After years of academic research into the origins of happiness Lord Layard has established ten keys to happier living: GREAT DREAM. The first letters stand for five things to do on each day, Giving – Relating – Exercising – Appreciating – Trying out. Giving not only makes you feel better, but others as well, which again reinforces your own happiness. Neuroscientists found that doing good stimulates the same part of your brain as eating chocolate. Relating and Exercising are further keys to happiness, so why not try out something new such as livening up a January birthday party by having your friends act out improvised themes as my friend Kelly did last night?

The last letters stand for five things to train our mind in, Direction – Resilience – Emotional positivity – Acceptance – Meaning. Viktor Frankl recounts in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Everyone experiences ups and downs, and while no one is happy all the time, it is your attitude that makes the difference between happiness and unhappiness. Linking back to Buddhist thinking, Layard stresses the importance of stepping outside yourself to find meaning in the long trail of human existence beyond your own self.

The sermon at Southwark Cathedral was based on a reading from the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes 3:1, which similarly expresses the long stretches of cyclical time spanning human experience.  The King James Bible’s elegant words give meaning and perspective to the greyness of this season and down points in life. They were written in 1611 and like many of the King James Bible’s verses still speak directly to us across the centuries. They were used almost verbatim in the Byrds’ 1965 song ‘Turn Turn Turn (To Everything There Is A Season)‘:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

Snapshot London

Sometimes, at my favourite spot in town, I suddenly become very aware of the exhilerating and passing reality of London as we know it. Cycling across Waterloo bridge, I move my head left and right and back again to take in the panoramic view of London in action, and I wonder how long this spectacular town will keep it up. And how perhaps some time in the future, it may have reverted to its stiller state of a domestic capital, rather than the international hub it is now. So I’d like to paint a snapshot of the buzz, the chaos and the international social fabric of this town that is always transitioning, happening and creating as it attracts scores of people from across the globe without the Brits seeming to mind, too much. Needless to say, I’m in love with this town.

Perhaps the reluctant flight of bankers will trigger a wider migrant exodus, although it is difficult to imagine that the city could ever return to its quieter days when terraces, coffee places and foreign food in general were yet a thing of the future. Picture yourself standing like me on the middle of Waterloo bridge, facing the North. To the left, you see the gothic glimmer of Westminster Palace in amber, the spider building of a not to be mentioned professional services firm towering over Charing Cross Station and its bridges and an imposing grey mass of Embankment business headquarters behind lines of trees. Then you turn to face the right, where the City stretches out over a square mile covered by countless cranes and church spires. Look closer and you’ll see the three rank Barbican towers, while you cannot miss St Paul’s dome. Beyond, Canary Wharf towers straight, at the far end of the bendy river.  To the south there is the buzz of the Southbank’s concrete cultural houses, while the river is busy itself as party and passenger boats work their way west and east. How different from Iris Murdoch’s accounts of London of the 1960s, full of decent civil servants, deserted summer streets and everybody bumping into one another on Regent’s street.

Walking to work across Millennium bridge towards St Paul’s cathedral, I often sense the jagged cityscape binds fellow work wanderers, a silent productive procession, everyone relishing the quiet moments before the office storm is unleashed. Girls always take two pairs of shoes: sneakers to walk a mile, and high heels sticking out of the handbag. Even the town’s architecture is industrious. Many buildings date from London’s last big construction wave in Victorian times. The Tate Modern is an old power station. Battersea power station towers over the South West bank. Every inch of town is being used, and re-used, re-built, constant scaffolding, cool neighbourhoods constantly shifting.

Migrants of all types converge or transition through town: from my Brazilian cleaning lady with Italian accent, to the Eastern European cafe girls, the Dutch/Somalian local government worker, the Spanish bike mechanic, the wealthy veiled women of Edgware Road and my Finnish, Filipino, Korean, American, Australian, Bulgarian, German, Swiss, Zimbabwean, Italian colleagues at work. All have a story of living life in a foreign country, while being away from familiar home. Most stick to their national culture in some way or another, yet many feel the transformative pull of the big city: come to me and be who you want to be. It can be exhilarating to reinvent yourself in the midst of the crowd – you can make it on your own terms, and be a Londoner too.

enjoyable views

River Scene, by Camille Silvy (1858)

Joseph Losey directs Kiri Te Kanawa, Jose van Dam, Ruggero Raimundi and Teresa Berganza in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1979). Fantastic music, lush imagery, and spot Donna Elvira’s fabulous bowy costume. In this scene, she sings of her heartbreak by eternal seducer Don Giovanni, who happens to be around the corner, as always hunting the scent of his next conquest…

In a next scene, cavaliere Don Giovanni takes the hand of the peasant bride-to-be Zerlina…

Totally unrelated, Jane McGonigal, Game Director at the Institute for the Future, talks about Blissful Productivity and how gaming can infuse our lives with PERMA – Positive Energy Relationships Meaning Accomplishment. Listen to this if you want to know more about 3 billion hours per week of global computer gaming, super productive to-do-lists and mass thumb wrestling competitions:

Seen today at the School of Life’s Sunday Sermon where maverick cultural figures preach virtues and vices to a secular thirty something congregation in Conway Hall, one of London’s oldest ethical society. The sermon includes the singing of assorted hymns such as ‘Video killed the radio star’ and ‘Working in a coal mine’.

foodie people

Sometimes it seems that all people these days live for is fine dining and cooking. Last Saturday night I was at a Canadian thanksgiving dinner, and the main conversation topic was food. On Thursday a participant on my training course expressed his main concern about the programme: the quality of food. On Tuesday night I turned on the TV and had a choice of three cooking programmes. Am I the only one who is bored by all this? And why has declaring yourself a foodie become a hallmark of sophistication?

It’s not that I don’t enjoy good food or do not enjoy cooking. In fact, I love to improvise a good meal from fresh and various ingredients. It gives me sense of history to share knowledge of preparing food with a long line of ancestors. It soothes a busy mind to focus only on the flow of cooking, with a ‘tasty’ dish as the result. Yet I do not ask for a set of cooking knives as a birthday present. After an exhausting day in the office I prefer to get take away and read a book. Nor do I think that the long line of housewife ancestors on the female side would have had to think twice about whether or not to bake their own bread or pasta, a favourite foodie pastime. My mother’s Japanese friend once confided that she had to learn to make sushi herself so that she could teach her keen Dutch friends.

Maximising the experience of our taste buds seems quite a hedonistic activity that has little to do with the need for food to survive. In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow claimed that self-actualisation rather than hedonism would be the end stage of individual development. At the lower rungs of Maslow’s pyramid are the need for physiological well-being, safety, belonging and respect. Having secured all this, Maslow anticipated that individuals would focus on morality and creativity to become all that they were capable of becoming.

Although some of us run marathons or engage in charity work, I imagine that Maslow would be disappointed to see that most of us at the top of the pyramid profess ourselves to be foodies at heart. Picture him going to the cinema to see ‘Eat Pray Love’, a dead-serious Julia Roberts vehicle about a successful thirty-something who leaves her husband for no reason at all and moves to Italy to eat. She then moves to India to find her true self in a foreign culture and religion. She then moves to Bali to fall in love, although it is unclear why this time she won’t take off to Italy again.

This modern fairy tale made me quite sad because it is such a hollow Hollywood take on Maslow’s expectations for us, lacking both morality and creativity. The one touching moment is at the start of the film when Julia clumsily falls on her knees to pray, searching for words to address god. Perhaps being more rooted in our own culture would make us less focused on chasing fleeting satisfaction, and find more balanced and longer term happiness.

About thirty

I’ve safely landed on the other side of thirty. And I’m quite enjoying myself now that I’m officially in the implementation phase of life, after the playful brainstorming years of my twenties. Luckily I still feel I have a youthful tread, although perhaps now more securely bouncing. And there are two things that I’ve become more clearly aware of. One, thirties angst is about facing the end of abundant choice. Two, it’s so comfortable knowing your way around the world a bit better.

Past thirty, you’re no longer automatically considered ‘young’. Rather, it depends on your attitude whether you’re settled or still exploring. So come your thirtieth birthday, most people of my generation get a moment of panic – which one is it going to be? After years of choice, this binary one suddenly feels quite limiting. Now, you’re no longer up and coming; you should have arrived, or at least know where you’re going. So you look a little more carefully at your life, and you re-consider. Especially when some silly twenty-something has published this book, set up that company, or is a senior advisor about things that they can’t possibly have much experience with.

Apparently this thirties angst is so common among young Dutch people that psychologists diagnose it as the ‘dertiger’s dilemma’, or the thirties dilemma – life seems sorted, yet something is missing. After the art of making choices, the trick is now to make the most out of these choices. To be content with your own achievements, without endlessly watching others, undoubtedly more successful than you. Yet then again, perhaps now is the moment to make that u-turn, to quit that job, relationship, and run into the wide open. Or start a blog.

And really, life becomes easier around thirty. You feel more comfortable in your own skin after the shenanigans of figuring out which group is the coolest to hang out with. Generally, you know better what you want, and how to get it. Things become more obvious. Such as that parents like to conceive around the Christmas and summer holidays, as evidenced by the fact that 35% of my Facebook friends have their birthdays in September, April and May. Really, this obvious causality only sunk in after thirty years.

Perhaps this is because the baby-talk around me has noticeably increased lately. Although babies are a wonderful thing, they do seem to draw an imaginary line through our social circles. On the one side little family houses with bright-coloured baby-rooms and toy-littered gardens are being built. On the other side the temptations of the great wide wilderness are still being explored, compass in hand. I hope both parties will often cross the line both ways, bringing back stories from the other side.

Big city yoga

Yoga is a booming market, especially in big cities in the West. In the US, it grew by 87% from 2004 to 2008 – about 16 million yoga practitioners spent $5.7 billion on yoga stuff. Not all of you may be familiar with exotically named postured such as ‘Dog with the head down’, or ‘Adho Mukha Svanasana’ (see picture). It’s a staple posture in two of the most popular yoga forms in the West, Ashtanga and Iyengar, which are variations on Hatha yoga, one of the eight classical yoga strands developed in India from about 200BC onwards. If you think yoga is all about middle-aged female slowness, or that it’d be funny to bark when doing the dog postures (true story), then think twice.

Yoga is very popular with the fast-moving urban types, who practice Ashtanga, Madonna’s power yoga, because it means twisting yourself very rapidly into a flow of stretching postures. The flow is strung together by at least 50 Vinyasas, or sun salutations slash sun push ups (see picture). For the fastest-moving, hyper competitive city types, aka strategy consultants and bankers, this is not enough. They really enjoy doing the same flow, but then at 40 degrees Celsius in a closed carpeted room. Apparently, Bikram yoga leaves you so high that it’s addictive.

Yet traditionally yoga is non-competitive. Many Western teachers, however, forget that the aim is to reach into the posture as far as your body allows. So in the West’s bastardised version, yoga is often practiced in gyms. Trying to find a yoga studio near my new flat, I came across some quite bizarre ones. Like the very crowded one with mirrors where a middle-aged Essex guy kept shouting: ‘C’mon guys, I’m seeing some wonderful postures here! C’mon guys, work it! Work it!’ Or the ‘advanced’ one where a Chinese acrobat was training a group of hyper-flexible dancers doing headstands instead of Vinyasas. The acrobat ignored my best efforts.

So I settled for my current teacher who is a bit more subtle. At the end of the practice, everyone queues up to pay, and he hands out compliments in return. To some people (like me) he just says nothing. For the record, I’m a very motivated student, it’s just that my legs are not so flexible due to too much cycling and running…But I love the stillness that envelops your body and mind gradually throughout the practice. Afterwards, I feel cleansed, pure and radiant. It’s a rare feeling of pure concentration, of body and mind focused on two simple things: to breathe and to move.

Don’t mention the World Cup

Being Dutch in London during the World Cup was fantastic as most people switched their support to the Orange underdog in the lead up to the finals. All of Soho joined the orange street party the night of the semi finals. Coming into the office the day after, colleagues were patting me on the back, saying ‘Well done!’ as if I’d won a major piece of work. I felt so proud of my small country of 16 million people that I couldn’t take a smile off my face. It felt like being in love on a spring day. Benign nationalism – what a drug!

But it all ended in tears and a kung fu kick. The tabloids damned us. No congratulations or even consolations this time. Instead, endless tirades about our shameless football style that had deprived the world from the finals that it deserved. And besides, the Spanish deserved to win. Even The Guardian wrote: “It would have been better for Holland’s reputation had they lost earlier instead of tying themselves to this notoriety.” After spending 116 nerve-racking minutes in a sweltering Chelsea pub filled to the brim with Dutch anxiety, this felt like a slap in the face.

I felt the anger of a wronged people boiling up in me. Surely, kung fu kicks aside, we were fighting till the end and the Spanish weren’t the better team because they didn’t score either until the end?? Surely if Robben had scored the tabloids would have raved about the Dutch underdog finally taking that Cup? I’d really like to see the drafts of articles written to celebrate the Dutch victory.

Luckily by now when thinking back I don’t feel the hurt so much anymore. I do still feel the exhilarating sense of pride for my small country, even stronger when living abroad in a big city full of people from all those other countries we left behind. It’s nice, being a girl and liking football…

A friend’s honesty

A good friendship deserves honesty

So, honesty, I think it’s underrated in most friendships. Although being Dutch most of my friends already think I’m frank and direct, I don’t think I do enough of it. Why? Because it keeps a friendship straight and simple. There’s no point hiding my disappointment (within reason of course) when a friend cancels an appointment for example, just as I wouldn’t hide my enthusiasm when they would propose doing something fun. I tend to feel that showing the disappointment is a sign of weakness but actually it’s much better to make it clear to my friend what is the type of friendship that works for me. If that matches from both sides, then fine. If not also fine, though a shame – but you at least give each other the opportunity to make amends.

Of course it’s a bit tiresome to play this game all the time, and mostly it’s not even necessary. But sometimes you get this nagging feeling and you just don’t know what was the beginning or the end of a withering friendship, and then I wish that I’d been clearer much earlier.

It’s like a girl taking the initiative to kiss a boy – it feels liberating to take charge and to be zen about the outcome… 😉 More on this after attending the ‘How To Be a Good Friend’ class at philosopher Alain de Botton’s very cool School of Life, or perhaps the ‘How Necessary Is A Relationship‘ one.