Thinking of Ukrainians

Working with people is amongst the most difficult things anyone can do, and at the same time, it can be the most rewarding vocation of them all, regardless of in what capacity you do it. And perhaps even more so when you work in a multicultural environment. You learn firsthand that we are all different, and how that’s oftentimes the beauty of it all. Sometimes are differences clash, and that’s always the learning curve. We might not share the colors of our skins, the fates we hold, or the backgrounds we come from, but we’re all just human beings who basically all want the same thing and that is to feel that what we do has a purpose, to love and to be loved and that the people around us are well and safe. It’s as easy as that, and at the same, sometimes it couldn’t feel more difficult.

It’s no coincidence that as good as all my Swedish friends have always said that Ukrainians are something special. I’ve always felt it as well. Over the years I’ve met so many truly incredible Ukrainians that have all left a lasting impression on me, that I will never forget. I know that many of them are reading this now, as we’ve become friends. It’s funny somehow because, except for the colors of our flags and the fact that we’re all Europeans, it would seem far-fetched to claim that we have a lot in common by default. On the paper, we don’t really. And at the same time, it seems like we always have so incredibly much in common. Few people are as witty in their ways, generous with their time and so remarkably progressive in their way of thinking. I know one shouldn’t generalize, but now I do, and I do it with love and from experience. I suppose that’s why I feel so affected by everything that’s going on. Not because it feels close to home, but because it is. And that is one most important lesson I’ve learned, that if the people close to me are not doing okay, then I’m not doing okay either.

Wars rage every day. Every day people have to give up their homes and flee for their lives. Every day people have to leave everything to seek refuge in an unsure future, and if lucky, build a new life far away from everything they consider to be home. Every day families are split up to never be reunited again and it’s so common it’s barely newsworthy anymore. Such is the world we live in. Every day terrible things happen to people not deserving it because they have beliefs, convictions, and pride that others simply cannot accept. Tragedy and misery are all around us all the time, but often we choose to ignore them. Not because we don’t care, but maybe because we don’t know how to. It’s so easy to switch the channels from something happening thousands of miles away, in countries we’ve never been to where people live we think we have nothing in common with. We refrain from asking questions because we’re scared of the answers, and instead, we scroll past, we mute and we turn our heads away from realities so different from our own, simply because we tell ourselves that it has nothing to do with us. Until it does.

I think a lot of people can relate to the feeling of being completely on edge right now. So receptive to everything that happens, everything people say, and everything they do. One moment you laugh and the next you cry. One moment you’re filled with hope and in the next dispair overpowers you. And at the same time, being caught in a kind of emotional vacuum, not being able or willing to really process anything of what’s going on, because you know that at any given moment a new tragedy can occur, and if you allow yourself to give in to gruesome stories that surround you, you will be of no help to either themselves or the people that need you the most…

In the meantime, we do what we can, donate what we spare, share what needs to be seen, heard, and read, and we pray for a more wonderful world tomorrow.

#withukraine #freeukraine #ukraine

Behind the joy of Christmas

The other day I was asked to explain Christmas to someone who didn’t celebrate it. A question more complex than one would think.
Christmas is so complicated. I reckon most people would say that it’s ultimately about family. What was once a Christian holiday to commemorate the birth of Jesus, is nowadays merely a celebration of capitalism, recognized by food, lights, gifts, mulled wine, decorated trees, and god-awful sweaters. Eating until you nearly burst, tacky movies with biblical undertones and snow-covered landscapes outside the windows (unless you’re from the south of Sweden, where we haven’t seen a white Christmas since long before Greta was born…). When one puts it that way, it does sound like a truly jolly and cozy time of the year. And for those who don’t celebrate it, I suppose it’s easy to see nothing but the festive side of things. But the twinkling lights sometimes cast long shadows. For a lot of people, Christmas is a painful reminder of what they don’t have.

When I was young, the Christmas holidays were one of my favorite times of the year. It still is, but back then it was an escape from everything I didn’t know how to handle. The eccentric kid that was me found it difficult to fit in at school. I struggled to find a way to be that others would accept, and the holidays were a break from all of that. At home, I always felt safe, since it was the only place back then where I didn’t have to pretend. I’m very grateful for that today. Especially since I now know that for a lot of other people, it was the other way around. For some people, being in school was when they felt the safest. For them, Christmas meant something entirely different than sitting around a decorated tree, singing carols, and sharing gifts. We seldom know what goes on behind closed doors, and that’s why Christmas is a difficult time for so many people.

A lot of people would say Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year. For some, that stress is about time. Finding the time to decorate, cook, organize and buy presents while balancing all other chores of everyday life is not as easily accomplished as it sounds. Many people, and safe to say mostly women, take it upon themselves to bear the burden of creating a successful Christmas for the rest of the family. A dated division of duties one might think, but nonetheless, still a reality in many households. I wonder how many families would be left with anything even noteworthy of a celebration if the lady of the house decided to take a leave of absence a day or two before Christmas? It’s not rare to hear stories of people who barely sat down during entire family gatherings. For them, Christmas is a marathon. It’s almost funny how a stress-free and enjoyable Christmas holiday for one person almost always comes at the expense of another person having the exact opposite experience.

Christmas is often financially straining. Regardless of your income, it is an expensive time of the year. Those who feel obligated to not only buy but also pick out personalized tokens of appreciation for their friends and family have all felt this. Some people seem to think that Christmas is all about the exchange of gifts, and yes, particularly amongst kids this is true. Maybe that’s why a lot of adults decide to only spoil the kids and not themselves? Christmas can be expensive, and for that reason, many people feel like they cannot afford to make anything out of it. Because behind the stress and pressure, lay the expectations and fear of disappointments. When Christmas is reduced to only being about buying presents for one another, this is inevitable. Even now as I’m writing this, I find myself thinking what an askew culture this is. Yet I’m a part of it. As you grow up, Christmas ceases to be a time to get the things you cannot afford, which is a relief. Then again, even if it’s only about finding something personal for someone you love, this is also a stress factor. If a gift is bought for the sole purpose of conveying a message of how well you know someone, what’s then at stake?

That Christmas is also a holiday for drinking goes without saying. As so many people don’t know how to cope with it all, they resort to alcohol instead. A massive culprit to why not everyone has fond childhood memories of Christmas. For a lot of people, Christmas wasn’t a time when they could fully enjoy being kids; it was a time when they had to grow up. And left behind all of them; the kids happy to get a break from school, the kids dreading one, the kids disappointed over the gifts they didn’t receive, the parents guilt-struck because they couldn’t afford said gifts, the anxious mothers who said they’d “take care of it all, the people drinking too much, the people not drinking to care of the former, and the ones who fall victim to when others crack, are the lonely people who might not have any family at all.

For some people, Christmas isn’t stressful because they have a family to provide for, but simply because they don’t. It the shadow of perfectly filtered realities on social media, many people are reminded that maybe they don’t have a partner, maybe not any of their parents, maybe not all of their siblings, maybe not all of their friends, maybe not all of their kids, or maybe they never had any kids. Even if they have a family, perhaps they don’t like them. So many people don’t. For some people, Christmas is the most heart-breaking time of the year. And one should contemplate that now and then. Even if it is the season of love, love is rarely as simple as we wish it was.

Merry Christmas everyone 🤍

A thought to Afghanistan

It’s not in my place or interest to educate on this topic. Anyone with access to an Instagram account also has access to education, hence a lack of the latter is a personal choice. However, I do want to share a story of something that happened to me a few years back, to perhaps shed some light on the dire situation in Afghanistan, which has caught all of our attention over the last few days. You could say that it has got absolutely nothing to do with the dramatic scenes currently unfolding in a turmoil-ridden Kabul, and at the same time, you could say that it has got everything to do with it. At least as far as the perspective of an outsider goes. For someone who wants to understand, contribute and in any way make the tiniest of difference for these people in need, but at the same time can’t feel like this is all happening in a country far, far away, with a culture so vastly different and to a people with whom there’s little in common? Someone who might skip sharing content, who doesn’t make a donation, or take the time to fully comprehend the why’s and what for. They’re not bad people, they just feel detached. If I hadn’t lived abroad for so long, I probably would have felt like that.

It was a few years back, and I was operating a flight to somewhere in Pakistan. I can’t be too sure of exactly when it was, but I remember it was during the time when we all carried flag pins on our uniforms to showcase our nationalities. The flight was filled to the last seat, which, as all of my colleagues would know, means that it was a chock-a-block operation. The cabin was filled with seemingly identical-looking men, all wearing the same Shalwar kameez, the male dress to popular in the Indian subcontinent. The short flying time dictated the meal service, hence there was no time beyond giving out meals and collecting them shortly afterward. At one point, I’m bending down to reach inside the cart for some extra trays. In the corner of my eye, I notice how a man, sitting by the aisle, studies me curiously. He leans in, and I realize that he’s trying to get a closer look at the tiny flag pin on my chest. As I hand him his tray, this slenderly built man in a blue dress, with whom you’d think a Swedish boy from a small town would have nothing in common, says in broken Swedish: “You are from Sweden?”. I can still remember how I instantly felt how my eyes tearing up, and my spontaneous response was “I am! Are you as well?”. He went on to tell me how he, although originally from Pakistan, had immigrated to Sweden a few years back, and how he lived in a city not far from my hometown. Upon hearing all of this I remember how I wiped my eyes on my sleeve. We didn’t have the time to talk much more, but it struck how curious it is that one moment you’re flying over a country, surrounded by people who don’t look like you, and probably never felt any further away from where you’re from, and then, only an instant later, you feel like you’re home. It was a visceral before and after moment to experience that what truly matters and unites us the most, is seldom seen from the outside. As we get hinged on the idea that what you see is what you get, we overlook so much of what is important. And for that reason, I’ve thought about this moment many times throughout the years whenever I’ve needed to remind myself of that.

Over the last few days, I’ve read, listened to, and watched as much information as I’ve been able to process. I’ve donated money and told others to do the same. I’ve shared information and encouraged others to do the same. I’ve thought about the Afghan people. The women and the children, and their future. And none of it feels like a lot. Honestly, I don’t think it is a lot. But that’s precisely my point; it doesn’t have to be a lot. It’s all our tiny efforts that will make the entire difference in the end. It’s so easy to feel like you’re completely powerless to contribute any form of change to these people, yet it’s us who have all the power. Not everyone has access to education, but if you do, please inform yourself. Not everyone can afford to make donations, but if you do, please donate. Not everyone can have access to channels to influence others, but if you do, please keep sharing the information.

Perhaps this story doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on in Afghanistan. Perhaps it has everything to do with it? If we agree that we all have more in common than we might think, then maybe a helping hand will be easier to extend, than if we think that we have nothing in common at all. Realizing and practicing that philosophy, is a lot.

What’s really feminine or masculine?

Lately, I’ve been pondering the topic of genders and gender roles. Above all, I’ve asked myself what being feminine versus being masculine truly entails? The more I contemplate and the more I twist and turn the meanings of these notions, the more they seem to lose their meaning. Because in addition to valuing and judging ourselves and the people around us, they don’t really add any value at all. The only thing they do is determining how well we live up to expectations of how we should be and act. Expectations that simultaneously feel dated in a modern society. Let me paint you a picture. To point out that a woman is feminine is basically another way of saying that she’s doing it « right ». To point out that a man is not masculine is basically another way of saying that he’s doing it « wrong ». And vice versa of course. But what is right and wrong when most personality traits are so closely linked to a certain gender that the intrinsic value becomes secondary? If a woman is conspicuously muscular, she’s considered masculine rather than strong. If a man uses make-up to enhance the way he looks, that vanity is considered feminine rather than self-aware. If a woman has excessive (or just normal…) body hair, it’s considered manly. If a man has little or no body hair at all, it’s considered womanly. Everything we are, do, and know becomes secondary if our gender is wrong. And when we evaluate like that, everything loses its value. With this in mind, I’ve begun to remind myself not to describe people or the things they do as female, male, feminine, or masculine. Somehow, these notions only spark exclusion. In our often so mad world, almost everything is part of a simplified two-degree scale. Everything is a binary construction; educated or uneducated, fit or unfit, masculine or feminine, etc. Every grey zone in between these stark opposites requires some form of explanation, and the only thing that explains is that perhaps it’s not so strange that a lot of people struggle with mental health. How can we all be expected to fit in, if there are just two sizes of everything? If everything revolves around how well we live up to ideals created to be unreachable, is it any wonder? Sure, grievances and inadequacy are what feed a capitalist society, but let’s save that discussion for another text. Here I’d mainly like to establish two things; it might be exhausting to question, but it’s lethal not to do it.

What is feminine? What is masculine? For starters, I think some rephrasing is in order. What is considered womanly? What is considered manly? Out of curiosity, I’ve asked some people what they think. The responses have varied a little, but in general, most of them have concerned the very same thing, namely superficiality. A friend of mine told me she feels like a woman whenever she’s had time to do her make-up properly, gets an opportunity to wear high heels, put on a fancy dress, and well, make herself feel « beautiful » basically. Although it can sound parodic in this discussion, the fact is that almost everyone I asked told the same story. Some couldn’t come up with any answer at all, and that is of course an answer in itself. Because it’s not until we bring certain structures into question, that we realize how little sense they make. If we were to say that using make-up is a feminine thing to do, is it then masculine not to do it? Is something non-feminine synonymous with something manly? If being muscular is a masculine thing, does that mean it’s also non-feminine? What if a man is not muscular, does that make him feminine? Again, what is right and wrong when the way we assess one another is so askew? Must there be only a right and a wrong? Could a muscular person not just be strong? Could a person using make-up not just be self-aware? Why should one gender “need” the aid of make-up to be considered complete, when the other doesn’t? Of course, there are differences between men and women, and the point here isn’t to erase all of those, but if we’re being honest, we have to admit that the vast part of the real differences is biological. All other differences we’ve come up with ourselves. I, personally, have no urge to start wearing skirts, but if we’re simply being logical, skirts do look a lot more comfortable than pants do. And I’m sure just about any woman would have loved not to « have to » wear make-up, without that being a form of a statement. Despite the lack of logic in these divisions, the time we live in has taught us that these are rules to be followed. Women should wear make-up, and men shouldn’t. Women should keep their legs together, literally and figuratively, while men can be as promiscuous as they wish. Women should keep silent, while men should be heard. To be respected, women need to go through a lot of fuss, whereas men basically only have to exist to attain the same thing.

Saying out loud that you’re proud of being a woman, a gay, a lesbian, a transgender, etc. is still considered to be activism in this day and age. Everything that falls outside the tiny, cramped framework of being a heterosexual cisgender (preferably male), comes with a struggle. So what is implied in a statement like that, is that your reality is not an easy one, but that you carry on nonetheless. That pride is linked to the social struggle, and not to biology. A woman who says she’s proud of being a woman doesn’t say so because she’s got two breasts. She does it because she knows she has to work harder, and she does it. And that’s both inspirational, touching, and admirable. But should it have to be like that? The truth is that in a wonderful world, the answer is no. There wouldn’t be a reason to exclaim that you’re proud of your gender or your sexual orientation. But the fact that certain people’s realities are still unthinkable for others, is the reason we haven’t gotten any further. Nevertheless, I often think that I feel to be different and to be a part of a big minority. It’s made me a richer human being, to be in a position where you often look up instead of looking down. I believe the reason why this community is such a privilege to be a part of, is the abundance of love. There is a pent-up need for unconditional love and acceptance, simply because it is so scarce in the world beyond. Here, the love is so uniquely concentrated, simply because it’s not given room to spread out freely in a world that doesn’t embrace difference. That form of unbridled acceptance people give to one another, I believe to be a prerogative for all peripheral groups in society. And those who aren’t different like that will never get to experience the same form of love. Why? Because in the big world, there is no need for small rooms with lots of acceptance, because it’s already everywhere. Whenever I think of it like that, I feel a little sorry for « normal » people. I suppose the price you pay to take acceptance for granted wherever you go, is to be a little blind.

The other week, I was at the beach with some friends of mine and their kids. On one occasion, one of them told me « Be a man a just jump in the water, Adam! ». It was said as a joke, and I wasn’t perturbed at all, but it still struck me how little I miss being so young that I hadn’t yet begun reflecting upon the meaning of my words. It was one of those moments when it felt pretty great not to be young-young anymore. Regardless of how much I can miss the naivety and invincibility that marked being a teenager and a young adult, they’ve got nothing against being able to say « In that case, I guess I’m something else than a ‘man’ « and mean it. Yes, I sometimes miss the tempo from the past, but the serenity and insights of the present are priceless.


Beyond prejudices in Uzbekistan

I genuinely don’t know what I expected before coming here, and yet I have a sensation of having been proven wrong. Perhaps the most difficult part of this trip is to write about it without sounding like I’m being fictitious and making things up. Because there are aspects to life you never really come across anywhere but the places that are a bit off the normal grid. And Uzbekistan is of course no exception. This showed from basically the moment we stepped foot on Uzbek soil. Actually, it started before that. Upon making our booking for a hotel, we were informed to bring a marriage certificate to show at the hotel… what else could be expected in such a stronghold of tradition? In lack of said certificate, we decided to cross that bridge when we got there. Or sleep under it if it came to that. Luckily, this was never necessary, even though there was a point when there seemed to be no hotel at all.

Our trip started like you’d think it would. The driver who came to pick us up from the airport informed us that “unfortunately” our booked hotel was fully booked (?) but “fortunately”, he knew someone who knew someone who runs another hotel, and we could stay there for “almost” the same price. Well, it’s just not the kind of mishap you want to encounter in the middle of the night in a country where next to no one speaks English. There are moments in life when you should just close your eyes and say “yes”, but this didn’t feel like one of them, so with a little persistency, we did make it to our intended hotel in the end. If we dodged a bullet or not we’ll never know, but some of the ”furniture” in the lobby were literally bales of hay covered with blankets. I don’t know if that’s standard for a boutique hotel in Uzbekistan?

Tashkent is an unusual capital. Whenever I find myself in a new place for the first time, I always try to imagine that if I were to wake up here with no idea of where I was, what elements would tell me I’m not at home anymore? This has opened my eyes to details I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. At first glance, it seems like globalization has completely bypassed this city. And I’m not only saying that due to the absence of western signs and logos. The city somehow feels both small and grand at the same time. It’s something with the scarcity of skyscrapers and towering buildings and the impressive remnants of the Soviet era that does it. The buildings are tiny, but the many avenues are wide. The streets are lined with oak and chestnut trees shadowing over the broad sidewalks, which makes it a pleasant city to discover by foot, even under the sweltering sun. Immense parks are laid out everywhere, and an elaborate irrigation system keeps the city green. Even though it’s only spring, it almost feels like the air stands still during most parts of the day. The heat soars to a merciless 60 degrees during the peak of summer. For this very reason, we are told, the most expensive apartments to buy are always the ones on the lowest floors as they withstand the heat the best. Many of the old Soviet buildings are dilapidated, but still captivating in what they represent; the contrast between the awesome exteriors and the stark realities that lived behind them. The cousin of a friend takes us around one morning, and she was not equally impressed. “Inside, they all look like prisons”. That’s not a coincidence, apparently, the same architecture also designed many Soviet prisons. The markets and bazaar are a dream for an overseas visitor, with price levels for the locals. The cousin points to a table of Channel bags and Louise Vuiton wallets and says: “Here you see what’s left of the Great Silk Road”.

The metro is an attraction in itself. It’s quite a contrast to descend from the occasional disarray above ground into the art exhibition every metro station holds. The platforms are marbled and dotted with ornamented columns, all lit up by chandeliers. It was prohibited to take photos in the metro until recently, but as the country is becoming more open, this has changed. And it’s good that it’s working so well because the traffic is not for the fainthearted. I barely know where to begin to explain why not… The white markings dividing the lanes are faded beyond recognition on many roads, basically turning them into massive single lanes. Here and there are opening in the center barrier to allow drivers to do a u-turn in the opposite direction, however, since 3 or 4 cars normally try to do it at the same time, this isn’t always ideal. Of course, there are no red lights. And seatbelts in the cars? Forget it. At one point I exclaimed: “They really should put up signs for these speeds bumps!”, and the reply was: “That’s not a speed bump, it’s just the road”. There is also some uncertainty whether being a taxi driver in Uzbekistan is an actual profession, or if it just means that you access a car?

However, the biggest reward of coming here has been the people we’ve met. Everywhere we’ve gone we’ve been meet with kindness and curiosity. And something as rare as genuine interest. Even if very few people speak English, they’ve wanted to know who are and why we decided to come here. It’s been a reminder that language is just one of many ways to communicate. This kind of treatment you’d never get in a place that sees a lot of tourists, which is an appeal in itself. One evening we had the privilege of being invited to our mutual friend’s mother’s birthday party. Anyone can book a plane ticket and go wherever they want to go, but you need an invitation to take part in someone else’s culture, and that’s what makes it so special. And it was special. I could go into detail about all the home-cooked food, the (of course) home-brewed beer, or the many vodka shots (not sure if home-brewed), but my strongest memory will be of something else entirely. Something that caught me by surprise. And that was the intimate bond all of these people seemed to share. Even if I met them all for the first time and had difficulty communicating with the majority of them, it was obvious how close they all were. They had shared and followed each other’s lives and milestones, and this showed in subtle things like how gently they laid hands on one another, how they bickered, and how they laughed like you can only do with people you truly know. I sometimes wish I could switch off my brain and just enjoy myself at the moment instead of analyzing my surroundings, but it felt like such a privilege to have been invited into such a tight-knit group. Whenever someone called it a night, the entire entourage stood up to walk them out and wave them off, and I’ve never seen anything like that. Standing right there, on a dirt road far out in the Uzbek countryside, with cows lowing in the background and Russian classics blaring from a stereo, it made me think of what an immense contrast it all is between this reality and the one I come from, in a western society.

So often we sit there on our high horses claiming to be so progressive and open-minded, but when did you attend a party the last time when all 20 guests came out to wave you off? It’s difficult not to wonder where the middle ground is between tradition and progression? Where do we find the balance of the tradition of sticking together while keeping our hearts open enough to accept everyone for who they were born to be, what choices they make, and the opinions they hold? I know people who sacrificed their families to be able to be themselves. I know people who sacrificed being themselves to have their family. What’s the bigger price to pay? Of course, in a perfect world, you shouldn’t have to pay at all. We all have so much to learn from each other, which is why meetings between cultures are so important.

A silent thought in a world of noise

The most beautiful thing a person could ever have is a voice. Funnily enough, having one has little to do with actual speaking. Articulation is as much a strength as silence is, and if you master both you can ascend to the top of the world. But if you were to forget one of them, you’re out on a limb. Because people will tire to listen to someone who never stops talking. And no one can hear your words unless you speak them.

During the last few months back home I’ve come to realize how common it is for people to have forgotten. Either to stop talking or to start doing it. I don’t know which is worse, because you forfeit your voice in both ways. I just know I fear ever being led to think that my voice should always be the loudest.

A Swedish idiom says empty barrels make the most noise. There might be something to it. Because when the telling of one’s own experiences always comes before the listening of somebody else’s, you display what you consider the most important. And it’s precisely at that point when you believe you have more to teach than to be taught, that you’re in peril.

I wonder if most of us are just trying to make ourselves heard in a deafening world? Is there a fear that a moment of quietude would consume us alive? Would our entire existence cease simply because we allowed our own perception of it to not always come first? The incessant jabbering of people so persuaded by their own relevancy has swallowed the voices of people doubting their own for centuries. It’s a different kind of pandemic to which there is no vaccine 90 % effective looming.

Moving to Dubai was in many ways like stepping into Narnia . Regardless of how many years go by in that enchanted world, time always seems to have stood still each time I retrace my steps back here. And if it has, maybe it explains it all. Maybe the need for constant assertion comes from being trapped in time. If life has come to revolve in circles, perhaps the noise is a sedative to persevere. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve begun to feel the void of my circle in Dubai. Because beyond the polished surface of a shallow world where everything and everyone is exchangeable, are people with minds more open than anywhere else I’ve known. In a melting pot of every flavor in any sense, this world has to offer, you cannot survive without a mind willing to sometime be wrong, eager to learn and humble to teach. That’s the people I chose. And I suppose that’s why we have survived for so long.

Perhaps it’s not at all a Swedish phenomenon.

Perhaps it’s a global matter.

Yet it has become something I so strongly link to coming back home, and at the same, one of the more cogent reasons for why it cannot be my permanent one just yet.

Life changes in Phuket

The sun peered over the mountains as we descended through the clouds and Phuket unfolded below us, swathed in the last morning fog like a giant cobweb encasing the entire island. The serenity which has attracted people to come time and time again could be felt even before touchdown. And I reckon it’s often like that; when what strikes you the most at first glance is not what man put up, but what was already there, to begin with.

I got on a coughing motorbike and held a tight grip around the driver as we made our way through the traffic, and I began to reminisce. It’s the third time I’m here, and each time I’ve been has been important. Somehow life has often taken a swift turn afterward, and suddenly nothing has ended up being the same anymore. I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence. But the first time I came here was almost ten years ago, and I was a teenager on my way to see a friend from school living in Phuket. I remember it as it was yesterday. I guess because the whole trip played such a big part in leading me towards where I am today. Therefore I remember, both the memorable and the much less memorable bits. I remember the hard jumpseat I sat on for 11 hours, which was my only option to get on the flight. I remember being too shy to ask for breakfast when the cabin crew forgot about me for the lasts service, where I sat tucked away behind a curtain in a freezing galley. But more than that I remember the approach into Bangkok, a million lights lit up like a dashboard in the night as we circled before landing. I had never seen such a vast city before, and I wasn’t really supposed to either at that time, but as my travel plans abruptly changed almost before the entry stamp had dried in my passport, I had to stay the night. All connecting flights were full, and if I wanted to get myself to Phuket, I wasn’t gonna be by air travel. I wasn’t even a cabin crew yet, nonetheless, I was tutored early on what it feels like to be completely screwed whilst on staff travel.

One night in Bangkok followed by one night on a ramshackle bus lacking both seatbelts and a muffler, all the way down to Phuket. I was awake all night, my eyes darting across the landscapes and silhouettes whizzing by outside in the muggy night. When we rolled into Phuket the morning had just begun to saturate the gaudy colors of the island, and even if I’d never been as far away from home, I didn’t feel like it. A feeling I’ve come to experience many times since, in many different places. And that feeling didn’t subside for the two weeks I stayed there. Not even when I was bumped off flights for another whole week whilst attempting to return back home, and really wanted to. I got almost another week in Bangkok, which was a lot less fun than it sounds, but it still mattered even if the details of the trip are unimportant. What is important is that when I came back, I came back another. Someone who’d faced the world outside and somehow landed back on his feet. Someone more confident, someone more of an accomplisher.

There are times when I can miss my younger, braver self who didn’t think as much as I do today. I suppose that’s very often what bravery is all about; not thinking and just doing. Then again, I like to think I make better decisions for myself today than I sometimes did back then. I’ve become a lot better at being present in moments that come to me. To listen more intently, to speak more selectively. To select more carefully, to let go more easily. People and things. I used to be completely different. An over-indulger, in every sense of its meaning. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why I oftentimes feel like all my strongest memories are from my adult years. I had such a rush growing up I so often neglected to pay attention to life as it happened. But better late than never, as we say.

I thought about this as I later sauntered between shelves crammed with tattered paperbacks in a tiny store for preloved books in Phuket town. Piles and stacks of books lined every aisle and filled every corner, and particles of dust stirred up as I moved around, transforming the air into a galaxy of its own. The idea that each book has already been picked up once by someone appeals to me. That every book in there has already given to someone at some point. Especially here. Phuket is one of those places on earth where people on the run end up. Either they’re running away from something, may it be from law enforcement or gloomy weather, or either they’re running towards something. Usually a better life, whatever that means for them. I spotted several books that have changed me, and I wondered if I’m also running if we all read the same books? I foubd one of my favorites tightly wedged on a dusty shelf – ”Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”. I purchased it again and thought that’s the beauty with books, that it’s a gift whose value is so easy to share with others.

I got on another motorbike to go back. It’s peculiar how an island so vast can feel so small. The sidewalks teemed with people, and the sultry air felt manageable in the breeze from moving on a velocity. As the evening slowly made its entrance, bright neon signs lit up one by one, making a profit of vices people have come here to unleash. It’s never quiet in Phuket. It’s never too noisy. Phuket is more an environment than it is a place, a city or an island. And perhaps that’s what makes it so special.

Come night I ambled into my hotel room and picked up my phone, and found out that life had changed again, and all of a sudden it wasn’t just Saturday anymore. I spoke to a friend of mine earlier during the day. A trivial conversation about everything and nothing, about delicious meat-substitutions and business ideas. We decided to speak again soon. In the hours that had passed since we hung up, her mother had fallen severely ill and had been taken to the ICU. She has just texted me saying that she’s just commenced the 20 hours journey to go home. And she didn’t know if she’d make in time. So just like that, it wasn’t t just a Saturday anymore.

Suddenly, no sunrises, no missed connection flights, literary gems or anecdotes of pearls of wisdom meant a thing.

Suddenly, time stood still, just when time had never been more precious.

Suddenly, love was all that mattered.

Who cares about seeing new places?

Who cares about seeing new places?

I do, but honestly speaking, the biggest reward of traveling is not seeing new places. It’s actually the insight that seeing new places is oftentimes not a particularly enriching experience at all. It is indeed mesmerizing seeing the details of Taj Mahal through sunglasses fogged up by muggy air, or biking across the Golden Gate bridge in a briny headwind, burning your tongue on fiery stir fry in Bangkok or having a layer of skin scrubbed off in a hammam bath in Casablanca. Still, the true riches of traveling almost always comes from the people you cross path with whilst doing it. And as much sense as that makes, the twist is that you do need to see these postcard monuments with your own eyes in order to fully embrace that they’re not much more than just places, and places without someone to remember them by or with, don’t add much significant value per se. Because what changes us isn’t places; it’s people. That realization is the greatest privilege to obtain from being able to travel. Because only when you go to bed at night feeling the exact same as when you woke up in the morning despite having climbed the Great Wall of China that day, you fully understand that some ticks on the bucket list don’t really matter. And only when you find yourself in a bustling flea-market in Yerevan being pulled aside by a frail man with a long beard, who in very broken English says to you “Never forget to stop and just feel” you understand that perhaps it’s something completely different than passport stamps and Facebook check-ins that do matter.

The other day I had a meeting that mattered to me. An elderly lady came onboard. Sporting a cobalt blue jacket and bright red lips she was like taken from a time when you dressed up to fly. She was probably in the environs of 80 and a bit, so to claim she wasn’t marked by age would be to romanticize beyond necessity, yet she had skin like strawberries and cream and a young glistening gaze behind designer spectacles. She was a chic lady, and our connection was instant from the very first look. As we began talking she took a firm grip on my arm and caressed it throughout the conversation as if I was a precious item. She knew to hold on to good things when she saw them (as she later told me).

Throughout the long flight, we had time to converse further. She loved to tell, and I love to listen. Often neither time nor interest is enough to, but this day was an exception; both time and interest were plenty. She was a true storyteller, and her stories were of all kind. The ones that made you gasp for air and sent cold shivers down your spine. The ones that sank its claws in your heart, and the ones that made both your lips and eyes smile. She was aged, yet not old because her spirit was that of a young person. Yet each time we spoke, she held my arm in that same aforementioned firm grip. The way only old people do as if somehow trying to prevent things from eluding them.

Hampered by health her diet was restricted, so together we scrutinized the menu for permissible options from the various alternatives. Afterward, I scarfed them together and served them to her. Unseasoned rice and boiled vegetables are perhaps not amongst the most enticing of foods, but as she said, everything tastes good with Champagne. In fact, she had a glass of Champagne in her one free hand throughout all of our talks. She drank in swigs, and she referred to the noble drink as the potion of life repeatedly. I forgot to ask if that was the secret to her youthful appearance. But I bet.

Many of her stories served as painful reminders of how incredibly unfair life can be at times. Few people appreciate what they take for granted until they realize that they cannot anymore. As she said when I suggested for her to watch a movie, it’s important to acknowledge what we must enjoy now and what we can enjoy later. ”I much rather just stand here and look at you than at a screen”. I don’t blush often. But she made me blush.

Before landing, I went to say goodbye. She was seated in one part of the cabin and me in another, so we would not see each other for disembarkation. I brought her the cobalt blue jacket, redolent of Chanel nr 5, and she took another firm grip of my arm and said, not in these exact words yet they were the silver lining, ”anyone can pay for some to provide the service, but no one can pay for anyone to care.” This is true. And In 7 years, that might be the most important someone has ever said to me whilst on duty.

The moral of the story is that we never know who we’re going to meet, but chances are they might have something important to tell us if we just take a little time to listen.

So easy to forget, but so important to remember.

Stories you don’t want to hear

Stories you don’t want to hear.

A few weeks ago, a documentary of one of Sweden’s most cherished late singers, Josefin Nilsson, went viral back home. Since I watched it, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her. The internet connection was so poor as I streamed it the show buffered incessantly and the picture was blurred for almost the duration of it, yet for one hour I didn’t move a muscle, and I sat there with my gaze fixed to the screen. Listening to her life story being unfolded. A story about a woman with so much to give to the world, and a story about a man who took it all away from her. Who abused her so severely, she never fully recovered.

Josefin passed away in 2016, just shy of her 47th birthday.

As I sat there and the producer’s credits starting rolling down the screen, I felt a fire raging inside of me. Ignited by all the anger I had in my heart. The anger for all the people in this world who by their own petty limitations, their own ignorance and their own oblivion towards the people around them, have felt entitled to bereave another human being of as much as a fragment of their own self-worth. Because as much as that documentary revolved around Josefin, her artistry, her zest of life and how much she devoured it, as much it revolved around all the ones who’s ever been denied their inherent right to their own body. Whose narrative was chosen for them, not by them.

I came to think of something that happened to me in primary school when I was seven years old. An incident which doesn’t hurt anymore, but who scarred me. Scarred me invisibly, by opening up an abyss I sometimes still find myself falling through. It was a regular autumn’s day back in 1999. I was standing in the lunch canteen and had spotted the last vacant seat by a crowded table. As I sat down, the entire table simultaneously stood up and moved to an empty table nearby. They left me there by myself. And that shame. That humiliation. That social rejection is still a vivid memory, long after it stopped hurting.

I thought about a friend of mine. When she was about the same age as I was at that time, she routinely saw her school nurse. At one point, the nurse had blurted out, admonishingly, that she was ”a little chunky” for her age. Maybe this sounds harmless, but she only confided this to me quite recently, after yet another rant of me reminding her that she shouldn’t have to ”deserve” dessert, or ”be good” in order to ”feel” good about herself. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy to not try a new dress, and it certainly is not easy to undress in front of a new person, when she hears those words each time she has to look at her own body. It’s not easy because at a point in life when fitting in meant everything, she was told off for not doing so.

I thought about another acquaintance. I remember when she first told she’d been sexually abused as a child. The first time, she was six years old. The second time she was nine. The third time, she was 14. She told me that she doesn’t know how to think, or what to answer, each time someone asks her at what age she lost her virginity.

I thought about him. He, who was never allowed to be himself. He, who got thrown out on the street when he was 16 years old because he told his parents about this boyfriend. He, who still has to pretend, even though he’s past 30. He, who also finds the world to be quite tiring after having seen it, several times over, but who prefers to travel somewhere new rather than to go back home for leave, since the price of completely new experiences is less than that of old lies.

And I thought about her. She, who is just as reluctant to go back home as he is. Not because she is not allowed to be whoever she wants to be. Because in her parent’s house, there’s a black and white photo from her childhood, framed on the wall. A blurry old photo with frayed edges, of her, her mum, and a late male friend of the family. Had her mother known about the memories she relives each time she lays eyes on the photo, that cherished photo she often dusts off, she’d live a half-life thereafter, and she doesn’t think her mother is deserving of that. Because she wasn’t the grown-up who let her down, but that’s what she would have thought.

I cried as I wrote this down. Cried for to the powerlessness. For to the incapability. For to the injustice. For all the bad luck. And for all the luck. Because it’s nothing more than just luck. Luck that the shame I felt sitting abandoned by a dining table 20 years ago, was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Luck that I’ve never had to question my own right to my own body. Or my own thoughts, my own curiosities, my own wantings. Luck that I was given something as rare as unconditional love, from so many people. And the responsibility it calls for, from me, from everyone who was lucky, to make sure that’s the love who lives. The love that encourages. Includes. Protects.

There is injustice we are powerless to change. People in need we cannot help. Stories we don’t want to hear but have to listen to. People we want to cherish, but have to question for their actions, and experiences we wish we didn’t have but have to share to prevent them from repeating. At the end of the day, we’re all solely responsible for our own lives, and no one but ourselves can pick us up whenever we fall. But no one stands strong on their own.

What is the value of buying a new dress, to someone who resents her body in everything she wears? What is the value of saving your body for someone you love, to someone whose right to decide over her own body has been revoked so many times she’s lost count? What is the value of sharing a dinner with your family, in a room with a picture of a man who bereaved you of your childhood? We are not always able to save each one another from harm. But we are able to remind ourselves that we are fragile. And so are the people we love. Perhaps there are no moments in which we are more fragile, than in those where we thought we would never have to be.

I also believe it’s good to remind that when other’s confide, you do best to stay silent. But when others stay silent, you do best in not staying silent.

It all began on a tiny Mediterranean island 12 years ago.

It all began on a tiny Mediterranean island 12 years ago.

It’s a strange feeling being back here. In Malta.

I was 14 years old when I came to this island the first time, under the pretense of studying English for three weeks. Today, I do consider myself somewhat proficient in English, but I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that not even a morsel of the grasp I today have of the language, I picked up during those three weeks. That journey was about something different, something a lot of important than linguistic advancement. I had never really been away from home for a long period before, yet I remember how unperturbed I still felt before setting off, and more importantly, how indifferent I felt the day I came back home. I suppose that already then, somewhere in the back of my mind, ”home” had started to become something relative. But something had clicked in me. I believe it had been important for me to see with my own two eyes that facing something unknown didn’t deter me, if anything, it felt like freedom. To date it still does.

12 years later I still believe that there’s a kind of freedom to be found in what we don’t know, but today it’s a bit more perplexing. Sometimes I’m told I’d do better for myself by thinking less. Asking less. And perhaps that’s true. Then again, questions as per se are harmless, it’s the answers that’s the tricky part. There’s a kind of freedom which rests upon the ignorance and arrogance of why we don’t always live in a wonderful world. And there’s also a kind of freedom to be found in realizing that switching on the light in a dark room only blinds you momentarily before you see things more clearly. Quite literally, darkness doesn’t exist but is merely the absence of light. And even if it doesn’t always seem like it, it’s nice to think that perhaps it’s just the same with people’s minds.

It’s taken me years to understand, devour and put value in the insight that the life-changing moments are almost always only the ones where we allow ourselves to be intimate, personal and most important of them all, brave, to ourselves and to the people around us. I have visited just shy of 80 countries in the world. That as per se doesn’t make me much richer than someone who’s only visited 10 unless we’re counting passport stamps that are. 

Nevertheless, it’s taken me to a point where I’m becoming convinced that my quality of life doesn’t enhance merely by attaching a new airport code tag to my suitcase. I’m less intrigued by places today than I was before. It doesn’t give me much more of a rush to pull the curtains to Times Square, than to the dusty construction site outside my bedroom. I saw 3 new cities in 3 new countries over the last 2 months. One so modern, it’s in the Asian vanguard of LGBTQ rights. One so western, yet so conservative I barely saw a non-caucasian person on the streets. One so plagued by inflation beer was cheaper than water. It enriched me to see, feel and discover all of this. 

But the only thing that I can recall that changed me lately, was a different story entirely. A few weeks ago I met an elderly lady on one of my flights. She told me she had a fear of flying, so I sat down with her and we began to talk. She hadn’t been on aircraft since long before the internet was invented she said, but now a relative had bought her a ticket and she’d ran out of excuses, to recite her words. As the aircraft commenced the takeoff roll we held each other’s hands, and as we lifted off the grounded and ascended through the cloud barrier she leaned over me and gazed out admiringly over the only space where the sun always shines. Her jaw dropped for a second and then she looked at me and said ”So what happens now?” and I said ”Now the world awaits.” and then we hugged. Long. It was a healthy reminder that perhaps we’re not in that much of a hurry to figure everything out just yet, and whenever we do, it’s more about whom we take the leap and share that moment with. And if I can have more experiences to become a better listener, a better orator, a more humble yet more confident person, more generous and less opportunistic, that’s more valuable than any stamp.

I had a discussion with a friend of mine recently. She told me how one of her friends had pointed out to her how lucky she was to have all of these worldly experiences. The shopping on Fifth Avenue, the wilderness in South Africa, the suspicious street food in Taipei, the gelato in Rome, the modernism of Japan, the humility of Bangladesh. All of it. Her friend was right. She is blessed. I am blessed. We are blessed. But, not because of any of the aforementioned, but because I believe it to be incredibly hard to understand just how little the big things are unless you’ve stood in front of them. And how big the little things are in comparison.