Memories of Nanjing

Memories are funny things aren’t they?

We gather so many millions and millions of them throughout our lives and somehow they all get stored away in our mind’s filing cabinet. Some things we want to remember – a couple of mine include standing awestruck in the empty chamber in one of Giza’s great pyramids or for something more mundane, just remembering the name of the person I met half an hour ago. Others we’d rather forget. Most retreat and end up buried beneath the constant and never-ending deluge of our life. Yet sometimes, like yesterday, they pop up when least expected.

Blogger (and published author) extraordinaire Linda Janssen writes Adventures in Expatland and I was over there yesterday checking out the latest piece in her Expats A to Z series, C is for Committed. The post was pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Linda’s writing: thoughtful, insightful and generous. But what I didn’t expect was the evocation of a memory so powerful, it took me right back to a summer’s evening in a Nanjing street almost nine years ago.

I had been in my own version of expatland for about 18 months. It had been a hard induction – initial expectations of money, home and job had fallen well short and my family and friends watched from afar – concerned, helpless and confused – as I struggled with both the practical and emotional minefield of building a new life. And whilst I knew deep down that here was where I was meant to be, there was another little voice in my head whispering, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this to yourself? You had a good life, it would be easier/far more sensible to give up and go back to Australia.’

At this point in time, I’d found myself in a job that promised so much and fairly quickly became a huge disappointment but I did get a couple of amazing opportunities to travel in the ten months I was there and one of these trips was to Asia.

I’d spent a week with our local rep visiting suppliers in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. We’d managed a casual evening in Macau, another more digestively challenging evening as guests of a supplier in Shanghai, had visited villages and great cities and had been flown and driven around for six days. On the final day, we crossed the Yangtze River for our final supplier meeting and then spent the afternoon heading towards Nanjing in order to get on our respective flights home the following morning.

With the pressure of the week finally over, my colleague suggested a stroll through the city and a ‘local’ dinner so fortified by a drink at the hotel bar we set off. Nanjing was full of colour and life and my local took great care of me, showing me the sights and encouraging me to share several local dishes at a tightly packed restaurant filled with the curious clacketty-clack of Chinese chatter.

As we wandered back towards the hotel, I felt a whole world away from my troubles back in the UK.

We passed a few art and craft stalls and finally stopped where a small crowd had gathered. Drawing closer, I could see a young woman surrounded by rolls of bamboo parchment, an array of small ink pots before her: she was finger-painting these extraordinary Chinese scrolls and selling them for about £10. I stood and watched her for a while, fascinated by her complete immersion in her task, wanting to imprint the moment of simplicity, purity and happy endeavour firmly in my mind.

Eventually, I asked for one to be painted for me and as I looked on, a delicate picture of ebony branches with tiny bright red flowers came to life beneath her deft fingers. It was beautiful and I was so delighted at the prospect of taking this little piece of Nanjing home with me. But even more poignant was her explanation as she presented me with my finished scroll – the tree she had chosen to paint for me was one that slept and struggled through the cold dark months of winter and then would blossom in a vivid testament to its commitment to both survive and thrive in spite of the elements.

It hung on my wall in my tiny Kingston flat for six years before getting irreparably damaged during my move to Finchley. But Linda’s post yesterday brought it back to me, as vivid and delicate as the night it was created. And when I shared this story in response to her post, she asked me to share it with you.

I’ve built a life I absolutely love here in London and it feels like the seed that was planted ten years ago has finally blossomed. But I will never forget that moment in the dim light of a Nanjing street when, in fractured English, I was inspired by the recognition and acknowledgement of all my heart was feeling by a complete stranger.


Smear Campaign…

One of the to-dos on my early morning, bleary-eyed bus trips is checking out some of my favourite bloggers. It’s an efficient and effective use of the 15 minute trip. I am not ‘at my best’ first thing and habitual early rising for work ‘starts’ over the years means I rarely sleep past 6am – so rigid routine is the only way to get me out of the house and engaging with the world at large at the hour of the sparrow’s fart.

On Friday morning, I popped over to check out the goings on of fellow Aussie, The Vegemite Wife. Her caustic wit and antipodean observations of life here in the UK often have me nodding in agreement or chortling quietly  on the bus like a mad woman and even though we’ve never met (she lives somewhere ‘up north’), I feel a certain kinship.

Her post last Friday gave a nod to an important anniversary: one year since she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It’s not for me to share the details of this with you and I would suggest you read her update one year on to understand the context of her story. Needless to say, she’s not one for wallowing in the ‘tragedy’ of it all and like any self-respecting Aussie, simply gets on with it. But her main point is this – she went without a Pap Smear for 15 years and when she finally ‘got around to it’, things were far more advanced than they would have otherwise been.

I have a wonderful friend that I have known my whole life. Literally. We are the same age – actually she’s a day older – and from the neighbouring bed in the maternity ward, her Mum (of 3 children) was responsible for keeping my ‘first-time’ Mum just a little bit sane. Both the Mums and daughters share a special bond that defies our lack of proximity. And a few years back, this life-long friend of mine learned that she had cervical cancer.

I don’t know what shocked me more – her diagnosis or the fact that this was a woman my age, an aware and pragmatic person who never seemed (to me anyway) to shirk life’s personal responsibilities. The treatment she underwent was incredibly aggressive and while successful, gave her a new perspective on what she wanted and she chose to move to India as a more conducive environment for both her physical and spiritual recovery. (She has blogged about her experience and recovery here.)

It had been just 4 years between Pap Smears for Nathalie.

I have no doubt there are many other stories like this – it seems that cancer touches us all in some way, whether directly or by association. My purpose in writing about this today is in the hope that these two women – who face(d) this and have the courage to share their stories – will encourage some heads out of the sand and a flurry of female footsteps treading paths to local clinics for regular Smear tests.

It’s summed up perfectly by my fellow Aussie up north…

Don’t be a twat like me and leave it .. to have a Pap smear. Do it now.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

A Travelling Penn…

Just a couple of weeks ago I fell across the blog of an old friend.

Actually I should clarify: she’s not old. For matter neither am I. And I’m sticking to that.

Tanya and I worked together in a turbulent time of tea, tuna and tomatoes a couple of years before I left Australia. While I’ve been making hay my way here in Ol’ Blighty, she upped sticks and taught English in Korea for a while without having any local lingo under her belt (among other things). You could say she’s a baptism by fire kind of girl.

(I confess I can’t remember which bit of Korea peeps. Apologies. Tan, you’ll just have to do a proper guest post on Gidday *wink*)

Anyway, it’s called travellingpenn.

Tanya has started her blog to record her experiences as she undergoes her transformation into a emergency communicator for World Vision. We are only seven posts into the journey so far so it’s the perfect time to get in, so to speak, at the grass roots.

Her writing is warm and lovely, the tone ranges from self-deprecating to poignant (yes already – in seven posts!) And let’s face it, her job, facing one of the world’s greatest humanitarian issues – child poverty – puts her in a unique position to share, to make a difference and to enrich the lives of those with whom she has the enormous privilege to come into contact with.

As I said, she’s only seven posts in and it promises to be an extraordinary journey.

I hope you’ll share it too.

I Come From A Land Down Under…

With the Olympics going on here in London, I’ve read/seen a lot of stuff about Australia and sporting heroes.

Just last night, in the midst of profile after profile on Team GB (as is the perogative of the Host City), Cathy Freeman featured in a montage about ‘The Face of the Games’ for her star turn (both on and off the track) at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and legendary Aussie swimmer Ian Thorpe has been a key part of the commentary team at the Aquatics Centre for the swimming events.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing like a sporting great or two to bring out a bit of proud Aussie patriotism.

Today I was reading a post by Aussie-in-Doha, Kirsty Rice called The Fine Print In Your Passport. Just as the company you work for tells you that you are a representative of that company and are expected to conduct yourself as such, Kirsty reveals that same admonishment exists in the pages of your Australian passport. (For those of you that have one that is – the rest of you should check your own fine print.)

For many years, Australian airline QANTAS has run an overseas television campaign featuring Peter Allen’s I Still Call Australia Home, the unofficial anthem for any self-respecting Aussie expat. The line ‘no matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home’ has always moved me (and most other Australians I know) and reminds me of the enormous pride I feel in being an Aussie amid the eclectic cultural melting pot of London.

But today Kirsty’s post unearthed a new gem and for me, an absolute pearler that covers the two places I’m lucky enough to call home.

So just you remember, I come from a land down under…

…you’d better run, you’d better take cover.

Going Dutch…She’s Got The Look

I’ve been catching up on some of my favourite blogs today and a post by Linda from Adventures in Expatland has inspired me to put some thoughts on paper – or fingers to keyboard if that’s your fancy.  Linda is an expat like myself but she is an American living in Holland and just recently she posted on another expat site Expatria Baby, about cultural differences.

You may be wondering at this point why a post on cultural differences has inspired today’s theme on Gidday. After all, I am an expat and consider myself to be a well-travelled kind of gal. But you see, Linda wrote about integrating into the Dutch culture and me, being half-Dutch, was nodding away through the whole piece, muttering ‘oh yes’, ‘absolutely’ and ‘of course!’.  And it got me thinking: why do I identify so strongly with this part of my heritage having never lived there?

First, let me create a bit of context. Dad is the Dutch one. Born in Amsterdam, he emigrated to Australia with his parents and older sister when he was seven years old.  He married my Australian Mum (her lineage is English/Irish a couple of generations back but that’s a whole other story) in 1969, the same year I was born. We lived two suburbs away from Oma and Opa until I was nine years old. We never spoke Dutch at home.

While we never learnt to speak the language, Oma and Opa taught us nursery rhymes in Dutch, (Klaps Eens In Je Handjes was a particular fave) and we all toasted special occasions with ‘Prosit!’ so the cadence of the language surrounded our early childhood. There was even an ‘authentic’ Dutch costume that was passed down from me to Lil Chicky and we still have the clogs despite growing out of them ‘several’ years ago.

Fast Forward – I first visited Holland (Amsterdam in fact) in 2000 at the age of 31. I have been back twice since: once to wander around Amsterdam on my own for four days in October 2008 and again just a few months ago for work, I visited Den Bosch. It felt comfortable and sounded like my childhood – no huge surprise there.

But there’s a Dutch ‘thing’ my sister and I both feel (although not completely – after many a bruise-inducing attempt, I have concluded that riding a bicycle is not really my forte.)  An affiliation if you like with their mix of aloof-ness and pragmatic blunt-ness. I found myself nodding furiously at this observation in Linda’s post:

All part of a culture that believes strongly in a Calvinistic sense of personal responsibility. The door is there, of course one should be prepared to open it.

and then completely understanding (and seeing in myself if I’m honest) the blend of friendly yet aloof polite-ness (which creates space) and then, as fond feelings develop:

 …the standard Dutch greeting of three kisses. Not two as in many cultures, but a full three! Hands holding the other person’s upper arms to draw in for a partial hug and then left, right, left…

But there’s more: apparently I have a Dutch ‘look’ and a Dutch nose ‘to look down’ (although Mum, I don’t think it looks particularly Dutch, or any nationality really). 

And to top it all off, a guy I was absolutely smitten with when I was 19, remarked to Mum in the early stages of our relationship that I was very pragmatic. This may have been true (and in fact, quite insightful) but my tender and romantic teenage heart was crushed.

So in between my ‘get off your a***’-ness’, ‘give me space’-ness and ‘I am fond of you’ effusiveness, there’s a romantic soul who believes in life’s ‘journey’, an idealist who always looks for the best in others and a friendly Aussie lass who thinks a passing exchange of greetings in the street makes the world a nicer place. 

There are plenty of times when these two opposing forces vie for attention – my desire to believe it will all turn out for the best constantly confronted by the voice saying that if I don’t make it happen, it won’t.  

So how do I manage this dichotomy I hear you ask?  Well let me tell you, I am a whizz at delivering tough news – direct as you like – with a smile.  And if you happen to provide below par service to this particular customer, don’t object in the face of my refusal to pay the service charge. 

You’ll only make it worse. And then, you will see…

…the look.

007…Links To Thrill

Apparently, I’m IT!

No, this is not a narcissistic declaration of my own fabulousness (although I won’t disabuse you of this notion if that’s where your mind happened to wander). 

Linda over at Adventures in Expatland has tagged five of us in a game of Seven Links.

The rules are simple:

1. You’re nominated by a nominated bloggerCheck

2. You decide which seven of your posts to assign to each category – Check

This is a tough one to choose from.  I love it when you come across something so beautiful and surprising that you just have to share it so The Art Of Mindfulness…Music To My Ears definitely makes the grade.  So too does Inspired By…Sunflowers.

21 Sleeps to Go…Better Latte Than Never.  For the life of me I cannot work out why but this post accounts for just over 31% of the TOTAL pages viewed since Gidday from the UK began in August 2008.  Who knew that Latte Art was so popular?

I found this a tough one to find but my recent post My Tweet Lord celebrated the modern angel, mobile phone in hand, adorning the Den Bosch cathedral.  I have to confess that the controversy that occurred was limited to the local press and did not make it as far as Gidday from the UK!

Lost In Translation tops my list here as a fail-safe guide to mastering the art of English understaement.  And The Universe Provides…Adding A Blog Page because it does what it says on the tin.

Definitely Whipping Up A (Sand)Storm, a post I wrote while in Melbourne with family last Christmas.  Truly astonished at how fascinated people were with this one and it’s my second most popular post of all time.  I also learnt that there are Sand Sculptures in Weymouth each year – perhaps one for the ‘Things To Do’ Bucket List – you can take the girl away from the beach (and all that)…

I could trawl through lots of them here but I think it has to be post number one The First One (original huh?)  If I’m really honest, I think I wanted the champagne corks to pop and a few fireworks to announce my arrival in the blogosphere.  Upon reading this, my sister (the fabulous Lil Chicky) will probably guffaw and say ‘Suck it up princess!’  We Chickies come from the Hamer bootcamp of tough love.

There are two for completely different reasons.  The first is The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of. It wasn’t so much reading this post again or even the act of writing it at the time.  It was allowing myself to see, probably for the first time, how much I’ve overcome and how I have forged a life for myself, by myself, here on my own terms. I cried as I typed it.  The second is Quite A Milestone…Or Is That A Quiet Milestone? I think the reason is obvious.

3. You assign the next five bloggers to keep going – Check

Laura at Happy Homemaker UK
The Vegemite Wife at The Vegemite Wife
Penny at I Blame Oprah
Vanessa at Optimal Optimist
Michelle from The American Resident

Ladies, over to you…

Gidday Is Getting Around…

Excitement over here at Gidday HQ.  Gidday from the UK has been awarded featured blog status on Blogging Women for the month of June.

Blogging Women gathers together women bloggers from all walks of life to offer a comprehensive collection of the best spam free women’s blogs online.

(That’s a squeal for those of you who are Gidday neophytes).

Now, back to my little staycation…

The Joy Of Eggs…

Being Easter Sunday, I have been thinking about what sort of Easter post I should write…and bonnets and bunnies were just not inspiring me at all.  But sometimes inspiration comes from the most unlikely places and while I was meandering through my list of favourite blogs, I came across an absolute gem from adbroad (the oldest working writer in advertising or so she says).

Apparently this episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ got the longest recorded laugh in television history (no canned laughter for these bastions of situation comedy)…

I laughed out loud (the neighbours must be wondering what is going on) and thought it was a perfect way to bring a little joy into a sunshine-y Easter Sunday.
And let’s face it, it brings a whole new hilarity to the phrase ‘walking on eggshells’.
Enjoy and have a wonderful Easter!
ps…if you liked watching this episode, click here to head on over to adbroad’s latest post and watch some more!