IV: Foreign Never Lasts

Foreign never lasts, unless you let it.

It’s dark and it’s late, and I’m sitting cross-legged on my couch under a light at least three shades too warm not to notice it.
Earlier, I got to speak to a dear friend of mine, who is bunking at a friend of hers while the hurricane brewing over her Houston home conducts the waters to rise and the wind to crescendo into blistering force. This friend of mine though, she is a light in and of herself, and, just like my light, at least three shades too warm not to notice. I am grateful for the angels that walk this earth, those with unavoidable light, enough to lift the world around them. I am grateful that living in this day and age allows me to bask in their sunshine, even when they're 9000 kilometres away.
After the call, I cut up some fresh, local broccoli, trimming it in long stems with bushy tops, tossing it in the pan and pretending to stir-fry a little forest, pulling it off the heat just when the green had blossomed into a shade somewhat otherworldly.

Life is nice. Moving here was a wonderful decision. It has barely been four weeks, but feels like years and years, like everything that’s ever happened over time needed to, just to eventually sit me on a one-way plane ride from Sydney to Vienna via New Delhi. And then south-westerly, to the one and only section of Austria I didn’t visit when I was searching for where I felt I belonged. Of course, it ended up being the exact place I moved to- a risk no doubt- but a pot of gold was sitting here waiting at the end of the colorful slippery-slide rainbow of a journey it’s been along the way. And that’s why it feels so normal- because it’s right, and I haven’t had half a second of discontentment since arriving. Additionally, not a single headache- and for those who know me, know how much of a big deal that is. My body knows it belongs here. My head and my heart inclusive. This is contentment. This- right here- this, is home.

But I think there is home all around- in the biggest of moments and in the smallest too, and I'm a firm believer in the notion that foreign never lasts unless you let it. For everyone. Lack of home is discontentment, it is feeling foreign- in a non-exciting kind of way. Foreign is how I felt as I watched a teenage girl crying on a rickety old tram in Budapest a couple months back. I'll never forget the weight it brought with it. I was wet from choosing to walk in the rain for half an hour instead of boarding a short bus at the time. Her face screwed up while texting, her eyes then filling with tears, and when she blinked they trickled down her cheeks in little creek-like squiggles of sadness. When I finally mustered up the courage to go and talk to her and attempt to offer some sort of respite, accepting defeat that the likelihood of her speaking English would be quite slim- we had already reached our stop, climbed off the carriage, she had already crossed the road, and was now on a phone call anyway. That was discontentment. That wasn’t home. That was seeing something, wanting to do something about it, but not.. and then it was too late. There is nothing worse than missed opportunities. Nothing more likely to bring about a sense of discontentment- the opposite of feeling at home.

Home though, contentment- belonging, experiencing things that fill you right up- those are irreplaceable and unforgettable, and as the days go by here, they seem to increase in frequency:
It's the elderly couple I watched in the cafeteria of Ikea. They had each bought a different type of Swedish torte, and I smiled to myself as they- in unison- held up their tiny dessert forks in their right hands, and with a swift gliding motion, cut their cakes in half, playing trade to each receive half of the cake belonging to their other half. The sweetest thing. 

That feeling of home, it also came as I was babysitting for a new friend while she and her husband went out for the night. She’s American, he’s Austrian, and they appreciate it very much when their three little boys get a chance to practice their English. So over a game of Uno, I let them know that the new rule for the night was that they had only three opportunities to speak German- so to choose them wisely, and to only do so when really needed. Three strikes, and it’s an early bedtime. It was beautiful to watch their eyes crinkle as they worked out how to communicate just what they wanted to in English, and when German slipped out on accident, how they would clasp their hands around their mouth in horror at having another strike next to their name. And I loved timing them brushing their teeth because everything’s a game with little boys and when they’re on the clock, they want nothing more than to succeed. It's as much these little things- eyes crinkled in concentration, and watching the hands of a clock dance around to the sound of teeth being brushed- as well as the big things, that make the world feel right and comfortable.

Home, contentment- sometimes yes, it is foreign- but in the best possible way: new and exciting. Driving home late the other night, the moon- golden and perfect crescent-shaped- hung from an almost-black sky, with the stars sparkling unusually bright around it. I’d never quite seen a night’s sky like that- like the way a child would paint it with dry, old paintbrushes dipped in cheap acrylics on a big piece of textured paper. That was foreign in the best possible way. Childlike and profound at the same time. Not a sliver of discontentment at the situation in sight- raising that 'home' flag once more.

That feeling came yet again on my way to the bank- on foot- as I walked by the lemon-coloured home next to mine. Music filled the air, my curiosity got the better of me, and I peered into the window through the sheer floor-length curtains. Sitting there was an old man with no hair- plonked sideways on a wooden chair, wearing a white singlet top, happily pulling apart the bellows of his accordion, organising an array of tones into a heart-tugging melody. I grinned at him and he grinned back at me, and for that split-second interaction, that feeling of being content and being at home in this part of the world- sunk even further in.

Then there was that day when all of my Austrian dreams came true. The day that really sealed the deal: 
I was driving towards an antique shop in a neighboring village I’ve been wanting to visit- winding around the bends that hug the lake with just a handful of meters to separate the road from the water. But the gate was locked, and the sign said they were only open every other day, and so I kept on keeping on- just to see what else may be hiding around the corner. And then, I saw it- a big, old house- with dirndls in a myriad of patterns hanging from the windows outside. A flea-market of sorts, in the bottom level of a home. Ha! Finally! An opportunity to invest in something that will make me feel a little less foreign in my very traditional little village, where the 5-year olds are in tiny pairs of lederhosen and the mamas have on white, frilly blouses and coloured aprons around their waists more often than I could ever imagine or thought was possible in this day and age. I rung the little cowbell that sat by the door- a way to tell the shopkeepers that someone was there to take a look- as per the handwritten sign sitting under it. Down the stairs came a lady wearing thin, rectangular glasses, a red, linen dress and a big smile on her face. Grüß Gott!, she said, and invited me inside. With a concerted effort, I was able to hold back a gasp as I walked into room after room- literally bursting with dirndls and knitted vests and traditional hats and beautiful, woolen cloaks with standing collars and ornate clasps to close them up and contain the warmth. The best thing about it all being that my colour palette of choice is exactly what traditional Austrian garments are made of- olive greens, camel browns, dark chocolates, mustard yellows and burnt oranges so close to red it is hard to be certain just which they truly are. Intricate detailing all done by hand, atop materials and construction techniques made to last the ages- which each of these second-hand garments proved correct. 

Sweet Johanna the shopkeeper and I chatted up a storm while I sifted through the racks of colours. I learned that her husband was the Pastor of the local evangelical church, that all the money raised from this market went towards helping various organisations, that she’s heavily involved with local refugee groups, that she has a heart of gold and that service drives her world. My hero. She learned that I’m from Australia, that I moved to a tiny Austrian village on my own because I wanted to, that I didn’t know a single person in my town besides my darling banker (whom I love and has quickly become a dear friend), and that I am able to speak German because of serving as a Mormon missionary in Germany. All the important things. ‘Moment! Ich rufe jemanden an!’ (Just a moment, I’ll call someone!). One minute later and she was handing me her phone, telling me that on the other end of the line was a lovely lady from her congregation, who also lived in my village. I said hello, we had a little chat, and then she invited me to visit her at 4pm the next day in her home. I accepted the invite and passed the phone back.

An hour later and there I was, with an afternoon tea date lined up for the next day, and a big bagful of embroidered wall hangings and cushion covers and linen blouses and little floral vases- alongside a weird reminder that living with nothing for the past couple years was great and wonderful and taught me so much about what’s truly important in life- and that everyone needs to do that at some point too- but also that I still really, really love homewares and furnishings and spaces and making them as nice as they can be with said homewares and furnishings (and plants! and lots of them!) and arranging contents for both functionality and aesthetics- the purpose being to make life that extra bit better, because there’s nothing to enhance the every-day more than being in an atmosphere with which one truly resonates and is inspired by.

The next day, around 4pm, I drove down the street to the home of the lady on the other end of the telephone: Ilda. It would have only been a 15-minute walk, but it was raining quite heavily, and I decided to not show up at a stranger’s home looking like a drowned rat the first time. No guarantees for next time, though. I pressed the rounded-edged-square doorbell, she buzzed me in, and on the top floor- the Dachgeschoss- where the roof is slanted and the light moves in interesting ways, she stood there waiting for me outside her door, of course clad in traditional Austrian wear in my favourite shade of green. She held out her hand to shake mine, and, deciding quickly to ignore this culturally acceptable greeting, I instead replaced it with a greeting my Polynesian genetics reminded me of: I opened my arms wide and squeezed her in a hug instead. She laughed and led me inside. And then we talked on her balcony, overlooking the lake I still can’t seem to pin a colour to. And then we talked at her little dining room table, over traditional little Austrian cakes and herbal tea. And then we talked some more, and then some more, and her dialect of German was thick but quickly became understandable as my mind adjusted to its nuances. And then we sliced some bread and she asked me to open packets of cheese and lay them how I wanted to on a plate. She stopped before starting, and blessed the food.. in the form of a song, the delicate melody giving me shivers down my arms just recalling it. We talked about families and music and furniture and the Austrian health system and how she came here and where she came from, about the commencement of WWII when she was born, of her three daughters and about how she swims every day in the lake. And how my goal to swim to the other side and back in one hit is ambitious but doable. Almost three hours later, we laughed together as we cleaned up the table and packed away the various forms of herbed salt in little containers waiting to be shaken, and organised that I will drive her to her church on Sunday on my way to mine, to save her the hassle of using the public transport on offer around here- that being hardly anything. She walked me down the stairs, and on the way I couldn’t help but grab and marvel at the perfect curtains which hung over the stairwell windows- deep orange with mid-century modern graphics splashed across it, so perfect and so nice. Actually, I wanted every single piece of furniture in her home and caught myself thinking about the lifecycle of trends once again. It’s a fascinating world we live in, is it not?

Outside, in the now lighter rain, we hugged goodbye three times, and she waved from the driveway as I pulled out of it. I have a friend in Unterach! Triple my age- triple my experience, triple my wisdom, triple my interesting. Apparently only wears traditional Austrian clothes, she told me. Sunday couldn’t come soon enough... I wonder what she'll be wearing when I come to pick her up.

Driving away, I turned the corner and had to slow immediately right down as a perfect, warm-brown deer leapt across the road and into the bushes waiting on the other side. I could hardly believe it. And just when I was about to accelerate again, out came another- this time, a little baby! The fawn frolicked uncontrollably across the road, its head turning to look at me as it went, eventually joining its mother on the other side. And then, another! A second little fawn, this one a little more under control with his movement, but still so innocent nonetheless. Oh, the joys. I almost burst into tears right there and then, but decided instead to pull over and attempt to get a little closer to them. They saw me and stood, just watching, just for a little bit, just long enough, and then all three of them ducked into the pink flower-adorned shrub, never to be seen again. I turned to go back to the car, and the sky above caught my attention- so instead I crossed the road, and stood on the edge of it- looking at the great expanse that was the sea down below as storm clouds brew over it, all misty and magical. The lake had changed to almost the same colour as the sky now- making the world feel as if it were entirely made of silvery cloud, and it was right there and then that I knew, for sure, that moving here was exactly right for me: for me and for now. Foreign didn't last, because it wasn't allowed to.


Hi. I've been keeping a journal for a very long time now. I write and I write and when I'm not writing, I'm thinking about writing. Are there words to describe the current situation? Which words suit this person, that person, those people? Can I even articulate how I'm feeling? Is there some sort of something that can be compared to the now, to help it become more understandable by the greater public? Why is recording the mundane of any value to anyone, especially to strangers? Is there worth in sharing any of this? Why does life here seem so fascinating to me? And why do I want to write about it so much?
The answer is that there is no answer, but a solution I'm choosing to pursue is to simply just.. write. And to share. For me and for anyone else who wants it. It's therapeutic and helpful and in many ways enhances gratitude and reflection and fine-tunes my own self-awareness and of the world around me. And I'm excited about it, because for quite some time there I was an avid writer-sharer, and thinking back on it, that was the time of my life I feel was most streamlined, most learning-filled, and most importantly where I was able to notice the gentle hand of divinity guiding and orchestrating every day towards an eternal destination. And I want that back. And maybe you do, too, and we can all sit on my couch under this three-shades too warm light and eat little stir-fried forests together. Bis dann.

III/LII Villa Villekulla

Walking through bare forests is one of the nicest things one could ever do. The monotony of the colour palette, the tiniest suggestions of an upcoming springtime evident in little pockets here and there. That sliver of time between cold and dreary and grey winter, and blossoming and green and leafy springtime- it's rarely acknowledged and so I thought that today, I'd take a little bit of time to acknowledge it, in all of its beauty. 'Oh, you should have come last month! We had glorious snow.' or, from the other direction, 'Oh, but it's so much more beautiful in the middle of Spring!'. These are the things I hear most regularly, and I don't usually disagree out loud, but inside I couldn't disagree more. I think seasons are each beautiful because of exactly what they are- they are seasonal. I love winter because of autumn, spring because of winter, summer because of spring. The list goes on in every possible combination of seasons helping me to appreciate other seasons, and I'm just grateful because there is so much variety. Perhaps I'll create a fifth season when the time comes to create worlds after life on earth is finished. A season just for the animals, where the humans hibernate instead and the animals are free to live and not be afraid of losing their homes, or their lives. Or perhaps a season where those flowers which only bloom a single day in their life, can freeze time and just BE. Or maybe just a season of frozen time- in general. Where an individual isn't frozen, but the whole world around them is caught in a single split-second of time. I'm not sure how it would work logistically, but there must be a way. A season where everyone and everything can catch up on all they're falling behind on, a time to just sit and to just be and to just appreciate the now and the current, uninterrupted by the greatest blessing and most cumbersome burden of all- that thing which we call Time.

It's Wednesday morning and I've spent the past hour listening to best-of Astrid Lindgren theme songs with tears in my eyes. I love that woman, what she stood for, what she did for literature and the world and especially what she did for Childhood. I grew up watching Pippi- in Swedish- and to be quite frank, I have no idea how much I understood. I read a collection of Pippi stories in German last year and they were all new to me- so I have now come to conclude that my mind made up the stories I gathered from the Pippi shows I watched as a child. If sitting your children in front of a show in a foreign language isn't going to assist the progression of their imagination, then what can? Well, lots of things. But it's a good, and easy start. Needless to say, every time anything even slightly related to anything Astrid, I get all these butterflies inside of me and feel tied to my family in a very real way.

Sunday showed me how much I love bare post-winter, pre-spring forests, and reminded me of how much I love my Scandinavian roots and associated pop culture. It was early afternoon and we'd already been to church that day, and then following Sunday lunch, we drove our way in a little blue car through the busy streets of Berlin, out a little ways further, and parked on the side of the road. Minutes later and we'd walked into what felt like another world completely- Grunewald. Bare and monotonous and beautiful, with mostly grey and brown and deep orange tones- with tiny sparks of fresh green here and there. Birds sung in the trees and my eyes followed a little leaf-green butterfly, flying all over the place in no recognisable pattern. We were a group of five- a Mum, Dad, their two little blonde-haired, wild-minded girls, and me, a brief addition to the family mix. We found a treehouse and a teepee made of sticks, their pup found the skull of what we believe to be was a wild pig, and after his big discovery, he ran excitedly through the leaves, unlocking a satisfying crunching sound along his way. At one point, little Raya got tired of holding her coat, so she found a big, long stick, hung it by its hood on the end of the stick, and balanced it from her shoulder. And then the magic happened, when she started whistling Här kommer Pippi Långstrump, skipping playfully along to the tune. And then her little baby sister, in true baby sister, ultimate-imitator style, also pulled off her little jacket, found a stick to hang it on, and went skipping along her way- humming along to the melody already being whistled. I couldn't help but to smile from the inside out because sometimes there are situations we find ourselves in that we truly do wonder are real or not. This was definitely one of them. Life is so personalised.

And then take yesterday for another example. I went out for a very early morning walk to meet the Swiss landscape for the first time, having arrived here just the day before. I walked up a hill here in little Hettlingen, and found myself watching a big group of gentle brown cows grazing, backlit by a softly rising sun, in a field covered in a blanket of early-morning mist. They had beautiful big bells around their necks and I wondered what they'd say if they had a say in that- I feel like they would have them removed, so they could live in peace. But that's just my opinion. Nonetheless, the tinkling sound was magical and I didn't even mind that I stood there for 10 minutes, just watching, as a group of teenagers waiting for their school bus on the other side watched me. Then I walked down a street and another street, glittered with modern, yet somehow traditional, quaint and cosy homes.  Little colourful flowers in all different shades seem to grow everywhere here- like there's a floral rug spread out across the front lawns of every home, and I'm not complaining because this is dreamland to me. I made my way further down the street until one house caught my eye- with wooden teddy bears decorating the streetward-facing side of the house, and extra flowers grew everywhere and there were planter boxes propped up on the window sills, and then I noticed a string of painted wooden letters attached to the garage door, spelling out the words 'Villa Villekulla'. The name of Pippi's home. Wow. That moment felt sacred to me and I still can't work out why, but as aforementioned, there's something about all things Astrid-related that put me in a trance of joy. It is strange and it is wonderful. I love my family.

And I love meeting new families, and staying with families I know from before. The bed I call mine for this week is the 22nd bed in the 22nd different place I've stayed this year. That doesn't sound like too many, but it's only March. And with every different home I've been in, I've learned something completely new. How interesting it is, that learning never, ever ends. One can continue learning from people and places he's been before- often more so than the brand new. And I think its because with familiarity comes depth. But at the same time, familiarity isn't time-based at all. Those people and those friendships that are immediate in depth and understanding can't possibly have been fostered just in a few short introductory seconds. Surely there have been many, many, many years of learning about one another, conscious understanding and assisting, before this life even began. And so, when stating that staying with families I know from before is one of my favourite things to do- I'm not sure if I'm referring to before in an earthly sense, or before we even came here. Nonetheless, families are divinely ordained and with every new front door I enter, this fact becomes more and more obvious to me. In what other circumstances can we learn so quickly and effectively? Parents are teachers and caretakers. They have the same goals and calling as missionaries- guiding children home to where they belong. The home is such an important part of life. And those who aren't fortunate to live in a safe and happy home at this time, all will be made fair for them later on. I trust that. 

The only thing I find difficult about living out of a suitcase for an indefinite amount of time is that I really, really, really like to decorate homes, and to have little things hanging and plants of my own breathing life into every room. But there'll be time for that later on- and so I'm doing my best to cherish this bizarre time of extreme learning and sleep deprivation and trying to maintain lives and friendships in 5 countries simultaneously, and rarely living in the comfort zone and meeting new- yet familiar- people, every single day, and walking through bare forests with blonde-haired, Pippi-theme-song-whistling children, and writing out hundreds of words every single night to myself about what that day gifted my mind and understanding of this world and why we're here. And then falling asleep thinking about how there is not one single way of doing life right, because we're all blessed to be so different, and that's what makes it all go 'round, and what keeps this world and this life interesting. 


The following images were taken in Sweden when I was there over the summer last year, on a camera which cost less than a bottle of Heidi-brand Swiss milk. Every time I clicked the shutter button on that little disposable camera, it was during a special moment when I felt like I was at home, with my family from both sides of the veil surrounding me. I am so grateful for the ability to record so many otherwise inexpressible things in so many unique, personal and poignant ways. Cameras are a gift. And so are words. And drawings, and scents, and sounds. I think I can do better at making the most of each of them to record life as we know it- now- as a pre-cursor to one day creating a world with a fifth season of frozen time. Yes, I'll do just that, and I'll start right now.

II/LII: Midnight in Paris

Thought long and hard about how to go about this, this whole 'documenting the year' ordeal. Thought I'd keep writing words and sharing pictures to match, all at once. But it just doesn't work for me. I love to write. All the time. So many words, every single day. Sure, most of them never see the light of day, but maybe one day they will. And I also take photos. Lots and lots of photos. All the time. And most of those, too, haven't seen the light of the day. And maybe they never will. But the two are entirely different entities, two different forms of expression, and I'm done with trying to throw them together. I don't feel like the blue of the photos and the red of the writing become three-dimensional when combined. They aren't enhanced. They need to remain predominantly separate to be most accurately expressed, I've decided. So I've chosen to sometimes do written posts. And sometimes, picture posts. Today, I'm full of words. So many words. So here goes, red without the blue, hopefully still impressively dimensional and multi-faceted as a result, but no promises.

* * * * *

It's late on Sunday afternoon here in Paris. 17.42 at the time of commencement to be exact, and though I had all these extravagant plans for my Sunday afternoons over the next few months, they've all crumbled into nothing, because, well, reality happened. I even wrote a relatively structured way to come to new cities, for every day, not just come Sunday. The intention was to make a system out of an entirely free and unstructured way of life. My perfect plan, penned in my favourite little orange notebook, went something like this: I'd spend my first day fresh in a city getting acquainted with the area- looking at the Metro maps and riding a tour bus around to get my bearings. Context is important to me. I'd stroll through a grocery store and marvel at the aesthetics of a language I wasn't used to seeing all over. Purchase some things that were 'typical' for the place I was visiting- locally made or something along those lines. The next day would be spent scouring the local thrift stores and the smaller, lesser-known art galleries. I'd planned to purchase a homeless person a meal at least twice a week and volunteer at a shelter as often as I could. And of course, I was going to participate in various yoga classes across the city at 7am every morning. And find all the flea markets possible. And stroll along riverbanks and sit in parks and make a serious attempt at poetry for the first time in my life. And Sundays? Sundays were to be spent within the walls of as many churches as I could find- not just of my own religion, but of many others, too. I'd fill the day with worship, and stained glass and architecture and choirs (!), and work hard to increase my understanding of the differences and the similarities between us all and what we believe, and would then spend the next day tied to my laptop, writing about what I'd observed as a result. How idyllic it'd all be, how controllable, how delightful. But alas, as I mentioned earlier: reality happened.

Let me take you on a brief walk, through just the tiniest portion of what I've learned and noticed and thought throughout the past few days. It hasn't been as easy nor as enchanting as I'd always dreamed arriving in Paris would be, but being here has already taught me more than I could have conjured up in my own imagination. And I'm holding on for dear life trying to keep up with it all.

Wednesday morning arrived and I woke up after a night I can only compare to Christmas Eve- sleep being broken every hour or so, due to excitement butterflies so strong they kept winning the battle against the need for rest. It was difficult to comprehend that in just a number of hours time, home would no longer be there in that huge house, smack-bang in the centre of suburban Utah. That I'd no longer go up the stairs to be greeted joyfully by bright-eyed Carolyn, the mother of the household. That so soon, I wouldn't hear little meows from the neighbours cat at my window anymore, signalling me to climb the stairs to open the door for her and let her in- before she rushes by, curling her way around my feet, pushing up against my shins with her fluffy tail high in the air. But the time had come- and it felt right to be leaving, moving on, and making new. 

Skip forward a teary goodbye, a pensive train ride to the airport, and a ten-hour flight, and there I was, stepping off the bus, giant bag on my back, staring at the Arc de Triomphe- a million cars rushing by on the road in front of it in a disorderly fashion, beeping their horns. The hustle and the bustle had the fourteen-year-old, French-art-and-music obsessed girl inside me bursting with joy.  I'd made it. I was in Paris!

I walked down the street with the biggest smile on my face, to the apartment I'd booked- the size of a prison cell, on the sixth floor of an ancient Parisian building. The stairs creaked as I climbed them, the mottled wood brittle and dry. I'd booked the accommodation when I landed in France, after sitting at the airport for almost two hours, just watching people go by. Having no schedule but that which your heart desires is somethin' else entirely. There was nobody waiting for me, nowhere to be, nothing to do. Heck, nobody knew where I was. Or knows where I am, right now. And so I sat there, at Charles de Gaulle airport, and I watched, and I watched for a long time. A French boy in a long, black trench coat sat by me and we had a short chat before he went outside to light up the cigarette he'd been twirling in his fingers the whole time. I can't remember if I was tired or not, but I do remember the airport bathrooms, and how the world's most dignified and classy lady had walked in, wheeling a khaki-coloured suitcase behind her, before closing the bathroom stall door. Moments later the unseemly sound of throwing up bounced across the white tiles. I helplessly stood by the sink where I was brushing my teeth, wondering if I should ask her if she needed help, but knowing all too well that talking to a complete stranger- albeit in a different language- was the last thing she wanted to do right that second. After a little while she exited the stall, looking as dignified as she did when she entered, and with perfect posture, headed promptly out of the bathroom, green bag in tow. How bizarre. That was the first piece of the real world I encountered here, and it's not slowing down anytime soon. 

I walked forty minutes to find the Eiffel Tower that first night. With the little blue dot on my Google Maps guiding my way, I turned a corner and there it suddenly was: bigger than anything I could have ever imagined. I literally gasped, and in what felt like a trance, walked teary-eyed towards the great, big towering structure, lit up gold against the dark night's sky. How overwhelming. How beautiful. And despite the beauty, like most monuments I'd ever visited, it was nothing like I'd imagined in my head. The sound of the Eiffel Tower isn't French music and the smell isn't that of warm baguettes and Nutella-filled crêpes. It's the jangling of tacky rainbow flashing Eiffel Tower key chains and their sellers heckling you to buy one, promising you a 'good deal'. It's the sickly-sweet smell of marijuana. It's one-hundred tourists surrounding you and not a Frenchmen in sight. It's ten different languages being spoken simultaneously. It's burqas and bindis and kippahs and baseball caps. And it's incredible. What a world we live in! And what a time to be alive.

That night I walked home, heart full of love for diversity, and being in a city so international again. I smiled at an old man walking two sausage dogs, one brown, one black, in knitted vests coinciding with the colour of their fur. He didn't smile back. I shrugged inside and kept strolling along the dimly-lit street, freezing hands tucked into the pockets of my coat. Then I walked by a group of Arabic boys, who were pushing each other playfully right by an ATM, laughing up a storm. I love how universal laughter is. Love it. 

The next day was a blur, of trying my hardest to respond to people when they spoke to me in French, my response often just Swedish words flying out of my mouth in a French accent. That poor part of my brain reserved for foreign languages- it's suffered a lot this past year. I spent a good few hours mapping out my week, what I was going to do here, how I was going to make the most of it, and how I could come to understand this city and these people as quickly as possible. I feel like without coming to know the people of a place, you never really went there. You know?

Saturday came around and I made my way underground to the Catacombs, after a two-hour battle with myself standing in the neverending line of tourists to enter, so freezing cold that I almost left. But it was worth it. Or so I tell myself. It was haunting and beautiful and it reminded me of how much I love being underground, being in tunnels and caves and tiny enclosures. One of my favourite days in my life to date, was about four years ago- when we went caving. There's something about having to manoeuvre your way to move forward that makes movement feel so much more rewarding, something about straining your eyes and only being shown but a couple of steps ahead by the flashlight strapped to your helmet, that makes seeing so much more valuable. Restrictions are needed sometimes to show us the freedoms we enjoy so frequently. 

Coming back to ground-level in a part of the city I'd never been, and without a map or any way to navigate on me, I just let the night take me to wherever it needed to. The result? Attended Catholic Mass. 6.30pm on a Saturday night, like the party animal that I am. But it was more thrilling than any other Saturday night plans could have been. I entered the great, big cathedral and watched people from all walks of life slowly filter in. The Priest's voice boomed through the church and I tried my best to join in on the singing and paid special attention to the French lady sitting in front of me, trying to imitate her pronunciation. Music is the best way to learn a language. The organist accompanying the congregation wiped her nose with a red handkerchief as she continued to play with her left hand and both her feet. Multi-tasking at its finest. And in that moment, I was happy. And very grateful. For music and language and learning and people and religion and commitment. So wonderful.

So I guess in writing all of that, it doesn't sound all too bad, or too difficult. It also doesn't explain why I'm here, inside, in Paris, on a Sunday afternoon, instead of adventuring around town- diving in and out of ancient cathedrals. And I guess it's because I don't really like writing about things that hurt me, and would rather indulge in unnecessary amounts of words about the tiniest of joyous things. But essentially, it's because I've been outside long enough today already. I'm full of thoughts and feelings and questions, enough to last me a week spent inside, not communicating with anyone. Because let me tell you, this is a dark city. I've never felt the weight of the world drag me down so much before. It's a strange feeling, being in a place you've always dreamed of, only to find that many of your nightmares look exactly like it too.  There is darkness on every corner here, of every street. It is cold, and not just because of the icy temperatures. For the first time in my spoilt white-girl life, I feel a little bit... unsafe. And unsure. My naivety is decreasing as the number of my days here increase. And of all the places I have ever visited in my life, this is the first I can honestly say I'd never willingly live in. Who knew? And maybe I haven't the right to make such a call yet, for I've only been here four days. But I certainly wasn't expecting to feel like this. But the best learning happens when it isn't planned, anticipated, or controlled. Happy to call this city my school for the next little while, my learning ground, my very own life university. Happy to work with the missionaries here, to enjoy their light like I was able to today, and to find other light and joy and happiness in strangers and experiences all along the way, to offset the dark. There is more good than bad in the world. There are more of His followers than of the Father of Lies. We are winning now, and we will win in the end, for no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing. Happy to take part in the battle. And happy to be here doing just that.

* * * * *

Tomorrow I commence my 9-5 French course, which I'll be doing every day for the whole week. I'm excited to learn and to be in a school setting again. But mostly, I'm doing it because I'm tired of stumbling my way through street-side conversations, my French course from way back when rusty and right at the back of my brain, coming forth only in portions, and usually not when needed. Only arriving here did I realise just how important conversing with strangers is to me and how I work and grow. I'm one of those people, it seems, that more often than not wants to talk to people I've never met, in places I've never been. Just like my Maori Grandpa, apparently. Not that a week of learning a language will barely even scratch the surface, but barely is better than not at all, right? My schedule is bursting with appointments with missionaries and other humans I want to learn from this week, including a date with Mona Lisa at the Louvre and Valentine's Day dusk spent on the lawn by the Eifel Tower, camera in hand, waiting to see if I can find any proposals going on. It's going to fly by as always and will look nothing like I'm anticipating. But the best things never do. Like I said: happy to be here.

I/LII: Is this real? Yes. This is real.

We were 35,000 feet above ground and flying through a clear, evening’s sky. I’d never seen Utah in this way- physically or emotionally. As the valley, lit with a million and one lights subsided, and the Wasatch Front began, the world turned from a sea of glittering golden specks into a white expanse of snow-covered mountains and plains, and I couldn’t help but to marvel in silence at the beauty of it all, how intricate and intentional it was. And to think about how this is definitely not where I imagined myself being, not so long ago. Not going where I was headed. Not with the plans I’d made for the rest of the year. And most definitely not in this frame of mind. I was en route back to New York City on a three-times delayed flight, saying Goodbye momentarily to a place I felt so painfully torn towards. On one hand, Utah provided me with so, so much. With learning and friendships and beauty and happiness. On the other hand, it had caught my attention in ways I never really anticipated. And I needed a break. Because I was lost. And very confused. In need of a change of scenery and a wider perspective. A newfound appreciation for light. And a reminder of what it felt like to be a minority- complete with a renewed sense of urgency for the majority. 

By the time I’d collected my bag on the East coast of the country, boarded my first train, and pulled into Penn Station, NYC, it was almost 3am. Down in the subway roamed the misfits of the city- the broken, the abused, and the lost. Those without homes or peace- a terrible place to be, especially as an emotional state of being. The weight of the world tugged at my heart and I remembered what feeling really felt like again, like I’d broken through an unseen wall I’d been sitting against for quite some time, and I simply and gratefully let the feeling sink right through me. Waiting for my train, I smiled apologetically at the lady sitting beside me- three trolleys-full of her life’s possessions to her left, feet wrapped in layers of taped newspaper to keep them from freezing, and a sunken look on her face so deep it hurt me to look at. Feeling helpless is haunting. I had nothing to give. Just a longing for understanding to the extent of empathy, but having no more than just a heart full of sympathy. My life was easy, I am spoiled, and I knew that. It’s easy to forget when you’re surrounded by others in a similar position to yourself. Grateful to be reminded. I think this is what someone meant when they coined the term ‘reality check’.

I heaved my stuffed backpack onto my shoulders at 110th, and headed toward the staircase leading up to the streets. Cold wrapped its way around me, and I smiled inside because cold still brings with it a gentle sense of thrill, even though I’d been living in such a climate for a little while now. Trudging up the grime-covered stairs connecting the under to the above ground, soft, cold snow began to fall on my face. The first blizzard of the season in NYC, and I’d arrived right at its commencement. Glorious. Truly, though. The dim tangerine streetlights lit the falling snow in ways magical, and I smiled the whole ten minute trudge up the sloshy street, because it was deserted and dark and felt like a ghost town, being dusted with powdered sugar, and there’s something about the beauty of things unorthodox that is undeniable.

Is this real? This beauty and this life and the many complexities of the human condition? Yes. This is real. They are real. All of it. And sometimes it takes more than just writing it down to believe it's all happening.

Let’s rewind now, to two months before that beautifully unorthodox, snow-dusted New York night, when something seemingly insignificant, but with the hugest of implications happened. Let’s rewind right back to an early October’s morning:
“It's true, you are one of my favourite books to read”, whispered Angel Olsen into my ears through my headphones, as I walked down the hill in a flighty pace to work. The sky was scraped pastel pink, and a flock of birds circled overhead. Morning time feels sacred, when you’re right outside and right in the world when it begins. It feels sacred because of what it brings- newness. New opportunities and new chances, to grow and to learn and to become. Not just that, but the transition between night and day, dark and light, can change the world so quickly. Not just color-wise and temperature-wise, but the people and the situations going on within it. Fascinating. Think about it: when the Light of the world was born, His creations rejoiced with opening their arms wide open and letting light- and only light- stream unapologetically out to brighten the whole earth for longer than the norm. Upon his departure, darkness swept the lands in what I would interpret as worldwide mourning. Light. Light is truth too, and truth is heaven-sent, so really, it just makes a whole heap of sense. Darkness- or the lack of light, its opposite, brings with it confusion, fear, the unknown. The logic of it all is astounding. So much food for thought. Meanwhile, little did I know that that very day- a day beginning barely dissimilar to the days preceding it, would be so pivotal. On so many levels.

The clock hands wound their way one hour ahead, and the words slipped out of my mouth before I could catch them with reconsideration and reason. It hadn’t even hit lunch time, and I’d just quit my job. Just like that. Unintentionally, with no forethought, nor plans proceeding. I held my hand to my mouth when the words exited, like they were being controlled by a force of their own, someone or something that wasn’t me. The tears began to pour down my face shortly thereafter- because I realised what I’d done, I’d be leaving these people whom I’d grown to love like no other, and ultimately, leaving this country, because Visas exist to burden and make difficult, and I’d just burned the only bridge- albeit one that took a great deal of time to build- that stood between me and living in this country. What was there to do?

Time rolled slowly by as my shift continued and then ended, and eventually the day was traded in for dark. Drained by self-inflicted emotions, I found myself sitting outside on the hard cement ground of a local church building, in the shadow of its awning, with my back against the bricks. I was mid-conversation in a video call with my best friend back home in the land down under, with the remaining 2% of battery left in my phone. Not that I cared much for anything other than my own woes at that point, but supposedly there was to be a meteor shower locally that night, and having never successfully witnessed one, my hopes were low in that changing anytime soon. And then suddenly, when I was mid-complaint and confusion to an understanding Amy, somewhere way up in the sky to the East, a golden swipe of glitter flew by, so fast that I almost convinced myself that it didn’t happen. But it definitely did. Excitement melted away my confusion and in that moment, that pivotal moment, when that meteor flew right on by, I remembered who I was. Why I came here. Not just to this country, but to this Earth. And it wasn’t to be miserable, or to simply endure my way through, or to make irrational decisions on the fly. It was to live intentionally, to reach up and grab those glittery golden stars, collecting them in clusters until life would be so dazzling that there’d be no time or space to mope around. And then it occurred to me that those words that rolled off my tongue earlier on in the day weren’t entirely irrational nor unintended. They were necessary. Pivotal. There is no better word. And I think so many people find themselves in such a position. One that is pivotal in redirecting their life. Be it a birth of a child, a near-death experience, a spiritual awakening, or something in between any of these things, or something entirely different, or something somewhat menial. Like quitting a job. But those pivotal moments are exactly that- pivotal. Crucial. A shift in direction. Or as a dear friend responded when I messaged him shortly after the deed was done, questioning what I’d gotten myself into: ‘You’re moving your life in a direction of greater joy.’ Thank goodness for level-headed beings with their heads level to the clouds, just where they should be.

With a pen poised in my right hand over a lined pad of paper, and a heart full of purpose and conviction, sitting cross-legged on my bed in the latest hours of that same night, words poured out of me and filled the page quicker than quitting. Listed were all of the things I’d ever wanted to do in my life, the places I’ve longed to go, the things I knew fulfilled me, and helped me feel valued and productive and- most of all- joyful. And then I mapped out the upcoming year, plotted in all of those dreams and desires, and promised myself I’d make them happen- or at least put forth the effort needed in order to do so. No permission was granted for such a decision- for who, or what, even has the authority to do that? A bank account? I don’t know, I think there’s definitely wisdom in stability- in knowing. It’s healthy to be able to predict. But there is power in change, excitement in movement. For me, anyway. I don’t know- Kahill Gibran made a point when he wrote that ‘the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral’. Perhaps not so morbid for so many, but there’s something to be said about dropping all of the safety nets- whatever that may be, and being so desperate to make something happen that you really want to happen, that it forces you to pull all your resources together to see it become a success. Beginning a sentence with ‘I wish..,’ or ‘it’s my dream to..’, is a sign of the times. The time to do something about those very wishes and those very dreams, instead of living a life of longing.

Now, fast forward back to the white-dusted, almost completely deserted Columbus Avenue. What a joy a jumping spree of memories can be:

After standing silently in the falling snow for a few minutes, I fumbled with my phone, my fingers almost too cold to make it work, and called Murphy to tell her I’d arrived at her doorstep. She answered with a soft voice, being careful not to wake her roommates. Minutes later and she’d made it down four flights of stairs to the front door of her apartment building. First she pulled the glass door open- a look of surprise lighting up her face from seeing the snow come falling down, and then she pulled me- into a tight embrace. There is nothing like being in the arms of someone you love and trust. It always feels like coming home.

Night turned to day, day to night, night to day again, and there I was, walking through Harlem on a Sunday mid-morning.  The spirit of those streets injected life into me to a level I forgot existed. There were all kinds of interesting characters and street musicians and puffer-jacketed children with fluffy hats on their heads and too-big backpacks on their backs, swinging around poles much to their mother’s dismay. Street vendors selling overpriced plastic jewelry, Spanish guitars being plucked by frozen fingers, and too-loud reggae rhythms bounding out of basements. I spoke to four different ladies on my way, each dressed in different shades of floor-length fur coats, each willingly assisting me to find the right bus and the right street and the right place of worship I was searching for. My new friend from the bus, Eliza, who had curly hair and the kindest eyes, wished me a great day, I invited her to stay in my home in Australia, and then once the side exit door on the bus had clunked open, I stepped off the bus. Stepped off the bus and right into a little gathering of day-old snow mixed with the little pebbles they pour on the streets to stop slipping, and headed toward the church building my on-the-way friends had helped me find. I arrived, and swung the door open with all my might.

The wind Gods screamed from the outside as I changed my shoes in the foyer on the inside- pulling off my clunky, brown snow boots, and slipping on black heels with pointed toes and and little ties to wrap around my ankles. I was late because of the relentless migraines that have followed me since childhood, but I’m glad, because I arrived right when I needed to, even if it meant spying through the criss-cross glassed window in the door of the chapel for the remainder of sacrament meeting to avoid an interruption. A girl in an A-line red dress and darkened lips walked to the front and up onto the stand, and began sharing a story about riding a bus in Philadelphia, because last year she’d endeavoured to go somewhere new every weekend- just because. Just because why not? And how she’d felt an overwhelming feeling that a great work was happening right there and right then, and she couldn’t work out what that feeling really meant, and then moments later the bus turned the corner and there was Angel Moroni all dressed in gold, towering over the scaffolding below him, the scaffolding of a future temple of God. My little heart didn’t stop fluttering for quite a few minutes, from the image I’d created in my mind of the situation. Another speaker followed, this time in a dress coloured midnight blue, and she spoke about thin places- feeling the spirit world close around her, and the experiences and feelings she shared sent shivers up and down my spine. A girl standing next to me, also avoiding disrupting the quiet of the chapel inside, by standing at the door and listening through it, introduced herself softly as Sarah. She was wearing a white pantsuit, splashed with ferns and flowers. I whispered to her that my life was changing from these people sharing these things up there on the pulpit. They were all so eclectic, so interesting, so motivated, so willing. And she told me it’s because the people that come to New York do it to chase their dreams, so it made sense.

Person after person got up and shared words from their hearts, each one of them witnessing the reality of their beliefs, each story ringing home to me so personally. I felt the confusions in my own beliefs begin to slowly untangle, and felt the doctrines I knew come right to the forefront, pushing aside their confusing cultural counterparts. It was like being able to breathe again, after being underwater for a slightly uncomfortable period of time. All of it was real. All real!, I told myself happily and with a sigh of relief. It felt good to hear it and to believe it with the truest of convictions.

The closing hymn of that meeting was How Great Thou Art. Of course it was. Of course it was the hymn I’d sung as a duet on my final Sunday as a missionary in Germany. Of course it was one of very few Swedish hymns in the Hymnbook. Of course it was also the hymn I’d performed with my missionary sister in my mother’s Helsingborg hometown, when I was there months beforehand. And of course it was also the closing hymn of the sacrament meeting I’d attended a couple months prior, marking my one-year anniversary of concluding my days as a missionary. Of all the hymns in the hymnbook, of course it was this one. A beautiful circle, as per usual. Because my Father knows what kinds of things resonate with me- patterns and serendipity and the like. And here He was again, showing me just how personally and wholly I am known and loved, and that He’ll never change, He’ll always be there. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: even those who don’t believe are unexcused from His unconditional love. Even those who sometimes forget. Those lyrics couldn't have been any more powerful than they were that day. 'Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed."

There were so many things that moved me that week there in that big, bumbling East-coast city- so many situations where His power throughout the universe was displayed. That helped make sense of that pivotal point that one October's morning- a decision I made that would move my life into a direction of greater joy. So many things that reminded me of the realities of this life- of light and of darkness, of sorrow and most importantly, of joy. That jogged my memory of things I'd learned in the past and feelings I'd felt and all of the decisions I'd made as a result of them, and the guidance and confirmations I'd received along the way. Of wounds that had been healed and hope that had been restored. That lifted me out of the hole I’d dug myself into. It wasn't just one thing- it was many things: late night talks with the ones I love, eyes dropping from tiredness. The lady a few rows in front of mine on the flight over, who had two cats in a carrier in front of her, the occasional little meow disrupting the otherwise silent plane. How it reminded me of things being so bizarre, and subsequently things being so beautiful. It was Natalie, my newest friend from Trinidad, who I met walking across the street. She told me all about being cold and how to proper deal with it- sharing things I’d never even thought of in my whole life. Reminding me that there is so much left to learn, so many people left to meet on this Earth, to enrich and to be enriched by in return. It was the tall African man on the subway, belting out Stand By Me in his smooth, bass voice, while rattling his cup of coins in a tambourine-like manner. It was being spied on by two Swedish boys who were walking by as I tried to take a sneaky photo of a lady walking six (incredibly adorable) plaid-jacketed little dogs in Central Park on one of the coldest days of my life. They exchanged words about it and I looked at them knowingly, hoping they could figure out from my glance that I understood what they were saying. It was walking into a skincare store with my best girl by my side, being engulfed by the sweet scents of products made entirely from wildlife, and being offered a warm cup of herbal tea from the gentle shop assistant, just when we'd been discussing how much we wanted something exactly like that. It was a man wearing board shorts and a t-shirt outside on a freezing cold day, and him laughing when I congratulated him on his bravery. It was taking terribly unflattering zoomed-in phone photos of my dearest Savanna, texting them to her and watching her response from the other side of the room. And then seeing my phone light up with an image of myself she'd taken on the sly, at least ten times more horrid than the one I'd sent her. And then laughing uncontrollably in unison moments later, like immature teenage girls talking about their celebrity crushes. It was watching a dark man across from me on the subway pouring a yellow packet of peanut M&Ms into his mouth, his eyes lighting up and a smile spreading across his face as he crunched on his well-deserved, post-work treat. All of these sweet exchanges between humans are what makes the world go 'round, what makes it all worth it, makes it all make sense, gives it all purpose, and makes it all real.

Two weeks later, again 35,000 feet above ground, but this time flying through a late-night's sky. I’d seen Utah this way before- but only physically, and only going in the opposite direction. Emotionally, it was something completely new. As the dark expanse that housed the Wasatch Front subsided, and the valley- lit with a million and one lights began, the sea of glittering golden specks seemed to sparkle this time around. I stared in a marveled silence, again, observing the beauty of it all- how intricate it was, and how undeniably intentional. A change of scenery and a widened perspective had worked miracles, and had brought with it a newfound appreciation for the light that was already there, coming from a being who will never, not for a single second, disappear.

Is this real? Yes. This is real. All of it.