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Shut your eyes and see

It took me three years to realise that I was wrong.

For a really long time, I believed that the most important things in life are captured by the eye. It’s kind of like a window to the soul thing in which your eyes allow for you to discover the world and read people and learn things and expand horizons. I thought that you could feed your soul through feasting your eyes on amazing and beautiful places and things and people.

But I was wrong.

It has been almost three years since I first read James Joyce’s Ulysses. There was a sentence that stood out as if it were being shouted at me…

“Shut your eyes and see.”

I re-read it at least fifteen times before my brain was able to wrap itself around the confusion.

Shut your eyes and see.

I’ve been wrestling with it ever since…

What I see through my eyes are signatures of all the things I have been placed on this planet to read. But somehow there is a limit to that. There is a limit to what can be seen. Limits to discovery. Once you’ve seen it all, you are done. It is done. You have done it. You’ve seen it.

You’ve travelled to Germany and you’ve seen their giant pretzels and now you can tell everyone about it and show them the pictures when you get back home.

But really you did so much more than that.

There is something bigger than seeing everything.

There is something to which there really is no limit.

Something you can never exhaust.

Because there is no limit to what can be felt.

And that is why, when you shut your eyes, you really see.

You discover more. You delve deeper. You understand better.

You comprehend.

That is why, when you shut your eyes and allow yourself to experience and to feel, I imagine you create the most powerful of memories.

It is huddling around that table in the freezing cold enjoying a glass of Glühwein with people who speak in your native tongue.

It is standing in the rain in Amsterdam with a friend you only met twelve weeks ago, but who somehow has become a soul more connected to you than even some of your lifelong friends.

It is climbing trees in the Gooise forest with the sound of summer hissing from the treetops.

It’s not about where you go or where you’ve been or what you’ve been taking pictures of.

It’s about the one thing no-one can take away from you.

It’s the memories.

It’s eating a bowl of bitterballen in a restaurant in Utrecht not because you’re hungry, but because they have heaters that will help bring back the feeling in your hands.

It’s listening to Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 – the saddest classical symphony of all time – over breakfast with friendly strangers in Belgium.

It’s stroking your fingers across the rough sand of the North Sea.

It’s dancing so joyfully the soles of your shoes tear off.

It’s cycling against gale force winds in aggressive rain and complete darkness through the narrow paths of ‘s-Graveland.

It’s falling off bicycles.

It’s thinking about the people you loved when you were home.

It’s the nostalgia when listening to that song from that drive to the ocean that day.

You must remember this.

It was all I had.

All I’ve ever had.

The only currency.

The only proof that I was alive –

Memory.

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9 Countries | 19 Cities | 365 Days

There’s a song I listen to every time I’m about to leave a place. It gives me a feeling of coming home. Like all the Lego blocks fit just right to build up a little place for my soul to rest in.

For a long time I believed that home was something I would find looking out from atop mountains or sitting next to rivers or peering across endless farmland. I thought I’d find my home hopping across countries and oceans and continents. I thought that it would have a name and that it would have a little space for me to live in.

But once I found it wasn’t a place, I started thinking that maybe home was something you build inside yourself. Through discovering what you want from life and what kind of person you want to be from here on out. It takes a really long time and a lot of hurdles before you reach a point where you can go “Yes. This is who I want to be. This is someone I can be proud of.”

But as soon as you’ve reached that point where you can look at yourself in the mirror and smile without cringing, you somehow find that, still, that is not enough. Being content with yourself is only one little Lego piece needed to build the home you’re so eager for.

Because after a year of pondering its meaning, what I found home to truly be, is the people you surround yourself with.

It’s all those souls you meet along the way who make you feel less alone in this world.

So this is my goodbye to the home I built here in Neverland. To my replacement family who gave me more than I could’ve hoped for. To the folk I met on my travels who gave me all the memories. And most importantly, to the friends who helped me live through this year with no single ounce of regret.

Doei, Nederland! Het was echt een leuke feest!! I love you and I’ll miss you xxx

On being The Foreigner

Travelling is amazing and uplifting and inspiring and life-changing. It has taught me a whole lot about the world and about myself, but I’ve been failing to put the whole experience into words lately.

This is mostly because I tend to be quite sceptical about things and my past year has been a real positive one, so I haven’t really decided yet where I need to shove my cynicism.

However, I had a discussion with a good, new friend over a beer the other night and have finally found a way to express a little something about this experience. So right now, I’d like to place emphasis on one very real reality… which is the phenomenon of being the foreigner.

People generally tend to like the foreigner.

You’re interesting because you come from a different world and you speak a different language and you were raised with strange traditions and customs that are fascinating and sometimes even exciting. When you speak English you have a weird accent that few people are able to pinpoint and sometimes the way you do things is simply laughable to these new-country people.

It’s fun for locals to chat to you, find out about your life and stalk your Facebook profile to try and gauge what your country looks like and what kind of people your friends and family are. It’s just as fun to talk about you because having a foreigner in town somehow seems to be fundamentally noteworthy.

Being the new, foreign girl is similarly thrilling for you yourself. Not only because you’re immersing yourself in this new world but also because you know that, to them, you’re interesting. Your visit here somehow gains more purpose when you discover that the people you converse with are also learning new things about the world with you being here. They find your language and your background entertaining, and somehow their interest makes you appreciate where you come from and who you are.

Though at some point, you’ll start wondering whether these locals actually consider you a friend, or whether you’re simply a temporary form of entertainment to them with your weirdness and your awe of their country.

Being the foreigner, realistically, gives you little chance at blending in.

Even after 11 months of trying to perfect my Dutch accent, people will probably always notice that I sound a little bit like a goat (apparently) when I speak it. Being super short, not having blonde hair and lacking the ability to cycle 5 km’s and still look like a total babe undoubtedly makes me very not Dutch. No amount of time in this country will ever change that and I will always be the tiny alien from Africa.

And somehow, living in the shadow of your foreigner status, the place you’ve travelled to hardly becomes home. It gets pretty close to it. Some days I feel so normal it’s like I never travelled far to get here at all. After some time, people warm up towards you. The lady at the supermarket learns your name and the bakery dude gives you a special yet creepy “I already know what you’re gonna buy” nod when you enter his shop lately. The barman does this too.

But this still somehow is not home. You’re from a different world. Your past is there and your people are there and that is where your heart is embedded.

And some days, missing a place that is so very far away can cause for the hurt to travel straight to the fibers in your bones.

But there is a way to overcome your foreigner feeling.

When I left home the first time to go to Italy, I wrote about how Paulo Coelho made me feel less foreign through the words in his book, O Aleph. On a journey through Russia to promote his new novel, the main character has a couple of revelations about moving through spaces where everyone and everything is unlike anything you’ve come to know. Somehow he managed to discover that we, as foreigners, are not that much different from the locals…

Because we are all travelling. We are all full of the same questions, the same tiredness, the same fears, the same selfishness and the same generosity.

We are human. And so we innately have something in common with everyone who crosses our path. We may be from different worlds. We may eat different foods. We may drive on different sides of the road. But we all live in this world and the world is small and our fears are frighteningly similar.

And as such, you reach a point where, even when you order a beer in Dutch and they look at you with a smirk on their face, you enjoy that beer like a local. And even when you still struggle to pull away up a hill with your bicycle, you build your confidence right back up again with your ability to cycle with only one hand.

Because no matter how foreign you are and how much you simply do not fit in, this experience has shaped you in ways that make you more aware of the world than you would’ve become simply sitting there at the southern tip of Africa.

So be foreign. Be weird. Be different. Annoy the shit out of the locals with your foreignness. Just make sure you leave something positive behind for them to remember your people by. They may forget you. But you represent a nation when you enter the world. You represent a language and a culture and, essentially, a country.

So make their memory a good one.

Home is where you least expect it

Watch on YouTube if you can…

We all leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there. Even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there. We travel to ourselves when we go to a place where we have covered a stretch of our lives. No matter how brief it may have been.

– Pascal Mercier, Night Train To Lisbon