All things come to a beginning

Sunday, September 24, 2006

See and be scene

My dentist is not doing a great job at rewarding me for coming to see him once a year, like a good patient. When I went in about a year ago, I found myself in the hospital the following morning to get two wisdom teeth pulled - I was nauseous and miserable and looked ridiculous for over a week (Those who saw me know all too well). When I went again last week, he gave me the following rhetorical gem: "Miss, how do you feel about extraction?". Awesome. Tooth number 3 came out, the final one is due in about a month. And again, I look preposterous. A face only a mother could love. And thankfully, she does. Nonetheless, I spent a big chunk of my weekend holed up in my room. Hours and hours of one of my favorite activities: scrapbooking! I use these tiny adhesive stickers for my pictures, and I went through about 2500 of them. That's scary. BUT all of my Canada experience and most of my summer has now been documented for posterity. And I knew if I didn't get that done now, before school starts, it would drag on for ages.

So strange to see months and months of my life summarized in a few albums. It's very hard to create something that does it justice - I know with my Denmark albums I did this whole colour scheme thing, and added a bunch of "local" stuff like magazine covers and shopping helps, but it's never quite right. The most frustrating part is knowing that eventually the album will be what I actually remember. All the people and days and street corners that I have no photos or ticket stubs or other memorabilia of will slowly fade into oblivion. And eventually Canada will take on the form of the stories I choose to tell, and of the visual evidence I bothered to bring home - rather than the real deal. It becomes a tableau, a fictionalized version of events, filtered very selectively through my eyes: no mentioning of completely uneventful days, no unflattering pictures, no recollection of sitting on the edge of the bath tub crying my eyes out or of leaving a class having spoken to absolutely no one.

That being said, there are plenty of occasions where I thoroughly enjoy playing my role, consciously thwarting things. To the point where I don't like being taken out of it. Yesterday night, my parents and I went to the Botanical Gardens here, for the opening night of the cultural season. Candles everywhere, dancers, singers, flamenco music, jazz, poetry readings, theatre, percussion...beautiful. But whenever I go to see something, I want to be the audience, the spectator. I don't like being told to clap in a certain rhythm (like they did at the tango concert I saw in Brussels last week, with Jen, Tom & Liesbeth), being spoken to from the stage (you'll never see me sit front row at a stand up comedy show), anything like that. I want to sit or stand and I want to watch and listen. I want to let my mind wander, turn the performance into something personal, into what I would like it to be. And I can't do that, or less well, when I'm being directed and guided in a certain direction. That just makes me feel selfconscious - I don't know if it's me, but I generally feel like an idiot singing or clapping in synch with the rest of the audience. Just let me take it in, read it and see it how I want to.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Make senses

I was off work last week, so I blissfully spent my afternoons reading the newspaper front to back. With my mom by my side, so we could exchange our (absolute minimum of) "Huh!", "Did you see...?", "Are you done with that section?"-statements. There was a tiny article in the Thursday edition, called "Paintings can be heard". It talks about something called "Synesthesia", which is defined as a neurological condition (2 out of a 100 people) in which two or more bodily senses are coupled. Apparently, the brain of a newborn has a large amount of connections between its various parts that are lost as we age. Some people's brains, though, continue to have a higher level of connectedness. As a consequence, the observations of their five senses are interconnected. For example, as per, "In a form of synesthesia known as grapheme → color synesthesia, letters or numbers may be perceived as inherently colored, while in ordinal linguistic personification, numbers, days of the week and months of the year evoke personalities". It is involuntary, and possibly inherited as an X-linked dominant trait. If your genes aren't synesthesically inclined, fret not, psychedelic drugs will get you there too.
My mom and I both liked the article and ended up talking about how easily your senses can trick you. For example, when my mom can't hear what someone is yelling from another room in the house, she turns on the light. What? Why?

I've been working phones at the university, answering questions about registrations and degrees and exams, and thoroughly enoying the wide array of voices that I'm presented with. Not just the accents, but the pace (some people sound like they're storming the beach in Normandy and need to know what is expected of them RIGHT THIS INSTANT, while others chat with me like we go back 15 years and naively believe that we're the only people in town who know about the doctor's wife's drinking problem), the tone, choice of words...Every so often, I get to put a face with the voice, like when people come into the office later to hand something in or pick something up. There was a woman today who sounded lovely on the phone and didn't disapoint in person. She had a calm voice, confident but girlish at the same time - and she lived up to it: in her fifties, very kind, but quircky clothes and a naughty gleam in her eyes. Other times though, yikes. Cold shower. I wonder how I sound. People address me with "miss" or "ma'm", so at least I sound female. Probably young. Hopefully friendly and pleasant. Is there anyone who's not completely blown away when they hear their own speaking voice, though? Like in a voice message? Such a harsh confrontation!

Quote of the day (thanks Liz)

"For the science of happiness, sadness is not the opposite and is not the enemy. To appreciate happiness we all need sadness to reawaken our capacity and appetite for joy [...] Of course, sadness is not to be mistaken for depression, that state in which our emotions are stuck in despair; and happiness is not to be confused with mania, in which our exuberance is trapped in overdrive and self-destructive levels of out of control optimism. By contrast to those two unhelpful and inflexible attitudes, feeling happy or sad is our free and dynamic response to living life by the hour and so can serve to both guide and motivate us. A heavy heart might be painful, but it serves a healthy purpose. And this certainly needs saying because for a long time now "how to increase your happiness" is a promise that's been packaged and sold as a consumer product much like icecream or alcohol. If organise is the new black, then happy is the new sadness-free diet promising a swift end to all our ills. "I just want to be happy!" is the mantra we hear around us all the time. We even claim that being happy is more important than wealth or beauty or recognition, and think ourselves rather enlightened for putting happiness firm at the centre of life's bigger picture. but we're mistaken. happiness is only one small wheel in how a life works [...] At the very least sadness is an indication that we care - a seal of authenticity".

Words can only get you so far. There's a Calvin and Hobbes comic I've always loved, where Calvin says "If your knees aren't green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life". One thing I no longer have to teach my nephew about happiness.

Beginning a-old

I've been working at my home university, mostly helping people make their way through the fairly complex registration process. A minority of students come in for a quick five minutes, routinely clicking their re-registration for their third, fourth, fifth year of school into existence. But for most, it is a bigger deal. Wide-eyed first year students, often accompanied by their parents, grandparents and siblings (I think the record was a group of 6...seriously. I understand your sense of pride, but for the love of God calm down) or exchange students, on their first day in Belgium. All taking a big step forward, beginning a new chapter in their lives. Some slightly frightened and taken aback, others with a firm sense of entitlement.

It seems like ages ago when I was in their shoes - but really, at this age, pretty much every year is still a "new beginning". Deciding to do another year, another degree. Angling for that first job. And then getting it. Getting over losing that first job and moving right into a new one. Moving into a new appartment or even a house, down the street, or in another continent. Few of my friends' lives could be described as "steady" right around now. A bunch of them are about to start glorious new adventures abroad: Adrian's on his way to Paris, Jen just got to Leuven, I-Wen sent me her first batch of Taiwan pictures, Chloe's about to leave for England, Lies is in Stockholm, Anna's been loving Amsterdam...They're loving every minute of it, as they should, and there are few things more endearing and energising than their gushing, their giggles and their sparkly eyes.

I'm sticking to the home turf for now. And I'm glad. As satisfying as traveling is, it also takes an emotional toll on you. Every new beginning comes with having to amp yourself up, sell yourself, find your way, get comfortable (but not too much), doubt the choices you've made, make plans, make new plans. And there's no shame in taking a break from that. So right now I'm happy to spend downtime with people. To work my old job, hang out with my old friends watching old movies, walk down the same old streets. Yup, old is sounding pretty good these days.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Booker Bonanza

Yeah, I've thought some more about the guide of books for women and I'm really not impressed by the idea. I can see how it originated, the quantity of titles out there is overwhelming. But isn't it nice to browse, to stumble upon random titles? And even if people have a "reader profile" that allows for a prediction of which authors they are most likely to enjoy, do we have to get that rubbed in? At least leave us the illusion of being different and whimsical!

One way of digging a tunnel through the stacks is by looking at literature award nominees and winners. Clicking around, I discovered I've already covered a good chunk of the Man Booker Books: "Vernon God Little" by DBC Pierre, the 2003 winner (A birthday gift from my friend Thomas, finished it just last week when I was babysitting Lars), "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, the 2002 winner (I remember Mike T. loving it back when it first came out, but I only got around to it about a month ago), "Atonement" by Ian McEwan, shortlisted in 2001 (I think this is his best book so far, though I haven't read "Saturday"), "When we were Orphans" by Kazuo Ishiguro, shortlisted in 2000 (Currently on my nightstand, I'm almost halfway), "Amsterdam" by Ian McEwan, the 1998 winner (I wrote my thesis on this guy, so his oeuvre is pretty much covered), "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy, the 1997 winner (A recommendation from my dad), "The English Patient" by Michael Ondaatje, the 1992 winner (A recommendation from my mom), "Black Dogs" by Ian McEwan, shortlisted in 1992 (Thesis again) that's something. Heaps of names on the list, though, that I still want to get into, like Atwood and Rushdie. I still have a couple of weeks before school starts, so plenty of time for that. I know I'll never get as much as halfway through my list of must-reads, but hopefully I'll make a dent...

Friday, September 08, 2006

Photopost II: School anno 2006

Apartment buildings

adjacent to...

the kindergarten. More like the Secret Garden.

The place formerly known as the playground

Sandbox? Are you in there?

Photopost I: Sofie anno 1986

This is me in my very first year of kindergarten. I'm the blonde sitting right next to the teacher, tante Jeanine. I was absolutely crazy about her. Whenever there was a birthday, she would open this cupboard and take out a whole bunch of toys, from which the birthday boy or girl got to choose any which item. AND! They got a crown, made from cardboard, but with glittery stuff glued on. That woman could work empty yoghurt containers like no other. I think I still have one of my "queen for the day" tiaras lying around. But the single greatest thing she did was help me get settled in. As much of a chatterbox as I was aged 3 I began to stutter like mad when I started kindergarten. After a while it got so bad that I stopped speaking altogether. But thanks to Tante taking extra good care of me, I was back to my old self before too long. Sitting to my left, with the red sweater, is my friend Machteld, who I later went to primary school with. Way at the end of the bench, in the blue pantyhose, is Annelore - the girl I had drinks with back in July. Oh also, I know I look like a boy. That hair cut inspired my older brother and sister to call me Champignon or mushroom for ages - bowl cut, chubby, short, you work it out. Sigh.

This picture, also dated 1986, was taken at the gym of a different, much larger school. I can't recall much about the occasion - for some reason (I believe it was Mother's Day) we had to perform a song and dance routine on stage. Annelore was the lead, that's why she alone got to wear a full skirt. And that's probably why I'm sitting so far away from her, all the way on the corner...I got to stand next to her on stage, though, and carry around a bouquet of flowers. So that's almost as good. I'm not sure what the deal was with the hankerchiefs and aprons, I take it we were supposed to be farmers of some sort? What I love about this picture too is that the casual chic outfit I'm wearing has several Canadian flags on it and distinctly says "Canada" on the front. It was so meant to be!

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Despite the fact that Leuven's only a small town, there are many neighborhoods I don't know well and rarely visit. One of them is the area around the Brusselsepoort, where I went to kindergarten. I went up there today, after over ten years, to see what had become of the small school I spent three years in. Rude awakening. The building has clearly been abandoned a long time ago, I had to remove cobwebs to walk through the entrance gate and when I set foot on to what used to be the playground, three stray cats scurried off. The baby blue school building looks the same, from the outside anyway (the door was locked, so I have no idea about the inside). But the playground - including the sand box - is completely overgrown with tall plants and weeds. It's kind of ironic that the place we used to pretend was anything but what it really was (grey tiles) now actually looks like a forest or a jungle. Rusty tin cans are scattered everywhere, I have a suspicion people sporadically come and feed the cats and then just toss the cans.

From the playground we used to have a view of a large field. Most days it'd just lie there, in my mind with intense Van Gogh-like brown, yellow or green shades. Once in a while, though, we'd come out of the school for a break and notice some tractor activity - excitement galore! There were plenty of cats back then, too. We'd name them, pair them off, wonder about them when one of them disappeared. It was a small school. I remember my third year class, when I was about five, only had six kids. I can't recall all five names, but I had drinks just a couple of months ago with my best friend from that time. Good memories. The field's gone now. It's been completely covered in grey and cream colored apartment buildings. A large complex, with streets of its own. It's a bizarre contrast, the unkept playground right next to an immaculate stretch of buildings. If I had walked past it every so often, on my way somewhere, and seen things develop gradually, I probably would have less issues with it. But to see it as a done deal, it got to me. I was expecting to hear kids running around, and see moms waiting by the gate. I knew finding the field entirely intact was unrealistic, real estate is real estate, but this? There's nothing left to even suggest what was once there.

I might go back there soon to snoop around a bit more. Maybe bring my camera. And some milk.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Friendly advice

"Does it exist?", "Is this it?", "Will it last?", "Can it work despite distance?", "Is it normal to feel homicidal now and then?". Ah, the things we wonder about love. Another common one: "Why is it never easy?". So much seems to be able to go wrong. The Other's often taken. Or has just gotten out of a relationship. They may be straight or gay - either way, not interested in your sex. Plenty of times, the Other doesn't like you back. Or "not in that way". Or you're not sure how they feel and don't have the guts to ask. Maybe the Other and you have a history. Or belong to a tight group of friends which means things could get awkward. Or they used to date your best friend/sibling. Or their parents hate you. They live far away or lead very busy lives so it kinda comes down to the same "I want to be able to do laundry with you" feeling. Maybe the Other is your Other, but interested in someone else. Or unsure of what they want. Or you're unsure of what you want, cause now that you're finally spending some time together, it's not as great as you had hoped.

Whatever the scenario, it very rarely goes smoothly. Fuck if I know how it's done. The one thing I'm pretty sure of came up in an interview I read with David Duchovny aka Fox Mulder the other day. On, that's right, I'm not ashamed. The question was "What is the secret to a good marriage?" (to actress Téa Leoni, going on 10 years) and his answer was "Ask for what you want – even though you may risk being too needy or demanding. But to expect the other person to be a mind reader never works". I absolutely believe that's true. And I'm absolutely terrible at it. Before I know it, I slip into "This is what I'm expected to say/do" mode and fail to express what I really feel. Because I don't want him to think I'm lame or boring or predictable or bitchy. Because I don't want to rock the boat. Because I want to be liked. And it always bites me in the ass - eventually, the pent-up issues come out, he has no clue what hit him and the train derails. Next time (gah) I'm going to try my very best not to fall into that trap, not to be afraid to say when I'm annoyed, bored, or offended. I remember a time when my friend Alli had just listened to me rant about some guy and how I wasn't sure what my next move should be and, always the voice of reason, said "Would you hesitate this much about calling him up if this was a friend? Well, don't you think the guy you're considering to date should be a friend first? That you should be comfortable enough around him comfortable?". Huh. Good point. Very good point.