My Bones Are Shifting In My Skin

So.

A few nights back I dreamt I was pregnant.

It wasn’t one of those dreams that turn you upside-down-inside-out and haunt you for weeks, deliciously relentless and so vividly alive that you end up wondering if you’ve actually dreamt them. Or if they’re in fact part of a parallel reality in which you’re perfectly content with your life, an infinitely more wondrous one than what real, dreaming you has to deal with.

But no, it was just a regular dream. My belly felt like one of those Halloween pumpkins piling up in Tesco veggie aisles these days. Round and firm, ready to sink your teeth into.

Then I woke up. Made coffee. Had half a biscuit. My brand new wisdom tooth was killing me, so I inspected it in the bathroom mirror for the longest of times, like a wild animal caught in mid roar, volume muted for some reason. It looked a lot less painful than it felt, which I guess is to be expected with most things in life.

Then, on my way to work, I fainted on the train.

It wasn’t hot or crowded and I hadn’t run into George Clooney or anything. Just a regular, celebrity free day, and my regular body making its complaints heard in its regularly annoying way. Half a biscuit is not enough. Sleeping with a throbbing jaw for eleven nights in a row is not sleeping. Fainting among strangers can be just as bad as getting a bout of morning sickness among strangers.

I wasn’t phased by any of it, the evil fang, imagined pregnancy, surprise loss of consciousness, but went on with my day like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I do this more and more these days, ignore the extraordinary. It’s less energy consuming.

*

I guess I’m going through a weird phase again.

Which is fine, you know, I seem to thrive on weird somehow.

We flew to Barcelona last week for a few days’ visit with my old friend B and his new girlfriend. We hadn’t been, V and I, but were both so exhausted with the year long house hunting/moving crazies, that I wouldn’t say we were in the most happy-happy-joy-joy of holiday moods. On the flight back last night, I felt like I was leaving the heaviest of burdens behind me and couldn’t wait to get home and just lie there, fallen against the oak ribs of our still mattress-less bed.

We cannot, I understand it now, be happy.

Me and my friends, me and my family, happy is simply not something we do.

I don’t know if it’s the Romanian way of dealing with changing relationships, or the expat vs. people left behind way, or the me way. But whatever it is, it’s here to stay, evil grins and sticky tentacles and all.

I don’t know how and who to be among these people.

It amazes me that I can’t do the simplest of things with them watching me. Stupid things, like ordering a sandwich. If I do it in Spanish, which I’ve spoken for a decade, way before I moved to London and our friendship obviously derailed for good, it’s called showing off. If I do it in English, why do I need to do it in my silly Queen-of-England accent and make them all feel small and Eastern European? Why does my sandwich need to cost €1 more than theirs? Do I absolutely need to remind them I make more money than they do?

I sit at this tiny cafe table across a person I used to share Tequila bottles with, and watch grenades explode over our heads. I don’t get it, so I say less and less as time goes by, I order tap water, no lemon, thank you very much. Gracias. Whatever.

I don’t want to end up having a bunch of kids just to surround myself with newly made people who, at least for a while, don’t hate me.

But I don’t get it, I really, honestly don’t get any of it, and it breaks my heart.

My English is good. I’ve been in London for almost five years, and studied it in school for more than a decade before that, is it really so surprising? I’ve got a Cambridge diploma for crying out loud! I called you after I got the test results in the mail, remember? My mother had opened the envelope and I was so mad she hadn’t waited for me to get home, and you laughed. You got it, who cares who tore the letter open, you said. And now, is it really so unusual that I’m constantly working at improving a language on which I build my livelihood and most of my social interactions? How is that belittling to anyone around me? And why? Why have we even reached this point in our conversation? Why is it so vitally important how much my freaking sandwich costs, is it not the same couple slices of bread with gooey stuff in between it’s always been? What does friendship mean these days?

As I type this now I’m so mad I’m crying.

I miss everything, you know. The boring, the bad, the scary, the let’s-never-go-to-bed-again-this-is-the-only-thing-worth-doing-until-we-die. And talking, I miss talking the most. I rarely ever do it these days. I can’t discuss any of my problems with my friends and family from home. How can I have problems when I’ve just bought a flat? When I’ve got Netflix?

I sip my lemon-less water and wait for the smoke to clear, secretly hoping my brain has learned its lesson well over the years, and will prove appropriately selective in terms of Barcelona memories. A map of broken friendships is the last thing I need in my perfect, British accented little life these days.

*

I bought a couple of picture frames on my lunch break today. I’ll spend tonight nailing things to the walls, leaving more permanent scars into the surfaces of this place. Then on Friday, my book shelves are coming. I’ve taken the day off and I’m planning to spend it sipping indecent amounts of Spanish wine, dusting, stacking and re-stacking my hardcovers. We’ll probably have a little house warming get together around Halloween, so I’d better learn how to turn the oven on by then.

My high school friend M gave birth to a baby girl yesterday. We spent the morning on FaceTime laughing and crying like silly teenagers, and I’m planning to open that first-night-in-the-new-flat bottle of champagne we’d forgotten about tonight, in her honor. Teodora. Thirty hours old. A piece of someone I used to share secrets with. Crazy how you can love a person based on just that. I guess there’s a very thin line between the everyday and the extraordinary, and the latter, exhausting as it is, is worth it sometimes.

Lines and Dots

I was in London when Grandpa died. A sunny day for once and I was sitting in this windowless office, typing rows of letters onto a window scattered screen. My sister called. The ringtone, a couple of notes from a Romanian folk song, made people lift their heads and frown.

I knew something had happened. You move across the world and never think how bridges may be broken and connections lost, but this weird umbilical chord you didn’t even know you had, will effortlessly stretch over rocks and waters, tying you down. Not an ounce more freedom than you can handle.

In my mind, I went over everybody I loved, beads on string, each with their possible illnesses and arrays of domestic accidents. Fast growing tumors. Crushed limbs. Chests shattered on impact. Preparing myself for the worst.

It was Grandpa.

It comes with growing up, I think. We get wide open spaces, alcohol and speed dating, and the chance to ponder over the eventuality of everybody’s death. I think about it all the time. The death of my parents, my friends, my own. With grandparents it’s always been different. As a child, I knew they were old and could be gone at any time. I dreaded being left alone with them, thinking they’d die on me and I wouldn’t be strong or tall enough to unlock the front door, run out into the street and cry for help. But then nothing happened. I grew older and they did too, but at a such slower pace that at one point there I was, an almost fully formed human being, while they’d stayed pretty much the same. They were beyond dying by now, I was sure. Forgotten. They’d slowly be getting smaller and whiter for decades, then surely I’d catch up with them. We’d end up looking so much like one another that people would get us mixed up on the street.

They found Grandpa fallen on his kitchen floor. He hadn’t been picking up the phone. I picture Mom’s worries, hastily making their way along her umbilical phone cable, towards this destination that was slowly dissolving into nothing. She must have felt the cable snap.

So they broke down the door and found it, this thing no one thought would happen anymore.

It’s strange, the things we forget. I don’t remember what colour the kitchen walls were painted. Or what slippers he wore. But I remember that screen door. The mesh had rusted in places and it was so thin that I was sure if you pressed your body against it hard enough, you’d break through to the other side. A pile of bloody spaghetti strings they’d have to bury in a pot shaped coffin.

*

I dream about them, the people I’ve lost. I see their faces, every wrinkle, every pore, closer I think than I’ve ever looked at them in real life. I miss them more than I miss my young self, more than I miss my happiest of days. I don’t think I’ve ever been afraid of death in the way other people I know seem to be. But I am mad with hatred towards it, and death knows it. Doing its nasty business behind my back, what kind of thing is that? Waiting for me to drag my suitcases across half the planet, and then strike. When I’m not looking.

*

Grandpa and I had the same birthday, 60 years apart. We almost shared a first name too, if my parents hadn’t changed their mind at the last moment, picking a fancier, more modern name for me. Something I never really forgave them for. Perhaps it was a way of protecting me. Would I have remembered him every time someone called my name? Would it have hurt? Or would the pain, like all feelings these days, have faded out in time, a dubious spot on a table cloth washed over and over again in a million waters?

Tomorrow, Grandpa would have turned 90.

I was in London when he died. It’s been four years and still, I haven’t cried and haven’t said my goodbyes. In a way, it’s like it didn’t happen for me when it did for everybody else. Like he’s still there, close enough to reach if it weren’t for that mesh door keeping us apart, dissolving him into a million tiny squares. In fact, I know the door doesn’t exist anymore. They took it down along with the rest of the furniture, before they painted the walls clean and replaced the cupboards with more modern, plasticky replicas of their original selves. Nothing looks the way I remember it now. Like it never was, my childhood. This man and his loneliness.

All About My Mother

For me, life began when I was in my twenties.

I remember it clearly, the moment the membrane cracked and I pushed my finger out. The kitchen table, mother’s hands pressing it down like it was just about to take off and start floating around us, complicating things even more. Every shadow on the walls, every speck of dust in the air, every word. I stood up, half expecting everything around me, chairs, pots, kitchen appliances, to open mouths I never knew they had, and bite at me.

Nothing happened really. No earth trembling, no tentacles reaching out from under the counters to tie my ankles down in a million sticky knots. I took one step, then another. She was still yelling by the time I reached the door. I didn’t slam it, but it felt like I did. It felt like I punched and kicked it and smashed it to bits, and the violence of the thought scared me. Perhaps there really was something wrong with me, I thought, but that possibility frightened me even more, so I quickly blinked it away, checked my watch again, and left. 14:06, a Sunday. Life begins.

My mother is a wonderful woman. Funny, well read, a brilliant doctor. She grows roses and has a beautiful singing voice. She cooks the best lasagnas and bakes the best ginger bread cookies. She has friends who love her and colleagues who admire her. She’s survived several life threatening episodes, a difficult marriage, and my teen years. I love her. I love her in a complicated way, and that’s fine, because I’m told all families are complicated, and all loves are complicated, and I’ve never pretended to be special in any way.

I’ve never written anything about her. I’ve rarely talked about her, in fact, so even my closest friends know very little about what growing up was like. Does that make me dishonest? I suppose so. But in all honesty now, though I have a million hopes and dreams and want countless new things from my life every day, there’s nothing I want more than being friends with my mother, and that makes me sad.

For the longest time, I didn’t want to have children. I’d launch myself head first into arguments on the subject, I’d serve my female friends and various boyfriends the speeches I’d rehearsed countless times before, I’d be relentless and perfectly convinced of the validity of my reasoning. It took me years to realize it wasn’t that I didn’t want, like, need children, but that I was terrified, obsessed, certain that I wouldn’t be a good mother.

I had no idea what being a good mother meant, of course. I’d only known one mother and I knew I didn’t want to be like her.

Seeing these words typed in a line here sure makes me feel like a horrible human being. Ungrateful. Guilty.

I mean, my mother was an amazing mother in so many ways. She never left my side. She watched over me during my many convalescences, she kept me clothed and fed, she bought me toys and books. She put me through my studies, she sent me on holidays. She taught me how to tie my laces, walk in high heels, cook, use a map. She taught me I wasn’t anything special. I wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t funny. Hardworking enough, smart enough. Anything enough, really. I’d never have friends, success, a lover. I’d end up alone. Homeless. Begging for her help.

My mother taught me not to smile too much. My teeth were not my best feature. Not to talk too much. Girls like me would better know their place. Not to wear what I thought looked good on me. My “good” was everybody else’s “slutty”. Not to trust anybody. No reason why anyone would like me, surely they had some hidden agenda if they wanted to hang out with me. Not to hope, dare, try, want. They were for other people, these things. For prettier, bubblier, wife material girls who never slouched and never frowned and always listened to their mothers. All I could do was work hard in school. Get a job. Be grateful for her guidance.

I’m almost 30.

I no longer spend every waking moment wondering about everything. Second guessing every other decision, imagining hidden scenarios, looming dangers everywhere. I can look at myself in the mirror and be OK with not just the face, but the person looking back at me, and that’s a little miracle in itself. I’ve learned how to talk to people, how to say what I want, how to not burst into tears every time someone tells me I’ve done a good job. I’ve tried everything I’ve wanted to try. I say everything I want to say. I’ve turned into someone. An imperfect someone, of course. A someone my mother would have to knead into the right, perfect shape, if I was to make anything of myself in this world.

I took away her last chance to mold me into perfection when I moved to London.

Months later, she’d still be calling me in the middle of the night, crying. I’ll die, she’d say. I’ll die if you don’t come back right now. They’ll find me dead on the kitchen floor and you’ll learn of it over the phone, from a stranger. You’ll be happy then, won’t you. You’ll finally have killed me.

I’d hardly ever say anything. My cheek would sweat against the screen of the phone. When we’d hang up, I’d just sit there for a while. Sometimes V. would come and hold me, though it would be late, and we’d both be really tired and he’d have thought she’d have stopped calling a long time before anyway, but she hadn’t. I wouldn’t cry, I wouldn’t even blink. Maybe something really was wrong with me, I’d think, afraid I didn’t know how to even begin to live this life.

Oxford on a Rainy Day

When it comes to making plans together, it takes me and my friends at least a couple of days to pick a cinema or a restaurant. We start negotiating our weekend plans early on, on Tuesday or Wednesday, we fight about it for a couple of days, and by Friday night we’re back to square one, no compromise in sight and our friendship hanging by a very thin thread. I’ve always suspected adults are nothing but big boned, balding children, but this is ridiculous.

Before I go any further, I think it’s high time I introduced you to our weekend buddies. I’ll do it Amélie style, with likes and dislikes, because I’m cool like that. And lazy. (Don’t know Amélie? Go. Watch it. It’s got Paris streets and a travelling gnome.) So here it goes.

  • There’s Anda, a friend of V.’s from Uni. She likes: nature, geese, swans and complaining about how little money Dan makes. She hates: rain, cold, grass, walking and paying for anything.
  • Then there’s Dan, Anda’s husband. He likes: food, beer, TV and his living room sofa. He hates: Anda and everything Anda likes.
  • And then we’ve got Victor, a friend of mine from high school. He likes: food, beer, museums, castles and walking. He hates: girl talk and spending his weekends alone.
  • V. and I are easier to please I think, as the only thing we really hate is hanging out with couples who fight all the time.

By now you’re probably starting to get why it’s such a pain deciding on something to do together. At times I wonder why we haven’t given up already, but I guess the prospect of spending the rest of our weekends on this planet talking to ourselves in a funny voice, surrounded by ever growing packs of meowing cats, is more daunting than spending our weeks fighting about our weekends, and our weekends fighting about everything else. It’s a sad life.

Endless hours of Facebook bickering later, we finally decided long after midnight on Friday to spend Sunday together in Oxford. V. and I hadn’t been to Oxford yet, and we’d been meaning to go for a while, but the weather forecast for Sunday predicted the now customary weekend rains from hell, so I must admit I wasn’t jumping with joy at the thought.

On Sunday morning it thankfully seemed like the weather people got it wrong, so I invested a fair amount of time and effort into straightening my hair and picking my rather summerish, super duper feminine, perfectly color coded outfit. All was fine and dandy and V. and I were about to leave the flat (on time for once, go figure!), but one last look out the window and we discovered that within less than an hour the sky had turned pitch black. Dreading all the you’re-always-such-party-poopers! fighting, we didn’t dare even suggest cancelling the trip, but we did change into more rain from hell friendly outfits. Bye bye lacquered-flats-and-pretty-leather-jacket-one-must-keep-unzipped-to-show-off-the-lacey-top-underneath, hello mud-friendly-sneakers-and-unflattering-but-warm-and-fuzzy-hooded-windbreaker!

The plan was to meet the others at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, an 18th century baroque masterpiece situated a 20 minute ride away from Oxford. It had been Victor’s suggestion, him being so much into palaces and all, and I must say I was really looking forward to it. By the time we’d parked our cars it was already cold and drizzling, so Anda was moaning about how she never wanted to come, and Dan was repeatedly telling her to shut up. Fun and games.

The Blenheim domain is absolutely beautiful. Endless green fields, beautifully maintained 18th century gardens, several lakes and ponds and a stunning waterfall, and of course the castle, one of the most imposing buildings of its kind I’ve seen in this country, intricately decorated and furnished on the inside, and absolutely stunning on the outside. We did a fair deal of strolling around, all the fighting and rain considered, and V. and I plan to go back as soon as the weather picks up and the flowers are in full bloom. (Unlike some parts of London, the daffodils in Blenheim hadn’t open yet.)

As it was getting way past lunchtime, we all agreed on something for once, and took off towards Oxford to find ourselves a nice Sunday roast friendly pub. But the guys were so hungry they decided they wouldn’t survive the 20 minute drive, so we stopped what felt like a couple of minutes later on Woodstock Road, at The Turnpike. Granted, it looked like the loveliest British pub you’ll ever come across, and the parking was super crowded, so my wet blonde brain could only assume the food was splendid too.

The place was absolutely packed but minutes later we managed to get a table for five. Hungry as we were, we would have probably been OK with eating on our feet, but the table was a nice surprise. V. and I ordered the Sunday roast and shared an Ultimate Chocolate Brownie Tower for desert (yup, it tasted as good as it sounds, and this comes from a reluctant chocolate fan!). We couldn’t help bickering as we ate, which I truly hope helps digestion, or else these weekends are going to be the end of my ideally proportioned figure!

It constantly dawns on me that some of the friends I have in this country are probably not the people I’d have picked to hang out with back home (Victor is one of the few exceptions, of course; I’m a sucker for obsessive castle enthusiasts). I know it sounds bad in so many ways, and I don’t like to think about it too much. But the thing is, I like peace and quiet. I guess that makes me boring, and oddly enough, boring is something I can live with these days. What I seem to be unable to live with is spending all my free time among people who are constantly unhappy with their lives and each other. I don’t like couples who fight in public, trying to draw us spectators into taking sides. Perhaps I’m simply not used to it, as V. and I are not the fighting kind. Perhaps I’m not used to it anymore. I grew up in a family of fighters, and it’s taken me a long, long time to put it behind me.

When I mentioned it to Anda one time, that our hanging out together seems to involve more fighting than anything else, she replied that I couldn’t understand what it was all like, V. and I not being married and stuff. Maybe, I said, and we left it at that. I didn’t feel like unwillingly starting another fight.

We finally made it to Oxford early in the evening. It was really raining by now, and V. took countless photos of me in my hooded penguin outfit, urging me into acting more miserable but ending up making me burst into laughter every time. We walked for a really short while, as everything worth visiting was already closing and the married half of our gang were having another one of their heated conversations. We need to come back, I told V. as we were getting into our car.

When we’d finally made it home, I got mad at him for leaving his dripping wet hoodie on our butter colored armchair. I was preparing my mad-breakup-time voice and was going to absolutely rip his guts out for it, but I glanced at his laptop screen and guess what, he was looking for Oxford hotels online. No fighting tonight, I thought, coughing my breakup voice away.

DSC_3188

DSC_3235

DSC_3251

DSC_3281

DSC_3305

I Made This Bed, I Built This Wall

The thing I miss most is feeling at home. Among known objects, down familiar paths. Safe from the uncharted.

It’s strange how I’ve changed from this adventurous, explorer of new worlds person, into this permanently craving for shelter version of myself. “Men hunt and women nest”, isn’t that what Seinfeld said? In its context at the time, it made me smile. But it was just a joke. It had no roots in reality, not in my reality for sure. I most certainly did not nest. I traveled and discovered and lived. I hunted adventure.

It’s the thought that I used to have a home that’s been bugging me. A windowed cement crate with my name on the letterbox. Strange how this idea of owning things, of putting your name on them, has suddenly become important to me. Strange and superficial and materialistic, and I’m ashamed of it. But this is it. This is something that matters to me now. Having something. Being somewhere mine. Being somewhere homely.

We’ve been changing homes so often, I don’t get a chance to even leave fingerprints on every surface before it’s time to pack up again. I don’t get to buy books, blankets, cereal bowls, we’ve got enough junk to pack and unpack as it is. I miss it. It may be ridiculous, but I miss my things. I miss my books. I miss my chair. I miss my floor, my windows, my light. I have this deranged fantasy constantly rewinding in my head, how if I could get all those things here, whatever here may mean, or if I could attempt to build them over again, pick a new shelf, nail something to the wall, get a new toaster, well, if I could somehow do that, everything would be just fine for us in this country. For me.

You can’t really nail stuff to these walls. You can’t throw anything out to make room for your dream shelf. They’ve put it all in your contract, you can’t do this, you can’t do that, and most of all, you can’t pretend this place is yours. It’s like you live in someone’s pocket for a while. Nothing to do but attempt to be yourself, with that stranger’s heart beating loudly, uncomfortably close, until it’s time to move into someone else’s shirt.

When we found this flat, it had everything. There was no need for us to buy anything at all, we could just go ahead and start living our super duper newly relocated happy life. I hated it. Nesting me wanted to, well, nest.

Of course this was very much frowned upon by our landlady. So I didn’t make plans, I didn’t replace, I didn’t paint. I moved some things around, it’s true, just so I’d feel I’d made a decision, left a mark. And I put some black and white portraits on a wall. No nails, I’m not that much of a rebel, blue tack worked just as fine.

So this is it, my nest. Less than a dozen photos on someone else’s wall. They’re not even symmetrical, I just tacked them on as I got them, with no final pattern in mind. There’s a window to the right and a few are beginning to fade. I see this as a little wonder. We’ve been here long enough for my wall to fade in the London sunlight. Do you know how miraculous that is? And London sunlight, who’s ever heard of that anyway?

It’s ridiculous how attached I am to this wall. I remember when and where I got each card. A couple I found in Foyle’s shops in London, others in little bookshops and museums in Amsterdam, Prague or even Las Palmas (I know, black and white postcards in Las Palmas? The world really must be coming to an end, and quite a depressing one at that.). V. suggested I’d just order them online, a batch of a hundred of them or so, enough to cover all our walls once and for all. I guess he’s sick of waiting for me to obsessively go through stacks upon stacks of cards each time we pass a stationery shop. But he doesn’t understand this nesting business.

Each card has a story. Each is a mark on the map of our life in this country. We are actually building something here, even if it’s just a tiny black and white postcard collection on a foreign wall. We’re very slowly building a home. It’s true it’s made of paper and it probably won’t fare very well in this who-needs-four-seasons-when-it-can-rain-all-the-time weather, but it’s a start.

 

wall