Another mountain lake and the, in this case, lucky occurrence of being woken up early by a busy road and construction site right next to where I had bunked for the night.
Lake Lucerne was majestic just after sunrise.
Crisp, cold air which demanded several layers of clothing. But each breath was invigorating. And nature’s color palette was a feast for the eyes. Soft edges at first. Then everything transformed, becoming crisper and clearer as the morning progressed.
As for the sunset… not bad… Not bad at all, either. Stood there with a glass of white wine in my hand, closing my eyes every so often to commit the magical moment to memory. Do you do that sometimes, too? Close your eyes when faced with something you never want to forget, so as to take a photograph with your soul? The eyelids become the shutters of your internal camera. And in that swift moment of closing your eyes, going inwards, you take a picture for eternity.
It’s been eight months now since I came back to Zurich. A place which has been my home two times before already. All in all, this is my 19th year here. It is more home than any other place on Earth, and yet I struggle to relax into it.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve grown and learned in so many places around the world. Besides Switzerland, I’ve lived and worked in the US, Germany, Maldives, Belgium, Macau, Hong Kong, Canada, Malta, France, and the Caribbean.
Of all those places, I guess I miss Macau the most. Its climate, its culture, its people, and its food. And, with it, also my intensive life there working for large-scale circus and stunt shows.
In the spring of 2020, my greatest dream almost came true. After 11 years of working backstage and a good 5 years of applying for every stage management job Cirque du Soleil advertised, I was finally interviewed by them. For Nysa, their coming resident show in Berlin.
I got through the first interview ok, was shortlisted and invited for a second interview.
Then, just 3 days before this second interview and just before a very real chance to finally work for the company I had dreamed about ever since I was 21 years old and experienced them for the first time (in 1992), all Cirque du Soleil shows around the world were shut down due to Covid19. All interviews were cancelled as well.
Now, Cirque du Soleil shows are slowly reopening. But Nysa has been cancelled. And, I remain an outsider, not part of any clique or network. My chances of realizing this lifelong dream again looking slim at best.
Starting a new life here in Zurich, I’ve begun working as something akin to executive assistant for a management consulting company. I work for nine people at the same time. And, astonishingly enough, the job content is eerily similar to the admin part of working as a stage manager for large-scale shows.
There is also the same sense of urgency, the same unpredictability, constant changes, thinking on your feet, everything coming in late but needing to be done yesterday. And this sense of never quite knowing what the day or week will bring.
The one big difference is that now there is no instant gratification. As a stage manager, I am backstage in the evenings, after a day of admin, and see firsthand what I am working for. I feel the audience, the performers, the entire atmosphere backstage and onstage and I know I am making a difference. I know what I am working for.
Now, everything is abstract. I have an endless list of tasks, but do not hear if anything I have done actually helped towards the success of the project. I do not even hear if the project was successful in the end at all.
That being said, my job is never boring. The company climate is great. And the team is as good as it’s ever going to get, compared to everything else in my 32 years of work experience. So, I am in a good space.
At the end of the day, I guess I am simply homesick. Missing my home in Macau, in Coloane village, a small fishing village where at this time of year, I’d see millions of dragon flies soaring through the evening skies. And I’d sit on my rooftop after a long hard day, gazing at the stars, and having impromptu conversations with friends.
I am homesick for tropical climates, the cold beer in the evening which never tastes better anywhere else, and the local street food sold by my neighbors.
I am easing back into the structured perfection of Central European life. All the while realizing that a huge part of my heart will forever long for those places, experiences, and people I had to leave behind on the other side of the world.
Don’t get me wrong. I am happy where I am. Happy in the moment. Content gardening on my terrace, feeling the loving presence of the street cat I rescued 10 months ago. My memories of all that was before sustaining me.
But there also is a yearning. Missing something that might be forever a thing of the past.
I wonder if this is part of the human condition. Part of the condition of travelers. Or just part of my condition. To become so much a child of the world that the ache for faraway places becomes permanent.
In my case, it is a double ache. For life backstage, helping to create magic onstage. And for a life in exotic places where material safety and structure are not a given. Where typhoons muscle their way through the city, expats tell each other wild stories, and nothing is ever quite easy, comfortable, and secure.
These aches might be a permanent fixture in my life. But I am so grateful for them. I wouldn’t want to miss a second of all the experiences I was lucky to have thus far, all over the world. Even if it means that somewhere, in the deepest recesses of my heart from hereon out I will always be homeless, or at home everywhere at once. Whichever way you want to look at it.
(The elephant seen in a local forest around Zurich. A little taste of places yet to be discovered for young adventurers travelling in their minds on the back of stone elephants to far away destinations.)
As happy as I am where I am right now, I miss my home in Macay every single day. I miss my life in that strange, yet beautiful little town right next to Zhuhai, China. I miss my cozy apartment with a view over the South China Sea and the mainland. With its lush tropical forests and ever-growing competing forest of high-rise buildings.
I miss the people of Coloane village, like the pushy vegetable vendor who always talked me into buying more than I wanted. The Lord Stows restaurant employees downstairs who always brought my takeaway on a regular plate. The old lady around the corner who sold soft drinks and beer from her living room and who would be deeply asleep on the couch whenever I stopped by to buy something.
I miss the wonderful smells of Chinese or Portugese cooking lingering over the entire city. The tropical rain showers. The typhoons in the fall which reminded me of how small I am and left me in awe of nature’s grandeur. The dragon dances when a new shop opened and the splendor of gifted flower arrangements which were displayed outside the shop for a few days.
I miss Buddha’s birthday with all its festivities throughout town. The bright colors. The small temples in almost every street, the offerings and incense everywhere. And the kitchy lanterns lining every street for each festive holiday.
I miss the strange and infinitely complex Cantonese language which I was slowly beginning to understand. I lived in Lo Wan Si Koi and worked in San Hou Tin Dei (City of Dreams) and later in San Hou Jing Wui (Studio City).
I miss the Coloane hills through which I hiked many times, enjoying the tropical forest, the little pagodas, and the view of old, rusty barges on the ocean far below. I miss La Gondola on Cheoc Van Beach, with its old fashioned, bright red Coca Cola umbrellas, its incredible Calzone, and delicious Sangria.
I miss the narrow, mysterious alleys which were poetic in their imperfection. The swallows who sat lined up by the hundreds on the low hanging electrical lines in Old Taipa Village. And I miss those nights enjoying a wine with Jesus and my friends at El GauchoMacau, my favorite restaurant of all time. With its incredible steaks and homemade Chimichurri. In contrast, some of the best evenings were having Hot Pot with my Chinese work mates. Macau always stunned me with its potpourri of traditional and international delicacies.
Or having a Tsing Tao on a hot summer’s night on my rooftop, watching the fireworks over Chimelong Park just across the ocean, whilst letting the warm night air, so still and full of the fragrance of tropical foliage, caress me.
I miss all those moments and many more.
And I miss my cats. I think of those three brave little souls whom I was forced to leave behind and who I can now only hope have been left in good hands where they will be loved and have a caring forever home.
I tell myself to let go completely. Because there is nothing else I can do. No amount of pining and worrying will be able to change the unchangeable. What happened was way beyond my control. For my sanity, I want and need to let go. But, at the same time, I also never want to forget all these beautiful impressions and memories. And I always want to hold Pushka, Nacho, and Fellini in my heart. My three little feline children.
So, as I move on and slowly build a new life, grateful for what I have been given and been able to rebuild from the ruins, I still can’t help but feel the pain of all I have been forced to leave. Even though it’s now been almost two full years since then. The nightmares have almost stopped. I only have them a couple times per week now… when, for the first year, I had them every single night and could barely sleep.
I am getting back on my feet. I feel a sense of peace again. A sense of happiness. But the memories of a place and life I loved and had to leave behind and the pain that grew from that will always be a part of me now, I suppose.
In a way, I’m lucky as well though. I’ve always followed my heart and its led me to wondrous as well as challenging places and experiences. I keep growing from all I have learned. And I have more than one home. Geographically, thus far, I have four. Macau is most definitely one of those magical and important harbours in my life.
JoJo and I are still in Zurich and will – if all goes well – make this our long-term home base. At the moment, I’m dealing with a lot of bureaucracy and it is as of yet unsure if I’ll be allowed to remain in the country. All will depend on me finding a job, which – so far – is proving as much of a challenge as it was in France. However, I am confident that with every week I’ll get a little closer to a solution. And, hopefully, at one point soon, I’ll be delighted to hear someone say, “We’re interested in offering you a position.” Keep fingers crossed.
Other than working on applications, I have started studying remotely at university which brings me a lot of joy. I love learning new things. I am also still with one foot – or rather one ear – in Montpellier to keep studying Le Francais.
One thing that is wonderful about returning to Zurich is that it has helped me to bring things into perspective. It used to be my home. A place I felt comfortable in and always loved returning to. Then, a few years ago when I moved back for three years with my ex-partner, I didn’t feel comfortable anymore. I just wanted to get away. What I have come to realize now is that it wasn’t Zurich that bothered me. I was under a lot of pressure at the time, financially and emotionally, and somehow (to protect myself and my partner and to be able to go on) I had shifted all the blame to Zurich. Projected all that was weighing heavily on my shoulders to a place, rather than searching for the root cause.
Now that I am back, with the wisdom of hindsight, I understand that Zurich was never the problem. My life had just been difficult back then and the pressure I had been under had been too intense.
This is something I’ll need to remember. Major note to self: If I ever begin complaining too intensely about a place again, I’ll need to stop and ask myself the question: “Ok Liam, what is wrong in your life? What do you need to resolve?”
So, hello Zurich. Third time is the charm, they say. I still don’t like everything about you, but no place is ever entirely perfect. What is important is that I have that comfy feeling again, as if I have just found an old pair of shoes in a long-forgotten suitcase. And I’m slipping into those shoes ever so easy, wiggling my toes, feeling good, simply thinking “ahhhhhhh.”
In German, we have the word “Kopfkino”, which directly translated means “Head-Cinema”. And, admittedly, I had a lot of that before going back on the road. What if the cat won’t get over the border? What if I didn’t think of all the papers he needs? What if I won’t get over the border? What if strange, expat Germans are not welcome right now in Switzerland with all that is going on? What if JoJo and I will get separated? What if the roads in the mountains will be blocked by snow? etc.
I often take great risks and follow my instincts. Because of that, many people may think I am not aware of the risks. What they might not realize is I that worry a lot, I reflect a lot, and my mind is conjuring up more risks than actually exist. Every time. I am always nervous before making another bold move, always scared before beginning a new chapter. But, if my heart tells me it is the right path to take, then I’ll take it anyways. Every time. Hands shaking as I go. Most likely with a plan B, C, D, and E already brewing in my mind, in case disaster strikes.
This time, yet again, my “Kopfkino” was far worse than reality. My lovely, old, feline partner JoJo and I rented a car and embarked on a 9-hour roadtrip from Montpellier to Pontarlier. I set the GPS to “avoid all toll roads” which added 4 extra hours to our travel time. But it was so much more picturesque and relaxing. All went smoothly and JoJo, who had most likely never traveled in a car before, was surprisingly calm. He was curled up on the passenger seat for almost the entire trip. He watched my every move and head-bumped my right hand or shoulder for cuddles every now and then.
After Lyon, the landscape got ever more diverse. Soon, little sprinkles of snow could be seen as well, covering the landscape like a thin frosting on a rather large cake. It is beautiful how defined all lines in a landscape become when snow highlights all shapes and edges.
The closer we got to Pontarlier, the more JoJo and I entered into a winter wonderland. By that time, he was fast asleep and didn’t react to my continuous exclamations of “Uuuhhhh”, “Ahhhhh”, and “Wake up JoJo, you have to look at all this snow!”
We returned the car in Pontarlier, where two Swiss friends picked us up in their car. As we drove towards the border, I thought, “This is it. I hope we won’t get stopped.” We didn’t get stopped. In fact, both the French and Swiss border stations were closed and we just drove on through with no one bothering us at all. Et voilà, from one moment to the next my French street cat turned into a Swiss cat.
We spent the night in a romantic old farmhouse in the mountains. I was spoiled with cheese fondue and the good company of fabulous friends. JoJo was spoiled with tiny morsels of pâte. He was also very excited by the sound of little mouse feet within the walls of the ancient building. Overall, I was in awe of how Zen old JoJo was. When he wasn’t running after potential mice, he just looked at me with big eyes and purred.
Now we are back in Zurich. We have covered a distance – that had taken me two months on foot – in only one day by car. We found a beautiful new home with a friend who has space for both of us. Currently, JoJo and I are on the couch, breathing deeply. We are glad that at least the “roof over our heads” part of the equation is covered for now. The next few weeks will be devoted to an extensive job hunt (For me. JoJo gets to relax on the couch and gets to watch birds in the courtyard).
If I find employment in Zurich, if JoJo and I get to stay in the country for a longer while, much of my free time will be spent on shorter hikes, exploring the wonderful mountain landscapes of Switzerland. Also, during vacation times I want to get back on the international trails. For example, I am still itching to do that gorgeous hike from the Strait of Gibraltar to the South of Portugal.
Wherever JoJo and I are, wherever we go, the journey continues. Stay tuned for more trails and adventures!
Alright, this is it. One more sleep in Montpellier. Then, tomorrow morning, I’ll hop into a rental car and drive north, towards the Swiss border. All luggage is in the car already, so we can get a running start. All I’ll need to do at 6 am is to throw some cold water into my face, drink a coffee… and off we go.
As you can see, I am leaving with quite the little family in tow: a fish, a stingray and, most importantly, little JoJo, the sweetest old street cat in all of Montpellier. Most likely in all of France ;).
Today was a full and exciting day for JoJo and me both. In the morning, I said goodbye to yet another new friend I am grateful to have crossed paths with. We went for a walk in the old town and got my favorite donuts one last time. Sooo good. Afterwards, JoJo and I went to the veterinary to make sure his travel papers are in order. I wanted to go get a Covid test, but the line was about a mile long. After one hour, I gave up waiting. Hopefully, this won’t cause a problem tomorrow… but that’s a bridge – or rather a border – I’ll cross then. Bottom line: Cat is ready. I am not.
In the evening, I went to get a rental car, maneuvered it through all the narrow one-way streets, broke out in a cold sweat while doing so, and finally found a parking space. It’s a great little car, and I’ve already prepared lots of cozy sleeping spaces for JoJo.
I still can’t get over these brilliant, azure blue skies here in the Occitanie region. I’m glad to be here for a few more days and, after that, am content to let my Wonderweg take me onto whatever trails lie ahead in 2021.
If things go at least halfway the way I’d like them to, then you’ll read about a mix of hiking journeys, relocations, and inward journeys over the course of the next few months.
Other than that, today is just a day and tomorrow is another day as far as I’m concerned… not a magical barrier we have reached after which everything will get better. I have no great expectations of 2021 and will just do the best I can with whatever challenges it’ll throw at me.
As a good friend of mine always says (right Matt), “It’s all an adventure!”
As we are nearing the end of this year, I’d like to say thank you to all of my friends near and far, old and new, for their support. Thank you for believing in me. There were so many acts of kindness… ranging from that little “like” of support for one of my posts, to sending notes and messages enquiring how I am, to chatting and trusting each other with our latest news and developments, to actively lending assistance. Thank you for caring and being there.
Special thanks go to all those of you who went out of your way to help me survive and find a fresh start this year. To protect people’s privacy, I won’t name anyone, but you know who you are.
Thank you for the many messages I received with links to job offers across the globe. I applied to all of them. No luck yet, but I so appreciate all your efforts and pointers.
Thank you to all those who gave me shelter for hours, days, or even weeks and who invited me to the odd free meal. It meant a lot and I just hope one day I will be in a position again to pay it forward and be able to do the same for someone in need.
Thank you to my parents for helping me on their already tight budget with the costs of studying and staying in Montpellier.
Thank you to the wonderful team at Alliance Francaise Montpellier, who were rather friends than teachers. They chauffeured me around to buy cat provisions, kept their eyes open for job and apartment opportunities, and never gave up on me no matter how slowly my French progressed.
Thank you to my good friend and almost-room mate for being there and also for spoiling JoJo et moi with the coolest impromptu Christmas buffet ever.
Thank you to old and new friends alike for offering to help me survive financially. To that regard, I want to thank two people especially. One is one of my best and oldest friends who is struggling herself this year but still lent me part of her savings. The other is a new friend who has never even had a real face-to-face conversation with me but still entrusted me with some of her hard-earned money. I am in awe and forever grateful to you both. Thank you for your trust. And thank you for being patient with my clumsiness. I am not used to need to ask for so much help.
Thank you to so many of you around the world who contacted me and offered me shelter whenever things got a bit hairy this year. Were it not for Covid travel restrictions and now being responsible for an elderly street cat, I might haven taken some of you up on your offer.
As it so happens, I did take one of you up on your offer and want to thank you so much for your help with little old JoJo as well as for letting us come stay with you soon. As for plan B, thank you to yet another dear friend who might have a whole house for us to take shelter in, should JoJo and I not be able to cross the border from France to Switzerland in January.
Thank you in general to the surprisingly overwhelming amount of people who were true to their word in every regard.
I apologize if I have not mentioned everyone and everything. The list of incredible kindnesses this year is a long one and will most likely fill an entire book. I will always remember.
Even the kindnesses of strangers were enchanting on a daily basis.
One memorable encounter was a cashier at the Carrefour supermarket around the corner who sent me twice to get a new box of mandarins. The second box still met her disapproval. When I looked at her, my eyes above the face mask big orbs of confusion, she opened both packages, and fished out the moldy mandarins I hadn’t seen hidden at the bottom. Then she began rearranging both boxes (with a long line of patient customers waiting behind me). I ended up with one box overflowing with Vitamin C goodness, while she kept the almost empty second box with the moldy remains. “Au revoir et bonne soirée” she said, eyes above her face mask twinkling, and sent me on my way.
One very special thank you goes to the little street cat who has chosen me as his new family. Your gentle purring at night soothed my nightmares which before you arrived disturbed my sleep so profoundly. Now, it is you disturbing my sleep, which I greatly prefer. Also, your paws trampling all over my face in the morning put a smile on my face and into my heart. You are a bit rough around the edges but you help me appreciate the things that ARE instead of mourning and feeling the loss of things that were. Thank you my little lion.
Et voilà, many hugs around the world from JoJo et moi!
Where do I even start… well… as you know I was looking for a job and an apartment here in Montpellier. I was even looking with a friend. She has a French passport but is not registered in France at the moment. I have an EU passport. And we wanted to find something affordable together, to share. Can’t be that hard, we thought…
It’s incredible how many bureaucratic walls we ran into. This was even more surprising to us since we have both lived in multiple countries already. Neither of us has ever encountered so many bureaucratic barriers before. Anywhere.
To sum up weeks of going from Pontius to Pilatus in two sentences: Basically, no one wanted to rent anything to us unless we had our tax revenue in France first. And no one wanted to give us a job unless we had an address in France first.
A conundrum which might have been funny had it not completely destroyed all hopes of my friend and I being able to begin a new life here in beautiful Montpellier at this time.
I pondered for a while if there was a workaround, because I really wanted to stay in Montpellier. Start a new life. New country, new city, new language, new job, maybe even a new profession. But, since I am by now already living on borrowed money, it didn’t make any sense to rent AirBnBs until I’ll be able to find a loophole in the local bureaucracy.
So, with a heavy heart, I decided to let go of Montpellier.
Immediately next came the question of where to go instead. Move onwards to maybe Spain or Portugal? But there as well I will be faced with extreme uncertainty and no idea of when and how I’ll be able to get a foot on the ground and find a roof over my head… and a job.
Instead, I have now decided to go back to the place which has already been my home twice for altogether 17 years: Zurich. In fact, each time I moved there, Zurich became my safety net after great turmoil. This will be the 3rd time. And, third time is the charm they say, isn’t it?
I have an amazing network of friends and acquaintances in Zurich. People who are close to my heart. That’s a definite plus. The climate is a definite minus. Brrrrrr.
So, onwards I go, in hopes of finding a better future. My little feline buddy JoJo and I will rent a car and drive to the Swiss border on January 10th, 2021. There, good friends will pick us up with their car. JoJo is now a registered French “cat-izen” and this will be his first ever time to cross a border as an international cat. Not bad for an old toothless street survivor.
Once in Zurich, I want to continue studying Le Francais, because I am still aiming to become fluent. And, I will begin another determined job hunt. Hopefully more successful than my last. If I can’t find anything in Zurich, in these Covid-stricken times, I might head towards other destinations after all. Malta, one of my favorite places on Earth, and a place I’ve already lived and worked in, has crossed my mind as well.
We will see. There is not much more JoJo and I can do than move forward with hope and as much confidence and positivity as we can muster.
We have roughly three more weeks here and JoJo and I both aim to enjoy our little rooftop flat which we will miss dearly. We’ll watch the golden sunsets together, and wave at our pigeon neighbors every night. I’ll miss those two love birds. So heartwarming to see them returning every single evening.
It’ll be a good Christmas. With JoJo, two love-struck pigeons, and my human friend, before she retreats to a bureaucratically friendlier locale as well. I believe a bit of French wine will be involved as well.
Merry Christmas to you all! JoJo, the pigeons, and I are sending many hugs around the world xxx
It was. What a year… found myself completely homeless, unemployed, and penniless for the first time in my life. Embarked on the Oasis of the Seas in the Caribbean to manage one of the most beautiful aqua theatres in the world. Called my first high-risk acrobatics show. Went to Germany to help my dad during the 1st lockdown. Went on a long-distance hike from the mountains of Switzerland to the Mediterranean Sea. Discovered Montpellier. Learned a new language (work in progress). Found peace of mind again (also work in progress). Crossed paths with the most loving and gentle feline. And experienced incredible kindnesses from friends, old and new, around the world (thank you!!!). I don’t think I have ever learned more in one year. And I am profoundly grateful.