Tag Archives: #freedom

Nanala

2019 cargo container and blue sky

Last week, a friend of mine introduced me to a refugee from Pakistan (to protect her privacy, let’s call her Nanala). We had an unforgettable dinner together.
From the first moment onwards, Nanala struck me as a self-confident, warm-hearted woman. After a while she began sharing parts of her life journey.

Eleven years ago, soldiers had broken down the door of Nanala’s home in Pakistan. They had shot and killed her husband and two of her four children in front of her eyes.
Nanala had managed to escape with her remaining two children. She had gathered a small part of their belongings and managed to get passage on a ship bound for Europe.
Together with four other families, Nanala and her children spent almost two weeks locked inside a container. They had a small supply of dried food, fruits, and water, and some flashlights. Other than that, only a couple of small, round holes in the sides of the container brought a bit of illumination from the outside. Days began to blend into each other. The journey felt endless, the walls were closing in… but, finally, the container ship arrived in a harbor in Greece.

After months of surviving in a refugee camp on a small island, Nanala and her children were transferred to Zurich, Switzerland. There, they lived for many years in yet another refugee camp. Nanala took any job the Swiss authorities allowed her to have, to be able to provide for her family. Her children went to school and adapted well to their new Swiss home.
Nanala had never attended school. She had never learned how to study. When she asked her children to help and teach her, they said, “We are busy with our own lives, Mom. We don’t have time.”
Nanala was only ever hired on an hourly basis. Each time, she was promised that after a year she would be given a contract. She worked hard. Studied. Learned German. But each time, the promise would be broken and she would be let go.
Each time hope reared its head, it was smacked hard again with a whip. Yet, Nanala kept getting back up on her feet. She never gave up.

Nanala’s daughter graduated high school and found an apprenticeship as a dental nurse. During her studies, she began to distance herself more and more from her mother. She never helped financially. After three years, her apprenticeship was over and she found a good job. At the same time, she was given the Swiss passport. From this moment on, she became very hostile towards her mother and pushed her away ever harder. She was ashamed of her mother who had still not been given a resident permit. She didn’t want to be seen as the daughter of a refugee.
Nanala’s daughter even began influencing her younger brother against his mom. He will finish high school soon, and Nanala is afraid. What if he abandons her, too? If he does, she will lose the rest of her family. She will also lose the social housing they have been given by the government.

Nanala has been assigned a new job. She has started work for a company which makes house calls to elderly people who can’t take care of themselves anymore.
That morning, when Nanala cleaned one older lady’s apartment, a spider fell from the ceiling, landed on her face, and bit her in the cheek. A bright red bruise marked the spot.

What struck me more than anything about Nanala was her capacity to love, her emotional intelligence, her dignity, and her beautiful sense of humor. Even during our chat, she kept raising herself back up and vowed to claim her independence and freedom through further hard work and studies. For her own sake, as well as that of her children, she doesn’t want to depend on them. Or on anyone else for that matter.

Even after all that has happened to her, Nanala wasn’t self-absorbed during our dinner, but present, listening to our stories as well as telling us her own.
She cried when she remembered moments of pain and abandonment. At the same time, she was full of enthusiasm at the thought of being able to help other people in her new profession. Rarely have I seen a stronger, more compassionate human being.

Photo by Victoire Joncheray on Unsplash

Freedom and Independence

2002 hat and suit session 2

Freedom and independence have always been important to me.

These past few years, I’ve been increasingly reminded of their importance because – additionally to my own constant quest – someone close to my heart has been struggling with claiming her independence after having been imprisoned by religious and societal standards for most of her life.
I remember many conversations we had during which she felt I can’t possibly understand her massive need to manage her life entirely on her own. Her need to be in control of her own destiny without having to answer to other people or institutions. To understand herself and the world around her and conquer it by her own standards.

The thing is… I understand perfectly, because even though our background is different it is also incredibly similar. Instead of being limited by an institution, I was limited by my own body. I too, had been born into an existence which wasn’t mine.

It was dictated by the shape of my biological body, dictated by my – in the truest sense of the word – surroundings. On top of my body not matching my soul, societal standards which didn’t match my soul either, ruled my life.

And even though those around me meant well, I was never free until I realized: I am who I am, not who they think I am.

It took me until I was thirty to have enough life experience and courage to claim my freedom fully, step by step. To say “no” more often to things I had not dared say “no” to before. And to say “yes” to other things I had never before imagined were possible in my life. This picture was taken then, as I was still growing into my own skin. Ever more comfortable with my own existence. But it took another ten years until the age of forty for me to really understand myself, love myself, and rest within myself. That last part is still a work in progress… but getting better all the time.

Personal freedom. Independence. Integrity.
All so very important.

All of us are growing up with a layer of rules, societal standards, opinions, assumptions, and automatisms. Some of those are great. Others are not. We need to carefully, critically examine all of them. Always.

While growing into the adults we now are, I picture us as living in a coat shop and being surrounded by enthusiastic salesmen and saleswomen. All of them want to sell us what they think is the best coat. After a while we end up wearing dozens or even hundreds of coats. We’re wearing them on top of each other and doing our best to fit into all of them. Then, at some point, we realize, “Damn, this is heavy. I can’t move and I can barely stand up straight.”
We realize somewhere along the way, underneath all those coats, we’ve forgotten who we are. We want to stop and breathe, to find the coats which make us feel at home with ourselves. Which are ours. So, inevitably, we’ll start sorting through the ones which have been given to us. And, if we find the courage, we’ll take off the ones which don’t fit. The ones which make us feel restricted and uncomfortable.

Only then can we get back to the core of who we are… re-build ourselves.
With love compassion, and kindness, for ourselves and others.
With ethical considerations as well as our own well-being and happiness in mind.

It’s all about healthy boundaries, and taking care of our own souls, our own lives.

I understand.

Marvelling At Moments

2018 human chandelier 5

Since 1991, I’ve lived all over the world. That’s 28 years of being a nomad, an immigrant, a world citizen, an expat.

Presently, I am back in my dad’s little village in Southern Germany. It’s just for 6 weeks, but my home simply doesn’t feel like home anymore. I suspect it never will again. Nothing ever changes here. No matter how many years I stay away, when I come back to visit, people still complain about the same things, cook the same meals, and have the same exact routines and opinions. I am trying to relax and enjoy the peaceful inertia for the little time I am here. Use the time to charge my batteries.

Instead, I feel like suffocating. I miss my international life, miss constant change, miss invigorating conversations with people from all kinds of backgrounds. I miss traveling, miss being close to the deep blue (or in case of Macau deep brown) sea, miss challenges and growth, and miss sharing new experiences with like-minded souls.

Furthermore, I miss the spontaneity of expat life. The random unexpected knock on the door, bumping into people everywhere, unplanned trips, casual dinners, or catching up over a couple glasses of wine. I miss my show family, miss living with my soul mate, miss being surrounded by curiosity, questions, passion, and creativity. I miss late nights on rooftops, gazing up at the stars, and marvelling at moments spent in corners of the world I never thought I’d ever find myself in. I have 4 more weeks here in this picturesque little village before I head out again, but I might have to split that in half by finding a spot close to the ocean somewhere to dive into the unknown…

The Jailbreak of Mouse

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The basement was as far away as the darkest corner of the universe. It was a world of nightmares, of prisoners, and hidden dangers. Little five-year old Sam had to take the elevator all the way from the eleventh floor to the second basement level. During the long ride down, he held on to the cold and sticky handrails inside the ancient, rattling contraption. Sam almost choked on layers of stale cigarette smoke. The air felt ever dustier and older, reeking of mildew and decay, as if an entire mountain of his grandma’s oldest shoes was stacked up somewhere behind a wall panel.

When the elevator finally stopped with a jolt, the doors opened into a cold, barely-illuminated space. A large corrugated iron door across the hallway loomed over Sam. It was covered in layer upon layer of scratches. Sam walked towards it. He pulled with all his might. The door was so heavy, his arms felt as if they were wrestling with a guardian of the underworld. Sam’s little biceps straining, he was able to open the door just enough to slip through.

Clang. The door shut behind him.

Next came darkness so complete, it seemed to breathe on its own. Deep, resounding breaths. Not like Darth Vader. More like a swamp thing from the ages. Brooding, foul, camouflaged, and ready to snatch him up in an instant.

Sam’s mind conjured up threats so frightful, he could feel his heartbeat vibrating all the way from his toes to the tingling hair on his scalp. He forced his trembling fingers to feel along the wall and, finally, just as he thought the creatures of his imagination will grab and devour him, he found the light switch. Darkness receded and revealed a seemingly endless corridor with hundreds of doors leading away from it. The walls were a dirty yellow. Some parts even greenish-brown with age. Water dripped from the ceiling, adding the stink of dampness and structural decay to the mix.

Sam’s legs started to shake uncontrollably. He didn’t want to go on. But he had to. He was on a mission. And without him, innocent lives would be lost.

He forced himself to take a first step. A second. A third… The lights went out. Sam lunged towards where he had seen the next light switch on the wall. Breathing hard from the sudden surge of adrenalin, he hit it on the first try.

He pushed on. Passing door after door, Sam kept his eyes everywhere at once. He turned around every few seconds lest giant spiders or slimy monsters sneak up on him. Whilst pirouetting along the corridor and hitting a switch every minute to keep the lights from going out again, Sam also managed to check the dark corners in turn-offs as well as behind open doors.

And he found them… the cages… one by one, just how he had heard the maintenance man describe them to his dad.

Thankfully, the first cage was empty. So was the second. Sam took them in his tiny hands and smashed them against the wall with all the strength he could muster, until they splintered into a thousand pieces. When he came upon the third cage, he saw movement inside. Scared and intrigued at the same time, Sam went closer and saw a ball of fur, the size of a golf ball. Dark eyes gazed at Sam with a glimmer of the same fear he felt. He lifted the cage up gently. The tiny, light brown body, on four delicate, pink legs scuttled as far away from him as the bars of the cage allowed. Whiskers quivered. Wide-open button eyes fixed him with an intense stare.

“Hello there,” Sam said to the little mouse. “I’ll take care of you. I’ll get you out of here. Don’t you worry.”

As Sam turned around towards the exit, the lights went off again, reminding him of where he was. Dragons of terror swooped into his heart. Sam barely managed to not race off in a blind panic. Again, his fingers searched for the nearest switch. He scraped his knuckles, banged his elbow, and almost fell over parts of the broken cages. But he soon felt a square of hard plastic on the wall, instead of a rough, plastered surface.

When the lights came back on, Sam hit the ground running. The hallway seemed to stretch and grow before him as if he was in a nightmare with the exit forever out of reach no matter how fast he ran. When he did reach the iron door after what felt like an eternity, Sam grabbed the door handle with one hand and held the cage tight to his chest with the other. Then, he put his shoulder into it, focusing all his strength.

The lights went out once more just as the door surrendered to Sam’s weight and creaked open. He leapt into the hallway. His heart hammered against the walls of his chest and the bars of the cage, which he still hung on to for dear life. The mouse now looked even more terrified.

The elevator seemed to take ages to get down to them. Sam kept turning around, half expecting to see that imagined giant spider come to life after all, to prevent the little rodent and him from leaving her dark lair. Thankfully, no monolithic arachnids appeared. The elevator arrived. Sam jumped in, pushed the button for the eleventh floor, and breathed out deeply for the first time since he had set out on his journey.

Arriving at his floor, sunshine flooding through large hallway windows, Sam let himself into his family’s apartment, his new friend and protégé still firmly secured under his arm.

They spent the whole afternoon together, during which Sam tried to convince the little mouse with cheese, tuna, salad, and even vanilla pudding, that he had the best intentions. After a while, he played Beethoven on the stereo. When that didn’t work either, he tried Rihanna. The mouse did seem to relax slightly when Sam played some tunes from the Backstreet Boys. Mostly though, it huddled in a corner of the cage. Frozen. Listening intently. His eyes never leaving Sam’s.

“What’ve you got there?” Sam’s dad asked when he got home from work.

“It’s my new friend, Dad. His name is Mouse. I saved him from that awful basement downstairs and we’re going to look out for each other from now on.”

Sam’s dad eyed the fear-stricken rodent. Then he came closer and sat down next to Sam on the floor. “So you went down there all on your own?”

“Yes, I did Dad. It was horrible.”

“Well, I’m not sure the maintenance guy is going to be happy when he finds out you interfered with his mouse project. We’ll try and keep it a secret. Don’t go down there again though, ok?”

“But Dad,” Sam said, “It’s not a project. He is putting mice in prison. Look how scared Mouse is.”

“That’s the thing though Sam. Have a look. Does Mouse look happy to you, huddled in the corner of his cage like that?”

“Not really.” Sam had to admit. “But he is going to be my best friend and I’m going to take good care of him.”

“I believe you will,” his dad said, “but he is a wild mouse, used to take care of himself. If you truly want to do something good for him, then we should release him somewhere nice. Think about it, ok? We can talk more in the morning.”

Sam’s dad left his son’s room. Sam watched him go, then focused his attention back on Mouse. Sam felt lost, unsure of what to do. He wanted to do the right thing like the heroes of his adventure stories. The Avengers would never have kept anyone with them against their will. Sam kept thinking. He brought Mouse ever more delicious presents. He even offered to share a late-night chocolate Mars bar with him. But Mouse never moved.

In the morning, Sam and his dad took Mouse for a ride. Passing by in their car, they looked at streets, meadows, farms, and woods, wondering where their little survivor would be most happy. Had Sam separated Mouse from his family? Had he divorced a cute Mrs. Mouse from her husband by uprooting him from the cellar? Or did Mouse have a boyfriend or even husband? Could mice be gay, too? Was Mouse even male? Sam had assigned him a name and gender, but who knew…

For a moment Sam and his dad had considered just letting Mouse out in the cellar. But they didn’t want him captured again. They wanted to give him the best possible chance to start over and roam free.

After an hour of scouring the neighborhood, they stopped in the fields surrounding their town. Sam gently placed the cage on the ground. Since he had found him, Mouse had never moved from his chosen corner. If not for his constant, slight quivering, he could have easily been mistaken for a toy or the world’s smallest statue. Sam opened the cage door. He quietly retreated a few feet, waiting for Mouse to make his move. Sam’s dad stood by silently.

Mouse remained rooted to the spot. What was going through his head? Did he fear they were luring him into a trap? Was the sudden promise of freedom just as terrifying as being captured had been? Or did he sniff for familiar scents and, finding none, wondered if they would bring him back to familiar grounds if he just waited long enough?

After a while, Sam could see Mouse stirring. It was almost imperceptible, a twitch of his hind legs, a slight swivel of his ears, a tremor rippling through the fur on his back. Seconds later, Mouse shot out of his cage like an Olympic sprinter on steroids. One moment he was there. The next he was gone. No stirring underbrush. No sound. Nothing. Just gone.

Sam hugged his dad’s left leg like a mini-octopus hanging on to a coral block for dear life to avoid getting lost in ripping current. Whilst hanging on, he cried a little.

Sam was sure Mouse’s adrenalin was pumping as he ran through dense jungles of grass. He was running towards the edge of the woods in the distance, with their promise of acorns and berries. Most likely, he was tearing through fallen leaves on the way, breaking the sound barrier as he went through them, scattering them in all directions, thus releasing the strong scents of fertile earth and decomposing leaves. Each leaf a memory from the tree it once belonged to. It was a good life Mouse was hurrying to. Or maybe it wasn’t. In the grander scheme of things, it didn’t matter. What was important was he was free again and able to make his own choices.

Photo by André Sananoon Unsplash

I Hope, Deep Down You Knew

2000 young man in malta

Uniting my body with my soul meant breaking the heart of the one person who had always been there for me – my oma (grandma). As the hormones took an ever-firmer hold, I tried explaining to her who I was. Unfortunately, she was becoming progressively more senile. Oma sadly asked for me. Countless times, she would ask Dad, “Why does Stefanie never come home to visit us anymore?”

Every time I visited, I would cook her favorite rice pudding. We would sit together at her small dining room table, holding hands and gazing together out the window at the night sky. Sometimes, say when there was a full moon, Oma would happily point and exclaim, “Look! The moon has come to say hello. Isn’t this magical?” It was. But, while my eyes followed her outstretched arm, she would try to hide my, to her palate, unsuccessful attempt at making rice pudding. She would spit the gelatinous mass quickly into her napkin and throw it under the table. I noticed each time this happened, but would always pretend I hadn’t. Immediately after she shuffled to another room, I would quickly grab a rag and bucket and clean up the mess. On other occasions, I would search for her dentures. Due to her ever-increasing senility, they would end up in the oddest places – inside flowerpots, in the oven, or under her bed.

During her clearer moments, Oma would look at me and I would hope to see a small spark of recognition in her searching eyes. Most times, though, her eyes would seek out Dad with a confused, heart-breaking expression on her beautiful, deeply-lined face that spoke of such a long, well-lived life.

“Konrad,” Oma would ask, “who is this nice young man who is taking such good care of me?”

To this day, it breaks my heart if I let myself think too much about Oma’s last years. I hope on some deeper level she understood I was always right by her side. She meant the world to me.

(Excerpt from Paralian, photograph from the year 2000, when I was 29, just after my transition, finally being myself. More info here)

The Best Of Times Is Now

2017 liam at playhouse edinburgh

Just recently, my soul mate and I saw a new adaptation of the musical La Cage Aux Folles in the legendary Edinburgh Playhouse. We had grabbed the tickets on a whim. John Partridge as Albin was a revelation. The music was uplifting and is still on “repeat all” in my head and heart two weeks later. We came out beaming like a sparkling comet and felt as light as a cloud of cotton candy. Two days later we watched the musical once more on closing night. What a charming tour de force!
Written in 1973, this piece is now as timely as ever, and always will be, because the overall sentiment “Life’s not worth a damn until you can shout out ‘I am what I am’” holds true for all of us.

And then, of course, there is this, now forever embedded in my memory, a lesson to take to heart:

The best of times is now.
What’s left of Summer
But a faded rose?
The best of times is now.
As for tomorrow,
Well, who knows? Who knows? Who knows?
So hold this moment fast,
And live and love
As hard as you know how.
And make this moment last
Because the best of times is now,
Is now, is now.
Now, not some forgotten yesterday.
Now, tomorrow is too far away.
So hold this moment fast,
And live and love
As hard as you know how.
And make this moment last,
Because the best of times is now,
Is now, is now.
(Lyrics from “The Best of Times”, La Cage Aux Folles Soundtrack)

Thank you so much to the original creator and the cast and crew of this latest, most amazing adaptation. Keep blazing and sparkling on that stage with all the glitters and colors of the rainbow! @LCAF_UKTour

 

#lacageauxfolles @LCAF_UKTour #IamwhatIam #TheBestOfTimesIsNow #UKtour #musicaltheatre #lifejourney #odyssey #diversity #freedom #happiness #mutualrespect

Writers Resist

Beginning of this year, ‘Writers Resist’ events were held all over the world. These readings were to remind ourselves of the importance of human rights, freedom of speech, and mutual respect.
Here in Zurich, on a mid-January evening, we spoke up as well, reading from many different works of literature (including our own) in front of a sincere, spell-bound audience. I’m glad I was able to do my part. Because, as I pointed out in this article by JJ Marsh in ‘The Woolf’: “Kindness, compassion, and freedom of mind are key to our existence.”

writersresist