I didn’t choose the cabin life. The cabin life chose me.

As for many people of my generation, I have spent the first years of ‘adult life’ living in a series of temporary ‘places of residence’ I more or less reluctantly call home. It is the compulsory nomadic lifestyle which comes with studying abroad. It’s also a blessing. It allows you to ‘test drive’ all sorts of situations. You learn what it’s like to live in a drunken social ecosystem with hundreds of other irresponsible human beings– otherwise known as halls of residence. You discover the utter bliss of renting a house with friends, along with the absolute patience you must employ to tolerate each other’s quirks. You experience the absolute pride and thrill of living on your own – but also the utter solitude and helplessness when things go awry.

I have come to crave stability these past few years though. The places I lived in could never be real homes because I knew I had to vacate them in less than a year. Any furniture or decoration I bought would have to be sold a few months later. My last year in Sweden, I did not even bother buying a bed because I kept thinking I would be gone a few months later. I ended up sleeping on a mattress on the floor for a year. I have also always had an exit date for every country I have lived in. By contrast, today, I have my own apartment in a country I see a future in. I can therefore spend whole Saturdays at IKEA or at home-decorating shops. This lulls me into an illusion of being firmly planted in adulthood and stability. Even if it is not completely real, it is a good place to be in.

Of course there have been some hiccups. A month ago, I was woken up at 4 am by the rhythmic sound of drops splattering upon my carpeted floor. As I crawled to the ground and felt the newly wet stain upon the carpet, my first though was ‘Is this blood?’ – as if somehow my upstairs neighbour being murdered was a more likely situation than a pipe burst. In these moments you realize how much the entertainment industry is messing with your brain. It was actually coming from a large water stain expanding at an alarming speed on my ceiling. Large drops were seeping through the cracked cement. It took hours, half a day off work and the begrudging help of my pants-less concierge to reach my 80 year old neighbour who was peacefully sleeping 3 hours away from Paris. The ugly off-white and yellow water stain still taunts me as it snakes across half my ceiling.


The ultimate perk that comes with living in so many different places as a young, impoverished student, whose tolerance for questionable safety, health and hygiene standards is forcibly and scarily high, is that these experiences help you develop a sense of perspective. So when my absent neighbour flooded my ceiling at 4 am in the morning and all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and cry, I reminded myself ‘I lived in a mouldy cabin for a year and I survived it’. Suddenly, none of it seemed that overwhelming anymore.  

My first year in Sweden, I made the mistake of refusing a place in student accommodation and moving into a ‘cabin’ instead. When I mention cabin, people always think of a cute wooden cabin in the woods, with a warm fireplace, and a chainsaw-wielding maniac at the window. My cabin had more of a suburban quality, fitting the minimalist IKEA mould. It was a rectangular container made up of plastic materials. It held an uncanny resemblance to the office space of construction workers or a trailer without wheels. The cabin stood on an abandoned piece of highway, surrounded by 300 or so similar buildings. This ‘cabin empire’, or ‘trailer park’, was owned by a white-bearded leather-clad sketchy Swedish man sporting small tinted glasses. When I first met him, he boasted about his Parisian apartment with its stunning view whilst he watched me sign his overpriced lease for what barely constituted a liveable place. I wonder what became of him – like is he rotting in jail maybe?

This is what you’re imagining my cabin looks like
This is what my cabin actually looks like

I was pretty excited about living in the cabin though. It was my very first own little house. Unfortunately, it created so many ridiculous, nightmarish and headache-inducing situations. There were those weeks in spring where I slept on the floor because the dampness and mould on the wall against which my bed lay would send me into insomnia-inducing coughing fits. Then there was that month in December when the hot water just ghosted me. I literally would give myself a 20 minute pep-talk before hopping into the freezing cold shower every morning. Did I also mention the huge rats that lived under the foundations? My favourite ‘cabin story’ was the day I was woken up at 8 am by loud knocks on the door. I made the mistake of ignoring these. Immediately after, two workmen proceeded to unlock my door and enter the front hall. My bedroom and myself were in full view. I grasped at my sheets to hide the shirt and underwear combo I slept in while trying to decipher their Swedish. Could this situation get any more ridiculous? It did. The workmen proceeded to leave with my front door without even giving me a chance to say goodbye. They came back with a new door FOUR HOURS LATER. No explanation for the swap was ever provided.

​Of all the temporary ‘places of residence’ I have lived in, the cabin was definitely the most unusual and unsafe. Nevertheless, it gave me the opportunity to prove to myself that I could live on my own and face countless situations without breaking down or giving up. It’s a badge of honour for me to have stayed there for so long. It has provided me with an endless repertoire of entertaining dinner-party stories too. Whilst now, at 26, you could not pay me to share a living space with hundreds of other people, live in a mould-infested cabin, or even sleep on a mattress on the floor, I don’t regret any of those experiences. They taught me to be independent, resourceful and flexible; and to see major ceiling leaks as minor inconveniences rather than insurmountable obstacles.

 

Of burgers and baguettes: the bicultural struggle 

A few weeks back, I discovered that I live about ten minutes away from the Statue of Liberty – which is always a surprise when you actually reside thousands of kilometers away from Staten Island. Of course she is more petite than her American counterpart and the only ‘poor and tired’ she welcomes are spendthrift tourists cruising atop one the city’s many tour boats.

As I took an Instagram-perfect picture of her, the Eiffel Tower jealously standing to my left, I started reflecting upon my bicultural identity. To everyone else it seems like the gift that never stops giving. Nevertheless, to me, it’s a blessing and a curse. I am well aware of how lucky I am, belonging to two wealthy democratic and peaceful countries, with the added perk of one being led by a young and handsome monsieur (hint: his name sounds like a dessert, not an instrument). Despite this, I am still going to write this ‘first world problem’ blog post. I hope that it can still somehow resonate with you.


Here is the bicultural conundrum: you grow up thinking you belong to two different countries, whereas you repeatedly get told you belong to neither. That’s tough for a young person to hear. Unlike Groucho Marx, we are always desperately eager to belong to any club who will accept us. Of course once we are in, we do everything to maintain its exclusivity, as though accepting the very next person will cheapen the membership. If you grow up in France, half-American, which identity do you think people latch onto? The one that confirms your place in the nation, or the one that makes you different? I sounded the same. I looked the same. But I was that girl who celebrated Halloween, who ate burgers and pizzas rather than ratatouille and omelets and who had a mom with a thick accent. I was different. Today I am that girl with a supposed slight American tinge in her accent when she speaks French. I am the girl, who after eight years abroad, makes silly grammatical mistakes. I am the girl who cannot stand smelly cheese. I am still different. 

Growing up, I was denied membership in the French club. Thus, I rejected the identity altogether. I would watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart every single day. I had little time or patience for what was happening in France. At age 10, I decided to only ever read in English. While growing up, I would go through my mom’s old CD collection, featuring Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan or Jewel, but would ardently reject my dad’s music. Honestly, I blame French music for that – with their old men singing about looking under girl’s skirts or indulging in ‘deep sighs’ with their female counterpart. I identified more with my American family. It didn’t help that my French uncle once sent us an anti-capitalist Christmas card in the mail. I grew up with FRIENDS, That 70s Show and Gilmore Girls and dreamed of twinkies and pop-tarts in the land of croissants. My ultimate goal was to go to Harvard, finally relocating to my true home. 

I didn’t go to Harvard. Shocker! Instead I went to the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Guess what happened? I got rejected by my second home. The student body at the university is about 1/3rd Americans. Those were the first to let me know I had a supposed French accent when speaking English. I was undisputably French to them in behavior and speech. It was the same with my relatives. We are forever the ‘frenchies’ of the family. To some extent, these authentic Americans are justified. I had never lived in the United States. Yet, after all those years of taking refuge in my second nationality, it truly stung. I had been rejected on both sides because I did not 100% belong to either. It is surprising how much competition there is when it comes to national identity. Everyone must ‘out-French’ or ‘out-American’ the other. With our nationalities somehow cancelling each other out, us multicurals are always the first to lose in that ego battle.  

Now settle down, I know there are great advantages to being bi-cultural. My favorite is selective identification. I identify with whatever country feels the more advantageous in that moment. The most practical example is passport lines. The CIA will be tracking me down soon because I always enter the US with my American passport but I come back without fail using my French passport. Nothing makes you more patriotic than a shorter security line! I always identify as French to strangers because I love their confused gaze as they try to comprehend how a French person can…well…speak English. One day I got played at my own game by a Norwegian guy. In a very un-Scandinavian-like moment, he approached me in a supermarket and started playing a guessing game as to my nationality. The first guess is always the same: American. His second guess though: French! I asked him how he knew, preparing for an infuriating remark such as “you sound French”. Instead, he offered me the ridiculous and, therefore, perfect answer “Because you look like the kind of girl that enjoys her red wine”. I should have married that guy. 

Random chat up stories aside, the true gift of being bi-cultural is having double the material from which to confection your personality. I am loud, friendly and talkative like an American but sarcastic, self-conscious and introspective like a French person. Growing up with different cultures means you will never truly fully belong to any country. Growing up with different cultures means learning to accept that and learning to see your identity as a never-ending patchwork, adding on bits of material here and there to ultimately improve upon the original work. It is realizing that by accepting full membership to one, you may ultimately be closing the door to so many other enriching and fulfilling clubs. Being a forever tourist has its curses but you should make the most of its blessings. 

 

 

 

The Art of ‘Real-Life’ Friend Requests 

When you move to a new country, or a new ‘old country’ – it can be tough making new friends- especially if you are not studying or living in halls of residence. It seems friends are hard to come by in the real world. When you live in an actual apartment, you can’t just go knocking on your neighbour’s door, asking them if they want to join you for some beer pong. You cannot assume your work colleagues will be downing shots with you on a Friday night. So how does one meet new people in a foreign city? When it comes to dating, people no longer go for the ‘high school sweetheart’ or ‘guy next door’. They have moved on to apps. Does the same happen with friendships? Is there an app to help you track down your platonic soulmate? Would this app resemble Tinder – where you meet up with a person for a one-time friendship over beer? Or would it be more like match.com; it helps you find that girl who will become your future bridesmaid? There are actually so many apps out there. It’s kind of too bad actually because I really wanted to be the first to come up with that idea. I would have gotten some techy collaborators-turned-friends to help me develop the app. Then, I would have charmed Bill into investing a few of his millions into it. A few years down the line, I would’ve sold it to Mark for billions of dollars. Then I could have just bougt a few friends to hang out on my yacht with me. Problem solved.

​So what kind of apps are out there you ask? There are dozens, each with its own slight variation. For example, Topi connects you professionally; Skout connects you with people all around the world, and PeopleHunt – which sounds like the pastime of a psychopathic billionaire on his private island – promotes spontaneous get togethers. There’s also Meetup. This app introduces you to various groups throughout the city organized around common interests. There are parties, book clubs, hikes and discussion groups you can attend. It’s a great idea if you are an extravert. However, If you are an anxiety-prone introvert who would equate finding herself in a room full of strangers comparable to attending an oral exam where the examiners assess you on social behaviour, it’s far from ideal. I have downloaded Meetup and kept it for braver days. I also downloaded Bumble. It’s a dating app, but you can add a BFF filter. This signals to the rest of the Bumblesphere that you are looking for a sister, not a mister (clearly, they should hire me on their PR team;-)). I tried it and it felt so strange – because it is literally platonic Tinder. You see the girls’ photos and brief information. Then you swipe left or right. It just felt a bit WRONG. I am judging people on the way they look, their age and their profession. The irony is that my criteria are probably the opposite of a guy’s on Tinder. If you are making a duck face or have layers of makeup. Left! (This is rejecting by the way). If you are posing in your bathing suit in half the photos, and fur in the rest. Left! Fake tan? Left! The space is dominated by expats – which might just be ideal thing for me. We will see how Tinderish friendship works and if it helps me build a girl squad à la Taylor Swift.

​I am complaining a lot but I am actually pretty lucky. First of all, I happen to be friends with this wonderful Parisian threesome who keep me entertained and fed on many evenings. I also get to work in a company where the average age is 27 years old. As if this wasn’t enough, most of the girls in my office (because my office is 90% girls, I kid you not) grew up with dual cultures. I sit next to a French-American girl and across from a French-German girl. Nearby, there’s a Spanish, a Portuguese and two Italian girls. The cultural composition is literally identical to that of the lab I left two months ago! It’s like I never left …Sweden! I am so grateful that, no matter where I go, I always end up with the most international group imaginable. The banterous lunches are the highlight of my day. Unfortunately for me, many of them have studied and lived in Paris for a few years. They have their social lives all set up. So they are pretty happy with just seeing your face during business hours. It is a bit like when I started at Karolinska Institute in Sweden. All us international students in the class always did everything together. We travelled, we partied, we cooked, we suffered food comas, we hiked, we played Cards Against Humanity, we studied, we saunaed, we threw colour at each other and of course we fikaed together. All the time. We developed a strong bond because we came to rely on each other. The Swedes had their lives in Stockholm. They had their family and friends so I mostly only saw them during class. I find myself in the same situation now, minus my fellow expat crew – whom I miss dearly. I especially miss our heated shouting matches over random games of charades. Such commitment to the art of miming is hard to come by nowadays. But I am hopeful I will find this again – may it be amongst my colleagues, my bumblebees, the person from zumba class, my Uber driver or the friend of a friend of a friend of the cousin of a friend.

 On a completely different topic: Here’s a pic of the ‘Arènes de Lutèce’. These arenas were built in the 1st century AD and could seat 15000 gladiators. Those dark square entrances you see built into the walls – that’s where they kept the wild beasts that would fight gladiators to the death. Now, people more or less peacefully play pétanque and Mölkky (I saw it with my own eyes) there.