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Archive for the ‘Experiences’ Category

We recently spent three days in Amsterdam, the best family time we’ve had in months. The last time I visited there was just for a few hours after a work meeting, on a frigid drizzly January afternoon. Even then I enjoyed walking along the canals, soaking up the history and architecture.

This time we were blessed with fantastic Autumnal weather and a terrific Airbnb apartment within walking distance of everything we wanted to see, and we absolutely loved our time there. Perhaps the highlight was our open boat tour of the central canal network, starting in perhaps one of the busier spots opposite the Rijksmuseum, where cars and bikes and pedestrians come together just like in any major city centre.

But within minutes, the boat had slipped down a canal-alley onto a parallel channel. We were 200m away and 80db quieter. We could have been in the countryside, it was that quiet. And with only 9 of us in the boat, our pilot and guide gave us a fantastic tour, complete with history, architecture, politics and social niceties of this most un-city-like city. We loved noticing all the ‘wonky’ houses, assessing the different styles of rooftop, revelling in the effortless beauty of the place.

Amsterdam Canals Bridges

Amsterdam Architecture

Compact & Bijou? Skinny House.

Amsterdam Architecture

Not quite straight?

 

Bike Bingo

And then there are the cyclists. Bikes and their riders are everywhere. I Reckon about the same amount of space is dedicated to cycle paths as to car/bus lanes as tram lines as pedestrian pavements. It’s very equitable, and this can make for some difficulty crossing the road, as there are so many different things to be looking out for!

Most importantly, however, is the atmosphere around the cyclists in Amsterdam. When I was thinking about this post I was going to consider a series of cultural comparisons on why cycling in this Dutch city looks and feels so different to cycling in Bristol (where I have commuted) and London (where I’ve observed commuters). But that just seems fraught with potential for people to take offence, so I’ll reserve my comments to observations rather than judgements.

In three days in Amsterdam, I noticed

  • traffic signals seem far more geared to the needs and priorities of cyclists and pedestrians than cars: we hardly ever had to wait more than 20 seconds to cross
  • more male cyclists in suits and female cyclists in (proper) high heels than wearing lycra
  • most bikes in Amsterdam rattle, have baskets or panniers, and look like something from a different age
  • very few have racing/drop handlebars
  • hardly any cyclists seeming to ‘race’; very little overtaking or jockeying for position
  • many cyclists wear headphones, many ride along using their phone in one hand
  • parents doing the school run with huge child carriers on the front, or remarkably young kids sitting behind the saddle, or toddlers in special seats mounted on the handlebars
  • people carrying huge bouquets of flowers, or large paintings, or guitars, or briefcases
  • almost no-one wore a helmet or high-vis jacket. Quite a few cyclists at night didn’t use lights

We loved playing ‘bike bingo’ scoring points for spotting different behaviours from that list above. Through the three days we were there, no-one looked stressed: there was no fuss, no fear. I didn’t see a single incident or anyone raising their voice to anyone else, even at rush hour. If we strayed onto the cycle path (this happened quite a bit on the first day) noone yelled, they just rang their bell (everyone has a bell) and we moved quickly away. I’m not saying I agree with all of this (especially those not using  lights at night), but it felt very different from cycling in Bristol, and almost entirely in a good way.

Our younger daughter Eleanor described Amsterdam as a city for people who don’t like cities. Perhaps that’s why it’s one of my favourite places.

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The response to my last post was at once astonishing, heartwarming and more than a little worrying. So many kind words, so much unconditional support, not even a hint of the hard time I was giving myself, that I feared might come my way. And so many people who have clearly experienced similar feelings and issues themselves.

THANK YOU to everyone who has sent kind words and thoughts, recommended reading, shared experiences, or contacted me to ask how I am and if you can help. It’s been humbling and uplifting.

More than 3 weeks on, and I’ve been riding the clichéd emotional rollercoaster. In the immediate aftermath of my diagnosis, I felt a wave of relief, of validation. It was official: I had permission to feel shit.

Too good to be true?

Then for a few days in that week I felt really good. I went cycling with friends, twice. I did yoga and played my French Horn every day, went for Autumn walks, talked with friends. But then I felt like a fraud, because I felt good. How can I be off work when I feel this good? How can I have depression? The tablets don’t kick in for a few weeks, apparently, so am I making it up?

But then we went for dinner with friends on Saturday, and I didn’t enjoy it. The food and company were great, but by the end of the evening I wanted to run away. A recurring symptom of my particular depression is an anxiety about being around people, even good friends. I want to curl up on my own at home, where it’s safe and I don’t feel like I have to justify myself. I’ve found it hard to explain exactly what I’m feeling, what I’m anxious about, which again makes me feel other people will dismiss it. I’m desperately sure that I’m bound to disappoint people, either for being depressed, or by not being depressed enough, or in the right way.

Don’t ask me…

The next week was a blur and chaotic. For more than 2 days we had British Gas men in the house ripping out the decades-old boiler and installing a new one, and our daughters were both on 1/2 term, meaning I didn’t have anything like as much time to myself all week. And what was hard was anything where I had to make a choice, or a decision, let alone anything more distant than something like What’s for lunch?  More complex projections were nearly impossible: What do you want for Christmas? What time do we need to leave on Monday? Which fabric do you like for the new chair cover?

Ups and Downs

Week 3 was mostly fantastic – a long-awaited trip to Amsterdam was our best family time in more than a year, despite the long and occasionally fraught travelling. We loved the city and had an amazing time, walking miles every day, revelling in art and architecture, bitterballen and stroopwaffels.

Last weekend we visited Rachel’s mum in her care home; the first time I or our daughters had seen her in a few months. She’s very frail and her mobility is really poor. Normally I’ve been able to almost dissociate myself from the emotions of this, helping her calmly in and out of the wheelchair or car, keeping conversations going. But this time I just couldn’t. I had flashbacks to Dad’s last weeks, worries of my own illness, almost overwhelming, and this lasted almost right through Sunday at home.

On Monday I started back at work, doing 1/2 days. Everyone has been terrific, and for a while it was great to be taking a step back towards normal. But every morning I’ve felt a pang of being clearly not normal. I’ve been (rightly) kept away from the day-to-day complexity of my normal clients: if I find it hard to think about lunch, their needs would not sit well with me…

While I exchanged banter with colleagues I worried again they would think me a fraud (he seems fine). At the same time I was anxious about completing even a relatively simple task, to the extent that when I got positive feedback I almost wept with relief. I’ve been anxious about going to make tea in case someone innocently or kindly asks “how are you?”… my worries being around people are still real. I want to explain myself, but (as this rambling proves) nothing’s clear-cut or straightforward.

Yesterday I got home feeling wiped out, exhausted, jittery. I had a nap and woke up with a fear that felt like it might paralyse me: I simply couldn’t haul myself out of bed. Today I’ve not been at work and have had a day more like that first week; yoga, the gym, time to myself. Again the lifting of any serious responsibility or decision-making is a significant thing. Even the smallest issue where someone else might judge me or have their own opinion is a challenge at the moment. I find it hard to think clearly, and just want to retreat into watching a film, where I can lose myself and shut out the world.

A first step?

But that’s no long-term solution, so I’ve booked a first session with a new counselling service next week. I honestly can’t easily rationalise what’s behind my symptoms; there’s so many potential factors, from work to family, my own health, my Dad’s death, Rachel’s mum… so hopefully they might nudge me into some clarity. And maybe my serotonin levels will start to rebalance soon. Fingers crossed.

 

 

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When I first started writing What I Reckon, I didn’t want it to be a grown-up version of a teenage diary. You see, I’ve written one of those before, and it lasted into my 20s. In recent years my time has been more pressured and my posts less frequent but more reflective of challenging circumstances: the bleeding-heart liberal remembering that not everyone is like him, that he, his friends and his parents are decidedly mortal, that shit happens.

And yet I’m writing now because I’m not just angsty, or Moody, or ranty.

I’m depressed.

I have a doctor’s note and a prescription and everything. I was diagnosed yesterday by my GP with the use of a simple self-assessment questionnaire.

PHQ9 self-assessment mood depression questionnaire

Answers on the right-hand side of the grid probably mean you should talk to someone…

7 out of 9 of my responses were in the shaded boxes. 3 were in ‘nearly every day’. In case you’re interested, my scores were 2,2,3,2,2,3,3,1,0.

 

A heart that’s full up like a landfill…

Unlike a pulled muscle, I can’t pinpoint which straw broke the camel’s back. When did I tip from tired into empty, from merely stressed into actually depressed? Perhaps like the frog in a pan of water, it crept up on me. But this has been coming: an ex-boss described 2015 as my annus horribilis but, to be honest, 2016 and 2017 haven’t been a walk in the park. I know my Dad’s passing is a significant part of this, but it’s definitely not the whole story.

 

…but now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured…

The net result of this has been a huge slump in confidence. I don’t think I’m very good; at my job, at being a Dad, or a Husband or a Son or a Brother.  I’m afraid that I’ll make mistakes, or just not help. I’ve wanted to avoid people, because I don’t want to have to tell the truth when they ask “how’s things?”. I avoided cycling on several occasions precisely because I thought I’d be ‘worse’ than I was in the Spring, and look! I was right!

And I’ve wondered if I’ll ever be good again.

And this feeling comes and goes. Last Thursday it swept over me in a wave just by getting Help! coming over on bloody Spotify shuffle while I was walking to work, and left me struggling all day. It was triggered a couple of weekends ago by seeing my Dad’s greenhouse and veg beds empty and bare, when at this time of year they should be groaning with produce. I get a kick whenever I say “Mum and Dad’s house” like I have done for decades and then realise it’s not, not any more.

 

I’m surprised you’ve been doing so well for so long…

Several people have said this in the last couple of weeks, and I want to believe them. Part of the problem at the moment is that I know what people say makes sense, I think it’s true, but I don’t get the emotional kick that tells me I believe it. It’s as though they’re speaking about someone else. I’m pleased that ‘Chris’ (if that’s who you’re referring to) is good at his job, or is a good son helping his Mum, but that’s not how I feel.

 

It will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not the end…

My colleagues have been fantastic, despite my ongoing fear that I might now be tainted goods, fragile, vulnerable. It was my boss who reminded me of our company’s policy with Lifeworks. A short confidential call with them put me in touch with a counsellor who, last Friday evening, suggested I should speak to a GP. So now I’m signed off work for a fortnight, with a week’s holiday to follow.

I’m hoping to make this time as positive and proactive as I can: exercise, fresh air, time doing nothing. I’m taking medication to help rebalance my chemicals and boost serotonin. I’m expecting to be taking these for at least a few months.

#WorldMentalHealthDay

When I started writing this post, I was hesitant: why write this at all? But then I learned that today, 10th October, is World Mental Health Day, and reminded myself that talking is important. So I’m going to hashtag the sh*t out of this.

It is ok not to be ok.

This is far more common than we think. My elder child has had mental health issues, some (but by no means all) linked to having Aspergers-Autism: these have included self-harm. My wife had post-natal depression that rendered her convinced she was a terrible mother and afraid to leave the house.

Please be kind to yourself and each other.

 

 

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I had hoped that I might be brave enough to speak about this or the previous post at my Dad’s funeral (held yesterday, 29th August), but in the end I wasn’t.

At St Mary’s Primary School in Tetbury they like to celebrate when children demonstrate the qualities for which they would like the school to be known,

  • Caring
  • Curious
  • Courageous

And over the last few days, as I’ve wondered what to say (if anything) at Dad’s funeral, I thought how these three values represent the best of him, and indeed of all of us.

If I’m honest, the first two of these are easy to talk about.

Dad spent a good deal of his ‘spare’ time getting involved, volunteering and organising events to raise money for deserving causes,, especially through the Lions Club, but also through the annual Stratton Show, volunteering at Cirencester Hospital, and others. In his later years he was also active in U3A, giving talks and sharing his passion for classical music with others. Virtually 100 people came to our memorial gathering yesterday afternoon, from so many different groups, and they were unanimous in their comments…

he was a Minister without Portfolio in our committee, because whenever you needed something doing, he would volunteer…

he didn’t do all these things seeking the limelight…

…you didn’t have to ask him twice… 

I’d always been aware of how much Dad did, both before and during his retirement. But yesterday I got an inkling of how many people his efforts touched, and it made me (even more) proud.

Dad loved learning. I think he prized knowledge for its own sake, and he loved exploring the world in every sense, physically travelling across most continents as well as intellectually – he was often a walking encyclopedia, a search engine before search engines existed. Moreover, he encouraged Mike and I to be curious, in our own studies and travels. Despite being a PhD Chemist himself, he was never anything but supportive as Mike pursued his studies in medieval history and I delved into the murky world of political theories (we’ve subsequently pursued careers in software development and marketing…!)

I spent the best part of two years abroad with a Gap Year in the US and a year studying in France. Mike travelled after university; across Europe, Venezuela, Africa and New Zealand. I skied, Mike discovered diving. Mum & Dad often joked about ‘spending your inheritance’ as they travelled the globe in their retirement, visiting China, New Zealand, The Far & Middle East, Russia…

But when I thought about courageous, I had to pause. I’d never thought of him as a stereotypical hero or a leader. He was self-effacing, not a show-off. He didn’t do a heroic job, saving lives or changing the world. But now I can appreciate his own brand of courage all the more.

Throughout his life he used his curiosity and caring to make a difference for others, on whatever level he could, but not for his own sake or pride; organising community events, researching and giving talks to inspire others about music, giving people lifts to Church.

But on a more personal level, my Dad, like Rachel’s Dad, was a miracle of modern medicine. He fell through a plate-glass door in Czechoslovakia in 1968, cutting his throat and losing far more blood than is good for anyone, especially when the Red Army was on the verge of invasion.
He had heart surgery in the late 1980s and a pacemaker fitted a couple of years ago. Significant and debilitating bladder problems for several years then turned out to be cancer. He had his bladder removed in early 2015, and enjoyed a few months of remission in between rounds of chemotherapy.

Through everything he continued to be positive, cheerful, musical, curious, charming – and all the adjectives his friends used to describe him in their cards of consolation. The consensus that rippled through the room yesterday was of a ‘gentleman’, on every level.

Only when the cancer came back in the lymph nodes and pelvis and spread into his spine did his joie de vivre diminish. Only then did we start to notice that he was no longer doing all the things he had done for years, that he had done seemingly forever.

Only when we took him out to celebrate his 79th birthday at the end of last month did I fully understand the extent to which he had been truly courageous. When the nurse instructed me how much morphine he was ‘allowed’, I realised this dose was more than 4 times he had been living on for the past few months. He’d been ‘grinning and bearing it’, ‘not making a fuss’ for so many days, weeks, months.

So just as Dad was openly and always curious, he was quietly caring, and especially brave. While I shall mourn his passing now and every day forward, I am relieved he no longer has to be so brave.

I will strive to live the best life I can in the same positive, charming and cheerful spirit he did. I hope I can be a gentleman like him.

He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much:
who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
who has filled the niche and accomplished his task;
who has left the world better than he found it;
whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul;
who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it;
who has always looked for the best in others and given the best he had.
Whose life was an inspiration;
whose memory a benediction.
Bessie Stanley – ‘What is success?’

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R.I.P. Anthony (Tony) Moody – 29/07/1938 – 14/08/2017

The Mr Moodys

 

Of all the kind messages I’ve received since my Dad passed away last week, one text from a friend has enveloped me ever since; sometimes in grief, but also in happiness.

…things may feel tougher and sadder, but remember you are made from him and will hold him with you for ever

It has struck me in these last few days how much I’ve reflected on his life and qualities only after his passing. Of course I wish now that I’d done it more, and sooner, and told him. I suppose I did now and then, and I hope he saw it for himself.

But it’s true that I am made from him, and these are just a few of the ways…

Sand Castles
Building sand castles, and indeed the moats, tunnels and trenches that go with them, is both an art and a science. It requires an understanding of the properties of wet sand, a creative flair to adorn your castle with shells, seaweed, pebbles and rocks. And it requires timing.

According to Dad, sand castles should always be built knowing they will be destroyed by the incoming tide. In fact, you should make every effort to ensure you are present to see this destruction. It’s about learning about loss, or something.

Swimming in the Sea
I was a nervous childhood swimmer, having dreadfully short sight. But I inherited my myopia from Dad, and he was a bold, committed swimmer, seemingly even more so in open water. He’d plunge through the waves and swim straight out to sea, sometimes stopping quite a long way out, before turning and swimming up and down, parallel to the shore. He swam several times a week right up to having his bladder removed a couple of years ago, and even occasionally afterwards.

Earlier this month we had a week’s break in Devon with friends, where we went bodyboarding at the fabulous Sandymouth Beach. I knew he was declining, and all the time I was amongst the waves I was thinking of him and how he would have loved it, and how he had helped me to feel confident there as a child.

“Ooh look! There’s [insert ANY sport] on…”
Dad was a keen rugby player in his younger days and all-round sports fan. He was pleased that rugby seemed to be my best sport at school, but more, I remember enjoying watching sports with him.

Rugby (the 5 Nations) was his favourite, and the 1980 England Grand Slam (capt: Bill Beaumont) a highlight, but we weren’t fussy. Snooker became a fixture of the TV schedules in the 1980s, and it rewards the long-term investment a best-of-35-frames final requires across a whole weekend. Similarly, test cricket unfolds over days, or even weeks in a 5-match series: we watched Botham’s Ashes explode in real-time. We revelled in track & field, we loved the great commentators. Sunday teatime was Ski Sunday and its iconic theme tune, and then there was the Tour de France, which combined his passions for long-form sport and the natural beauty of France…

Exploring the World
I’m not sure that Dad was a fan of going somewhere twice. During my childhood we visited Eurocamp sites in virtually every corner of France from Brittany to Biarritz to Briançon, as well as The Black Forest, the Italian Lakes and Tuscany. He drove us all over the place, including an American road-trip from San Francisco through Yosemite, Death Valley and the Grand Canyon, coming back to Los Angeles. I loved it. All the while he was a walking travel guide, talking history, geography, geology, everything.

Curiosity
Dad was a PhD Chemist (polymers, I think), but wore his intellect lightly. He read widely and absorbed facts and information like a sponge. There seemed no limit to his ability to relate one thing to almost any other thing. He sought out knowledge for its own sake, he was interested in learning, all the time.

A Wicked Thing (6)
Related to this, he loved puzzles and quizzes, especially cryptic crosswords. I swear he spent more time with the newspaper (remember them, kids?!) folded to the crossword page, and he carefully explained clue definitions and the wordplay, clues within clues and so on.

Make a difference
Dad got involved. He took part and got off his backside to do something; voluntary work, teaching, participation in community groups, organising events. None of this was to further his own position or recognition, but simply to make sure things happened, to make sure other people could enjoy the event, or benefit from the fundraising. He didn’t set out to change the world, but he did make it better.

A word in your ear, from Father to Son…
I’ve written before about my love of Queen, and it was Dad who got me started. From there I moved into ELO, Rock (both Heavy and Prog), as well as exploring his greater love of orchestral music. He encouraged me to take up the French Horn and hardly missed a concert I’ve played in over more than 20 years.

Father to Son is a Queen song from their 2nd album. I always loved it for its blinding guitar work by Brian May, but also for its message.

A word in your ear, from father to son: hear the word that I say.
I fought with you, fought on your side long before you were born…

…Take this letter that I give you. Take it sonny, hold it high.
You won’t understand a word that’s in it but you’ll write it all again before you die.

A word in your ear, from father to son: funny, you don’t hear a single word I say,
But my letter to you will stay by your side through the years till the loneliness is gone.
Sing if you will – but the air you breathe I live to give you.

I am proud to be made from my Dad, and I hope to keep writing the letter he gave me.

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Sticks and stones I can cope with, but the past couple of years has thrown up an almost relentless series of words and sentences that I’d never heard before.

Individually they’re unpleasant.

Cumulatively they’ve been as draining as anything I can remember, and their impact has been much deeper and persistent than any bruise or broken bone.

 

Aggressive T2 tumour in the bladder… radical cystectomy…

We think you should involve the police… “I just want it to stop“… 

Congestive heart failure… passed away peacefully on 14th September

masses in the lymph nodes and pelvis… chemotherapy… inoperable… balancing quality vs quantity of life…

the diagnosis of Dementia is confirmed – Alzheimer’s/Vascular mix… unable to live independently at home… had another fall last night…

Anxiety attacks… learning support… there was an incident… not engaging in class… found crying in the toilets… didn’t turn up…

Significant degradation in the visual fields tests… low-pressure glaucoma… repeat these tests every 6 months… if it affects the other eye you will have to inform the DVLA…

‘Concrete thinking’… sensory overload… problems with language processing… gender dysphoria… meltdowns… 

…confirm the diagnosis of Autism – Asperger’s Type… Cognitive Behavioural Therapy… 

 

I know that everyone goes through this sort of stuff. I know that many, many people have it much worse.

I know I am blessed with loved ones, family and friends.

I know I have much to look forward to, much to be thankful for.

I know that diagnosis is a starting point, an opportunity to shape a new normal.

But right now I’d take a beating to not have heard some of these words, or to not hear them again.

 

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Theresa May is the British Prime Minister. She was appointed 6 months ago after becoming leader of the Conservative Party by the votes of just 199 MPs. Barely 6 weeks before that she had unsuccessfully campaigned for her country to Remain in the European Union. In October 2016 she spoke at the Conservative Party Conference and proclaimed

…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

I could launch into dictionary definitions and how her blinkered ‘vision’ is inadequate for the complexity and interdependence of the world in 1917, let alone 2017…

…but instead, here are three reasons why I believe in my heart and soul that she is wrong and why, despite all the Brexit sound and ‘America First’ fury raging against me, I’m proud to think of myself as a citizen of the world and a citizen of my country. Indeed, I can only think of myself in that way.

Eurocamp

For virtually all of my childhood that I can remember, I enjoyed family holidays in France, Germany and Italy, usually staying in Eurocamp tents on sites from Brittany to Tuscany, from The Dordogne to the Black Forest. I learned how to ask for baguettes and croissants, understand different road-signs, convert kilometres to miles. I discovered the joy of Orangina in funny-shaped bottles. Europe wasn’t something to be feared or resented, it was full of people quite a lot like us, with fabulous countryside and terrific summer weather. I’ve tried to pass on these attitudes to my children.

orangina

Put the Zep on…that snowpile is dead.

Between school and university, I went to the US for 6 months on an English-Speaking Union exchange to a High School in Princeton, and this boy from the Cotswolds discovered the world…

I found I could escape my (self-imposed) teenage persona of clever but never ‘cool’, often painfully awkward. On the very first morning, I was invited to skip class by other guys in the Senior Year, and we went out to get ice cream (it was January and about 5 degrees below zero), before one of them drove his car around the icy carpark, spinning and wheeling in all directions, ultimately ploughing into a snowbank. This seemed a long way from Gloucestershire.

I played baritone sax in a jazz band, played alto sax in a student rock band, started to write a screenplay, skied in Colorado. I travelled alone from New York to Seattle and San Francisco and back again. I was refused re-entry to the US at Niagara Falls. I gambled in casinos in Reno. I thought I was Don Johnson on top of the World Trade Centre…

world trade center

I grew up and grew out of myself in America. I couldn’t understand it in this way at the time, but travelling and living in another place made me appreciate my home all the more, while respecting and loving the differences.

Erasmus

At the end of my 2nd year at university, I signed up for an ERASMUS exchange to study in France, without consulting anyone, let alone my parents. A real snap decision, it was also a brilliant and far-reaching decision, as I got to go skiing in the French Alps A LOT, enjoyed a long weekend on the Mediterranean coast, and a week travelling into Italy to Genoa and Florence. I met and studied with multi-lingual French, Italian, Dutch, German students.

Most far-reaching of all, it was in Chambéry that I studied marketing & market research for the first time, and discovered more human, real-world ways to apply my thinking beyond the abstract, macro-economic aspects of my degree course.

Even more so, if I’d not studied in France I wouldn’t have been at university in Exeter for a 4th year, and almost certainly wouldn’t have met Rachel.

Erasmus

Erasmus. A scholar and citizen of the world.

I once gave a pecha kucha presentation about key moments in my life. Two of those focused on the experiences I had in Princeton and my decision to study in Chambéry: they have been that fundamental to my life since, the way I see myself and the way I see the world. I Reckon it’s simplistic to say the least, and actually insulting to suggest that people who think beyond their own country misunderstand the concept of citizenship.

So I encourage, implore you, dear readers, to think broadly about how we depend on each other, how we are stronger for being part of things that transcend nation-states. Be citizens of the world. The world needs us.

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