Aunt of Two

Becoming an aunt for the first time both touched my heart and opened up the place where the new family member took up residence. It confirmed and strengthened a large part of my long-standing feelings about family as a whole, as well as giving me a new understanding of myself as an adult.

Like all relationships, being an aunt is a continuing process. I learn, I cry (not with the kid, I hold it in and let loose later), I laugh, I smile before I even know I’m doing so, I visit, I play, I run and I stop to look at flowers in the grass outside. I make up nicknames with lightning speed and my voice changes pitch when I praise.

Conversations with family have expanded to include this experience and I know for sure that they will feel the same way I do when we talk, with our individual perspectives chipping in. I am, in short, invested, and I care. You see your sibling, now a parent, in a new light, and as you observe them with respect and a full heart, you may get a glimpse of what it was like for your parents, now the newly minted grandparents, to care for you and your siblings before your memory began to form.

I have now become an aunt for a second time and as we say in the family, I’m immediately aware. Everything I knew my heart to do before has happened again, and it still feels new, infinite. There is room for everyone.

The most humbling part about this experience is that I keep thinking the children didn’t ask for an aunt who still cries during (well-acted) sad scenes in movies, to name just one example, who is obsessed with using gifs in all forms of chatting and texting, and loves to grab almost any kind of freebies just because they are free (take now, sort later!). In fact, they didn’t know one single thing about me until we met, just as I couldn’t know what they would be like until I saw them. But during that first-time meeting I knew that this was how it was supposed to be, then and there.

Acceptance as an aunt is not to be taken for granted. I feel strongly that everything that makes up my life, especially the parts connected to my ever-developing self-awareness, values, thoughts on what kind of person I want to be and how I treat family and friends – all this, so crucial already, takes on an added, life-affirming importance because of two growing people who will know what I’m up to, since we are included in each other’s lives.

I do want to be an example to myself, and if by doing so I will also contribute in a positive way to someone else watching me (in addition to going to their parents first) from their smaller height as their world gets bigger every day, that will be the best mutual gift that aunthood could give.

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Nice Things People Ask or Say to You When They Find Out You’re Russian

Because they do! And while I have previously truthfully listed the rather typical things they ask (which tickle all my sarcastic scribbling instincts and love of the ridiculous hidden between the lines), I do always veer towards being positive in the end.

So, that conversation happens where you reveal the R word when people ask you where you’re from (sometimes they insistently ask you where you’re from “originally”, because your name sounds different, regardless of how long you’ve been living in your current non-Russian city). And you might hear one of the following:

Wow! That is a big country! (Yes. Depending on my mood, I might respond with, “Indeed, we have a lot of room” or “Go big or go home!”)

I love that stew, what’s it called…borscht! (Actually it’s pronounced borSCH, without a “t”, but I appreciate the effort and I have to restrain myself from asking if you’ve seen Miss Congeniality and if you might remember that scene in the dingy Russian restaurant, with Gracie Hart complimenting the waitress on that very stew…I’m getting carried away.)

What are those pretty Russian wooden dolls called, the ones you can stack up in each other? (Matryoshka. NOT babushka.)

 

Do you know that animated film, Anastasia? (Yes, I do, and I love it, though before you can ask, I’ll say myself that it’s a rather liberal interpretation of the Russian Revolution and the following years!)

I think you’re the first Russian I’ve ever met. (Honoured! Prepare to be amazed…)

 

 

Things People Say to You When You’re Tall

Disclaimer: in this case, by “people” I mean almost strangers, unfamiliar or mildly disliked colleagues, short-term acquaintances, random party or bar/café/ restaurant/ shopping encounters, dreaded guests at family reunions or birthday celebrations and creepy short guys spread out across the world.

Second disclaimer: the creepy short guys are creepy because they are creepy, not because they are short.

They like to Captain Obvious you:

You’re tall!

Wow, you’re tall!

You’re really tall!

But you’re so tall!

You’re a tall woman!

Hello, tall woman, beautiful woman!

Such a big woman!

When you’re wearing heels:

Wow, you’re even taller today!

Something’s different about you…

You’re wearing heels? Why? Aren’t you already tall enough?

I admire your confidence.

Are you worried about being taller than men you meet?

Wow, you sure like shoes, don’t you?

If the conversation turns to dating and love (usually initiated by other people):

You won’t be able to wear heels if you date a shorter guy (cue unsolicited opinion and insulting non-shallow men everywhere).

I guess it’s hard to meet men?

I guess it’s hard to meet men taller than you?

So you want to date a tall guy, right? And he should be taller than you?

But how will he kiss you if you’re taller than him?

I’m sure I’ll find a way…

 

 

 

 

“Why So Sad?”

When I was at university, at any given time some people would ask me why I looked/ was so sad. It would always happen during a moment when I actually was thinking something over or mentally preparing for a challenging class, and felt like an interruption, an intrusion. The time I took to think or even daydream a little, to process something, was precious to me, whether I was among people or on my own. I’m still the same. It’s simply a character feature.

For a while I would answer, “I’m thinking”, “Everything’s fine” or actually engage in explaining I was not, in fact, sad. Though as we know now, thanks to the actively growing discourse around what commenting on or vocally interpreting someone’s facial expression might mean, my actual state was both beside the point and nobody’s business, especially since the people saying these things to me were not ones that knew me well.

The latter is often an important distinction. It was easy, in the accompanying burst of irritation, to think that “so many” people were doing this to me. In fact, it was only a few, and some of them shared common traits – lack of manners usually being the most obvious one. People who know me well, whom I trusted, close family and friends, never said such things to me. What they would say in cases where it was merited would be something like, “Everything alright? You seem preoccupied”, “What happened?”, “Are you OK?” when I myself knew my face was registering something. There is also a sentence in Russian I have always liked. It basically translates as “Don’t be sad”, but it means neither an order or anything close to “Cheer up”. It comes after someone has witnessed whatever it was that caused distress, or heard your story, told of your own volition. It shows support, understanding and a lack of blame. Most importantly, it expresses respect for your feelings.

Telling someone you barely know or even a stranger that they look “sad” is, for me, right up there with telling someone, women in particular, to “smile”, which has become a textbook example when starting discussions about unwanted attention and harassment. This fantastic article on Bustle thoughtfully and in my view, accurately, describes that telling someone to smile is, in fact, harassment in itself. The article was published five years ago, but is still easily transferable to today. I’m reminded of a former male colleague who would send me a message asking whether I was sad right now if I passed by him without stopping for a chat or, God forbid, didn’t smile when saying hello. Similarly to those cases years ago at university, I would at first say I wasn’t sad, maybe adding something unnecessary about having a lot of work. This simply created and prolonged interaction that wasn’t nice, satisfying the vampirism of one person and leaving me feeling unsettled, scrutinized. It took a few months before I saw the pattern and realized this was his way of taunting me because of his own insecurities. Like most people manipulating or being thoughtless even on a small level, the behaviour was always the same. The moment I’d worked this out, it didn’t occupy my thoughts anymore. Luckily the communication stopped without me having to actually do anything.

I’d known for a long time now what was not OK about the experiences described above, even though not every single one was worth additional attention or Googling. But placing it in a concrete context, supported by good articles from credible sources which have had space to multiply in the years the internet has developed so massively, has been helpful and useful for not stewing in it. In the end, the easiest way to confirm that I wasn’t overreacting was to simply flip through the list of people I felt comfortable around in my life. And why did I feel comfortable? None of them did the above, and I would smile in their presence without anyone telling me to.

 

Unwanted Attention Towards Women

A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness.

Gavin de Becker wrote this in his book The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence about America in the 1990s. In fact, the edition I’m quoting from was published in 1997, but so many years later I found myself returning to that quote more than once. It’s still true on various levels, not just those de Becker writes about, though important shifts are happening in terms of how both men and women perceive and conduct communication with each other.

Lots of examples that come to mind in connection with unwanted attention relate to interactions between strangers who will not necessarily get to know each other. I’m guessing they wouldn’t want to, either. Some are easy to shake off or don’t leave an impression at all. Will this ever become a topic that I and other women will have nothing to add to? A topic the women arriving after us will have nothing to say about at all? I don’t think so. It’s human nature. To make it clear at the start, I’m talking about “everyday” occurrences which, small and fleeting though they may seem, are still marked by a dart of upset, tension, feeling uncomfortable afterwards even if you know exactly how to deal with it, and knowing nods from your girlfriends once you share an experience you had.

So what’s the trigger for this post? Nothing major, just being paired up with a classmate who made me uncomfortable during a language class. I had spotted him immediately upon entering the classroom and thought that I didn’t want to work with him, because I probably already knew I would be, since we were the only ones sitting alone. Before I could join my usual teammates, one of them a twinkly-eyed bachelor in his late fifties whose jokes and polite door holding never gave me any twinges, this stout, slightly hulking man of seemingly the same age was sitting down next to me and staring at me while I spoke, turning brick red in the process. We were answering questions for vocabulary training, and mine was what I would pack for a vacation. I paused to remember the words for “different clothes”, and my exercise partner pounced in with a cackle: “A bikini!” I stopped what I was doing, looked him in the eye and said, “That’s not funny.” It worked.

When I told my girlfriends this story, head shaking and supportive sentences followed, as well as the valid observation from one of them that it would have been a totally different situation if I was paired up with a woman who said that, especially a woman my age, and I have to say I felt myself agreeing one hundred percent.

It wasn’t alright because it didn’t feel alright, besides being, in my opinion, a textbook example of Things You Don’t Say to a Woman, Especially One You Don’t Know Well. I’m reminded of a good colleague of mine who mentioned that there was construction going on right next to her house and she had to walk past the site every morning on her way to work. Despite going out early, as is often the case, there was usually someone there, already busy. We were chatting and she frowned suddenly. “There’s this one worker who always says good morning to me, he calls it out even when I’m clearly in a hurry or focused on walking. I never initiate this and it doesn’t feel nice.”

I didn’t have to say anything as we looked at each other, because I knew what she was talking about, and the additional probable components she wasn’t mentioning: knowing that man would notice you even before you walked out your door and not enjoying the thought, seeing him straighten up out of the corner of your eye, pull up his jeans or lean on something, grin or tilt his head, call out the greeting with an air of mutual acknowledgement that was never established, feeling his eyes follow you as you walk along in the summer dress you were looking forward to wearing.

Change individual bits of these stories and they transfer easily to a variety of experiences, and these are the “harmless” examples. I don’t walk around expecting any of this, in whichever version, but I’m prepared for it, and my mind switches to all the self-protection and self-soothing strategies that have been there so long, I can’t even remember when I started being conscious of them. A conversation with my own mother rapidly proves that what I talk about is as familiar to her now as it was when she was my age or even way younger, and since she’s my mother, she can usually guess where I’m going before I get there in my story. My mother gets approached plenty. So does my father, but that’s another blog post.

With the dude from my language class, I remember suddenly feeling extremely irritated and thinking, Why can’t you be an attractive, well-mannered, well-adjusted man paying attention to me instead of this? But the truth is,  a well-adjusted etc. man wouldn’t have acted in a way that made me feel the way described above. Also, I wouldn’t have cared or noticed what he looked like.

Are we too sensitive? No. Are we forgetting all the good guys? No. They are even easier to spot. Are we tense and frightened of any sort of interaction with a man coming our way? No. But it’s in us to be wary if necessary. The perhaps strongest feeling I usually experience if I get unwanted attention is a sort of proprietary anger: why the hell do you think that I would want to hear this, from you? I didn’t ask you to do this or infringe on my time. That’s it.

Writing in a Café: How to Keep Your Space

Nah, not like that. But it’s an option. It might lead to you being banned from your favourite café, though, so use with caution. Or opt for openly and loudly applying hand sanitizer.

Odds are that there will be people in your café who aren’t there to work, meet up with someone they arranged to see or just enjoy their own company. In fact, they might be looking for the company of others, be it just a chat or something more. This is normal coffee shop/ café culture . After all, you’re a social person as well (most of the time, I’m guessing), and you’re perfectly open to meeting new people, networking, possibly forging a neighborhood familiarity or even a new friendship.

I’m not averse to engaging, because that is also another reason you venture out to work away from the comfort of your home. But I came here with a purpose, so how do I keep the space I need for it?

As already hinted, have a pair of headphones handy. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re listening to music. Or maybe you feel fine without them – also great. But as a woman coming in alone somewhere I’m used to being approached or talked to, even if it’s a short exchange, not necessarily an unwanted one too. If I’m settling down to work on a writing or blogging idea I’ve been carrying around for days, teaching it how to walk on its own before I release it into the world, I need to stay focused. I’ve carved out time for this and I want to make the most of it. Plenty of people still have an inner social brake if they see someone with headphones in. And if not, you have the right to look properly annoyed if you get tapped on the shoulder (depending on the situation and who’s tapping, of course) and have to take out the headphones after all.

Wear comfortable clothing (not PJs, although it’s so tempting – I just imagine it sometimes) that you don’t have to think about once you sit down. Nothing that you need to tuck in or adjust periodically, pull at, maybe a favourite scarf in the event of a draft (so distracting and who wants neck pain after), a signature accessory (I’m that writer/ blogger/ creative person/ everybody look at this thing I got on vacation).

Take a book or notebook (don’t forget the pens!) with you to do something else between typing if you need to pause or think something through, so you still make it clear that you’re occupied. Write some to-do-lists, answer your friend’s text, think about what to give your dad for his birthday, get up and ask the barista about that tea you liked so much. Only if you want to, though. Everyone should be able to stop and stare into space if they wish to.

If you get approached or spoken to, I’m sure you’ll be able to play it by ear. If you don’t want to engage in a longer conversation, there are polite ways of ending it (“I really have to get back to work now”, “Well, thanks for the tip (put headphones back in)”, “Have a nice day (put headphones back in)”, just to name a few). Most people will pick up on social cues or just follow plain good manners. And if you want to continue talking, it’ll happen naturally.

This all goes both ways. If I want to approach someone or ask a question beyond whether I can borrow the sugar, I’ll watch them for a little while first (in a non-creepy way is the obligatory addition to this sentence). There are loads of polite openings that will soften the possible blow of essentially intruding on someone’s bubble of time, and hopefully I’m also socially competent enough to recognize when the interaction is over or if it will continue. Obviously there’s always the option of exchanging contact information and picking up where you left off later, when neither person is deep in answering the muse or working towards a deadline.

I just spotted the jovial middle-aged newspaper reader from yesterday, good that I’m already settled and typing. He’s looking around! Headphones? Mais oui, bien sur! Also one of my neighbours who was very happy when I lent him a stepladder once and enthusiastically attempted to engage me in a subsequent conversation about whether I was Turkish (that was a new one, considering all the stuff I’ve already heard), repeating his name two times, sat down at the table next to mine, despite there being other free ones and me silently asking him not to in my head. However, he didn’t seem to recognize me or simply didn’t want to talk – score! His phone and the pinging noises it was making proved to be more absorbing.

An illustration to all of the above. I looked up on reflex at the person settling at the free table next to me and was pleasantly surprised to see it was an author whose (thrilling and wonderfully written) book signing I had been at fairly recently. We smiled and said hello, chatted a little, then I said I’d let her work in peace. I put my headphones back in, she got her drink, sat down, plugged in her own headphones and began to work. That’s how it’s done.

How to Pick a Café for Writing

Just ask yourself the following questions…

Do they offer carrot muffins with carrot cake frosting? If they do, how do you feel about that? If they don’t, do you have a second-choice and third-choice dessert as a back-up plan? Do you even like dessert? Am I asking too many questions when I was planning to ask only one regarding this subject?

Do they have free Wifi?

Is the location nice? Are you looking for something closer to or farther from home?

What impression do the people sitting in there make? When does it fill up? Are there enough tables?

Maybe do a test run without your laptop first. Are the tables a comfortable height for working? Is there a counter with chairs that’s also comfortable? What do the seats feel like? Is there enough distance between tables, or you’re fine either way? Is there enough light? Do people respect each other’s space? Are there other people in there writing, studying, in headphones etc.? Is it noisy? Some noise is to be expected, like chatting, doors opening and closing, the baristas and waiters doing their jobs, people asking questions and placing orders, equipment etc. Can you tune it out, or you don’t mind?

Is the service friendly? If it isn’t, but you still get what you need and it tastes like it should, does it matter? Maybe it polishes your sarcasm skills, which are not entirely impractical when you might have to deal with other people approaching you (the drama), but more on that later.

All the possible questions asked? Time to pack up your stuff and when your friends ask you what you got up to over the weekend, just say nonchalantly, “Oh, you know, I went off to create a masterpiece that will put an end to all the stupidity in the world once people read it.”