The Foundations of Home

IMG_3296I’ve spent my whole life wanting to get away and escaping home. I’d fly to a different country every three weeks to keep my spirit free but the freedom I found solace in was fleeting and incomplete. I’d come home feeling nothing but emptiness and pain. I didn’t belong and I was never really present. I didn’t want to be. All I wanted was to sleep on strangers’ couches and hike the tallest mountains. I didn’t want to stay still because it meant looking within myself and I didn’t feel strong enough to start searching for the truth then. I could only bury every bit of trauma and suffering inside and run. The universe was my home. Living life out of a backpack, I felt secure and fearless. I didn’t have all the answers but it didn’t matter. I only needed to feel alive and let my heart run free. It was the closest thing I had to a home then.

Coming back from Asia, I moved out of my mother’s house and went to live with Kevin and his family. I needed the quietness. It wasn’t home and Kevin and I had only been back together for a few months but they made me feel like I belonged. His mother would make me tea every night and we’d start to engage in deep conversations about life and how we all have the ability to rise again, even from the darkest of days. Her whole life had been shattered when Kevin’s father left them without a sound and she no longer trusted anyone, not even herself. It wasn’t too long after their family collapsed that Kevin fell into depression and broke my heart, too.

It’s quite amusing to have had such genuine trust in her, yet none towards my own future. I’d hold his mother in my arms in the morning when she felt like giving up and I would tell her ‘You can’t give up. You’re allowed to break but you need to remember you’re strong enough‘. And she was. She fought relentlessly to find herself through chaos and take care of her remaining sons. Kevin helped her through everything with such grace and empathy and I could only stand in awe of his becoming. I was still uncertain about us then but he sure scored a few points caring for his mother the way he did.

I’d try to help, too. His mother wouldn’t let me pay rent so I’d go grocery shopping for the four of us. I’d learn to cook, too but I was very well aware of how terrible my cooking skills were. I remember making zucchini noodles with tofu once, and astoundingly it looked as good as it tasted. I was so over the moon to have made something both beautiful and edible but Celine didn’t seem surprised. She simply said ‘Of course you succeeded‘.

I felt capable but mostly, I felt loved. I have never been a very confident person and nobody’s opinion seems to have ever changed to way I see myself. But ever since traveling to Asia and coming back to a quieter house, I started to invest more time in my own growth. By allowing myself to break, I began my healing. I became a little more in touch with myself each day, and it felt refreshingly beautiful. The more I learned about resilience, the saner I grew. Therefore, when Kevin suggested that we should get our own apartment, I finally felt ready. In a matter of weeks, we backpacked around Europe, moved in together and I wrote my thesis about mental health and suicide.

We’d have literally nothing in our flat so we’d sit on the bare floor, me writing as fast as I could on my computer while Kevin read a history book and gave me kisses of encouragement. I flew back to medical school on the opposite side of the country one last time to hand my thesis over and pass final exams. I was a bundle of stress, convinced I was not smart enough and the thesis I had written was way too personal. I never had anyone proofreading it because it meant too much to me to share it with anyone so surely I was petrified to have someone go through every word and even more assign a grade to it.

Mental health is something I’ve always been very passionate about. When I graduated from the Red Cross University, I immediately knew where my heart would head. I started working endless shifts in a mental health hospital and I never grew tired of my job. Advocating mental health, promoting self-love and authenticity. Making it okay to suffer. To break down. I have utter respect for every single patient I have ever cared for because no matter what they went through, they have decided to get help. They have made the decision that their lives matter and that they need to put themselves first, at last. The stigma associated with mental illness is pure madness – no pun intended -. I think it might be the reason why our pain feels so inadequate to us. From an early age, we were never allowed to feel pain so we can’t possibly fall apart now that we’ve become adults. We’re constantly putting on a mask, afraid we won’t fit in. We’re told we have to be pretty, successful and happy all the time. We think we have it all figured out or at least we pretend we do but our hearts are suffering. The more we fight what’s really going on, the more painful it gets. We deny ourselves the right to simply be.

I remember caring for teenagers a few years ago. Child and adolescent psychiatry has a tendency to drive me a little too overwhelmed. I become so dedicated towards the kids and helping them fight for their right to live freely, sanely, authentically but most of all, lovingly that I sometimes feel like I’m not doing things right. Then the universe selflessly pours out a bit of its love on my path and I open an email from a beautiful girl I used to care for years ago. She is thanking me for being her guardian angel back at the hospital and today too. She tells me how broken she had been feeling lately but she remembered me and my love for photography so she went outside and captured life until it came rushing back to her, making every fiber of her being shiver. I sit in awe, facing my computer, filled with gratitude, tears streaming down my face.

I’m inspired to make it a lesson to myself. I have helped people heal – and I have never done so to get something in return, I guess I’m just madly in love with humankind and I have divine trust in the universe – but I do deserve to heal, too. I deserve to plant seeds of acceptance and peace in my heart. I aim to live kindly and compassionately. I want to truly love myself, and the only way to do so is to build a home within myself.

I stop traveling for a while, and I focus on what I have, right here. We have a couch, now. It’s yellow and we’re both obsessed with how perfect it looks in our living room. I get carried away with plants and candles, too. We work on ourselves and building a healthy relationship. He was never afraid to reach that turning point with me, but I was. I’m the kind of person who overthinks everything and worries too often about the future. Because I grew up in a dysfunctional family and have spent decades watching my parents rip each other to shreds, I’ve made myself the promise to build a happy life for myself but I ended up shaping unrealistic expectations. It might be the reason why I feel so strongly about optimism and happiness but I kind of lost myself along the way. I forgot to embrace my emotions and instead ran away.

My urge to see the world was authentic and it’s taught me valuable lessons but it was also my way of escaping the reality I didn’t know I could face. I had built up such unachievable expectations about myself, the world and the people who were in my life that every single day, I felt like a failure. Some people may say they find themselves when they travel to the opposite side of the world but for me, it was when I stopped running that I finally found myself. I find myself daily, now. I find myself when I wake up and I cook myself a smoothie bowl. I find myself when I meditate every morning before work. I find myself when I care for patients. I find myself when I come home to my love and he’s made me my favorite soup. I find myself when I listen to my inner child. I find myself when I make peace with my past. I find myself when I do nothing except being.

Every single day is a miracle, whether I’m somewhere far away on the road or just here, at home. And, to be quite honest, our home has become so beautifully serene and loving it’s hard to even leave now. It also makes my travels so much more meaningful than they ever were because I’m not running anymore. I’m engaging with strangers, I’m kissing the Earth with my feet, I’m hiking mountains and thanking my body for everything it allows me to do. Then before I know it, I’m home again and my love is picking me up from the airport with a typically French baguette and some tahini he mistook for holy hummus. And we’re kissing on the parking lot and my heart is dancing because it is right where it should be.

A few weeks after, we’re on the road again. Together. We’re exploring Europe and catching waves everyday and it all feels like a dream. As he wakes me up to heavenly chocolate banana toasts and forehead kisses in the morning, I feel the urge to pinch myself because I can’t quite believe this is the life we built together. Through joys and pains, here we are. Growing kinder and more loving towards ourselves while embracing utter truth, whatever that might be. We play old-fashioned board games in the sunset and race until either of us sprains its ankle. We daydream about our future children and all the flower names we’ll give them. We get into passionate discussions over education which last for hours. We tell each other secrets we kept as children. We share our deepest dreams with each other until sunrise and go for more surfing sessions.

Coming back home, we go grocery shopping. We still run like wild kids in the supermarket aisles while I pick up too many avocados and he asks for an unreasonable amount of white chocolate biscuits. He sweeps the floor each day and he does the laundry, too and I try to find some chores I wouldn’t mind doing but he beats me to it every time so I do what I do best. I head to the local market and buy more organic plant-based food. Some days, he works late shifts at the hospital so I go grocery shopping by myself and text him ‘Is there anything you need?‘ and he messages me back ‘More quinoa and falafels, please‘ and the vegan guru I’ve become grins mischievously.

We go on more adventures close to home. We head to the sea more times than we should because he knows how happy my heart gets there. He climbs trees while I write in my journal. We host sunset picnics on the beach and I watch him interact with my friends, telling historical tales and other unusual stories only he knows. I love how open-minded he’s become, now. My best friend Ingvild tells me she can’t believe how much he’s changed and that we look so happy. We are. I’m so glad she can see it, too. She holds me and Kevin in her arms before she flies back to the Netherlands. We laugh over the fact I’m so in love I won’t even notice she’s left the country. I count down the days before I get to see her again on Christmas. I connect with my friends again. I feel like I’m glowing and I’m taking it all in. I’m no longer afraid.

I don’t know where this life is taking us, but I don’t want to know anymore. The journey is too magnificent to even worry about where we might be heading someday. Someday means nothing, for all we ever have is the present moment. And I’m blessed. I’m beyond grateful to be alive, to connect with kind-hearted souls, to promote mental health and to fall deeper in love with every passing day. The truest love I’ve found so far is the one inside my own heart, and it’s something I think I will hold onto for quite some time. For it’s magic from within.

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{All pictures, digital and film, are from home}

Skin and Bone

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My car’s broken down so many times it seems plain insane to just take off and drive to Switzerland. Yet insanity is something that’s never stopped me before. I adore the thrill of stepping out of my comfort zone and taking chances. Traveling has taught me that no matter how far I go, I will always find my way home so I might as well embrace the abundance of experiences that come from living out of a car. Summer is around the corner and I assume Switzerland will be warm so I pack up lightly, allowing more space for camping gear and plant-based food. I pick up my dear friend Marine before sunrise and we make our way to the train station where Cindy has been waiting for us. We’re finally reunited and as we cross the border and set foot in Switzerland, our adventure can begin.

I’ve put together the cheesiest, most out-of-date playlist and my friends cringe while I scream hysterically and sing my heart out. They get very little rest from my teenage anthems so whenever Patti Smith or Bob Dylan come up, I know they’re feeling grateful and praying these songs could just play on repeat. We drive all day until the sun eventually falls from the sky. By the time we reach our first destination, it’s all dark and covered in snow.

Our first night is harder than we imagined. It gets unspeakably cold at night so we all snuggle into each other and wake up way before sunrise. As the first few rays of the dawning sun reflect on the mountains, I jump out of my sleeping bag and scream to the girls ‘Let’s have breakfast later and grab our cameras now‘. It is so magnificent we see past our shivering bodies. I run around in my favorite dress, catching every ray of light. My heart feels warm. It is extraordinarily alive. Witnessing the sunrise and checking the surroundings, I can’t seem to stop myself from snapping pictures. My friends look like goddesses in the sun. They’re alive, too. I can feel their happy, breathing souls and I’m so happy I didn’t venture on my own this time. We’re all in this together, with endless possibilities and adventures waiting for us.

As we head back into our cozy tent and make breakfast, we all laugh over our inability to pack adequately. I’ve never been an expert in the camping field. Whenever I’d go camping somewhere, my best friend Ingvild would be the self-reliant one. She was so good with everything I would just look at the stars and dream away. Now I realize maybe it would have been a good idea to at least try and remember how she folded the tent up. After a few embarrassing attempts, ours eventually rolls back and we can keep going. We hike around the mountain and the higher we are, the more in awe we become.

Once we’ve made our way to the top, I put on a French song I love called ‘Partons vite‘ and start running around barefoot. My toes happily turn purple as they sink into the snowflakes but the sun shines so bright it’s never too long until they are warm again. I’m thinking the sun is the reason why I shine, too. I dance around clumsily and throw my arms in the air, feeling carelessly free. As I feel the warmth of the sun upon my skin, I just know I belong here.

I can’t always see the light within the darkness so the sun has become my medicine. It pulls my soul back into the light and out of the chaos in my head. Although I’m a firm believer in optimism and wish my head was forever free of all worries, it isn’t and there’s no use for me to pretend otherwise. We all try so hard to have a picture-perfect life, leading to comparison, jealousy and worthlessness, that we end up missing the whole point of living. Truth. Nothing will ever feel good to your heart unless it’s built on truth. Truth implies facing the depths of your soul with pure clarity. Therefore we need chaos as much as we need quiescence. And we need breaking as much as we need loving.

I’ve been living in truth for a little over a year now, and I’m still learning, but it has put everything into perspective. I went through the darkest of days, just like everyone has, but I have finally stopped fighting the pain. There’s no need for me to bury anything anymore for I have to let it all out if I ever strive to be free. And I do. I want freedom, healing and compassion. I deserve it. Meditation empowers me to grow and embrace my inner self. It teaches me awareness and true love. And these are lessons I carry with me everywhere I go. As we drive around Switzerland, I remind myself to be present. I take it all in. Daringly and wholeheartedly.

We drive through spectacular scenery. Our days are blissfully pure. We hike mountains and take photographs by the lake. We collect flowers and dance in the golden light. We cook food with our little camping stove and warm up with tea and chocolate. We stop in the middle of nowhere just for the sake of cuddling with cows. We’ve distanced ourselves so much from society we all get sick and bad-tempered that time we get stuck in traffic on our way to Appenzell. Once we arrive, it feels like we’ve stepped into another world.

Appenzell is a fairy tale village. Everything looks still. Except us three when we spontaneously decide to wash our hair by the river. I’m the first one to lay down on a bench while Cindy fills our bottles with fresh water. Marine is shampooing my hair and I’m starting to think it’s not so bad, until Cindy drops the freezing water all over my hair and face and I go screaming, while people pass by and probably wonder how we bizarre individuals were even allowed to come to Fairy Tale Appenzell. Once they’re done with me, I get up and I run to the river. I come back with filled-to-the-brim bottles and I smile sneakily because I know they’re next. We successively go through the joys of wild shampooing and howl with laughter.

It’s almost dark now and we need to look for a place to pitch our tent but it is all so tiny and full of family houses so for the first time ever since we entered Switzerland, we’re struggling to find a good place to camp. Seeing we’ve planned on hiking Schäfler the next day and we’ll most likely be gone before sunrise, we decide to sleep in someone’s backyard. We first have dinner then we set up the tent at night and have a short sleep. Little do we know, it won’t ever be restorative enough for what’s to come.

We wake up early and because we’ve become much better with taking our tent down and making it fit back into the bag, it takes us very little time to get everything done. We’re thinking we have everything under control as we start our early hike, our backpacks filled with cameras and vegan snacks. We walk for about two hours before finding ourselves in Seealpsee. It’s all very cloudy and misty, enhancing the lake’s spooky atmosphere, which Cindy adores.

I innocently suggest we head to Schäfler which, really, was my idea all along. Ever since I started planning this trip, I knew our adventure wouldn’t be complete without walking along this sharp mountain peak. The sign says it’s only four hours away and I get so overjoyed I manage to convince my friends to come with me. Only they have no idea what’s to come and I shall admit this now, I hadn’t either.

It gets incredibly windy and cold up there and there is absolutely no single soul except our own. The first few hours of the trail are quite upstream and leave us breathless. We finally spot another sign but it doesn’t make much sense so we pick out a path quite randomly, thinking to ourselves we can’t really be that far off the top. Hours later, after braving cold, slippery and snowy trails, here we are. Standing 6,000 feet above sea level. Cindy lays down and tries to warm herself up while Marine and I are so over the moon we get topless and start exploring the surroundings.

Marine’s body is exquisite. She’s all kinds of beautiful and I’m thankful she lets me photograph her. Her confidence and grace blend so effortlessly with the majestic mountain peak behind her. I’m in awe with her divinity and I get to create wonders until this tiny, self-destructive voice in my head gets louder and louder. ‘Why can’t you be like her? You’re a poor excuse of a vessel, Body. You make me miserable. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you‘. In that moment, Marine suggests I get naked too and I start laughing because there is no way I’m doing this. I love nudity, I think it’s delicate and pure, but my own body is something I can’t quite deal with yet. Then I look around me, standing on the edge of this mountain and all I see is beauty. It is everywhere. I’ve always been extremely conscious of our world’s magnificent aura and, I, belong in this big, wild world, so why don’t I feel beautiful too?

I am enough. I’m learning to feel utterly whole every single day but if I can’t embrace my body as a 25-year-old woman, then I’m a hypocrite. I’m tired of fighting and hiding my body. It’s been with me my whole life and it’s carried me through everything so it deserves more than constant self-doubt and insecurities. It needs love, this time.

So, I undress and I let go of all the masks I’ve been wearing. I am free. I’m terrified too, of course, but I try to focus on awakening my inner light. I can’t see it yet, but I really do have everything I need within myself. We all do, and it’s time we give our bodies a break. Our bodies are strong and resilient. They carry all kinds of stories, just as they are. Raw and beautiful. Scars, freckles, stretch marks, bruises. They are all evidence that we’re alive and breathing and what a marvelous thing it is to allow ourselves to live and grow older.

Going down the mountain, we’re hopeful it’s only a matter of time before seeing the car again. Only we have literally walked into emptiness and still have around five hours left of losing ourselves into Switzerland’s wilderness. The day is plain crazy, from beginning to end, but oh so exhilarating too. I live for these kinds of challenges. My heart is restless and always yearns for more adventures, more passion, more self-discovery.

As we reach the car again, our bodies are numb. We’re all so sleep-deprived and exhausted but we need to keep moving if we want to make it to our next destination before it gets dark. We’re singing in the car and reminiscing the insanity of our day and I think we’re all a bit delirious. By the time we arrive into the southern part of the country, it’s all dark and quite frankly dreadful. We spot scarecrows under the pouring rain, and dubious men disappearing before our eyes. We can’t tell if the place is genuinely unsafe or if the night and our weariness just made it worse than it actually was but it doesn’t feel right to camp there. So, out of the blue, we decide to drive back to the very first place we explored a week ago even if it’s located on the opposite side of the country.

Driving for six hours straight is agony, especially after having such a crazy day. I think about my camera tripod screw adapter I lost while hiking in the snow on our first day and I entertain my mind with the idea I might be able to find it again once we’re back there. I keep telling my sleepy friends I am just fine and they should fall back to sleep but as soon as they close their eyes, I snap myself in the face to stay awake. Cindy wakes up to this nonsense and begins to panic we might not make it to our safe haven, after all.

I try to stay as focused and responsible as I can, but there’s this one car on the highway trying to pass us which gets me confused so I veer off the road softly without turning my indicators on. Before I know it, I hear a big, muffled siren and wonder what’s happening. Then I see two police officers on the right side of the road waving at me so I figure maybe I should indeed stop. It’s 3 in the morning and I’m clearly worn out but as they approach our car, I think to myself ‘You need to hold it together. Don’t do or say anything you might regret. Just be cool‘. Cool. Right. How can you be cool after hiking Schäfler and getting arrested in the middle of the night while driving to some remote mountain? Should I tell them I lost my tripod adapter but I have a feeling it’s waiting for me somewhere in the snow and we’re in a bit of a hurry so if they wouldn’t mind letting us go, we’d be very grateful? – Please, officers? – Should I offer them some oatmeal? Maybe they’re vegan and they stopped us because they could tell we were wise, vegan pals. The police officer’s flashlight in my face brings me back to reality and man, we are in trouble.

It seems I was zigzagging in and out of lanes and that’s why they stopped us. They ask for our ID’s, and Cindy’s is Taiwanese so we’re quite uncertain about the outcome of this situation. The other officer, a female one, makes a few phone calls then comes back to us and says we don’t have proper ID’s. We explain to her they’re in fact legitimate, only they’re written in French and possibly different from theirs. Still, it seems like the lady is looking for a reason to take us back with them to the police station. She then asks me step out of the vehicle. The other officer blinds me with his flashlight again and says ‘What kind of drugs are you on?‘. I’m speechless. I’m not on any drugs. I don’t do drugs. I’m a nurse in a mental health hospital and I care for patients who usually suffer from these kinds of addictions. I tell him just that, but he doesn’t believe me so he asks me to close my eyes and stand with one foot off the ground. It’s almost 4 in the morning, for God’s sake. How am I even supposed to keep balance and have him believe me? The test goes on for over ten minutes until he withdraws from me to go and talk with his co-worker. Then they come back and condescendingly say ‘You can go‘.

We survived Schäfler. We survived creepy scarecrows and now we have just survived getting arrested by the Swiss police. I stop the car not too long after because I really do need to sleep this time. Then we keep going and finally, at 6 in the morning, we arrive in our beloved Seebergsee. We immediately unfold our tent and in a matter of seconds, we’re all fast asleep in our sleeping bags. We wake up shortly after midday. We’re all so happy to be back up in our favorite place. As the girls peacefully awake, I decide to go hiking again. I think about my tripod adapter I lost but the snow has melted by now and maybe it can still be there, somewhere, up there. The girls think my adapter is long gone and I know they’re more rational than I am but no matter how gigantic the mountains around me are, I start going anyway.

I hike methodically, trying to remember the way I took last week and looking everywhere around me but my adapter is nowhere to be found. Part of me hasn’t given up yet, and that’s when I see it. All tiny and covered in mud, but here it is. I have found it in the immensity of the mountains and in that moment, there clearly is no better feeling. I start running down, dancing awkwardly and falling quite a few times but getting up again and happily dancing my way down the mountains. Once the girls see me, I pretend I haven’t found it and they feel sorry for me until I open my hand and they stand gaping.

Our last day in Switzerland is something out of a dream. Camping has become so natural and in a way, Seebergsee feels like our home. Time stands still while we snap photographs. Cindy captures everything on film like a secret sacred memory. Marine absorbs the lake’s beauty in all serenity. And, I, grow a little stronger, and a little braver. Embracing my body and thanking it for all it’s got me through. As I stand wholly naked on this mountain rock, I feel so infinite and spirited I promise my heart to fall in love with its reflection. I promise to cherish, nurture and grow kinder to my body for it’s my temple.

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New Beginnings

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I used to think happiness was the only way to keep my heart sane. I didn’t grow up in a happy family so I had made myself the promise to someday be happy. I’d have a happy and healthy kind of love and I’d nurture this relationship day after day. It would all be effortlessly beautiful and I’d never ever have to go through any kind of suffering. I firmly believed pain was destructive and unnecessary and that my heart wasn’t fitted to feel anything but love and wonder. Little did I know then my life would dissolve so abruptly. I remember it all too well. The betrayal. The heavy tears. The inability to understand how one single human being could ever do such deliberate harm to another.

After I broke up with my first love, I felt the need to run away. It was just me and my backpack, wandering around countless countries, desperately needing to feel whole again. But no matter where I ventured, no place was far enough for my heart to stop hurting. I looked for answers in the universe but overlooked my own broken self. Maybe Asia wasn’t the place that saved me but instead the place that helped me look within myself for the first time in my life. It taught me spirituality and truth. It encouraged me to feel love from within, which was precisely what I had lacked all along.

It was nowhere near easy. After I found out I had been cheated on, I felt worthless and unlovable. I even convinced myself I wasn’t good enough to be the object of his affection. I felt so broken I thought I didn’t deserve to keep on living. I wanted the pain to stop so badly I considered killing myself. It’s not something you vent about on the Internet when we’ve all become so obsessed about turning our filtered lives into perfectly happy tales. But I’m yearning for truth now, no matter how ugly it may be. I love promoting joy but I feel like we don’t allow ourselves to truly feel anymore. We bury our negative emotions so deep we can no longer see them. But we do need to see them and feel them. No one leads a perfect life and I believe there’s no point in pretending otherwise. We should all be allowed to grieve, to scream, to fight, to make mistakes, to break down.

And we should celebrate these chaotic, heart-wrenching days, too. For they teach us something. Being let down in such way changed the way I saw myself. It turned my perception of life upside down. It helped me grow in a way I never thought I could. It showed me I could be strong, too. And that I was beautiful in my own way.

When Kevin rushed back into my life, I didn’t want him to. I still loved him – of course I did – but I could no longer trust him and no amount of letters nor loving gestures would make up for that. I was irrevocably different but what I had failed to notice then was that I wasn’t the only one. He had spent months working on himself to become a better person and I could see how much saner he was. He suggested to join me on my adventures around Europe and it felt insane to even agree to such nonsense yet part of me truly wanted him there, by my side, as the travel companion I had always dreamed of. And so, just like that, I said yes.

We left on a foggy morning without telling anyone. As we flew together and I watched his eyes light up whilst sitting on a plane for the first time, something happened. I witnessed life inhabit his soul, something he hadn’t allowed in a long time. He became the silliest wide-eyed child, holding on tightly to my hand and giggling nervously before letting go with detachment and mannered fearlessness. Venturing around Scandinavia, his passion for life grew bigger. I could feel that he was at peace, at last. He had stopped blaming himself for what he had done to us and he even started feeling worthy of love. He was surprisingly sure I was the one person he wanted to grow old with and he wasn’t about to give it up this time.

I was losing myself in the jungle of Asia when I decided to return to him. I didn’t feel ready to forgive him yet, but I felt in my heart I needed to give us another chance. I came home and his mother welcomed me into their house. Although it wasn’t our own place, it was our first time living together and it felt surprisingly beautiful. Day after day, I started to let go. I nurtured my mind, body and soul until I felt sane again. I refused to make the same mistake so I devoted my time to loving my inner self before I even learned how to return his love again. I’d sit on their living room floor and meditate each day. Of course, not all days were beautiful but I’ve learned to embrace them by now. I’ve learned to accept you can’t always take all the thorns out.

There are days I still break down in tears. There are days I feel scared of writing anything online because I know the girl who stole my identity still reads my words and that she has no remorse taking over my love and soul. But I guess it’s okay. It doesn’t make her or anyone else a bad person. It only makes them incomplete. And while I won’t ever forgive her for all that she did and how far she went, I refuse to let the drops of the past tarnish my heart. For the past is gone and has no power over the present moment.

The present moment is a funny thing, if you ask me. It’s wild and unpredictable and it makes you feel so brilliantly alive. There are these moments in life I wish I could pause and I would gladly soak them all in for eternity. Moving into our first apartment is one of them. I could have never imagined building a life with my first love after all the lies and broken promises of the past but he genuinely surprises me each day and I can’t help but feel prouder with every passing day. I’m proud of myself for embracing truth over beauty. I’m proud of him for all his hard work and dedication. I’m proud of us for building such a healthy life together.

When we found our dream apartment in February, it was all too complicated and we thought we clearly didn’t stand a chance. On May 16th, my birthday, we got a call from the realtor in which he said ‘Pack your bags, you got the apartment’ and a new chapter began. We woke up early the next day so we could meet with our agent and sign the lease. We sat in the waiting room, my head resting against his, our fingers intertwined. I said ‘Is this really happening?’ and he kissed my forehead, whispering delicate endless ‘Yes’ into my ears.

Shortly before we moved in, we went backpacking all around Italy. Scandinavia had turned him into a pretty self-reliant traveler and he got us out of tricky situations more than a few times. We hiked through all five villages of the Cinque Terre. We found a GoPro on the highest vineyard and Kevin relentlessly tried to turn it on – he uses no technology so it was quite hilarious watching him struggle –. He identified the couple who it belonged to and said ‘We have to hike down, Laura. We need to restore their camera to them’. And so before I knew it, we were running down the vineyard, hopelessly looking for that couple. We came all the way down to the village of Manarola but there were hundreds of people everywhere then.

We were breathless and I figured we didn’t stand a chance but Kevin said to me ‘What if it was your camera? Wouldn’t you want a stranger to help you retrieve the memories you have of us?’ and so in the name of love we started running again. We were lost in an overwhelming crowd when Kevin spotted the dress the woman on the camera was wearing and touched her back so she would stop. Her eyes opened wide with awe and bursting joy. He held the camera back and gave her and her husband the most genuine and selfless smile. They couldn’t stop thanking him before they asked if we could all take a picture together.

Kevin has always been capable of amazingly loving gestures but the fear and depression made him withdraw into himself. Last summer, he would have never stepped outside his house, let alone follow me around the world. Although I tried, I was never supposed to save him. That’s something he had to do on his own and I’m so unbelievably proud and grateful he did. He overcame everything with such care and humanity and I feel so lucky to be going through life with him now.

I love him for all the ice cream he buys me so I’ll listen to his passionate medieval tales at 2am on the Ponte Vecchio. I love him for finishing my drinks of wine while we sail in the Tyrrhenian sea. I love him for all the times he’s made love to me in Venezia, whispering the words ‘I love you with all my soul’ over and over again. I love him for surprising me at work and bringing me homemade chocolate cake. I love him for putting up with my self-esteem issues and helping me feel beautiful. I love him for respecting my needs and letting me fly to the opposite side of the world so I can bloom on my own, too. I love him for letting me buy ten baskets of blueberries at the market. I love him for the way he laughs and plays in waves and always loses track of time. I love him for asking me to teach him about photography and producing such creative imagery. I love him for cooking me dinner every night when I come home from work, even when he’s had exhausting hospital shifts himself. I love him for spoiling me with silly heart-shaped watermelon. I love him for running his fingers through my hair at night so I fall asleep gently. I love him for the way he sings me old-fashioned love songs. I love him for doing all the housework I never want to perform. I love him for pouring out such good care to handicapped children. I love him for all the adventures we’ve had and all the ones that are yet to come. I love him for he’s worked so hard and he’s become a home to my untamed heart.

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The Blooming Flower

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I’m sitting at the airport with a heavy heart and a shivering soul. I have packed all my belongings into a backpack and I’m ecstatic to see the world again. I have been longing to get away from materialism and wealth for so long and I feel like this might finally be my chance. I might finally learn how to make peace with my past and embrace my beautifully flawed self. I’ve never been one to strive for a successful career or some fancy social status. I was always the wandering girl losing herself to one of her daydreams. When I became a medical school dropout, I stopped molding myself to society’s expectations and started devoting my life to adventure instead. Traveling across the world was always my first love. Long before I even met him. As I flew alone to the opposite side of the earth, my heart began healing in ways I could have never imagined.

I first landed in Jakarta. I stepped out of the airport and felt overwhelmed by how busy it was. The heat was unbearable. I thought to myself those gentle snowflakes in my Amsterdam layover were long gone. I gazed upon the continual coming and going of people and cars. Families coming together. Lovers running into each other’s arms. There was no single soul waiting for me there, except my own. But in that moment, I realized it was precisely what I went looking for. Myself. Broken, yet still standing. And it would have to be enough. I’d have to be enough.

The next day, I flew to Yogyakarta. It had been three days since I left France. Three days since I last had a shower or a chance to take a nap. My body was covered in mosquito bites and I suffered from crippling back pain but none of these seemed to matter because here I was, embarking on the craziest and most fulfilling adventure of my life. Singing with locals on the bus and getting kissed on the cheek by complete strangers. Asia was bringing its share of wild surprises and I was ready to soak them all in.

After walking around back alleys for what seemed like forever, I finally reached the house I was looking for. I put my backpack down before engaging in a conversation with the sweetest owner. I then proceeded to take a shower and excitedly hurried back into the beautiful jungle of Yogyakarta. No matter how jetlagged I was, I refused to waste any time. Wandering around the streets, I watched barefoot old men play chess directly on the ground. Their eyes sparkled with joy and a sense of wisdom I had never seen before. The funny thing about coming from a developed country is that you may have all the money in the world but it doesn’t make you any richer. In fact, I had never felt poorer than when my eyes met theirs.

Three young girls befriended me on Malioboro Street and we spent the afternoon hanging out and laughing like lifelong friends. I couldn’t understand why but they all seemed to be looking up to me and I giggled at the silly idea of being a long-lost sister to these sweethearts. We’d stop quite often so that locals could take a picture with me, which felt absurd and embarrassing at first but I gradually went along with the crowd. I looked back on those endless bus rides to high school, desperately hoping for strangers to connect with one another. I remembered the time I gazed at that ridiculously shy boy on the bus for the first time. If I had been brave enough to ask for a selfie – alright, maybe just say hello to begin with -, we wouldn’t have had to wait years before falling in love with each other. Reflecting on all those missed opportunities, I started embracing all the awkward selfportraits I was asked to be a part of. I hugged people on the street who were no longer strangers but had become friends. I came home shortly after midnight and decided to book a sunrise tour to Borobudur Temple. I had only three hours left to sleep so I rushed into an unknown dorm and fell asleep instantly.

At 4am, I met up with an Italian solo backpacker and we hiked together until we were high enough to watch the sunrise over the Indonesian hills. As we entered the temple and walked up the stairs, I found a sanctuary within myself and felt a form of enlightenment. I sat quietly next to the heart of the Buddha and everything slowly became clearer. This path I was walking was the tangled path towards my own heart. It is messy and painful but maybe every trauma, loss and heartbreak we go through is meant to be a lesson in the end. Maybe we have to endure storms in order to experience how beautiful rainbows feel like.

Six months ago, my whole life collapsed. After years of gathering all my forces into saving others, I lost my first love. But what I didn’t see then is that I had lost myself long before. I used to spend all my energy nurturing affection and trust in other human beings. I had so much love for life and every breathing soul in the universe, except my own. Failing to feel love from within was the saddest truth of all. After Kevin and I broke up, he started sending me letters and there was one in particular that stuck with me in which he wrote ‘Don’t ever doubt yourself. You don’t see how glowing and spirited you are, but I do. Everyone around you does too but it won’t make any difference if you don’t start trusting yourself. If you had as much love for yourself as you do for others, you could change the world. I’ve always thought you could. And I promise you will’.

And so I focused on seeing the light inside my own heart. After my crazy day in Borobudur, I embarked on yet another adventure. This time, I hopped on the cheapest night train I could find and made my way to Malang in the early morning. I kept on sacrificing sleep for adventure. No matter how rough the night had been, I felt invincible. I wasn’t about to let anything stop me from reaching that exquisite volcano I had read so much about. I managed to take several buses that looked more like miniature toys with no doors, but I didn’t mind the precariousness. I dangled my feet out of the bus and embraced the shakiness of such unique expedition.

My heart danced and danced, until I got off the bus and realized I was utterly lost. I walked down a foreign street in some place called Purwodadi, trying to make it to the next bus stop until I figured there was none. A man tried to scam me, which I had gotten used to by then and knew how to politely decline so I could continue on my way, except this time I didn’t have one. He pressured me to get into his car and said he’d take me to Tosari, which I refused but before I knew it, there were over ten men surrounding me, fighting for me or should I say, my money. I kept saying no and trying to pull myself away but they were so insistent and didn’t seem to be planning on leaving anytime soon. I could feel myself getting weaker and weaker until I finally managed to take shelter in a tiny supermarket. I tried to ask some help from younger workers but alas they knew no English. One of the men who had been harassing me came in and got pushier. I was drained of all energy and literally shut down while the checkout assistants tried their best to make the man leave. When he eventually did, they made me sit down and brought me some water. I thanked them and broke down in tears.

A few minutes later, I heard a woman talk to me in a broken English. Her name was Jalo. She was 29 and had a lovely 4-year-old daughter who took my hand and softly brought it to her cheek as a way to comfort me. Jalo was running errands when she saw me crying. She asked me where I was going and confirmed to me there was no minibus nor safe transportation over there. She offered to take me back to her house so I could rest and suggested to drive me herself to the next village on her motorcycle. I hugged the workers tightly then left with this woman and her daughter. As we got to her house, she introduced me to her family. Her younger sister took my backpack off while her mother made me tea. They could probably all see how tired and hopeless I was yet there was no judgment in their eyes, only compassion and utter kindness.

My Indonesian angel drove me to Nongkojajar where we made a stop at her brother’s house. It had almost been 24 hours since I last ate something so she cooked some delicious traditional meal for me. I met up with her eldest sister and children who kept smiling at me. They all welcomed me into their home as if I was family. I probably said thank you a million times to which Jalo responded ‘We help out each other’ with a smile. Her brother ended up giving me a ride to Tosari himself. It was the most beautiful motorcycle ride of my existence. I was no longer falling apart. It felt like I was a wide-eyed child seeing the world for the first time. We passed by people who’d wave at us with the warmest smile and shout ‘Hello!’ from the roadside. We finally reached the very top of the mountain – which would be my starting point to hike Bromo, an active volcano, the following day – and it was time to say goodbye. I kept thinking about ways to thank them but Jalo’s brother refused to take anything from me. He wished me a happy life and disappeared down the road.

Reflecting on this day, I see precisely why I travel and why I’ll never stop exploring the world. Traveling isn’t always rainbows and butterflies but it gives you such incredible introspection and consciousness. It allows you to open your mind and soul to others. It makes you practice gratitude. It reminds you to embrace life fully and to strive for the love within yourself. It heals wounded hearts and nourishes spiritual freedom. It’s a constant ode to Life, and it is too magnificent to ever give it up.

I woke up at 4am the next day and met up with an Indonesian man on a motocross. We hiked Bromo together, which was spectacular and possibly one of my best memories from Java. The owner of the homestay I was staying at gave me a ride back to the city and I arrived just in time for my train to Banyuwangi. I was sweating under the layers of clothes I’d had to wear on our morning hike so I opened my backpack and looked for the lightest item I could find. I had casually undressed on the railway platform, facing dozens of strangers in my underwear and here I was, struggling to find any proper piece of clothing as I’d had the bright idea to wrap my clothes in exotic fruit. I put an old pair of shorts on and laughed at the awkwardness of it all as I licked the rambutan off my stained teeshirt.

Maya welcomed me into her beautiful oasis under the pouring rain. I rested on a hammock for the rest of the day and went to bed at 7pm, before waking up at 11pm and hopping on a car that would be taking me to Ijen volcanic crater. Ijen is famous for its electric blue fire and it is beyond anything you could ever imagine if you make it past the crazy night hike. Fortunately, I was delighted to meet with fellow female travelers from all around the world and no matter how strenuous the hike was, we turned it into a beautiful flood of stories. We were all breathless and sleep-deprived but the stories kept unfolding and the connection I felt that night is one I’ll forever hold onto.

After chilling in a stunning deserted waterfall, I made it back to Didu’s Homestay and was greeted with banana pancakes and a dragon fruit smoothie. Needless to say, I went to food heaven and felt overwhelmed with gratitude for Maya and Djoko who might very well be the greatest hosts in the universe. I had to be heading to Bali in the evening and if two of the girls I had met earlier in Ijen didn’t turn out to be going as well and checking into the exact same hostel I had booked in remote Lovina, I would have certainly extended my trip in Banyuwangi. Alas, the way I travel is very similar to the way I feel. It is restless, chaotic and whole. My heart just never seems to stop. It strives for love and adventure. Always.

Julia and Annabel became the sweetest and funniest travel companions I could have asked for. I wasn’t expecting to walk part of the way with anyone but they became true friends and I had a hard time letting them go. Fortunately, we kept on bumping into each other and figured it was fate. We watched the sunset together, we faced a bitter old man together, we had horrible food together, we attended an amazing show together, we befriended monkeys together, we lost ourselves in the rice terraces together, we swallowed all the vegan food in Ubud together. I love being on my own but spending time with these two was beyond refreshing. I also felt safe enough to let them in and tell them about my story. One day, we met up for dinner after I had been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s words all day on a hammock and I felt unusually confident and peaceful. I kept repeating I was as strong as a mountain and as blooming as a flower. In the following days, if I were to wither, Annabel would say to me ‘Laura. You’re a flower’. And so I chose to always remain a flower.

After I said goodbye to Julia and Annabel, I headed to Kuta but it was far too busy so I escaped to the ocean instead and spent all my days surfing and counting the new freckles on my face as the sun went down. The place I was staying at was an absolute mess so I found shelter in a vegan place where they even showed indie movies at night and before I knew it, I was on a boat to yet another island. I explored so many places and befriended so many kind-hearted souls my heart felt overwhelmed.

Those island days felt timeless. In the morning, I’d ritually ride my bike to Captain Coconuts, a healthy vegetarian cafe, and have the most filling breakfast. I’d drink a fresh coconut then head into the water and explore all kinds of life. Of course, snorkeling in paradise had to turn into me stepping on a sea urchin and bleeding to death. But that wouldn’t be fun otherwise. I’m the clumsiest, most gullible human but I’m so stubborn I persist in adventuring fervently and passionately around the world, making mistakes, falling down and getting back up, with possibly a few spines still stuck in my feet but maybe these thorns don’t need to be taken out. Maybe we’re all roses wrapped in a crown of thorns. And maybe we’re beautiful too, regardless.

It’s been two months since I came home. All days haven’t been as revealing and peaceful as I wish they could have been. The waves of unworthiness and doubt still come but I am now certain I won’t drown. I have been shredded to pieces but every storm runs out of rain and I’m ready to embrace the madness of Life again. I’m ready to forgive and to love with all my heart. I refuse to put up emotional walls. I forbid to ever shut my feelings down, because there is still so much to feel. It won’t always be as pretty as a picture. I know that, now. And somehow, that makes me so much more grateful than I ever was.

The lessons I’m learning are shaping me into a better human. I can feel myself transforming and growing. I’m looking deep within my wounded heart and while it still breaks at times, I understand it no longer has to. I’m meditating each day now and forcing myself to focus on the Now. I’m sitting on this couch with my love rubbing my feet and foolishly smiling at me. We’re filling out forms for our first apartment and although I’m usually terrified of the future, my heart is currently bursting with joy and anticipation. I can’t pretend I know anything, but in this moment, I feel nothing but gratitude and love. And it is more than enough. I also feel more conscious and more alive than ever before. I breathe in and I see myself as a flower. I breathe out and I bloom from every inch of my body. And it’s excruciatingly beautiful, if you’re asking me.

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