Keepin’ It Curious


An email I received a few weeks ago was asking me to provide my most memorable travel experience. It was from the publishers of one of my books, Culture Smart: Switzerland. About to launch a new website for their global guidebooks, they were asking all their authors to summon up a favourite travel memory and say it in no more than a hundred words. The challenge for me was not writing a single memory in so few words but choosing only one memory. So, I didn’t. Instead I submitted a paragraph that described more than one trip and spanned a couple of decades. As you can probably imagine, doing that in 100 words was next to impossible but it has prompted me to flesh it out because somewhere in those scarce words, that implied so much, lay the thread that led me to the creation of a video and photo-sharing app that facilitates cross-cultural understanding for travellers and the culturally curious. Since Culture Dock is soon to be released, I figure it’s a good time to fill people in on its beginnings.

As a young woman in my early twenties, I sat on a university campus in Durban South Africa listening to an Afrikaaner band called the Kalahari Surfers sing songs of protest and saw South Africans line up under a marquis announcing a first showing of ‘Cry Freedom’ some five years after the rest of the world watched this film about their own country’s struggle. It was 1991, Nelson Mandela had recently been released from prison and I was experiencing a country awakening as music and art (and political parties) were being unbanned. I was hooked, enough to return within two years to work as a news photographer as South Africa lurched toward democracy. I spent a year holding my camera to marches and rallies and even an execution. I photographed Nelson Mandela the day it was announced he co-won the Nobel Peace prize with F.W. DeKlerk. I took pictures of a ninety year-old woman with crutches, heading to the polling station to vote for the first time in her life. There is no one memorable moment. They stack up, one on top of the other, each one breathing life into the next whispering ‘don’t ever forget this’; urging me to not ever stop learning more about the world around me.

But there is one trip that brought me to tears, not because of the beauty (or the horror) that I saw through my camera’s lens but because I’m now a mother and looking out at the world is never with a single gaze; it’s done with the knowledge our children too are taking this all in, learning from where we’ve been, what we’ve done and will be the ones that will eventually move this world forward.

In 2013, I returned to Johannesburg with my daughters, then age thirteen and fifteen. I introduced them to the family that welcomed me with open arms, into their home in Soweto; to Tsholofelo who was around the same age as my daughters when I first met her and her mother and grandmother. We spent a day with my old friend, the photojournalist Victor Matom, who teaches youth photography in Soweto. With him, we wandered dusty roads taking photos, engaged with people as Victor reached out his hand and gargantuan heart to passersby who all seemed to know him. All of this, and the smell of coal burning stoves, the vibrant clothing worn by women, the explosion of colour as the sun plied its way through a hazy sky toward the horizon stirred memories that banged up against the moment I was sharing with my daughters. We visited the Apartheid Museum where they saw the country’s dark history on display and events I’d attended before they were born.

To be there with my daughters could have felt surreal but instead it became one of the few times in my life when everything made sense. There were reasons I traveled, reasons this country seeped into my heart. I was showing my daughters a place that literally changed my life and the message to never forget this, to never stop learning about the world around us, was being amplified. Somewhere in all of that, the seeds of Culture Dock were born. At the time, I didn’t know if it was going to be a series of books, or a website, or the app it’s ultimately turned out to be. What I envisioned was a space that encouraged curiosity about the world that would be relevant to today’s traveler. Through much trial and tribulation an app called Culture Dock has been born. Its roots go back twenty-five years but took force in earnest three years ago when the idea of an app to facilitate cultural awareness first came into my mind. Through wrong turns, delays, technical glitches and a few other unexpected obstacles, the app will soon be rolled out onto what feels like a precarious world stage.

My intention is to begin a ‘global love affair’. As Canada takes the lead by sharing our rich cultural diversity for our 150th anniversary of Confederation, the rest of the world will be asked to join in. People as well as those in the tourism and culture sectors will be invited to upload photos and videos of local culture onto the app’s channels, sharing such things as local customs and traditions; geography and landmarks; nature and wildlife, you get the gist.

Despite all the crazy delays with the app, it’s helping me to now feel like I’m doing something productive, beyond liking a few posts I agree with on Facebook or feeling my temper rise with arguments that lack reason or empathy. You may be asking yourself who is this woman who thinks she knows what the world needs. I’m not assuming I do. I’m just someone who’s pulled the thread in my life and come up with a platform where I hope people will say ‘hey look what we like to do in our corner of the globe!’ Or, ask a question of someone who does something they may not understand. What I can say for sure is that I know my life has been enriched by people I’ve met who have grown up in parts of the world that are different than what I’m used to. I can tell you how my life expands when I’m curious about different traditions, customs and values.

One more thing, before I exit this expanded travel memory, it’s almost an aside but it happens to fit in perfectly with the points I’m making here. A few weeks into development of the app, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m healthy now but I’m not going to let a bitch like cancer knock me to the ground without saying I learned a thing or two. In this life, we need to focus on the healthy parts. Cancer may run through us, through society; we may allow toxic substances into the system to try to kill it but it’s at the expense of our own life force. By focusing on the healthy parts, the ones that by far outnumber the unhealthy parts, it’s the only way we can feel empowered when life gets crazy. This is how we keep the energy flowing, keep wanting to live for a better day and in the process, we learn just how strong and empathetic we humans can be.

So, who’s up for a global love affair?

Visit Culture Dock and subscribe to our mailing list or follow us on Facebook to keep up with our news because it’s almost time to start filling the app with everything unique to your neck of the woods!

What’s Happened To Me?

For those of you who’ve been orbiting this adventure and catching a few FB posts, it may not yet be clear what exactly it is, that I’ve been up to. The same, in a sense, goes for me. 😉 The path hasn’t always been clear but I’ve been following one, nonetheless, that takes me back to a time in my life when I worked as a photojournalist. It’s essentially to regain a sense of being in the world that I, for some reason or another, let slip away. This is why you’ve seen FB posts of photojournalists, whom I’ve met over the last couple of years, doing amazing and incredible work all around the world.

Anyway, this week, I happened across a few articles that I wrote some eleven years ago while living in Switzerland that, quite astonishingly, remind me of just how long I’ve been searching to “regain the spirit.” I kind of throw myself under the bus with this piece entitled, “What’s happened to me?” but here goes.  At the time of writing, I was regularly contributing to a parenting magazine called “The New Stork Times” (yes, you read that correctly). It’s not going to make it into the pages of f/16 but it’s entirely relevant and I feel compelled to post it. 

Here’s a quote for ya, “Somewhere, at some time, there has to be an integration of who we once were and the life we are now leading”.  I said that, not yesterday but over a decade ago and in the context of this journey, that has become f/16, it gives me goosebumps (and a bit of a kick in the pants). If you enjoy it, I may dig up a few more…..

Grand San Bernardino weeks before leaving Switzerland

Grand San Bernardino weeks before leaving Switzerland

From the September 2003 issue of The New Stork Times:

Where am I? I’m not talking about the physical surroundings, I’m talking about me, the person inside a body that is simultaneously taking on house, kids, kindergarten, playgroup, extracurricular activities, marriage etc. Remember those days when you were convinced that all the experience you were gaining pre-marriage, pre-kids, was going to get you through the tough stuff later on? That the life-enriching smorgasbord of a world that you were feasting upon was going to make you one heck of an interesting person and a kick-ass Mom? Then the family whirlpool begins: you’re adhering to feeding times, nap times, completely preoccupied by the hours of sleep they’re getting and the one’s you’re not. Life is eddying about you while you lay sprawled over the plug hold clinging to a personality that’s being sucked down the drain.

“So what do you guys do — I mean in your spare time?”

My husband and I were on our first weekend away without our kids. I hadn’t been away since I was nine months pregnant with three year old Jemima. An American dinner guest at the wedding we were attending in Lugano, was curious about our life in Switzerland.

“Like, what are your hobbies?”

My mind went blank. Surely, I thought I could think of something to say. I heard myself mutter. “We have kids. Umm, two. They’re young…five and two.”

He nodded understandingly but my answer registered on his face as being quite insufficient.

Surprisingly, to me, my reply was enlightening as I struggled to think of something I, myself, enjoyed. I started to feel like a high school graduate applying for my first ‘real job’ with an embellished Curriculum Vitae. Hobbies, hmmm, well, I like to read (not a lie, I’ve gone through seven different books just this week, who has to mention the author’s were Dr. Seuss, A.A. Milne and Lewis Caroll. I love travel (I live in a foreign country doesn’t that speak for itself?) Skiing. (Haven’t skied upright without a kid between my legs for five years but have mastered this backbreaking technique). Photography (drawers full of snaps of my kids that will some day be put in an album). Oh yeah, and let’s not forget —learning about other cultures — even if it is an every day survival tactic living here in Switzerland.

The guest went on to talk about his horseback riding experiences and I went into hyper self-analysis.

What’s happened to me? My kids are at an age when it’s getting easier to do things. The routine is changing. They’re capable of so much  more and I, as a Mom have to pick up the ball and move into new territory, so to speak.

I used to dread even the thought of a holiday. Honestly, with all the challenges of adapting to a new country with small children in tow, why would I want to take this show on the road and go to yet another new place? I’d much rather stick to my house and work at the somewhat fragile roots I’ve planted. I wasn’t proud of this attitude but quite frankly, it’s where I was at.

But, now I realize things have got to change. This is when it should all kick in — where we draw upon life as it was rather than gripe over how much life has changed since having kids. Somewhere, at sometime, there has to be an integration of who we once were and the life we are now leading.

Am I getting too philosophical? I’m up late. It’s when I think best. It’s when I think! I’ve taken to enjoying this time after all have gone to sleep and the house is quiet. I absolutely, with all my heart appreciate a silent house. Original thoughts fight for their rights inside my head. As I gradually concede the worries of the day, flow away. I’m tempted to veg, to turn on the TV and not think too seriously. Contemplating my options. BBC, CNN..a German flick to see what little bit of the language I can now actually pick up, I eventually put down the remote.

I think about what I remember of family life as a kid. Mostly, I remember the holidays. The day to day stuff is mostly a blur but the family activity is the manna that enlivens my memory. Living in a new country is, in a sense (to steal a phrase), like being a perpetual tourist*. If only we could adopt that curious, fresh perspective and apply it to every day; convey that sense of trying something new to our kids without focusing only on our limitations. Somewhere within all of that emerges someone I’m familiar with; someone who isn’t doing all the things she once did but who has regained the spirit that made her want to do them in the first place.

*”Perpetual tourist” is term used by Paul Bilton in his book of the same name, ‘The Perpetual Tourist‘ — published by Bergli Books

 My book on Swiss Culture: Culture Smart: Switzerland

It Matters

I’m not going to tell the whole story here — these pages are not meant for this.

From the onset, I didn’t want to make this book about my divorce — no messy details I said. This is going to be about my life as it is becoming; not what it was and certainly not what someone else is trying to make it. And, I stand by that. Today though, I walk the edge.  I’ve awoken to more s**t — stuff from my Ex I thought was of the past. Legally, I’m trusting things will be OK but it’s been enough for me to question how I will accomplish all that I need to. It’s a stumbling block that’s all.

I’ve been writing today about the amazing photojournalists I interviewed over the last few weeks. Keeping focused on their words helps ground me but I still have more to meet; many more stories to pull together. Continue reading