Sunday, 30 September 2012

On taking risks...

This time last year I was what people call a "young professional". I had a decent job, plus some freelance work on the side. I paid my own rent, I paid my own bills, and I (begrudgingly) paid the tax man at the end of the year. Did I feel like drinking a cosmopolitan on a Friday night? Well then I would damn well buy one!

Or a mojito.  I like mojitos.

After being a student for so long, depending on government loans and handouts from my family, it felt great to be earning my own way. I could get a nice latte on the way to the office without feeling guilty. I could buy a new pair of shoes if I wanted. I could get a new book or a new dvd if I fancied it. Why not?  It was my money.

I wasn't exactly living the dream of course.  The dream was to be an opera singer, and I was working in an office.  BUT.  My life was safe.  It was comfortable.

I was living in a nice flat in nice area in a familiar city. I had gotten to know Glasgow - I knew where things were and I knew how things worked. If I needed to go to the bank or buy shampoo I knew where to go and what the opening hours were.  I knew what was going to happen the next day, and the day after that.  And I knew that I was going to get a paycheque at the end of each month.

I felt secure, which was a pretty nice feeling.

Now I'm a student again.  I've gone back to being financially dependent.  And I'm living in a strange city where people don't even speak English.

The future is one big question mark for me. All I know is that in nine months I'm going to graduate from this opera course.  Where will I live? What will I do?  Anything could happen.

Exciting, right?

I'm going to let you in on a little secret.

I'm really scared.

I know exactly how this guy feels.
I'm not sure why it's taken so long to sink in.  I mean, it's been over a month now since I left my job.  But it's only just hit me that I'm taking a huge risk here.  After working so hard over the last three years to establish all this security and stability in my life, I'm throwing it all away.

Of course, deep down inside, I know it's the right thing to do.  If I didn't pursue my dream of becoming a singer, if I stayed in Glasgow, I'd just become more frustrated and unhappy.  Probably bitter too.  And I would always wonder: what if?

Still.  That doesn't make this any less scary.  The fact is that I'm pursuing an extremely difficult and competitive career path, and as I already know all too well, there is absolutely no guarantee that I'll land on my feet after I graduate.  Hopefully I'll get singing work, but then again I might not - at least not right away.  Things are going to be hard.

So I've been worrying a lot lately (what else is new?) and thinking about the future.

Thinking about the future is a good idea - to a certain extent.  I mean, everyone has to plan ahead a bit, especially when it comes to their career path.  We've all had times when we didn't plan ahead.  And when things inevitably went pear-shaped, we probably blamed everyone but ourselves.  It's like playing Solitaire without using any strategy, then declaring the game un-winnable when you run out of moves.

No aces??  They're all against me!!
But thinking too much about the future can drive you insane.  It's so massive and overwhelming, and anything could be out there.  I mean ANYTHING.  You could become completely consumed with thinking about the future.  And then you'd ignore the present.  And miss the whole point of, well, everything.

Just like you can't live in the past, you can't live in the future.  It's important to look ahead, but not to the point that you forget where you're standing.  Planning, wondering, worrying - they're all good in moderation.  But an overdose can be lethal.

I'm not sure if you've noticed this from my profile picture, but I was once on a flying trapeze.  I have a friend back in Canada who's an acrobat, and this one time a bunch of us went to her Friday night trapeze class.

Let me tell you something about going on a trapeze.  The scariest bit is not when you're flying through the air.  It's the bit that comes before that.  See, you climb up a very long ladder to this very high platform, and then you have to LEAN FORWARD, off of the platform, into EMPTY SPACE, to grab the bar.  And somehow you have to trust that you won't lose your balance and fall off the platform, that you will reach the bar safely and grab onto it and move forward.  It's the anticipation that's scary.  The part where you jump off the platform and fly through the air?  That's actually pretty fun.

Right now I'm at the beginning of my opera course, and I'm leaning forward on that platform.  I'm really scared that I'm going to fall.  But I have to go for it - grab the bar and trust that things will work out for the best.  I will make it to the other side.

(By the way, I was attached to a harness in the trapeze class.  So I wouldn't have died if I fell off the platform.  Just in case you were thinking that my friends and I are insane.)

(I mean, we are insane.  Just not in that way.)

Anyway.  The older I get, the more I really do believe that things happen for the best.  Even when it really seems like they don't.  I know there have been lot of times when I thought I'd made a mistake.  But months, even years later, I would look back and realise that this "mistake" was an essential fork in the path of my life.  If I hadn't done this thing, I wouldn't have met that person or gone to that place or learned that lesson.  You give any mistake long enough and it stops being a mistake.  It becomes an important turning point.
Which is a great movie by the way.

I used to think that I worried because I'm smart, and that brave people were just too stupid to look ahead to the risks. But being brave doesn't mean being stupid. It means caring about something so much that you know the risks and do it anyway.  The really stupid thing would be to stand still and do nothing.

I have no idea what's going to happen this year, or where I'm going to end up.  But I'm taking this leap of faith because I want to be a singer.  And moving forward feels sure beats staying on the platform or climbing back down.

What do I know?  I know I'm going to learn a lot.  And whatever happens this year, it's going to happen for the best. I'm going to end up where I'm meant to be.  It might not seem like that right away, but eventually I'll be able to look back and see that things turned out just the way they should.

So yes, it's important to think about the future sometimes.  But not to the point that it paralyses you.

And sometimes the best thing to do is just grab the bar and jump.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

On going the distance...

I'm currently writing from Gothenburg.

I know what you're thinking - I seem to be in a different city each week!  Honestly though, I really am living in Belgium now.

It's just that my boyfriend happens to live in Sweden.

Of course it would be nice if we lived in the same country, but as we all know, Life Is Never Simple.

I have a feeling that things used to be simpler - at least when it came to relationships.  About 50 years ago, your average Joe would meet your average Jane in school.  They would marry right after graduation.  Joe would get a job, and Jane would stay home to take care of the cooking and cleaning and - eventually - their 2.5 children.  If Joe got a new job in Arkansas, Jane and the 2.5 children would move there with him.  Simple.

What's that, sweetie?  We're moving to the South Pole?  How lovely!

These days most Janes have careers too.  Which, don't get me wrong, I think is awesome!  But it does make things more complicated.  And to further complicate things, most people are spending longer in school.  And even after graduation, they might spend years moving between several different internships and jobs before really "establishing" themselves in a career.  So it might be quite some time after graduation before Joe and Jane can think about marriage.  And in the meantime, what if Joe gets into grad school in Chicago while Jane gets an internship in New York?  What will Joe and Jane do???

I'm getting really emotionally invested in this whole Joe/Jane situation.
Well, Joe could ask Jane to move to Chicago with him and forget about the internship.  But that internship might have been essential for Jane's career.  Without it, she'll end up in a dead-end job that she hates.  Meanwhile she'll watch Joe's career take off with growing jealousy.  She'll resent him for making her sacrifice her career for him.  She'll always wonder what things would be like if she'd done that internship.  Joe will see that Jane is unhappy and he'll feel guilty.  Nobody wins.

If Joe and Jane are both dedicated to careers, and they both want what's best for each other, they may need to accept that for now they have to be in different cities.  And this is exactly what lots of young Joes and Janes are doing.

More and more young couples these days are finding that they have to "do the long distance thing" for a while.  Because at this stage of life you can't really be picky about your opportunities.  You have to go where the work is.  Or where the grad school acceptance letter is.  And chances are, they won't be in the same place for both of you.

This is exactly the situation I've found myself in.  I met a lovely tuba player while I was in Glasgow.  And shortly after I got into the opera studio in Ghent, he got into an orchestra academy in Gothenburg.

So here we are now, living in different countries.  And yeah, it's not ideal.  But it's not all bad either.  Thanks to modern technology, there are millions of ways to stay in communicado with a long-distance paramour.  Email, snail mail, facebook, phone, text, carrier pigeon - and of course, Skype.

I pretty much think Skype is the best thing since sliced bread.  Except, of course, when you're having that all-important pivotal conversation in your relationship and it suddenly decides to stop working.

-What, you're breaking up with me??
-No, I said you're breaking up!!!!!

The thing is, now that we have Skype and everything, it's easy to talk to each other anytime.  But it's not the talking that you'll miss.  It's all the other things.  No, I'm not just talking about the obvious things here!

Making out!!!  And other stuff...
I'm talking about the little things.  Walking down the street holding hands.  Eating a meal together.  Cuddling on the couch watching episodes of Scrubs.  Or Mad Men.  Or whatever floats your boat.

Or simply just being together - no talking necessary.  Just enjoying the togetherness.

That's the stuff you really miss.

And even though you'll want to visit each other as much as possible, let's face it, neither of you have wads of cash or big chunks of free time in your schedules.  So finding the time and money to visit each other can become an almost-impossible task.  It's like fitting an elephant into a pair of jeggings: it may be possible, but only after a LOT of stretching.


I do believe that in the right relationship, distance can help you appreciate each other more.  Because when you do get to see each other, it's amazing.  Nothing beats that feeling you get when you see your sweetheart get off that plane.  And suddenly all those little things you used to take for granted when you lived in the same city - holding hands, eating meals together, and so on - are the most awesome things ever.  You'll savour every little moment like you never did before.

Absence makes the heart grow Fonda.
And let's not forget, for a relationship to really work, you need to have bigger things in common than a postcode.

I love that my boyfriend is a musician, because it means we're on the same page here.  We understand why we both have to take these opportunities and be where we are.  And while we're not in the same place physically, we are in the same place in life.  We're both setting off on this adventure - new country, new school, new possibilities - at the same time.  Which is really, really cool.  Same journey - different locations.

So it's not easy.  It's not ideal.  It is what it is.  But with the right person, it's worth "doing the long distance thing" for a while.  In fact it may even strengthen your relationship in the long run.

And in the future?  Well, who can say?  Of course I hope that eventually my boyfriend and I will be able to find work in the same country.  But for now I'm just happy to have someone who really gets me.  Someone who makes me laugh.  Someone who calls me on my bullshit.  Someone who always seems to know the right thing to say.

Someone who happens to live in another country.

But you know what?  Some things are more important than that.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

On moving country...

So this week I moved to another country.

This is the second time in my life I’ve done this and, just like the first time, it’s had its challenges.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that nobody likes moving.

As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve read somewhere that it’s right up there with death in the family and divorce as one of the most stressful things you can go through.

Multiply that stress by oh, say two thousand, and you have a pretty good idea of how stressful it is to move to another country.

It looks something like this.
First there’s the visa application. 

There will be a list of things you need.  It will have some standard things, like your passport, bank statements, a few official letters, eye of newt and tongue of frog…  You know.  Easy stuff.  Then there will be a few things that will seem innocuous enough (get this form signed) but in fact are almost impossible to do (the only person approved to sign this form is a wizened old man who lives in a cave at the utmost reaches of the highest mountain in Timbuktu, and to get him to sign the form you must first answer all three of his riddles correctly).

His name is Ted.
But you will jump through all of these hoops because hey, you need the visa don’t you, and there’s no other way of getting it.  So you arrive triumphantly at the visa office, exhausted from the trek to Timbuktu but thinking it’s ok because now you Have Everything In Order.  Except you don’t.  “Where’s the vial of tears from the last surviving dodo?” they will ask you indignantly.  And you’ll say, the list didn’t say anything about a vial of tears, and they’ll look at you like you’re a total idiot and say, yes it did, and they’ll point to a dark and shadowy corner of the list where, sure enough, the tiniest footnote-of-a-footnote says that you need a vial of tears from the last surviving dodo.

He was really sad about going extinct.
So a few weeks later you return to the visa office panting and sweating, with the vial of tears and everything else, and they say “Great!  That’s everything!”  And just as you’re heaving a huge sigh of relief, they add “now we just need you to fill in this little bit of paperwork” and THWACK!  You feel the earth tremble at your feet as they deposit a giant tome, roughly the size of the Talmud, in front of you.  Oh, and by the way you only have 20 minutes left to fill it all out, because the office is only open from 10:30 to 12:00 on a Thursday don’t you know.
I had to learn Hebrew to fill it out.
(Just to put things in perspective, though: my Vietnamese hair dresser once said to me “Oh yeah, visa problems, I know what that’s like.  My family had to wait for five years in a refugee camp before their visas were ready”.  Gulp.)
Anyway.  You finally get your visa sorted and arrive in the country, and that’s when the real fun begins.  You have to do things like open a bank account (THWACK!  Another Talmud-sized stack of paperwork) and find healthcare (THWACK!  again).  And get a phone, and find out where to buy things like milk, toothpaste and bell peppers (don’t even begin to think that you’ll find all these things in the same shop). 
And let’s not forget the most difficult part: chances are, people in your adopted country speak another language.  Here’s a fun fact I’ve learned since moving to Ghent: apparently I look really Belgian!  This means that people keep coming up to me and babbling in Flemish.  Usually asking for directions (I must look really helpful, as well as really Belgian).  I know how to say “Ik wil graag een biertje” and “Kent u Meneer de Koning?”  Neither of these phrases are ever much help.
Of course when you move country you know that things will be different.  But that doesn’t make it any easier when they are different.  For instance, in the UK it’s normal for flats to come furnished.  In Belgium, it’s not.  So now that I’ve found a flat here (which was NOT easy – I could write a whole other blog post about that) I’m noticing millions of essential items – pillows, cutlery, cheese graters and so on – that I always took for granted.  Contrary to my belief, these items do not magically appear with a new flat.  They have to be bought.  Cheaply.  At Ikea.

No, they did not pay me to advertise for them.  But glasses for 0.50 each??  Yes please!
Anyway, I don’t want to focus too much on the negatives.  There are lots of great things about moving to another country.  Here are five that I can think of (and I’m sure you can think of many more):
1.       You’ll visit new places – This one is pretty obvious.  It’s why you’ve moved, right?  But I’m not just talking about the fact of being in a new country.  I’m talking about all the little places you’ll discover.  That coffee place that makes a mean latte without breaking the bank.  The beautiful country getaways you can explore on weekends.  The best place to get food at 2 am.  The funky museums, the chic boutiques, and the cool art galleries.  And when people come to visit you, there is no better feeling than smugly showing off all the amazing places you know about here.
2.       You’ll experience a new culture – Some of it will be completely baffling and some will be mildly irritating, but for the most part you will find it entirely novel and charming.  You’ll probably pick up little bits of pieces of it yourself over time.  (This is perfectly acceptable, as long as you don’t go too far.  That guy moping around Parisian cafes in black turtlenecks and berets, smoking cigarettes and quoting Sartre?  Nobody likes that guy.)

Only this cat can pull off the French look.
3.       You’ll meet new people – All kinds of fascinating, inspiring, funny, challenging, puzzling, and entirely loveable people.  They will make you laugh, they will make you cry, and they will inevitably change the way you look at the world.  Some of them will probably become your best friends.

4.       You’ll try new things – One of the best things about moving to a new place is that it opens your mind to all kinds of things you’ve never tried, and perhaps never considered trying.  Maybe in your old life you weren’t the kind of person to go mountain biking.  But here you are in a new country, and someone invites you out to go mountain biking with them, and suddenly it sounds like an awesome idea!  Now’s your chance to step out of the box.  For example, when I moved to Scotland I discovered that I love hillwalking.  I didn’t exactly get out every weekend, but when I did it was great!  I never would have done that if I stayed in Canada.

5.       You’ll learn a lot about yourself – I know it’s such a cliché to say you travel to find yourself, but to a certain extent, you do end up finding yourself.  (Mind you, you might not like everything you find.)  When you move to a different place you remove yourself from all those comfortable and familiar things that can keep you on automatic pilot and prevent you from encountering some (often painful) truths about yourself.  Being in a different country, setting up a new life from scratch, suddenly you need to figure out some really big questions about yourself.  What do I need to be happy?  What do I want out of life?  What kinds of people should I surround myself with?  Where do I want to be in 5/10/20 years?  It’s a massive learning experience.

6.   Ok, I lied.  There’s six things.  I hate to use the expression “broadening your horizons” (it makes me feel a bit queasy: I always picture one of those cheesy inspirational posters with someone walking into a desert sunset or something).  But there’s no other way of putting this, really.  When you move to a new country, you open all kinds of doors for yourself.  Just like you never thought about mountain biking before, you probably never thought of applying for a job in Hamburg.  But here you are, and here the job is.  You’ve just figured out a lot about what you want out of life and what will make you happy.  Will the job help with that?  Then go for it!

You walk into that desert sunset, baby!
So it isn’t the easiest journey, but for these reasons and many more, it is very much worth it.  Why else would I be doing it all over againWhy else would I go all the way to Timbuktu to get that old man to sign the paper? (Ok, so it was actually a doctor in Edzell, but hey, Edzell is very hard to get to from Glasgow!)

When you move to a new country, you expand your mind, you expand your world, and you expand your possibilities.  It is often frustrating, confusing and difficult.  But it is so, SO worth it.  For the things you’ll learn, the places you’ll see, the experiences you’ll have, and the doors you’ll open.

If you’re thinking of moving to another country, don’t be under any illusions. Don’t expect it to be like a big extended holiday. And don’t expect it to be smooth sailing from the moment you arrive.

DO expect it to be the biggest adventure of your life.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

On gaining confidence...

The past week has been both amazing and terrifying.

I’ve been participating in a series of masterclasses in Stuttgart.  I already know Stuttgart pretty well.  I used to come here every summer to sing in a festival choir.  But this visit was very different.

When I was in the festival choir, I usually travelled with other Canadian singers.  And even if I did fly out alone, by the time I arrived at Stuttgart airport I would be surrounded by old friends, most of whom spoke fluent English.  We would all stay in the same hotels and explore the city together and have an awesome time.  Don’t get me wrong, we worked hard (in rehearsals that were led in English), but as we were in the choir it was a pretty low-pressure gig. 

There was a lot of this.
This time, I travelled alone and arrived alone.  I stayed in a flat with a German couple.  Thankfully, I wasn’t the only English speaker in the flat – there was a girl from New York staying there with me – but conversations at the breakfast table were never fluid and almost always involved a German-English dictionary.  In the masterclasses, although our brilliant teacher was able to speak to one girl in French and to myself and the New Yorker in English, everyone else was taught in German.  And this time I wasn’t there as a chorister.  I was there as a soloist.
All in all, it was a pretty daunting experience.  Travelling alone, singing alone, and on top of it all dealing with a foreign language.  I had to be independent, I had to have my wits about me, and most of all, I had to be extremely confident.

Confidence has never come easily to me.  I’m the kind of girl who agonises over making decisions.  Who asks for people’s opinions on everything.  Who hesitates at every corner.  Who shies away from confrontation.  Who constantly compares herself to others and worries about what people think of her.
I’m not entirely sure where this has come from. 

I have a few theories.  Maybe it’s because of my nationality.  As an overly-polite Canadian my first instinct is always to blurt out “excuse me” and “I’m sorry” (sometimes followed by “eh”). 

It might also be because I come from a family of reserved introverts whose idea of a holiday is sitting around reading books.  Or maybe it’s because I absolutely detest obnoxious people, and my worst fear is to become one of them.
But really?  Those aren’t so much explanations as excuses.  The fact is that, like many people, I struggle with self-confidence.  And if I want to accomplish everything I hope to accomplish, I need to overcome this.  I need to start believing in myself.

Right.  Ok if you’re anything me, at this point you are banging your head against the wall.  Because you’ve heard this sentence a million times before.  “You need to start believing in yourself”.  “YES!” you may scream, “I KNOW I do!!  But HOW???!”
Ah.  Therein lies the real question.  How do you start believing in yourself?  Where does confidence come from?  Well I can certainly tell you where it doesn’t come from.  It doesn’t come from other people.  It doesn’t come from new makeup/hair/shoes/whatever.  It doesn’t come from losing weight or getting a new boyfriend.  And if you go around whinging to people that you don’t believe in yourself, that’s not going to help either.  In fact it will probably make matters much worse.
The fact is, people can tell you a million times that you’re awesome, but in the end the real confidence has to come from yourself.  So how do you get it in the first place?
Well, I don’t know if I have the perfect answer, but I think I’ve learned a lot about confidence this week.

The most exciting part of these masterclasses was that we had the opportunity to sing solos with a very well-respected German conductor.  I’m more than a little bit in awe of this conductor.  He conducted the festival choir I sang in.  From the time I was 19 I would hide in the safety of the alto section while he reigned over all of us from his podium.  Not that I was scared of him per se.  He was just this distant, revered authority figure.  Working with him as a soloist was something completely different, and I wasn’t really prepared for it.

The first day we saw the conductor, we greeted him with a standing ovation.  Then we got a chance to run through our arias and ask questions about tempo and articulation.  Naturally he spoke to all the others in German.  And when the time came for me to sing, guess what?  He spoke in German.  Very fast German.  And my reaction was kind of like this:

I stood there frozen.  I knew I should ask him to speak English, but I was too scared to say anything.  So I concentrated as hard as I could and tried to take it all in.  Understand him, I willed myself.  Come on, you have to understand him!  I knew every word coming out of his mouth was a pearl of wisdom, and I had to catch them all.  I knew some German – surely if I tried hard enough I would get it.

Finally the teacher saw that I was lost and started translating everything into English for me.  Then the penny dropped.  He paused and said “auf English, oder?” then switched to flawless English.  I was really embarrassed.
The next time I saw the conductor was the rehearsal for my aria.  He was no longer a distant figure on the podium – he was up close and personal.  I had to stand right next to him as he conducted, and immediately I changed from a 27-year-old soloist back to a 19-year-old chorister.  I kept my head in my score.  I giggled and smiled apologetically, and answered his questions with a voice like a mouse.

Kinda like this mouse, but not as cute.
He was not happy.  He asked if I could sing it any louder.  I was baffled.  I was singing with full voice, and I have a pretty loud voice.  So I answered honestly that no, I didn’t think I could sing it louder.  Then, like one of those slow-motion moments in a horror film, he asked to hear another singer do the aria. 

I was devastated to realise that this conductor, who I worshipped like a demigod, didn’t like my singing.

In the end he did let me keep my aria.  And the real problem was explained to me.  He didn’t think I was too quiet – he thought I was too shy.
The next day was the performance, and I gave myself a big pep-talk.  Come on, I said.  You’re no longer a little chorister in the alto section.  You’re an experienced soloist.  You’ve done this a million times.  This is just like any other concert.  Smile, hold your head high, project to the audience.  You know what you have to offer, so show it!

This time I sang very differently.  I didn’t hide behind my folder.  I sang out.  It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it was a performance.  I acted like a soloist.  And it felt great.

Like this.  Only it was Bach not Wagner.

Afterwards, the conductor said that “the shy girl sang beautifully.”
The concerts and masterclasses are over now, and I can’t believe how much I’ve learned.  But more importantly, I feel I’ve gained loads of confidence.  It’s not like I think I’m amazing and I can conquer the world.  But I have made significant progress.  And here’s the weird part: it wasn’t just despite my mistakes, but in part because of them.  See, I didn’t just prove to myself that I could do stuff.  I also showed myself that when things went wrong, it was still ok.  I could handle failures as well as successes.

Sometimes confidence eludes you.  Sometimes it’s there, and sometimes you have to fake it.  But most of the time you just have to go for it and show yourself what you’re capable of doing.  You can’t just decide one day that you believe in yourself.  You have to prove that there’s something to believe in.  So don’t sit there worrying if you can do it.  Do it!