‘The mountains suit you’ Angus messaged today. And so they do. I came here to read and write and whilst I have managed some of that, all my best thinking happens on my feet – and I can’t seem to stay off them.
The natural world in this part of Switzerland is basline stunning anyway, but I find it absolutely bewitching at this time of year. Trampling along the almost deserted alps with my dog in tow, I thought about how younger me – under the well-meaning stares of watchful relatives – was only allowed to go alone as far as the corner shop during visits to my parents’ respective ancestral homes.
Cue a strong tendency towards ‘I want to be where the no people are’ as an inevitable lifelong trait. Counterintuitive given my visible extroversion, but without an occasional hard reset, my batteries don’t charge well.
Yesterday, I walked Lucy along a scenic 5km route to a hole in the wall for some local fare for dinner. A couple of awkward encounters reminded me that there are regional differences in Swiss German. I have made a mental note to check if the new words I learnt on this trip are high German or dialect. The struggle continues but it actually is a really fascinating aspect of the culture here. I returned to my charming airbnb and settled down to read – fittingly a book that involves taking a dog on an adventure.
Perhaps that is what possessed me to take Lucy on a 15.5km meander around Klosters today. She would feel utterly betrayed if she only knew how many times I opted for the longer route – but today it was in the air and brought on by the sun after a recent bout of bad weather and much to the dismay of my ageing pup, resist I could not.
Klosters were a treat – gorgeous even in the handover from summer to autumn. There was a sprinkling of snow on the highest peaks already, the pines in proximity to the landquart river gave the tiniest whiff of that year-end feeling, but the larch trees were still verdant – not yet that magical mustard colour, and a reminder there is still quite some time to go.
The mountains settle me. The walking tires me in a good way. I sleep better, eat one big meal a day and snack on local cheeses. For something warm, I sip a steaming mug of peppermint tea. I compartmentalise work. I was able to reflect fondly and with gratitude for my beloved mother in law whom we lost two years ago this week. I detoxified my thoughts – spending time with a dog massively helps with this – and even spoke German without thinking. I chose the tinkling of cowbells over the many audiobooks and podcasts I have lined up, and for the first time in a long time I was fully present with myself.
This short trip has been a powerful reminder to keep paying myself back with time. We are all deserving of being the recipient of our most valuable asset. A lot of energy is spent creating value for other people – whether in a personal life or work context that it is easy to equate this usefulness with self-worth which in turn is a oneway ticket to burnout. I am fortunate to be able to escape the grind, not just by maintaining hobbies but building habits out of them. Life ebbs and flows but the consistency over the long run – the things that return you to yourself are the things worth investing time and energy in. I write this as water trickles from the trough outside, cowbells tinkle and the occasional wind chime joins the fray. Dusk is settling and the dog has passed out. I am looking forward to finding out what happens next to her counterpart in my book…
I moved to Zurich from Hong Kong in September 2020, and have since become severely algorithmically challenged.
From almost the very beginning, my social feeds were a disaster to wrangle. My first social networks consisted mainly of ex-classmates migrated off chat programs from three different countries.
Then came the friends and family furthering that geographic sprawl, add colleagues, folk from the literary community, and the different social and interest groups as life took its course, including several dreadful parenting groups for the Schadenfreude (and occasional restaurant recommendation.)
In recent years, for better or for worse, we have all observed politics splinter the superficial veneer of our lives online. In 2020 this reached a fever pitch with the plague of our times and a litany of public opinion amplified in the absence of physical places to gather.
I started dropping platforms despite an intense desire to ‘stay in touch’ remain ‘accessible’ and only be ‘one whatsapp away.’ Scrolling made me listless, everything I encountered felt mildly chaotic and a list of connections built up over a decade was unmanageable. It made me yearn for those top 8 days. Posts competed with ads in different languages, time zones, and news cycles leaving me somewhat bleary eyed in the blue light.
My corporate life had springboarded with the advent of social media, and quality content remains part of what forms my professional identity today. The algorithmic shift was a circuit breaker to lifelong digital habits. As a digital native, I was raised on blogs, and cut my teeth on the ‘content economy’. It was not just a way to consume content but to participate and make sense of the world. All milestones had their pixelated counterparts, and became a digital undercurrent to life – over time, and as my family grew it became my scrapbook. Despite this, I have been ruthlessly editing where I spent my time in the last year.
My most used social network is currently causing waves as older millennials bristle at the way it is changing. I am one of them – constantly irritated at not being able to listen to music as I scroll because of the barrage of video content. I am mortified at how much space this thought takes up in my brain but oddly it’s this, and a comment from a friend about reverting to older digital habits that brought me back to this blog. I had given up the domain and was happy to include it in my platform purge – until now.
It’s fair to say I have an unusual name, so the fact that I could never claim the domain was a little bizarre. By strange coincidence, somebody with the last name Gallagher who was in local government in Nashua, New Hampshire had driven the domain price into four figures even years after it was retired – that is, until I checked this week. Even more coincidentally, somebody with the last name ‘Nash’ contacted me for the ‘aDashofNash’ domain for years, and in my lofty ideas of what I wanted previous versions of this blog to be, I held on to it longer than I should have.
A little bit of domain roulette reminded me that it doesn’t need eyeballs or reach for me to want to exorcise white spaces with words. It’s nice to own my own name, and have a place for these footnotes on existence.
The remains of my many childhood journals are in various stages of decomposition in landfills in at least four different countries. I have preserved very little, and what I have kept I cannot bear to read. Nor for the most part can I make out the handwriting or the knotted thoughts I was trying to unpick underneath the writing. As an adult, if I take pen to paper, it’s generally in response to some other symptom that can only be sweated out, purged in whatever metaphoric fever I find myself fighting. Some may call this inspiration.
The thought of leaving out a journal that could be read, (judged, really) – childish scrawls, ideas shallow and new, shocking punctuation et al caused me to panic-rip pages and dispose of them immediately. My subconscious regrettably came to some sort of conclusion that I wrote in order to be read and therefore all my words had to be read-y.
It’s embarrassing to think about now. As though every sentence I wrote began with a shot from the muses’ well, as though folk would be interested in again, the diaries of a _child_, whatever success I would go on to have in later life. Is it any less self-indulgent than your average aspiring writer? Perhaps even on-the-nose considering my particular poison is poetry. Thankfully, this writing-to-be-read feeling didn’t last. If it did, I doubt it would have ever moved beyond a feeling.
It took me ten years to publish my first poetry collection and I have a blog that averages one post per quarter on a good year. This is hardly the behaviour of a rational person who primarily writes to be read. Having actually experienced the pleasure of having my work published and read – even taught (!) I can confirm whilst thrilling, it was not the motivation behind the work. It’s clear now that wanting to publish a book so other people can read it, is like wanting to get married just to have a wedding. To abuse this metaphor further, I find that just like a dress that may not fit years later, there is a stylistic statute of limitation on a piece of work too. This is likely the main reason I will always write. To hear what I sound like, on the outside. It is not elegant or inspiring and is hardly less self-absorbed – but I feel a little bit better that it doesn’t presume perfection, or even an audience.
For years I would chide myself for not being prolific enough. Being a part of a spoken word community helped maintain the habit on a good day, and produced bad poetry on a bad one. I would often grasp at whatever was happening in my life at that time, ram it into the shape of a poem so I could show up on a stage and prove I had something to say, which is in itself the quickest way to say absolutely nothing. Then I would edit it within an inch of its life and find the thing that caused the poem in the first place. Sometimes, several years later. (This is why I have a particular distaste for poems that are forced to rhyme. A natural rhyme is wonderful, a forced one conjures images of a baby straining against a swaddle – parents are told it is the natural order of things, contrary to the wailing evidence in front of them.)
I also loved the extra-curriculars afforded to a writer. Reading feels like a side-hustle, participating in literary events, long conversations dissecting books, performing my work, workshopping with other writers, writing reviews and generally having a space to talk about all the parts of life we have collectively dog-earred. This also serves as a brilliant distraction from writing, and when I grew sick of reading the same poems out loud over and over again, it eventually became the fastest one-way ticket to imposter syndrome.
It’s been a couple years since my first book came out. I have made some big swings in my personal life, shed miles of skin – real, metaphorical, other – and needed to lie down a lot. I am no longer a part of a wonderful spoken word community as this is now on the other side of the world. The pandemic has meant that my goodbyes here sort of petered out, no dramatic farewell, just life that had to be gotten on with.
The pressure to write is gone. The good kind is always within reach, but I am glad to let go of the bad kind, which would often detract from the point of it all. Some of this has to do with having scratched that childhood itch. I wrote a book, people have read it, some have even liked it, but the dream wasn’t the book. The dream was to keep writing.
I do not regret the journals I have thrown out. The words I have deleted. Poems that start in the shower or as I am falling asleep that never get written. The times I have forgotten my notebook, or a pen, or simply forgot to think about it. I am no longer desperate to only archive the things that make me look best, because writing is a true thing, and the process is the point. I do not feel guilty when life gets in the way. In fact, for my kind of writing, life HAS TO get in the way. Just living is passive writing. In many ways I don’t ever stop. In my head, on social media, when I tell stories or write emails. So perhaps, what I am really trying to say is that writing is the way I know true things. This is how I know there will be another book. A truer book, to reflect the next writer I am, and the next, and the next.
I write about that four-letter word a lot. Often through a nomadic lens. A longing, or a feeling, as brittle as an idea, as tight as a knot in your stomach, a noun passing as a verb. My various interpretations of home is the poetic equivalence to being strapped on a mediaeval torture device and having it stretched beyond its means (and meaning.)
Having recently relocated to the other side of the world, my homesickness is of a peculiar kind. Mostly tied to people and food, and not just from Hong Kong. From Sri Lanka too, where I was born, and the Philippines where I spent several formative years. Sometimes the longing is to travel back to places I have only visited. I had the most decadent vegan (!) feast of my life during a stay at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. Another recent desire was to go back to Siem Reap and meander through the temple ruins of the Angkor civilisation. I was bewildered to learn of an overlap between the Angkor and Mayan civilisations. I knew considerably more about the latter, though the former was a mere 90 minute flight away. The bizarre familiarity of Singapore, a casual extension of Hong Kong because of friends and loved ones scattered across both cities. Adjusting my peripheral vision to Melbourne, and then eating my way through the city. The many shades of green, and warming hospitality of Ireland. Business trips to London. Reading poems on a stage, anywhere.
I feel far away, further every day from many of the places I have known and loved, a common feeling as this pandemic bleeds into the second year. We are discovering, albeit slowly (because safety first) the many delights of our new home in Switzerland, but COVID has also cheated us from the goodbyes we owed and hellos we are yet to have.
There is one particular pining for an at-home feeling that has become an itch I can’t wait to scratch, and that is, quite simply going to a bookshop. Or more accurately, finding my bookshop here.
There are few simple pleasures I find as thrilling, and have been wired like this ever since I was a little girl when my mother would deposit me in the nearest one whilst she shopped. (Something I secretly hope my own family would do!) I never found the time I ‘killed’ at a bookshop wasted. The excitement and low-grade anxiety at finding ‘the one’ for the weekend, or as a present for someone else (I don’t need the hand-wringing that comes with this but is still my favourite thing to gift people.) I miss it all.
Here are some of my favourites from around the world… starting with my home town of Hong Kong.
Bookazine is where you would find me cross-legged on the floor as a child and popping in often on my lunchbreak as an adult. It’s been very cool growing up with Bookazine, although I would concede that their glow-up has been far snazzier than my own. Younger me would be delighted to know that I eventually launched my own book there, and I will admit openly and self-indulgently that seeing it in their branches all over the city remains a personal highlight. I have seen people glance over it, pick it up, give it a once over and put it down, and thrillingly, once someone took it to the counter. I considered saying something for a nano-second and was so embarrassed by the thought I ran out of there to the relief of my bank balance.
Bleak House Books is effortlessly cool, an indomitable spirit and a literary light in the city. They sell both new and second-hand books from all over the world with enviable curation prowess. Some of my most treasured books originated from their shelves – a vintage copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and the graphic novel ‘Rosalie Lightning,’ for instance. They also carry the largest collection of pocketbook Penguin classics I have seen in Hong Kong. In normal times, Bleak House Books host multiple events in support of the literary community and are a real asset to and amplifier of the Hong Kong literary scene.
Flow Books is a scavenger hunt disguised as a second-hand bookshop. The floor-to-ceiling gravity-defying tetris of books is a wonderful visual metaphor for the Central/Soho neighbourhood it is based in. There is extreme danger of doing some damage to your neck as you crane horizontally and vertically looking for a gem amongst the bestseller duplicates of the last two decades. I have knocked over more towers of books than I should publicly admit, but have also discovered some real gems. Oddly, a 700+ historical account of the Vietnam War is one of my prized possessions from Flow.
Onward to Singapore!
Books Actually – I have never felt so gobsmacked by the sheer volume of Asian literary talent and how front-and-centre-shout-from-the-rooftops celebrated local authors are. I made a rather non-human sound at the poetry section alone, which was prominent, well-stocked and expertly sourced. A browse around the shop is an education in how diverse bookshelves can be. Brain candy, wherever you look. The most prominent feature (for me) was a book vending machine in front of the shop. The books in the vending machine are uniformly wrapped, with only the briefest of lines about them to entice you to purchase. I regret not doing so, convinced it wouldn’t be long before I returned (with a bigger suitcase.)
Finally, to London where pleasure always mixed with business, certainly where books were concerned.
Persephone Books is justifiably a cult favourite. Both bookshop and publisher, Persephone re-publishes 19th and 20th century books from predominantly female authors whose work gets a second life where they may have been under-appreciated the first time around. The books are limited, numbered, and printed in signature cool grey covers, and walking into the shop is a minimalist, feminist dream. The end papers are unique to each book, and comes with a matching bookmark which as you can imagine, is deeply satisfying. Their free catalog is sent all over the world and has become a favourite way to spend an hour or so with a giant marker and an even bigger cup of tea. They aren’t just beautiful books. The variety is wonderful, and there really is something for everyone. Outside of lockdown, the staff are extremely knowledgeable and though I have never visited at 4’o clock sharp to confirm this firsthand – the shop stops for tea and cake precisely at this time every day. I could do a whole series just on the books I love from Persephone Books, but will save that for another time.
Daunt Books is old-world wanderlust meets the most marvellous dark wood panelled library of your dreams. I have only been to the Marylebone shop but enter and you will see what looks like a modern-edging-on-chic bookshop – transform – or rather transport its patrons around the world by way of its ground floor galley. Think ‘Fox Books meets The Shop Around The Corner‘ from the movie You’ve Got Mail, but British, and rather grand. The books downstairs are organised by country of origin and it is easy to be completely enthralled and taken in as you peruse the shelves. There are few – bordering on no bookshops I have visited outside of Sri Lanka with more than just travel guides about the country. Outside of the county-specific selection the general fiction and nonfiction shelves are also rather excellent, or so say the number of cloth bags from Daunt that I possess..
Writing this was a rather cheering, or at the very least, settling. To have stumbled on so many wonderful bookshops in multiple countries suggests it’s not unreasonable to hope that I will be able to add to this list before long. After all, book sales are currently booming the world over according to multiple reports. Looking forward to the day where we can do more than add-to-cart, although having said that, I know at least three of the shops above offer book subscription services worth checking out.