Sweetheart Cities

The enchanting smell of the bakery woke me every morning; the neighbours’ chatter in a delectable foreign tongue easing me from dreams to reality. My mother and grandmother bustled in the courtyard behind the house, their banter in the same language I spoke but sweet to the ear nonetheless. My sisters played on my dad’s lap in the hammock outside while my aunt and uncle chatted at the table beside. Our days in that place started with these warm smells and comforting sounds and were followed by winding excursions to the Mediterranean beach, fresh ice creams awaiting us.

Many evenings during this month, festivities took over the village: little girls my age dressed in polka dot dresses with frills on their sleeves, their mothers and aunts and cousins adorned the same, flocked to the square in colourful packs. Men in vests tuned their guitars while families filled the streets and the balconies above the plaza. I watched, entranced, as the women began to dance, feet stomping to rhythms so fast I could barely keep track, hands snapping castanets in syncopation, their frilled tails twirling behind them. Tired but ecstatic, we would walk back through the narrow streets, uphill all the way to our little house.

img_4562
La Plaza del Sol, Madrid, Spain

I was enamoured, totally and completely. Cómpeta, this small village in Andalucía in the south of Spain, was my first sweetheart city. I knew I would come back and I promised the Spanish language would one day become my own. Even at just seven years old, I felt a light inside of me in this place, a comfort and familiarity with these surroundings that was not through experience but sensation alone. That’s what a sweetheart city is: a place not native to you but where you feel both at home and more alive in a way that no other place can make you feel.

 

What I didn’t realize at the time in this Andalucían corner  was that I hadn’t just fallen in love with this one town but the whole country. I made good on my promise to return, traveling back to Spain on family trips and school excursions a few times before finally moving there in my early twenties. I also came to speak Spanish fluently, as I told myself I must do.

During those later trips and the three years I spent living in Spain, I realized I had a sweetheart city in Madrid, too. To this day, my heart skips at the thought of the Spanish capital – I can smell its air, taste its food, find my way through its winding core to my favourite corners.

img_4561
In my element

Sometimes I think I became myself in that place, I found who I wanted to be – or perhaps who I always was. This is a key element of what makes a sweetheart city, I think. It isn’t just the delicacies and the architecture, but what the locale makes you feel about yourself when you are there. I am exceptionally fortunate to have traveled to so many wonderful places in my lifetime and I have loved many. However, none made me feel like the same way. Madrid – Spain, really –has me enganchada (hooked) for life.

 

img_4251
A hidden bay in Vela Luka, Croatia

This past summer, I was thrilled to visit this sweetheart city of mine again and discover that of my best friend Sonja for her wedding.

Born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sonja spent her summers in her father’s hometown of Vela Luka, Croatia. When she and her (now) husband decided to get married, they chose the small island town of Vela Luka to host just 30 of their nearest and dearest. While I had visited the Croatian island on vacation before (at Sonja’s recommendation, of course), I had never been back with her.

When I arrived and saw her in this new terrain, I recognized immediately the joy and contentment on my bestie’s face. In Vela Luka, she became her true mermaid self, in and out of the turquoise Adriatic every hour, munching on fresh figs she picked from a tree on the road, always barefoot. Sonja and I met in middle school in Toronto at 12 years old. Since then, we have been best friends and watched each other grow through so many moments of life. Despite knowing each other so well for so long, never before had I seen her like this, in her element. I realized I never could have known this part of her because it could only fully come alive in this special place.

img_4442
Sunset besties

After the beautiful wedding in Vela Luka, I flew to Spain to celebrate the nuptials of another dear friend. Returning to Madrid felt like coming home. The last time I visited the city was in 2011. In between then and now, I had recrafted roots as an adult in my hometown of Toronto and lived in India for the better part of a year. I didn’t know how I’d feel – if that sweetheart feeling might have changed for me because I had changed so much in that time.

img_4527
A classic Croatian breakfast spread

But no. Spain still felt as familiar and enchanting as it always had. And despite the great life changes that had occurred in between my visits, I experienced those same glorious sensations: the contentment in my middle, the skip in my step. It felt so good.

It’s truly something else to have a sweetheart city.

I would delight in hearing tales about your favourite places. Please feel free to leave a comment below and tell me what corner of the world makes you come alive again.

 

IMG_3182

Balance: Making Space

You know that moment when you realize you’ve exceeded your limit? When you’ve said “yes” too many times? When the weight of all of your load seems heavier than ever? And then something happens and the mountain of responsibilities comes crashing down on you?

They aren’t nice, those moments.

We’ve all experienced them – myself included.

To keep that feeling from recurring, I’ve asked myself some tough questions: Why does this happen? Does it need to? What have I done to contribute to it? Am I creating a problem where there isn’t one?

The answers to the above are endless and personal and shift from day to day. But the response that remains consistent is BALANCE. And more of it. The subject of many conversations, in law especially but across fields, balance can be an illusory goal, albeit a necessary one.

I’ve noticed that balance is commonly described in hours: finishing work at a certain time, spending so many hours with family, exercising for X hours per week. I, too, have conceptualized it in this way before.  However, my notion of equilibrium has shifted recently.

For me, now, balance is about open spaces. It is about leaving room to enjoy. And for things to go wrong.

That might seem like a rather negative approach to the concept; counterintuitive to the idea of balance itself, which is meant to uplift, not bring down. I don’t mean to be pessimistic. Rather, it’s my attempt to be realistic about how to keep the scales aligned (and spirits high) when, inevitably, life gets tough.

Work gets intense. Period. But we are trained to allow it to, to think that is normal, even to seek it out. The legal profession, in particular, is an extreme one. Lawyers face numerous deadlines, great responsibility with greater consequences, and enormous effort required at all times. It’s pretty hectic. Even if you manage to contain work within certain hours, the sensation of pressure remains when you’re off the clock because you feel like you have to keep going, a break is a failure, a lack of ambition.

I also realize that – like many of my colleagues – I put a lot of pressure on myself. To perform. To perform well. To perform well all the time. I am constantly pushing myself to do more and do it the best I possibly can. This drive isn’t a bad thing, but I admit that, sometimes, I’m a bit out of touch with reality. First, it’s impossible to 1001 things really well all at the same time. But also, even when a project isn’t an instant success doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Such reminders have been good for me. And acknowledging how I contribute to my own stress is important to rectify it.

Our professional lives are always going to occupy a large part of our lives. Understanding why and how is important. The question here, however, is how much space do we give this sector of our lives?  When we become so consumed by work and let it absorb all of our energy and capacity, we don’t leave any room for the rest of our lives. We take on so much that in order just to function and get through it all, there is no choice but to run at our highest capacity all the time. So, as soon as other aspects of life become complicated, breaking point arrives instantaneously because we haven’t left any room.

Those complications could be as simple as a cold: when you get sick, how much does your world turn upside down?  Or it could be a fight with a loved one: how low do you drop when that happens?

But when shit really hits the fan – serious health problems or financial struggles or deep emotional upheaval – then what?

Well, without balance, rock bottom is far closer than it has to be.img_4077

On the flip side, when life is going smoothly and we don’t overburden ourselves with work, we have the scope to really enjoy and savour the good times. We are fully present with our loved ones. We are better parents/partners/daughters/friends. Sleep is deeper and more fulfilling. Food even tastes better because now it isn’t simply fuel but ceremony.

Yet if anxiety seeps into every corner of life, the little pleasures are ruined, too.

So this is a call to leave room. Create space. Feel better.