Today I’ve been thinking about the times when I had a hard time with myself or others. Places, situations, interactions when I felt far away, not belonging – even if I wished I could – or when I had a hard time accepting my own limitations.
Sometimes feeling out of place can give you a sense of pleasure, thinking that, maybe, you are special. Yet, most of the times, this leaves you feeling like an alien, even with your family and close friends. Sometimes you are ok with the difference – and distance – between yourself and others. Yet, most of the times, you wished you could be just like them.
So what agency is representing you?”
It started in high-school. I was in the same class with some very pretty and very proud girls. Some of them were models. Dieting was cool, eating was bad. I remember one of them saying how she fainted because of skipping too many meals. Fitting in a pair of jeans of small size was the biggest achievement in life and also a reason to look down on anybody who didn’t. During breaks, the first thing some of these model girls would do was get out of the classroom and check their figure on any surface that was reflecting it: mirrors, windows, tiles… They were talking about castings and photo shoots, making sure the non-models could hear. With a big smile on their face, they would then ask a non-model: “So what agency is representing you?” After that, giggles. That was 1997. And I was not a model.
Stop being so wild and self-aware
During a holiday at the seaside, at about the same time, I was sharing a hotel room with four other girls. One of them was L, my good friend from the block – our families were living in the same apartment building and our fathers were colleagues in the Army – and the others were her friends. They were all two or three years older than me. We were accommodated in Cap Aurora, an Army resort at the Black Sea. Obviously, the place was boring. That’s why we were going to the beach in nearby Neptun, more trendy, if not the trendiest place on the southern end of the coast. On the beach, several guys would try to approach us. Five girls on a sheet did get attention. Besides, the girls were very open, talkative, and very confident, which was getting even more attention. I was not any of these. The fact that random guys came talking to us was really bothering me. L told me to stop being so wild and self-aware. She meant it well, but I was still not happy with the guys’ presence. At night, the girls would go disco dancing – in Neptun or in Vama Veche, a bohemian retreat a few bus stations away. I didn’t join them. I would stay by myself in the hotel room, taking photos – selfies – writing in my diary, and eventually falling asleep.
Is your friend feeling all right?
When L celebrated her birthday – the same year or the year before or maybe the year after – she invited me to Club A, a popular Bucharest hangout, frequented mostly – but not exclusively – by students at the University of Architecture, hence the A. It was my first time in a club. The place was in a way resembling a bunker: under the ground, dark, crowded. Then there was smoke, a lot of smoke, and there was music. Leaning against the brick walls, one leg bent behind, guys with lost looks and a bottle of beer in hand would unashamedly scan the girls. They scanned me, too, perhaps asking themselves what the hell I was doing there. Well, I was at this birthday party. And obviously, I was not enjoying it. I myself was asking what the hell I was doing there. One of L’s friends, a guy, asked her if I was feeling all right. I guess I must have looked really uncomfortable. When I returned home that night, my hair smelling of cigarette smoke, I felt as if I did something wrong. I went to bed hoping never to have to go to a club again.
You lack sensuality
Toward the end of high-school, I started taking private lessons of Romanian language to prepare for the admission at the university. The teacher was an old man, a former academic at the University of Letters. Every other Saturday I would go to his apartment in Drumul Taberei, a quaint residential neighbourhood in Bucharest. Sometimes I shared the lesson with another girl, whom he called by the name of Luli. Luli, too, was preparing for the admission at the Faculty of Journalism, where the Romanian language was a must. During a grammar exercise, the three of around a big table covered in books and papers, the professor opened his mouth. “You lack sensuality,” he said. He was looking at me. “Sure, you’re a pretty girl, but you lack sensuality.” He then looked at Luli. “Luli, on the other hand, is sensual.”
Better not mix them very often
During university, I had a part-time job as placer at one of the Bucharest theatres. I had to be there in the evenings when the shows were scheduled, to help guests find their seat and make sure no one was videotaping. I was part of a team of five ladies, all much older than me. During the show, they would stay at the garderobe, chit-chatting, smoking, and having coffee. Sometimes I joined them, although they preferred I stayed with the guests. It’s not that the ladies didn’t like me or I didn’t like them. Our subjects of interest and conversation topics were so different, it was, in fact, better not to mix them very often. I had that job for two years and I hated it. Because I felt – or I was made feel – I did not belong.
In the years that followed graduation, I was working at the Ministry of Environment in Bucharest. With few exceptions, my colleagues were all engineers and economists – serious people – and I had to read reports, write letters, and attend meetings. I did not see any beauty in it, and so I ended up disliking it. Once again, I felt so out of place. My boss once told me, during one of those meetings, to stop daydreaming. As if that was something wrong.
I realised I could feel out of place even somewhere I liked
And then I was finally on the beach in Vama Veche. Knowing how scared I was to go there with my girlfriends in the 90’s, I was eager, ten years later, with some newly gained experience and confidence, to try again. A frontier village at the border with Bulgaria, Vama Veche allowed people to do whatever they wanted, be it sunbathing naked or having sex on the beach (or so I heard). Hedonists of all backgrounds and ages would mount their tent in the back gardens of locals or on the beach and would spend weeks on end in Vama Veche. Vama was the place to be. So I went, I felt like an alien but loved it nonetheless. I went again and again. I still go there whenever visiting Romania in summer although so many things have changed. In Vama Veche I realised I could feel out of place even somewhere I liked.
Why did you come to the Netherlands then?
Fast-forward a few more years and there I was in the Netherlands, moving in with my then boyfriend. The guy dreamt to become a DJ, so going out to parties and festivals was routine. So many times I found myself in rooms smelling of beer and sweat or at open-air music events, surrounded by people in crazy costumes, dancing on techno beats whose meaning I could not decipher. I would end up exhausted not only for trying to like it, but also when realizing I could not. “Why did you come to the Netherlands then?” a friend would ask. He eventually apologized for it, but the point was clear. Why did I come to the land of electronic music and parties if, obviously, I did not like that?
What can I do for you?
But that was only the beginning. In time I discovered many other places and situations – in Amsterdam – when I felt so painfully out of place, aware of my limitations, not belonging. It’s in Amsterdam where I discovered the corporate environment. Never before had I worked for an international company. At first, I liked it. The lack of visible hierarchy in interactions, the smiles… I almost bought it. Until I learned – the hard way – how much of this was fake. People would be nice because they needed something from you. Else you would be invisible. The one to treat you right today would be the one to ignore you tomorrow. The comfort that it was happening to everyone – so not just to me – was not exactly comforting.
I have another appointment in one hour
And then I had a blog. Suddenly, I would meet “like-minded people” and I would attend events for “creatives.” To my surprise, both the people and the events did not feel much different from the corporate ones. Deadlines, business cards, promotion, strategies, agendas… Even the language reminded me of that at work, when problems were challenges, changes were journeys, findings were growth, using was leverage, and so on and so forth. Once, I left such gathering half an hour after the start, then crashed with a friend – she also attended – in the first bar we found. Other times, I met some of those “creatives” for coffee just to realize what we were having, in fact, was an appointment. Time was always a limitation. “I have another appointment in one hour,” I would often hear. These relationships were thus never meant to develop into something more meaningful. No idea what I was doing there.
Photography is useless
Even with close relationships, things are not exactly rosy. I had a friend telling me photography is useless. She is working in finance. I have friends who are married and with children, and I still don’t know if that is something I am aspiring to. There are friends who quitted their jobs to pursue creative projects and it bothers me when they become too corporate about it. My boyfriend is hurting my feelings when telling me I will never be a professional photographer because I still don’t know how to fully use a camera. He encourages me to draw instead. “Everybody is a photographer these days,” he says. My parents could not care less about my photography or writing. Instead, they wish I were a manager or something. “Stop wasting time on drawing,” my mother would say when I was a teenager. “You should better study maths.”
Whether it happened twenty years ago or yesterday, in the shape of a situation or a person, work-related or private, something I loathed or loved, each time I stood face to face with my own limitations and felt out of place, it hurt – to various degrees. I did not belong. It was them and it was me.
Whether I like it or not, most days I feel that way.