A family visit

My grandparents will be here soon! Can’t wait to see them 💜🕯️🌸”

It was late October and I was living in Mexico City when I read a workmate’s excited Facebook post about an upcoming family visit. Over lunch the next day, I asked if her relatives lived far away and when they were arriving. She laughed and told me, “I was talking about Day of the Dead.”

Sugar skulls of all sizes in a department store

I’d already experienced Día de Muertos during my first year in Mexico. I’d seen the colourful paper decorations and sugar skulls, joined the office celebrations and visited the giant ofrendas at the university campus. I thought I knew what the day was all about. But this was something totally unexpected.

It sounds strange to say about a festival centred around death, but I had no idea it was taken quite so seriously. I knew this was a time to remember the dead through happy memories of their lives. What I hadn’t realised is that people truly believe their lost loved ones return for the day.

Bright flowers and intricate paper decorations are key parts of an ofrenda

That conversation in the work canteen helped me see Day of the Dead in a whole new light – one I wrote about here a few years later. I was absolutely captivated by the thought that, by gathering together and remembering someone in the most joyful and vivid manner, you were bringing them back to life in a way.

This newfound understanding was put to the test in 2019, when I made my first real ofrenda. It wasn’t much of an offering. I wasn’t even sure I should be doing it, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I’d lost two beloved grandparents that year, one of them just a few weeks earlier, and this seemed like a symbolic way to externalise my grief.

My first tentative attempt at an ofrenda

I hesitated until the last minute before finally deciding to go for it. I dug out some old family photos, candles and a few Mexican ceramics, and bought some cheap flowers on my way home from work. If nothing else, I thought the time spent putting it together would be time spent remembering my loved ones.

But somehow once I’d thrown it all together on a small table in the hallway, I was filled with warmth and joy. Every time I passed, I basked in the glowing lights and sweet scent, and saw my grandparents’ faces smiling back at me. It was a space to celebrate them and their love, to invite them into my home in another country and to honour their memory. In short, it meant a lot more than I ever expected.

Candles and flowers greeted me in the hallway

The following year I didn’t hesitate. After the isolation of 2020, the idea of surrounding myself with so much beauty and love was irresistable. This time my ofrenda took pride of place on the bookcase in my living room. I’d stocked up on paper decorations on my last trip to Mexico, and managed to order sugar skulls and pan de muerto from a local Mexican baker.

Alongside the traditional candles, salt, water and bunches of flowers, I added a bottle of Irish whiskey, my grandma’s ring, a birdwatching book my grandad gave me. Tiny glimpses of their life on earth.

My grandad Bri beaming at me from his photo

Looking at the warm smiles and shining eyes in their photos, I had a sudden moment of realisation. I was the one who took those photos in the first place – so they really were smiling at me. This little moment of magic was the final touch I needed to fully understand what this day means.

Last year’s ofrenda

We spent 2nd November together. Alone in my house, I talked to them, took comfort in happy memories and made my peace with not having been there in their final hours. That evening, I raised a glass to them all and said goodbye until the next year.

Now once again it’s late October, my grandparents will be here soon and I can’t wait to see them.

Reflections on last year

After washing off 2018 in the ice-cold water of the Nieuwjaarsduik, it feels so distant now that it’s hard to remember just how tough last year was. In all, 2018 was a heinous year in terms of my professional development and mental wellbeing, yet it was bookended by two very different trips that reminded me what it feels like to be truly passionate about what I do. In February, I volunteered with Random Acts in Nicaragua, and in late November I was sent to San Francisco to work on copy for Alexa. There, for the first time in months, I felt truly valued and challenged as a professional, I was growing every day and I was desperate to learn more. This end to the year has almost – almost – made all the shit that came before it worthwhile, but it’s important not to forget how very low the lows of 2018 were. I’ve never been made to feel so worthless while so readily accepting it.

Thanks to structural changes and a meaningless role, I teetered on the edge of burnout for months, lost all confidence in my skills and potential, had no idea what I was good at or why anyone would have anything good to say about me. I didn’t get any help with it, watched as two teammates burned out in front of me, and chose to avoid facing it directly by ignoring my senior role and throwing myself into basic copywriting tasks and Random Acts volunteer work until I was too busy to think. Even so, I was crying in the office, constantly on edge, struggling to quiet my mind and relax, having trouble sleeping, didn’t want to do new things or get out of my routine. I felt lost and disconnected, guilty at my lack of Dutch language skills, and panicked at the thought of losing my Spanish. I considered moving back to Barcelona but wasn’t even in the right headspace to handle interviews for jobs there. Eventually I had to leave Random Acts because I was mentally exhausted after months of stress.

What saved me was kindness. My existing friendships were strained by everyone’s own stresses and issues – managing to be supportive when a teammate first described how great it was to be on sick leave taking time for herself is probably my biggest achievement as a human being in the whole year – but in some cases emerged stronger, while two new friends turned things around at moments when I needed it most. In June, someone from my department reached out asking if there was anything he could do to help me out, and it kick-started a friendship that has let me laugh, learn, grow and share my most secret self. Then in September, working with a new stakeholder who inspired me led me to reach out to him at a time when (unknown to me) he needed it most.

I also managed to make my own happiness, with a month of daily acts of kindness for AMOK, followed by over a month of sharing everyday joys. Some days it was a struggle to think of a single good thing, others were overflowing with Oranges, but the experience was overwhelmingly positive. I learned to recognise “signs” (a fluffy dog on the tram after a terrible day), connected with new people and reconnected with old friends, talked Rumi and Mary Oliver and the meaning of life, and generally reawakened my love of life and improved my overall wellbeing.

Overall, it is 2019 and I am OK.

Search for my tongue

Studying Spanish made me question my very existence on many occasions. At university, I wondered over and over why I’d chosen a subject that actively brought me stress and unhappiness, that pushed me so far out of my comfort zone.

When I moved to Spain after graduating, the doubts didn’t go away. It took me years of hard work and guilt and self-doubt to be comfortable speaking in Spanish, and many more to become truly fluent. Then I moved to Mexico and felt like I’d skipped backwards several years, to a time when I was still second-guessing every word I said. Again, it took a lot of effort to get back to the level I was at, and finally to surpass it. I may have ended up with a weird hybrid accent and a bunch of stubborn mistakes so ingrained that I’ll never fully lose them, but Spanish has become so much a part of me that it’s almost like a second native language.

Would things have been easier for me if I’d stayed in my English-speaking home country? Undoubtedly. Living in another language makes everything just a little harder than it needs to be; as if a switch has been flipped and life has ramped up into “expert mode”. But having learned a language to the level I have, I can say without hesitation that it was worth it. The structures of Spanish have revealed pathways and connections in my brain that I never knew were there, made me think about the world in new ways, made me into a whole other person.

So far so good. But two years ago I left Mexico and moved to the Netherlands for work. I arrived in Amsterdam full of excitement and threw myself into my first few Dutch classes. But my enthusiasm soon waned, and almost two years later, I haven’t learned the language in the way I hoped. In fact, I’ve resisted it. I can’t find room in my head or my heart to acquire one language while desperately clinging onto another.

At first I wasn’t worried about forgetting Spanish altogether. Surely I’d lived with it – lived through it – for too long and used it too extensively for that? But it wasn’t long before I noticed a certain hesitancy creeping into my writing, making me double check my words before I shared them, a slight rustiness that made me slower to speak up, lazier in my sentence structures, left me tongue-tied mid-conversation. It doesn’t help that I’ve already seen other languages slip away from me: my nine years of French almost vanished, my once-confident Catalan now muddied and mixed up.

The sweat and tears that went into learning these languages are one reason to fear forgetting, but it’s so much more than that. I have several friends in Spain who I’ve only ever spoken to in Spanish, some of whom don’t speak any English at all. After a year in Mexico, I came back with a whole new accent and vocabulary, and one of those friends told me, “Si me cierro los ojos, ya no eres tú” – “If I close my eyes, it’s not you any more.”

That comment enough was a shock. Spain was the place I’d lived since university, where I’d grown up and got a real job, where I’d blossomed and become an adult, where I’d adapted to a different culture and struggled to fit in. Living in Mexico was a dream come true, but Spain was where I truly felt at home and I didn’t want to lose the roots I’d put down there.

Three years on from that comment, sounding like a stranger to my friends is the least of my worries. Now it’s bigger, deeper, more gut-wrenching. What if I lost my fluency and struggled to speak to those friends at all? In practice I know it’s unlikely – I would never let it get to that stage – but on a theoretical level, it could happen. My Spanish-speaking self exists outside of me, a parallel entity who depends on me keeping up my hard-earned skills. If I never practiced Spanish again, “La Lauren” would slowly fade away, and the person that my friends knew and cared about would cease to exist.

There’s no clever conclusion here, no grand ideas about what it all means or what I should do about it, but voicing these thoughts feels like a first step towards making some kind of decision. Stay and throw myself wholeheartedly into Dutch life – and the Dutch language – or go back to the place where my heart already lies?