The other day I found myself ticking the box ‘do you consider yourself part of a minority‘ and was a bit shocked myself about that. Yes, for some time now I’ve been feeling increasingly aware of my status as an EU citizen – or ‘migrant’ as it’s now often referred to . And of course it’s far more complicated than the simplicity of a perfectly square tick-box suggests: for once, nobody among my friends in the UK would ever call me EU migrant or think of me that way. So why am I so willing to take on the label? Why am I so keen to believe the story that I’m in the way, taking up space I shouldn’t ever have dared moving into?
Sitting outside the ‘Cabin on the Hill‘ I can see clearly not just over the tree tops of Ashdown Forest but also over some of the issues that don’t start or end with my ‘migration’ status.
For the moment they start with Jill Scott and that line in my favourite song – Golden – that used to confuse me a little: ‘I’m taking my freedom...’ Today I’m beginning to feel a bit closer to its truth (which includes that I’m not even going to spend any thinking time on deciding whether this is actually about ‘truth’ or ‘truths’). That light-headed freedom, weightless freedom, almost careless freedom – made easier by the fact that I’m sitting on the big swing in the Cabin’s garden as I’m writing this: letting it rock me gently, forward, backward, forward, backward, forward while a breeze strokes my hair like the cat here that strokes around my feet when she’s seeking company.
Freedom began this morning when I woke up to the sound of rain on the Cabin’s roof. Torn between relief and disappointment that my plan of going for a pre-breakfast walk was thwarted and the best thing to do was to curl up and extend my stay in bed. But it didn’t last long, neither the rain nor my capacity to curl up: I could feel the weather changing around me even though the sound of water dripping from the leaves above the Cabin could happily have been mistaken for rain. And when I poked my head out from underneath the duvet I saw the fragile beginning of sunshine daring into the room through that little gap in the curtain. While all sorts of grandiose pre-breakfast walking and writing plans darted across the back of my mind like shadows I settled for the front steps of the Cabin. There I sat leaning against the warm wooden planks, finding myself slowly enwrapped by the light that fought it’s way through a snug layer of clouds, down the hill and into the valley. It felt like witnessing a new birth not just of day after night but of a new possibility – summer – lightness – after the heavy start of the morning. Maybe that was infectious. Maybe I just had it in me today. But I ended up barely leaving those front steps all day – only occasionally swapping them for some time on the swing when it got too hot up at the Cabin.
For once my default for discipline didn’t win over this organic emergence of the day for something more organised or physical: part of the temptation was that I knew I’d have the garden all to myself because Monica, who owns and organises the Cabin, had gone out for the day. I believe she’d be sad or horrified if she heard that I’d ever felt the slightest bit of concern about taking up space in her home, her garden: she’s absolutely dedicated to her guests feeling at home here and feeling comfortable to share the space. She has frequently pointed our spots around the garden I could sit: the swing, the bench on the little patio or even at the table outside her kitchen which is a cool shady spot during the hot hours of the afternoon. It’s not her who’s got an issue with my taking up space, it’s me. And taking my freedom today means also that I’m feeling utterly at peace with being here and not having any anxieties that I might step on the toes of someone else’s freedom.
Talking toes is, actually, the other part of my sense of freedom. Sitting here on the swing in the sun, every now and then letting my feet just dangle down or stretching my legs up high into the sun and looking at them benevolently: having grown up and comfortable with lots of body shame the one that’s been the biggest challenge have been my legs. Not just the fact that they are quite, well, sturdy (after all I cycle about 2,000 – 2,500 miles a year) but also very white, seemingly unable to catch just the slightest tan and laced with an eye catching web of red and blue arteries called ‘Krampfadern’ in German which literally translates to ‘cramp veins‘ and really doesn’t give them the slightest chance to ever escape their closet of ugliness. Varicose veins. I’m not just talking about a few oddly visible veins but about a total revolt in blue, green and red that’s broken out across my legs from the knees right down to my feet like spiders that have taken over the pile of fire wood stacked up outside the Cabin.
When I was a child I couldn’t understand why my mum wouldn’t ever wear shorts or skirts in the summer unless she’d be able to wear nylon stockings with them; I remember my shock when she once explained to me that it was because her legs were so ugly, white and vein-dotted. At that time I thought she was being overly dramatic and should just get her legs out and let the sun do the rest. Some twenty years later I found myself doing exactly what she did and still does: keeping my legs covered. The utmost I’d go for would be skirts and ¾-length leggings. Being frustrated each year again that while my arms and face tan so easily from cycling around, whatever was exposed of my legs would outrightly refuse to play its role in taking on a more healthy shade and covering up those ugly marks. I would walk down streets (worse: a beach), secretly envying every pair of unmarked smooth legs around me and believing I could feel the gaze of everyone’s eyes on the ugliness of my legs and could hear their comments about the audacity of that woman daring to take up public space with those legs. At some point I arranged in my head what I thought would make a brilliant line of self-defence for the day when someone was to finally challenge me on my legs: that of course they were a creation, a drawing of water ways, a mapping of meandering streams in mystical woodlands, ravenous rivers in wild mountains, dashing waterfalls in unknown jungles, the seven seas with mermaids and sea lions… and this one here: the Nile Delta thirsty for the first monsoon of the rainy season.
Only that to this date nobody has ever approached me about them and, secretly I believe that’s because they are so embarrassed that they couldn’t even get themselves to acknowledge them by asking. The most perfidious thing about this is that, equally secretly I would agree with every person that I assumed was feeling about my legs in that way: according to me they have an absolute right to be repelled because they have a right for their space to be filled with beauty, not blotchy.
Something changed this summer. One day during the recent heatwave I felt such an urge for light clothing that I went on my bike with a knee-length wide skirt and just a pair of cycle shorts underneath mostly to tug in the ends of the skirt so that the wind wouldn’t flap it into my face. I felt so hot and so relived that I didn’t give a sod whether anybody took notice – or offence – of my legs. A day later I mentioned this to a friend who it turned out had a similar issue with her legs and under great laughter we declared the next day ‘Freedom for Krampfadern Day‘ because we felt that even our varicose veins had a right to fresh air. So I went to a gathering with that same leg-exposing skirt and shared my experience during our check-in. I laughed about it: not an embarrassed, timid laughter but a hearty ‘sod it‘ laughter. And people came up to me afterwards to appreciate me for what I shared. One man told me the story of his callous feet and how he’d recently decided to set them free, walking around publicly in flipflops and celebrating the occasion with colouring his big toes in bright red nail varnish.
And now I’m sitting here on that swing in Monica’s garden with a short skirt, most of my legs out in the breeze. I can see the veins snaking up my ankles and calves but for today I know they won’t bite. And I’m marvelling at my freshly painted toenails: for the first time in almost thirty years they are coloured because my friend had offered to so. I had felt so comfortable about this and so inspired by that man’s feet-story that I let her get on with it, and on top of it with a frivolous shade of pink that would put Pink Panther to shame.
That’s my new freedom. I’m celebrating it today. Taking it out for a ride on the swing. Getting light-headed. Pink-sighted. Remembering those summer days as a child when I sat on the swing for hours singing out loud to myself. I’m beginning to ease into Monica’s garden. Sensing already that tomorrow I won’t have any anxieties whatsoever about taking up space in her garden with my blotchy white legs and pink nails.
And I wonder whether one day I’ll feel equally comfortable taking up space in this country as an EU migrant, just being me, hanging out in the sun, feet dangling in the air and singing out loud?