Today is my 26th birthday. At 26, my life is wildly different to the one my parents had at this age.
When I was small, so small that the towering fifth graders at my elementary school looked like fully grown adults to me, I asked mum about her life before us. She showed my little sister and me letters she’d exchanged with her high school boyfriends and the notebooks she’d filled with poems, stickers and song lyrics with her best friends.
She told me about the first time she met dad; he doesn’t remember it the same way. Mum rolls her eyes. They love each other a lot; when I still lived at home, sometimes when I walked past their bedroom after dinner I saw them napping together, spooning.
When I was very small, I thought I’d be an adult at 18. I thought grown-ups knew everything there was to know. I thought my parents had been accurately mature when they had me. I counted the years I had until I would be the same age, holding that date up to a finish line that I had to cross, a line that would determine when my life would be like theirs. I thought that’s just how things work.
At 26, mum married my dad, got pregnant with me, and moved to a new city to start a steady job that she would eventually become tenured in.
At 26, I have no man, no home and no plan for what I’m doing in two months’ time. Last month I made about 500 euros, and the only permanence I can count on are the postcards I carry with me to blu-tack onto the walls of the rental room of the week. I thought by now I’d be a published author and have my own Wikipedia page; instead I have 996 followers on Instagram and reoccurring chin zits. I recently cut bangs.
When I was very small, I dreamed of being a painter, a race horse rider, a dolphin trainer, an actor.
By 26, I have been a cowboy, a concierge, a car mechanic, a babysitter, a tour guide and a telemarketer. Real life doles out very little of the magic that we expect when we’re younger; but it does show a steady stream of experience that hardens the path that we walk on.
Now I make my money translating websites and safety manuals. I don’t know if I’m any good at it. The money I make is not much. The dwindling work load must either mean that I suck at my job or that there is less work to be found in general: both options are equally terrifying.
I still dream of making an income of the writings that I never seem to be able to translate from my imagination to paper. In my head, a bundle of loose ends: characters with no world and worlds with no words. I stare at the empty page and wonder if the novel I wrote at 14 will be the only thing I ever finish.
But I have time.
When I was very small, I had a crush on a brown-haired boy in the same class, and I admired him as fully and innocently as a six-year-old can. He rejected me; the next crush I had was when I was 15.
I didn’t know how to dream about marriage, didn’t really understand it or love in general – I lived a very soft, slow childhood surrounded by my books, my pop albums, my posters with ponies on them. I ran around wild with the girl who lived on the same street, and on Sundays I played with my sister. But I thought about children. Maybe because it was expected. Maybe because I didn’t know better. When I was small, I wanted to name my future kids after my favourite heroes from the stories I’d read before sleep.
Some time after I got serious with my first boyfriend, I confessed to mum that I didn’t want to have children. I was in my early 20’s and convinced that he was what I wanted from life. For the first time I was experiencing love that filled me with peace and security, and I imagined I would never fall out of it again.
One night in Greece he swore he would marry me one day. At that point things had already started to sour, and I felt a pang of black panic in my chest.
It has been a few years. Since him, I have met others who had a hard time leaving me but who left nevertheless. Sometimes, alone in my bed at night, I miss the fierce conviction of that fucked up 21-year-old who’d fall for the wrong people and break her bones and stand up knees still bleeding and stubbornly thwart herself towards new love, refusing to give up on that simple idea that love doesn’t only end. I go to sleep alone, and I am a little afraid I have lost her.
But I have time.
When I was a little bigger, I decided I wanted to travel the world.
Since forever, the table I’d had in my room had had the map of the world on it. All the countries were marked with different colours. I remember spelling out the complex names of capital cities of countries I’d never even heard of – they were marked with little black stars, the other big cities noted down with square black dots -, wondering at the wide seas and drawing lines between borders where I dreamed to cross them, impatiently waiting for my life to start.
So at 18, I left, and I haven’t stopped leaving ever since. Some might say that this first trip is what brought me over the edge; but I knew I had been over my past life even before it had ended, and that leaving was always inevitable.
I lost the first friends during that first year away, and many more in the subsequent years. There was never any bad blood; they just faded. It was almost a relief, knowing that it wasn’t assumed of me to carry old friendships that provided neither of us with any kind of enlightenment. But when you realise that, leaving becomes easy; and you keep keeping people outside of your walls because you know they wouldn’t last and you’re afraid they would just trample over the beautiful flower beds in your castle’s garden if you let them in.
And saying goodbye to the ones you have let in becomes really fucking hard.
I have travelled to many places and made many sacrifices to be able to do that. It is exhausting and exhilarating; frustrating and fantastic; even when it’s bad, it still feels good. I wouldn’t change a thing.
As I traverse Brazil and Bosnia and Iran, mum jokes that if she’d known all this, she would’ve never got me that damned map of the world.
At 26, I have made myself a life I didn’t expect. It has defied every childhood dream I had and somehow become more than I could have hoped for. Sometimes that intoxicating bliss overwhelms me. When I’m happy, I’m happy alone – but on the darker days I think of my parents twenty six years ago in that rented semi-detached house near the beach, with the black-and-white cat that used to get stuck in fishing nets purring on the couch, and a closet filled with baby clothes.
But I have time.
A few months ago, I talked with mum on the phone.
‘Strange,’ she told me, ‘I realised the other day that I’m older now than my mum ever was.’
‘Strange,’ I replied, ‘to think what your life was like when you were my age, compared to what mine is like now. I used to think you were a full adult at this point. I wouldn’t know how to raise a baby at this age!’
‘We were terrified’, she said. ‘We didn’t know what we were doing, either.’
‘I still sometimes feel like I’m fourteen’, I confessed.
‘Me too,’ she replied.
‘Me too!’ my little sister, who’d been listening, chimed in.
Sometimes, unprompted, mum tells us how much she loves us and how proud of us she is. I love hearing that. For all the times she’s wondered if I would ever move back to my homeland, for all her worries and protests, I love to know that she is proud I am living the life I’ve made.
I am not the same as my mum was at 26; but neither is the world. My generation will live longer than any before us; conceive babies older than our parents; have access to medicine and technology that only sci-fi books could have predicted. We view work differently than our parents, and maybe even our relationships. We are obsessed with self-improvement and self-discovery. We have realised that the world is a much better place if we’re happy in it, and we are determined to forge our own happiness, regardless of our parents’ heritage.
And to rekindle old friendships and form new ones, to wear a ring on my finger, to see my name in printed letters, to love, to learn, to stay…
I have time.