Monthly Archives: September 2011

Good old-fashioned guilt

I don’t “do” guilt the way you & your brother do.  Sure, I’ve experienced it; but it’s just not a lifestyle choice for me.

Someone once said this to me and I thought it was pretty funny. And while I vaguely recognised myself in the accusation, I was more interested in the main point being made — that guilt might be optional.

Like all emotions guilt has an evolutionary purpose. Guilt is the cloak of our conscience and without one we’d be unable to construct moral codes and the societies, governments and laws that require them.

Guilt refers to the sense (real or imagined) that we’ve done something wrong. And that we feel bad about it.

Going back to the Feeling Wheel, I was initially surprised to see that guilt is a shade of sadness. I get that a sadness lurks under guilt, but I’ve always associated it more with fear, with anxiety and with weird circular thinking.

I’m talking about personal guilt. Not the legal kind or even the social kind (where we break or fear we have broken a social norm.) The personal variety stems from violating our own standard. I think that’s why it’s so much more prevalent — because left to our own devices, many of us build up hard-to-live-by expectations of ourselves. (Which we eventually blame on our parents!)

Speaking of parents, there’s another kind of guilt that gets muddled up between social and personal guilt. It’s terrifically vague and ghost-like in the way it moves about. I call it Ancestral Guilt — I’m referring to middle class guilt, and the white middle class kind, Catholic guilt and the Irish Catholic kind, Jewish guilt (which while more neurotic than most, is also loads funnier — see for example this definition of a Jewish Guilt Trip) — and while there may be fractions of this guilt that stem from our own actions, most of it is inherited from what others have done or worry they’ve done or have been accused of doing.

There’s probably more branches of this sort of guilt than I’ve named, but these are the ones I know. These culturally ingrained social guilts trigger deep down personal guilt that’s often difficult for us to pin point but is present nonetheless, walking around with us, however quietly.

For years psychotherapists have argued this — that we carry the guilt of our ancestors. I’m sure a bunch of geneticists are somewhere right now hunting for biological proof to back this up. If we can pass on our intelligence and even our sense of humour, why not guilt?

This is the subject of this weekend’s blog — the phenomena of guilt. Stay tuned, unless you have better things to do and have absolutely nothing to feel bad about … in which case, don’t mind me — just go ahead and enjoy yourself.

Everyone else — see you tomorrow!



Filed under Uncategorized

The Outsider

Home is where you don’t have to explain where you’re from — which means for some people home is an entire country but for more and more of us it’s a much smaller place.

There was a time in my life when that place was my grandparent’s kitchen. Anywhere and everywhere else involved having to answer this question.

While I think Fred is right and that the issue of being Dual more often reflects other people’s confusion than our own, their questioning cost me more than it did them. They were just having a conversation and forming an opinion. I was busy being accepted or rejected.

In my mind when people ask: So … do you feel more American or more Irish? it’s always a trick question.

Whatever my personal truth may be, this is the sort of interrogation that crops up at first introductions or fresh acquaintanceship and it’s a thin veil for

“I’ll decide if I like you depending on how you answer this.”

There is, of course, only one correct answer.

People want us to admit that we are exactly what we seem on the outside — which in my case is what I sound like. Because I want to be liked, I’ll reply, “Well, obviously I am an American.” To which there is a visible relaxing of my questioner’s brow.

But I mean really, isn’t it better to ask personal questions where what the other person thinks of themselves might actually be the answer?

I don’t know why I’m obviously an American. It can’t be at that at 5 minutes into my life I found myself in Madison, Wisconsin (though it sounds like a nice place to be from.) Zero to two years old is no time to be learning to act like a local.

And it isn’t because America is where I call home, otherwise I wouldn’t have left and made my home in other places.

What makes me American is the way I think and the way that I talk. Not my family history. Or my sense of where I belong.

But what used to really get on my nerves is I swear that I think and talk the way I do because I’m me! And I hated it when everything that I might be got brushed aside with the cursory “Sure, but you are American.” I suppose a lot of us think we are who we are because we’re individuals when all the evidence suggests that’s half the story at best.

America isn’t just a nationality — it’s an idea. It always has been. First a series of outposts for pioneers and religious outsiders, later an invitation to the rejected of the world to come to a place where hard work would save you and now a flailing Super Power at the heart of any international debate about morality. So it’s not like people are stating a simple random demographic fact when they decide you must be from that land.

Fortunately for me, I’ve grown up just enough to become a lot less sensitive to all the things that other people tell me I may be. But, no kidding, it used to really, really piss me off.


Filed under Identity, Relationships

What to do about Facebook…

How different my life might have been …

* * *

The other evening I was filling in my ‘hometown’ on Facebook and found it surprisingly difficult.

I am born in Finland of Finnish parents, but my family belongs to a 5% linguistic minority who speak Swedish.

We’re known as “Finlandssvenskar” or “Finnish-Swedish.”

Traditionally the Finnish-Swedish community has had a strong, albeit diminishing presence with schools, churches, universities and a political party — all in our own language (i.e. Swedish.)

When I was about 3 years old my family moved from Finland to Sweden and so I never learnt to speak the Finnish language, which roughly 95% of Finns speak. I still hold the passport of the country where I was born, but I can’t speak the mother tongue.

Recently I went on a date and after explaining where I’m from, the man hit it right on the head: “Oh, so you’re one of those who doesn’t belong anywhere. The Swedes don’t like you because you’re Finnish and the Finns don’t like you because you’re Swedish.”  He was right. He was also a British expat. We were out to dinner in Switzerland which is where I live today.

I first arrived here in my early teens after my parents left Sweden. Since making Switzerland my home I’ve left it and returned four times. I live in the French speaking area of this quadri-lingual country but go to work at an American multinational and speak English all day. I listen to English-speaking Swiss radio and 90% of the books I read are in English (the rest in Swedish or French.)

One of my brothers took US nationality a few years back. My other brother sought Swedish citizenship as soon as he turned 18. Lately my mother has said she might take Swedish nationality as well. That would leave me the only Finn in our family, which adds an interesting dimension to my quandaries.

So what to do about Facebook.

At first I didn’t put my place of birth (Helsinki). Instead I put Viggbyholm which is the suburb of Stockholm where I lived for 7 of my childhood years. The next day I decided to change my entry, as in fact I was born in Finland after all! As soon as I logged on, a Swedish friend sent a message saying that I should be proud of my origins. By which she meant Finland. And I am proud, it’s just that I don’t remember my first years — those in Helsinki … my earliest memories come from Sweden.

Perhaps the difference between Sweden and Finland and Switzerland may seem minimal to you. “You’re all blond and blue-eyed aren’t you?” (Actually, I have brown eyes.) But that’s the beauty of Europe. Drive a few hundred kilometers and you’re in another country with different architecture, culinary preferences, language and cultural traditions. Finland and Sweden are like France and Belgium, or England and Ireland. Similar, but absolutely not interchangeable, as the complex histories between these countries show. And Finland is actually from another European ‘tribe’ than the Scandinavians, the ‘Finno-Ugric’ tribe.

The other day I reading marketing theory and was struck by the statement:

Transient people are less loyal

The author was talking about brand loyalty, but it made my think about my own loyalties in life. It reminded me of a letter my grandfather, a retired clergyman, sent my parents when they left Sweden for Switzerland. In it he asks my parents to handover raising me to them – as such a nomadic life would not be healthy for me.

I wonder how my life would have turned out if I had been sent to live with my grandparents and grew up in Finland.

I might have married at 25? Might I even be a young grandmother now? Instead of going on dates with other expats, still single, regretting that I never had children, wondering if that’s got something to do with my transience and sense of loyalty, trying to decide if I should move back to Sweden … and making it such a long story to explain where I’m from. 🙂


Filed under Guest blogger, Identity, Not in London

Trading places with Samuel Beckett

Which was the more likely scenario … that at the end of the Second World War, Samuel Beckett would leave Ireland for France? Or that my grandmother would leave France for Ireland?

The former.

I mean, Leaving Ireland is part of Being Irish. Whereas good blue-blooded French people rarely leave French soil and when they do, they don’t move to Ireland. Up until very recently, no one moved to Ireland — no matter how misty or enchanting.

“Present but distracted” is how my grandmother describes the Beckett she once knew. While they were never close, they were both stationed at the Irish hospital in Saint-Lô. Set up by the Irish Red Cross as a great act of charity (though not always welcome by the local French physicians), the hospital was part of an effort to rebuild a town that was almost completely decimated during the Battle of Normandy.

Known as the Capital of the Ruins, this is what it looked like then:

Beckett was 39 years old at the time, my grandmother somewhere in her early twenties. Beckett had already made a good dent in his career — having lectured and published some books. And thanks to the war and German-occupied Paris in particular, my grandmother had already been forced to grow up fast. As a French Red Cross ambulance driver she was dispatched to open the concentration camps. As a history student, there are so many things I want to ask her, but my grandmother comes from an era where the past is not for analysis and in certain instances, it’s not even for discussion.

Like many other people at the end of a war, Beckett and my grandmother, whether they knew it or not, were at cross-roads in their lives and it seems that their work at the hospital became entwined in the two different decisions they made — one leaving Ireland for France and the other vice versa.

Scholars claim that Saint-Lô marked the end of Beckett’s early career and made way for what became known as his “middle period” when he would produce his best known work. According to a piece in The Irish Times (written by Phyllis Gaffney, a lecturer in French at UCD, the author of a history on the hospital and the daughter an Irish pathologist who served there), “Saint-Lô was a crucial cultural watershed for Beckett, pivotal in prompting him to cross over into Frenchness and to write in French.”

This “spiritual exodus” occurred in a liminal setting: an Irish hospital in the heart of Normandy. At Saint-Lô, Beckett was living in France yet consorting on a daily basis with a greater cross-section of Irish people than he had previously mingled with in Portora or Trinity. The close juxtaposition of the two cultures helped confirm that he had more intellectual affinities with his host country than with de Valera’s Ireland

Now, no one who has ever met my grandmother would think to suggest that she’s shed any of her Frenchness despite having now spent most of her life in Ireland. And she certainly never chose Ireland for its Irishness. No — she left Paris for Dublin because she met a man with a fast car. Which is a fairly French thing to do.

Having made friends with one of the nurses, my grandmother paid a visit to Ireland (and we’re told that even that caused panic amongst her blue-blooded relations who weren’t at all sure that Ireland was a safe place to go.) But go she did and during that short stay she was introduced to a man who would later race his car through Paris.  She’s often joked that it was the car she fell for — which he then unwittingly sold to pay for the ring.

I don’t know if my grandmother has ever suffered dual-ness. I think she’s too deep down French to have got confused. (I suspect it was a good deal blurrier for Beckett.) But dual-ness did make its way down into the generations my grandmother created.

Almost all of her children met and married foreigners — French, American, English and Dutch. My mother didn’t, she met and married an Irishman, but they then made their way to America where my brother and I were born and grew up.

No one understands dual-ness better than the Americans. Actually, they insist on it.

Kindergarten children are routinely told to raise their hands if they’re


Or Italian

Or German

Or Polish

Or Russia

Or African

[Notice, they never bother to ask about the French, who for the most part are all back in France.]

But if dual-ness can create a sense of specialness in America, it can also trigger identity crises in other countries. Being of two places can often mean never being fully accepted by either. That’s the subject of this weekend’s blog where guest blogger Katarina Linden will take the idea of dual identities one step further.


Filed under History, Identity

Get better acquainted

In the 2nd part of today’s 9/11 post, a few words about fiction and community.

On fiction — many have commented that there’s been no “definitive” 9/11 novel and are asking themselves why. Fiction often helps us understand and process what reportage and facts fail to deliver. In this brief 5 minute conversation several authors talk about 9/11 fiction. Listen here 

And if you’re out and about and unable to tune in, here’s an interesting article on 9/11 fiction from 

On community — late last night I received an emailed announcement that took me by surprise. It was from the co-founder of

If you haven’t participated in a meet-up, check out the site. If you’re in London you could sign up to online marketing and social media events, “healing” nights, laughing clubs and impromptu gatherings of improving Spanish speakers — all taking place in the next couple of weeks. If you’re stuck working in a foreign city, meet-up’s are a brilliant idea.

I never knew that meet-up is a “9/11 baby” — born of a desire to get people talking to their neighbours again. The idea was to use the internet to get people off their computers and back out into the real world — spending time with like-minded souls and building off-line, in-the-flesh communities. Scroll down to read the email I received.

On getting better acquainted with other people — as squirmy as it feels to promote an hour of streaming Nat, since it’s just been published it would be weirder not to. And anyway, if you’re my Facebook friend you’ve already been bombarded with it earlier this week. So to wrap up on a weekend of podcast recommendations, this one involves getting better acquainted with me.

Brought to us by Dave-of-frequent-mention here at Panic Station, GBA (Getting Better Acquainted) is a weekly show about Dave getting better acquainted with someone. In this case — that person is me.
Listen to it here.

I’d also highly recommend getting better acquainted with Dave himself — Listen here for a very amusing collection of personal stories which he’s captured in the opening GBA podcast. Or if you’re short on time, start with this GBA sampler

Till next weekend, over & out — have a great week!

* * *

Email from Meetup Co-founder

To: Nathalie Hourihan
Subject: 9/11 & us

Fellow Meetuppers,

I don’t write to our whole community often, but this week is
special because it’s the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and many
people don’t know that Meetup is a 9/11 baby.

Let me tell you the Meetup story. I was living a couple miles
from the Twin Towers, and I was the kind of person who thought
local community doesn’t matter much if we’ve got the internet
and tv. The only time I thought about my neighbors was when I
hoped they wouldn’t bother me.

When the towers fell, I found myself talking to more neighbors
in the days after 9/11 than ever before. People said hello to
neighbors (next-door and across the city) who they’d normally
ignore. People were looking after each other, helping each
other, and meeting up with each other. You know, being

A lot of people were thinking that maybe 9/11 could bring
people together in a lasting way. So the idea for Meetup was
born: Could we use the internet to get off the internet — and
grow local communities?

We didn’t know if it would work. Most people thought it was a
crazy idea — especially because terrorism is designed to make
people distrust one another.

A small team came together, and we launched Meetup 9 months
after 9/11.

Today, almost 10 years and 10 million Meetuppers later, it’s
working. Every day, thousands of Meetups happen. Moms Meetups,
Small Business Meetups, Fitness Meetups… a wild variety of
100,000 Meetup Groups with not much in common — except one

Every Meetup starts with people simply saying hello to
neighbors. And what often happens next is still amazing to me.
They grow businesses and bands together, they teach and
motivate each other, they babysit each other’s kids and find
other ways to work together. They have fun and find solace
together. They make friends and form powerful community. It’s
powerful stuff.

It’s a wonderful revolution in local community, and it’s thanks
to everyone who shows up.

Meetups aren’t about 9/11, but they may not be happening if it
weren’t for 9/11.

9/11 didn’t make us too scared to go outside or talk to
strangers. 9/11 didn’t rip us apart. No, we’re building new
community together!!!!

The towers fell, but we rise up. And we’re just getting started
with these Meetups.

Scott Heiferman (on behalf of 80 people at Meetup HQ)
Co-Founder & CEO, Meetup
New York City
September 2011

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Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., Current affairs, Not in London, Podcasts, Relationships, Self-help

Podcast 9/11

Being a part of New York City today makes it impossible not to dedicate this post to 9/11 on the 10th anniversary of those events.

It’s a sunny Sunday morning here and the City is somber and so far quiet.

Remembrance events — private and public, small-scale and massive are scheduled for throughout the day with both Obama and Bush at Ground Zero to join the proceedings.

Opening with the spooky emergency call from flight crew to land support, this is a remarkable library of audio collected over the course of September 11, 2001 as events unfolded. Compiled by the Rutgers Law Review, the podcast captures segments of the final moments of people onboard AA Flight 11; UA Flight 175; AA Flight 77; and UA Flight 93.

It’s not for everybody and plenty of us don’t wish to engage in what happened that day by pouring over the details of it. I learnt what I needed to as I watched what happened live and have since chosen to avoid much of the media frenzy that broke out in the days and weeks and years afterwards.

But this morning I did take a few moments to tune into this archive and take myself back ten years —

From the Aviation News website — here’s a link to the podcast

More later today on fiction, community and getting better acquainted.

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Filed under Current affairs, Not in London, Podcasts

Science, celebrity, self-help and above all, brilliant stories

Today I offer a shortlist of 3 podcasts I just love. And for those of you who are not on Facebook or who are but for some reason are not my friend (why not?!), I’ve cut and paste Dave’s comment from yesterday where he shares a list of podcasts he once gifted to me and has now made available to you. A treasure trove of excellent listening.

And what’s so great is that all these podcasts are absolutely free, so if you enjoy them, remember to subscribe to them.

Nat’s taster menu

  • On Being – a show hosted by Krista Tippett —  In her quiet campaign to support my attempt to embrace yoga, my mom sent me this interview with Seane Corn, Hollywood’s hottest yoga instructor. In part a discussion of the mystical and mental benefits of a yogic practice, we also learn about addiction, obsessive compulsive tendencies (i.e., Seane’s own story of escaping a damaging life) and some of the global projects Seane dreamt up to combat “psychic terrorism” and to help get kids off the street. Listen to it here
  • Fresh Air – one of radio’s best known interviewers – NPR’s Terri Gross. Search Terri’s interview library by topic — there are conversations with writers, politicians, TV show producers and chefs covering everything from book, movie and music discussions to hot political issues (like this week’s conversation about the top secret intelligence network that has exploded in response to 9/11).  One of my personal favourites is Terri’s conversation with actor Gabriel Byrne (Gabriel: if ever you stumble across this blog, please know that I sat two seats away from you in the Horseshoe Bar at the Shelbourne in Dublin last October and it was hard not to introduce myself and mention that I am available to marry you at any time). Listen to it here
  • I am sorely tempted to mention another RadioLab podcast on my top three (and ok, I will — Falling is a fantastic podcast which trips us through why life seems to go into slow motion if we fall from a great height, to why we talk about falling in love to the defenestration of cats) but on my official three-worth-tasting — I’m going to plug a lesser-known, up and coming series called …
  • I Like You — where each week a guy and a girl talk about “love, like, dating, and the opposites of those things.” Try this 7 minute sampler 

And now for Dave’s treasure trove:

These are some podcast series I’d recommend to you and people who like to read what you do:

Too Much Information

Jon Ronson On…

This American Life [also recommended by Nat’s mom]

WTF with Marc Maron

The Moth [also recommended by Nat’s mom]

Spark London

Slate Culture Gabfest

New Yorker Out Loud

I Like You [on my top 3 list above]

Common Sense with Dan Carlin

(RadioLab obviously)

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Filed under Bibliotherapy, Podcasts