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What a year.

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

With bipolar characterising my life, I guess 2023 has been typical: all over the place. And my god, it hasn't been easy.

That's me on the Red Sea!

I write this on Christmas Day in the Netherlands, having just returned from a much-needed break in Egypt. My friend organises liveaboards from Malta to the Red Sea and invited me on board last-minute, due to a cancellation. It was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to, especially as my dad and his family wanted to give me “a relaxing experience” for my master’s graduation and birthday in October – what better than a week of scuba diving on a fancy boat in the Red Sea?

It was incredible: we dived with dolphins, sharks, turtles, lots of moray eels (my favourite) and I spent some time with a beautiful octopus. The reefs were unbelievable and the wrecks even more so. We spent three dives on and in the SS Thistlegorm, a British cargo steamship sunk by a German bomber aircraft in 1941, considered the best wreck dive in the world. Filled with motorbikes, cars, boots and other things left behind, the scenes were unreal. And so were the scenes above the water, with deep red sunsets and dolphins all around, looking out over mountains and deserts as we made our way around the north of the Red Sea.

But as anything, this trip didn’t come without its challenges. Maybe you can imagine that spending a week on a boat with twenty middle-aged Maltese men and a few Egyptian ones, as a 24-year-old foreign girl, could be somewhat of a challenge. It was. I had tried to not be bothered by the microaggressions of husbands to their wives, the lack of substance in conversations and the subtle macho culture on board, but when we got lost on a dive because people (men) refused to listen to me when I communicated that we should be going in the opposite direction and there was a very strong current, after which I was made fun of by the organiser who suggested “this is why we should dive with a guide” (because god forbid you trust a woman with the navigation), my mood was ruined. And instead of anyone acknowledging, apologising or even just checking in on me, a lack of emotional intelligence on board left me alone with my feelings. That said, the trip itself was absolutely worth it – I'll just think twice before boarding a boat by myself next time!

I accidentally got myself on a last-minute luxury liveaboard not once but twice this year, when I was visiting a friend in Bangkok in April. Coincidences and luck connected me with an organiser who had a sick divemaster and needed someone to fill in last minute. I did so, happily. Having wanted to dive the Similan Islands and looking to spend quite a sum on boarding a liveaboard to do so, this was like a gift from the gods. I spent the week guiding divers through places I had never been and was marvelling at myself, having fun with the staff and enjoying the views of the Andaman Sea. And that wasn’t even the highlight of my trip to Thailand. I went to visit my friend in Bangkok and to celebrate Thai New Year – a huge water fight in the entire country. She showed me around town and I got to live the Bangkok life for a while. This is the best part of having friends all over the world! (The bad part is having to miss them the rest of the year.)

That was during the Spring break from my master's, which I thankfully managed to finish this year. Brussels gave me so much, yet really wasn't for me. I finished most my exams in June, except for the last one, as my grandpa passed away late that month. It was a tough time. He looked after me when I was a toddler, he taught me to use the computer, and we did lots of arts and writing together. He was a journalist, and unknowingly I treaded in his footsteps. While he worked at a Dutch daily, de Volkskrant, for three decades, I went international. There were so many differences between our work, which we loved to talk about: from print to digital, from Utrecht to Brussels, from heading into the office every day to working from wherever I want. Journalism changes fast, but the core principles remain more or less the same. We could talk about it for ages.

The family situation wasn’t the easiest either, as he left behind a bit of a mess. I stayed in his home while he was in the hospice, where he honestly had the time of his life, but after a month or two I was kicked out of it in an unpleasant way. I looked into getting a mortgage to buy the half of the house that my mother didn’t inherit, but didn’t manage in the end. I was holding on to the last place that physically represented him, at the canal in Haarlem, with a view over the city. His writing room was beautiful. But the house is sold, thanks to which my mum managed to pay off her own mortgage and part of my student loans. Thanks to grandpa. His birthday was earlier in December, and we sent out a card in the form of a bookmark to commemorate him. Everyone loved it. He is remembered and celebrated. What more could you wish for?

Spending the summer in the Netherlands for a change was eventful. The circumstances weren’t easy, the weather wasn’t great, and the reason I was there wasn’t a happy one either. Still, it was good to be with my best friend and family during a period that would have been difficult to navigate in any case. The best part was having my own place. I’ve never lived alone, without flatmates, and it was like a breath of fresh air. My housing situation in Brussels was abysmal, with a mice infestation and a secret weed plantage in our attic, and the landlady has never returned my deposit, so being in my own place with no one leaving the kitchen dirty or letting a mouse float in the sink was refreshing. I enjoyed it so much. It was a home in a place where I could breathe, a home that wasn’t mine but that fit me the way a mother’s red heels fit her four-year-old daughter.

That’s one of the reasons I moved to Gozo, Malta’s smaller sister island. I packed my stuff in a bag and three boxes and flew back to Malta with Sir Godwin at the end of October. It was after my graduation ceremony on the Grand Place in Brussels and moderating the EU World Mental Health Day Conference in the fancy Concert Noble, where I welcomed the Queen of Belgium and other esteemed guests. I needed a place to come home to myself. And thank god I found one, a beautiful apartment in Gozo, affordable because it’s hours away from central Malta (at least by bus), where my bedroom balcony looks over the hills of the countryside and my terrace has a stunning seaview. We live at the coast, with a hidden swimming spot right in front of our door, and not a day goes by where we don’t see the sea. It’s healing.

There’s so much I’ve done this year. I spent last year’s NYE in Malta, making it to my friends’ party at two minutes before midnight. I have never felt as at home as I do in Malta, especially in that friend group – which has now spread around the world again, in true international fashion. I started running (and stopped again), doing the 10 kilometres of Mechelen. Quite the accomplishment for someone as non-athletic as me. I went to Perugia for the International Journalism Festival, and absolute highlight and the first of many times. I spent a weekend in Paris with my sister, who spread her wings in Montpellier and speaks French more fluently than I do. I went to investigative journalism conferences in Mechelen and Brussels, to a science journalism program in Strasbourg and the European Youth Event right after that. I hosted friends in the European capital, from Hungary and Malta and beyond, I got my thesis accepted for publication in the SAGE journalism journal, I attended the M100 Colloquium and five days of climate reporting workshops in Potsdam, I received a research journalism grant to attend the Berlin Science Week and was invited to a training on migration reporting in Madrid that I unfortunately had to miss because everything had become too much. That was last month.

So much has happened, and looking back, it’s not weird how exhausted I feel. What a year it’s been. And how glad I am to now have my own place in Gozo, that I can afford while freelancing my way through journalism, where I am away from busy Malta and the depressing Netherlands and Belgium. After everything that happened, I just want to be at peace with my dog. What a privilege to have that option.

All I hope for 2024 is for it to be a calmer one. I’m already overwhelmed with incredible opportunities I’ve been given for next year: giving a workshop on mental health in media in Paris and another one on environmental reporting in Malta, a Schuman traineeship at the European Parliament’s liaison office in Valletta right before the European elections take place, and going to Perugia for the journalism festival again. I’m living the life I’ve always dreamt of – I think the main challenge is to make sure I don’t overwhelm myself. It’s easier to say yes than to say no.

If you’re still reading, thank you for being so invested in my life. This is no end-of-year essay with an inspiring message or a critical analysis of the state of the world. It’s just an overview of my life this year. It means a lot to me that you care. I might write something on my new year’s resolutions soon, but I can’t make any promises. And if you’re interested in a more profound insight on current affairs in Western Europe, subscribe to The European Correspondent if you haven’t yet – my look-ahead newsletter is sent out on 8 January. (I love this edition.)

I hope you have a happy end of the year, and an even better 2024. Take care!



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