Several months ago I received the most delightful surprise in the mail. My Instagram friend, Kirsten Michalski, from @neverforgetthosedays, sent me a polaroid of one of her gorgeous photos, a snapshot of her life in Hamburg, Germany. Included with the photo was a handwritten note, explaining how the enclosed photo was a part of her #letterfromkirsten project, letters and photos sent around the world - Singapore, Guatemala, Sweden, Russia, USA and Iran - to friends and Insta friends alike. I was completely honored to receive such a thoughtful gift and to be a part of her story. Not only did that tiny act of kindness better connect me to someone halfway around the world, but it also showed me how very connected we all are in this digital space and how monumentally important it is to share inspiration and hope in this challenging world we all live in. I am so pleased Kirsten agreed to be interviewed for our debut issue, Self-Discovery, as I felt it important for all of you to get to know her.
Kari: Before we get started, can you first tell us a little about yourself?
Kirsten: This is the shortest but most difficult question to respond to. :) So, here are some hard facts: My name is Kirsten. I am a 33 years old Dutch/German girl, living in Frankfurt, Germany. As my parents used to move a lot, I grew up in Saudi-Arabia; my hometown is beautiful Hamburg in Northern Germany from where I moved 2 years ago. I got married last year in June and I work in Marketing at IKEA.
Kari: You and your family have such a rich history and have migrated across the globe. Is there any one place (or maybe two) that feels like home? Can you share a bit about what makes it home?
Kirsten: To be honest: No. :) Many people say that home is any place close to family or friends. For me, although I miss them like crazy, the city where my parents, sisters and also many of my friends still live is my hometown but - for several reasons - not my home anymore.
In the past years home - to me - became a feeling that is closely connected to how I feel about MYSELF and IF I feel I can be myself in a certain place or situation. This mostly depends on the people around me and their attitude towards this world, life in general and what they expect others to be like. I try to avoid people who make me feel uncomfortable and learned that if surrounded by positive minds pretty much any place can feel like home.
Kari: What inspired you to start @neverforgetthosedays?
Kirsten: When I started @neverforgetthosedays in 2013 I was completely unaware of how great all of this would be one day. I uploaded my first picture in New York City. I simply thought it would be a great opportunity to share my photos instead of storing them in folders on my computer – never looking at them again.
After some time I added my favourite quotes and lyrics to the photos and slowly it became what it is today – my way of expressing what I feel – in pictures and words – about whatever comes to my mind.
Kari: Any meaning you’d like to share behind your account name?
Kirsten: In 2010/2011 I had some pretty tough times. When they suddenly turned better I found myself thinking a lot about how everything in life changes and how hard it seems to remember either the bad or the good times once they are over. @neverforgetthosedays means to appreciate every moment and to not forget where you’ve been.
Kari: I love the mix of cultural insight and visual expression in your photos. What are the moments that really inspire you?
Kirsten: People and moments inspire me. Or let’s say it like this: People IN moments inspire me. The obvious one’s like a refugee from Syria speaking about his journey from Aleppo to Frankfurt. Or a friend who documented his desperate loss of hope in life in a blog through months – until the day he committed suicide. These are the times that remind me of how lucky I actually am, even in times that don’t feel like it at all.
But, there are also these tiny situations, like colleagues talking behind the back of another or the guy in traffic who smiles from the car next to mine. It’s moments like these when I think to myself: “This is the kind of person I want to be. And this is not.”
Kari: In addition to your talent behind the lens, you are a gifted storyteller as well. Are there specific themes or messages you like to focus on?
Kirsten: One of my favourite websites in social web is called End.Quote. They share beautiful pictures and quotes about love, self-discovery, war…
In fact, the sentence that touched me most is not from a quote but from a comment the page owners themselves stated after the attacks in Paris. Basically, it said that the topic of terror, war, religion and all of what comes with it is much too complex to write something profound about it on Facebook. They finished with the words: “Forgive the world and allow yourself the mere belief that your example could change it.”
I couldn’t say it any better. Whatever you do, whatever happens in relationships, in politics… there must be someone breaking the cycle. If you want, you will always find a reason to continue frustration and hate. But, if you decide to forgive, to get over it and go on with your life you – in first place – free yourself and - secondly – will help others to do so, too.
If I there’s one thing I want people to find in my words, it would be the motivation to become a better person and with it make this world a better place.
Kari: Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for #lettersfromkirsten
Kirsten: Over the years I printed many of the photos I posted on Instagram without actually knowing what to do with the photos. As I love writing letters, I decided to send them out by mail – to friends first and one day I asked on Instagram if someone would like to receive one. More than 30 people responded.
It was a coincidence that I actually sent out all the letters the day after the attacks of Paris. I did not watch any news, did not check websites for updates on the numbers of victims; I wrote - all day long – each with a personal message to the recipient. The letters went out to Singapore, Guatemala, Sweden, Russia, USA and Iran. It was such a small thing to do, but in the end I felt that there was no better way for me to handle the world in this situation. #lettersfromkirsten – to me – will always be connected to this feeling and I hope I can pass this on to others with my letters.
Kari: Receiving your photo and hand-written note made such a positive impact in my day. What has been the response to #lettersfromkirsten been so far? Any favorite moments you’d like to share?
Kirsten: All of the feedback was positive. Some responded how much they liked receiving a letter in this digital world. Some posted a photo of it on Instagram and some sent a letter in return. The biggest surprise was a girl from Denmark who sent a “shared diary” in which she wrote the first pages and forwarded it to me to continue writing and pass it on. Seriously, how cool is that?
Kari: Instagram is a powerful medium to reach new people and connect on like interests. Can you share you experience about community and what it means to you in this digital age?
Kirsten: Instagram connected me to people I might not have become friends with because our ways would most probably not have crossed in real world. This app makes you see people through their photos first – regardless of their age, nationality, religion, favourite type of music. We’re just all a bunch of kids who love exploring this world. The result, an uploaded photo, is 100% digital. But our experiences together are 100% real – many of them definitely count to the best times I have ever had in my life.
Kari: There is so much turmoil in the world right now and I have found your approach as a global citizen to be incredibly inspiring and important. What advice would you give people to encourage a more inclusive outlook of the world when everything feels hopeless?
Kirsten: I believe that nobody gets up in the morning with the intention to do “bad”. Even if 99% of the people would call it that way, we have to learn that this is just a perception and that what is perceived as “bad” by a majority might be perceived as “good” by others. Perception is built through experience. Of course, there have to be moral standards and there is no way I want to justify any kind of violence. But, what I believe is that if we try to see what happens in this world as a consequence of a long history of experiences there is also a chance that we create new ones in the future. If we allow our hopelessness to become frustration and our frustration to become hate we will start over and over again. So, once again: “Forgive the world and allow yourself the mere belief that your example could change it.”
Kari: Our issue’s theme focuses on Self Discovery - Given how much you travel and how open you are to new experience and meeting new people, how do you think this has impacted your own “Self Discovery”? Any surprises about yourself you can share with us?
Kirsten: Learning about others is the best thing you can do to learn about yourself. Whenever I leave my comfort zone, I return as a somehow new version of Kirsten and it became almost an addiction to see, feel, experience new things.
Still, what surprises me most about myself is how I manage to go to bed content and self-confident and the next morning I wake up as a complete mess. I try to see it as a part of the process and I am happy that there are places I can return to in times like this.
Kari: How long have you been traveling and what have been some of your most favourite experiences?
Kirsten: I’d say I have been traveling all my life. Before I was born my parents moved from the Netherlands to Japan, Argentina and to Saudi Arabia where I grew up. It was very normal to me that my father spent months working in Brazil or Oman. Sometimes we joined his business trips; in school holidays we went to Holland to visit our relatives or to the Philippines and China to meet friends. As a family we have always been on the move and as my sisters and I grew older we continued living this life: One moved to Holland to study, the other works as a flight attendant and I spend every spare Euro and every spare minute out of town. :) It definitely is in our DNA.
My favourite experience is at the same time my story of 2016. In February I met a young Syrian who came to Frankfurt as a refugee and is a good friend of mine today. I have to say that this friendship is extreme on many levels. There are differences and similarities in ways you wouldn’t expect. We explored the city together, went to concerts and talked for hours… Honestly, I never knew how sad someone else’s story could make me feel; there were times when I started crying only from someone saying his name.
It took me quite a while to get back on my feet: I needed time to re-arrange my feelings and to find a new state of mind where all this information he gave me would find its place and where I could still be positive about the world. Then, in May I travelled to New York City - on my own. On the evening of my arrival, I went to a concert of a Lebanese band my Syrian friend introduced me to. This night I danced with people from Egypt, Lebanon and Syria to songs about love, war and LGBT and – suddenly – it felt ok.
That night was nothing but perfect: New York City and people from all over the world dancing together to songs that make you believe in better things.
Kari: Are you a solo traveller, group? Do you have a favorite?
Kirsten: I love both, traveling on my own or in groups. Being on my own is always my time for self-discovery and I need a lot of that time. But traveling in groups is nice simply for the fact that you have someone to share your experiences with.
Kari: What’s next for you?
Kirsten: My next trip is to Warsaw, then New York City again, Vilnius and Reykjavik in October. In November and December I will be in the hospital for a while – probably the most exciting journey of them all.
You can follow Kirsten on her many travels via her Instagram account @neverforgetthosedays
All images care of Kirsten Michalski.