The Nerves and Their Endings

Jessica Gaitán Johannesson



I learned how to travel from my parents. When my sister and I were kids, my mum showed us how to roll socks into the gaping mouths of shoes, a space which was also good for storing shampoo bottles, with any excess air squeezed out of them, so as to avoid miniature explosions in the hold of the plane. A few days before departure, we were instructed to put aside the clothes we planned to take with us. We learned that you shouldn’t cover the bottom of a suitcase in books, as this gives the impression of a secret compartment when scanned through customs, in particular when leaving Colombia during the mid to late 1990s. Avocados were fine to smuggle as long as they’d been checked in. I once took one home to an ex-partner, then left it with my parents by mistake. My mother posted it from Stockholm to the village in the south of Sweden where I was studying. It was perfectly ripe by the time it arrived, handed over by a bemused receptionist at my college. The boyfriend attempted to grow an avocado plant with it, but it never took root. He’d never seen one that huge, so unlike any avocado he’d ever known.

So much of who my sister and I are, and with whom, depends on the ability to move easily between countries, between identities. My Swedish dad went to work in Bogotá in 1980, where he met my mother, who was then at university, studying economics. They moved to Stockholm in 1983. We were all living in Ecuador when my sister was born, but flew to Bogotá for the birth. The hospitals were better there, I’m told, and my grandfather was a surgeon in one of them. Some places are safe enough to live in, for some people, but not to give birth in, if you have the privilege to make that distinction. After we moved back to Sweden, we used to visit my grandmother, uncles, and cousin in Bogotá once a year, spending about a month there each time. In the mid-nineties, we lived there for three years, and my sister and I went to a bilingual — Spanish and English — school. I lined my throat with a Colombian accent which hasn’t been chafed off yet, even though I haven’t lived there for twenty-five years. Sometimes, tourists from Spain are funny about it. It gives me a taste of new racisms. We moved back to Sweden on New Year’s Eve 1996. My sister eventually left to study at a London university and remained in the UK for nine years. I moved to Edinburgh almost a decade ago, and met Adam, who’s from Yorkshire. About five years ago, my sister moved back to Stockholm, carrying a small Welsh dog, drugged on tranquilisers, as hand luggage. This was before Brexit, when such a move was still possible.

That dog is Swedish-Welsh now, as we are Swedish-Colombians. Swedish-Colombian-Scottish, in my case. The hyphens, those identity bridges, expand to so much: nationalities, ethnicities, as well as the queerness it took me so long to even begin to hyphenate. In the UK, a double-barrelled name is often equated with poshness, whereas in Colombia it is customary to use the name of your father followed by your mother’s name, both constituting your surname, no hyphen needed. I got used to this when living in Colombia as a child and called myself Jessica Johannesson Gaitán for over twenty years, but my passport didn’t agree, as Sweden didn’t use double surnames, and they’d included Gaitán as a middle name. Eventually, I relented and changed. How many hyphens are enough to feel whole? I’m not posh, I want to say, just half-Colombian, but it would be unwise; I’d be making excuses for much more than double barrels. The term, incidentally, originally referred to the barrels of guns.

The Nerves and Their Endings Jessica Gaitán Johannesson