Nora sits next to me on our apartment’s couch, eating vanilla ice cream, while Gossip Girl is muted on the television. This aligns with a typical evening at our apartment; Nora sitting on the couch, sometimes with a bowl of homemade pasta in hand, other times with her guitar, sometimes balancing both. Food and song are the most common exports here, and both are made with immense love and skill.
Nora is a 25 year old neuroscience researcher by day and a singer songwriter by night. She came to America from Belgium for the first time in September by herself, and has been making it her own since. Red lipstick and a chic hat are Nora’s trademarks. She can be found busking in the park, researching in her medical lab at Harvard, cooking delicious meals (usually pasta), or chatting with a complete stranger she met at a bus stop. That is the one thing about Nora: she is the most social and independent woman I know. It’s rare to find these two qualities working cohesively together, but Nora seems to have mastered it. There is something very independent about being as radically social as she is. I knew that she was special when I came home one evening to find her laughing on the couch with a girl I had never seen before who was eating the pasta that Nora had cooked that night. “Meet Elisa! I met her in the laundry room and invited her for dinner!” she said, gesturing to her newfound friend. Since then, I have grown to expect strangers on our couch, always with a bowl of pasta and perhaps a glass of wine.
When Nora came to the U.S., she had very few possessions with her when she arrived, only the necessities. One necessity she did not have was a guitar. Within her first week in America she went to Guitar Center and bought Nina. Nora names all of her instruments. Her first guitar Max (she thought max was a powerful name for a woman), her second guitar Nancy (for Nancy Sinatra), her third guitar Stevie (after her friend Steven gave it to her), her fourth guitar Nina (after Nina Simone), her ukulele Richard (she “thoroughly enjoys” the name Richard), and lastly her piano Franklin (after Aretha Franklin). Nora’s life has gone through many shifts, but making music has been the one constant.
The city of Charleroi, Belgium, will forever be where Nora calls home. Although Nora loves the places she travels, she says that she hopes to one-day return to Belgium because it is the only place that ever felt like home. This is where Nora learned how to play piano, where she found her voice, and where she performed in her first big concert. She shows me pictures of her home, and her backyard is a beautiful garden with a koi pond that her brother spontaneously dug one day. This pond became Nora’s spot where she would sing and compose most of her songs. The yard also had a huge garden with a variety of vegetables; vegetables that Nora says create high standards for the sad wilted greens that sit on the shelves of Star Market here in the states.
Nora came to the states to further her career in music, but with a scientific twist. Her passion for music extends past the guitar and into the lab. She came to America because of her internship at Harvard University where she is studying Speech Linguistics. She is working on a study that relates music training and language development.
Nora spends her days either in the lab or in various schools recording the voices of children for her study. This has become an intersection between the artistic side of her brain and the scientific side; morphing both into a lifelong passion. This passion is the one that took her to various places to study, and eventually brought her to Boston. When Nora arrived here, she knew no one. Many people might find this prospect very intimidating, but Nora is used to these solo endeavors.
“I’m a social animal. I really enjoy being able to meet and bond with new people while also being able to be alone. You have to be with yourself sometimes and you don’t have any way around it. You have to learn how to enjoy your own company,” Nora said. When asked if Nora has always been this social, she replies, “I’ve always been very social and very interactive and always looking for interactions with people, but I was not always comfortable with being by myself.”
"I can do everything I want to do, I just have a different pace, a different rhythm”
“My doctor said that I don’t have the personality for this condition,” Nora says with a soft laugh. “I have had this condition most of my life, but it took me seven years to be diagnosed. My first issues began when I was 13. Every time I would do a turnover in gymnastics, I would have a cervical vertebra that would pop out. Then I was a waitress for a summer and had tendonitis in both hips. I was finally diagnosed when the conditions got so bad. I lost the ability to move for around two months and I could not walk anymore because I had too much inflammation in my hips and sciatic nerve.”
For a person once so active, Nora was virtually immobile. She had to learn to walk again at age 13. Her arms also became so filled with pain that she could no longer play Max or Franklin, also known as her guitar or piano. This was the point where she truly hit her lowest, and it is also where she learned how to be independent despite her condition.
“I had to learn how to be myself without being physically myself. I’m the type of person to take a backpack and go wherever I wish, and that was not an option anymore. I had to go to psychotherapy because I wasn’t myself anymore. I was in a depressive state. I knew I needed help when my mom told me I don’t sing anymore.”
You would not be able to imagine this version of Nora if you met her today. She is the opposite of the depressed silent singer that she describes, but it just shows how much a person can grow from these low points. Nora began to adapt to her disease and work with it instead of fighting it.“I needed to know my own body and my limits, knowing if it’s better to not go out tonight or just rest, or knowing that I can’t walk as fast as others. You can’t do anything about what’s happening, but you can change your perspective on it. It’s also about not being afraid to tell people that I’m different. I can’t do whatever they do. I can do everything I want to do, I just have a different pace, a different rhythm.”
Nora has certainly developed this rhythm since then. Music became the way she dealt with her issues, and it is how she took the power back into her own hands. She began to play again by understanding her limits of what she could and couldn’t do. Her parents bought her smaller more manageable guitars and even a ukulele. “Music was a very big part of my journey because it became my outlet. That’s where I put everything. You can see the changes in me in all the songs I have written. They go from: I’m fucked, I’m sad, I’m destroyed, this is horrible, I want to cry all the time… To: I’m living this, and I don’t know how to get out of this but I’m good. The last song I wrote is called “Not Broken Anymore.” Another important song is, “Stand” because it’s where I admit that I need help.”
This realization that she needed help is an important one in her solo journey, even if “solo” and “help” seem at first glance to contradict each other. Nora realized that she enjoys having the independence to go wherever she wants whenever she wants, and it does not diminish her to rely on others at times and lean on a friend’s shoulder. It is possible to be both independent and also have people around you that give you additional strength to push forward. “Know when to ask for help and know that it’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to ask for help because that’s the only way you’ll get it. There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. Being lonely doesn’t help. I would say just know who you can count on, and don’t give up. If I had given up I wouldn’t be here; I wouldn’t have come to the U.S. by myself.”
Today Nora can be found wandering the streets of Boston, at her own pace. She may stop to have a coffee at a cafe to rest her legs, but that will not stop her from continuing her walk. I also would not be surprised if she makes a new friend while sipping on her coffee. She does not let her condition stop her, which is clear by the trips to New York City and Washington D.C. that she has already taken. She walks out the door with her signature hat and red stained lips, only after giving me, la bise, the French kiss on the cheek. I ask her about advice she would give to people trying to make it in the world on their own. “There’s a quote from Oscar Wilde that I love. It’s ‘Be yourself, because everyone else is taken.’ It’s just so true. You can admire the strength and focus like someone else, and take their advice, but you will never be that person. Also, the decisions you made at one point are the decisions that were made at that moment in time, and in that precise moment you wanted it. So don’t have regrets over your past decisions, and instead try and accept them and implement them in your future choices. Try to improve them, but don’t redo the same mistakes. Life is all about building yourself from yourself.” Nora may have days where she is restricted to her bed in searing pain, but you can bet that the next day you’ll be hearing a brand new song and details about her research, and perhaps get a bite of a delicious bowl of pasta.
Learning as She Goes: One Woman’s Journey to the US
By Emma Lopez
Nora’s spirit has always been wild and rambunctious, but her body has not. When she was 13, Nora was diagnosed with EDS, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. This is a disease that weakens the connective tissues of your body, such as tendons and ligaments. It is a disease that has taken a serious toll on her body, giving her tendonitis that strikes without warning, sometimes multiple times a week. After a day of excessive amounts of walking, she can barely make it up the stairs to our third floor apartment. Sometimes I come home to find her in bed, stiff with immobility and a heating pad pressed to her her body. It is strange seeing her like this because her spirit is bursting with life and energy, yet her physical body becomes a cage that can limit her ability to act on this energy.