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A little bit different

Taking part in a dig at ancient Idalion is just the latest stop on a life dedicated to learning for one young American. THEO PANAYIDES meets her

 

Jordan Johansen is stuck in Dali at the moment. She’s taking part in an archaeological dig on the site of the ancient city of Idalion, a month or so of scratching and scraping in the baking sun with picks and shovels. It’s hot, dusty work, and it surely would be nice to come to Nicosia for some R&R occasionally – but buses are erratic, and taxis too expensive. She could rent a car, of course, and come into town that way, but alas there’s another problem: she’s too young.

It seems you have to be 25 to rent a car in Cyprus, and Jordan is 24. “I’m just a 24-year-old kid,” she says modestly, sipping an iced coffee at Kala Kathoumena in old Nicosia (she and her colleagues have been given a half-day off for a ‘field trip’ into town) – as if to say ‘Why would anyone want to interview me?’. Her green eyes peer out from behind thick glasses; she has fine pale skin and dirty-blond hair. Her round face is perhaps most expressive at the top and bottom – the forehead that ripples into wrinkles when she frowns or expresses surprise, the mouth that erupts in a joyous oval when she laughs, which she does often. She’s a person of enthusiasms, and talks nineteen to the dozen. Then again, she’s only 24.

True enough; but how many 24-year-olds do you know – especially, perhaps, American 24-year-olds from Dallas, Texas – who are currently reading Homer in ancient Greek? Is it usual for 24-year-olds to say things like “I went to 10 concentration camps over Christmas break”? That was for a project Jordan did some years ago, on the music played by both Jews and Nazis in the WWII camps – and music is her own first love, having played the French horn at a very high level (taking part in local and national contests) as a teenager. She went on to study Music, but ended up with a triple major also including History and Anthropology, with a minor in Human Rights (“I was a Human Rights minor?” she explains, doing that young-American thing where a statement ends up as a question). Sounds a bit unusual, I point out. “I’ve always been a little bit different,” she replies breezily. “Growing up as a little bit of an outsider? I just love to learn.”

Jordan was (and is) an outsider in a number of ways. Firstly, even though she was born and raised in Texas, her parents are from Canada which is like the polar opposite of Texas. She doesn’t have a Texan accent, nor does she really share in typical Texan values; Texas is fervently religious, for a start (“if you’re not a Christian you are amoral, you can’t be a good person”), whereas she’s been an atheist for as long as she can remember. Secondly, she was something of an outsider all through high school – if only in the superficial sense of being one of very few white students (maybe a dozen out of 800) in an African-American community. She was also class valedictorian, i.e. the person with the year’s highest grades – and, as happens in the States, gave a speech at the graduation ceremony, exhorting her classmates to become “unique human beings”.

This was quite a rough school, she explains, and students were required to wear ID tags around their necks at all times, showing their name and ID number (“It was kind of like jail!” she admits with a laugh) – but now they were grown-ups, Jordan told the graduating class, so let’s try to be more than just a number. It’s an interesting paradox about her generation, I point out: they have more opportunities to become ‘unique human beings’ than perhaps any other in history – yet the marketplace is also more competitive than it’s ever been. They can’t find a job unless they tick every box, and conform to every expectation. In other words, even though they can do whatever they like, they also have to get in a certain groove and do what’s expected. They have to be a number.

“I think that’s very true,” she replies, “except for there aren’t any jobs at the end right now”. Unless you’re going into accounting or engineering (and not even then, at least in Cyprus), “you have to make it up for yourself… You have to be a self-promoter. You have to be a unique person and really change how you’re portrayed in the world, and you can’t just be a number.

“If you want to have dreams – I mean, it sounds kind of clichéd – you have to not follow the rules. Because the rules aren’t working right now. The rules are leading to nothing. You go to college,” she explains earnestly, “you go to these amazing universities, you have degrees, you get As, you have three internships, you travel abroad, you live abroad – [yet] for me personally, I tried to get a job at a school – I already taught for a year, I have three degrees, and I tried to get a part-time library check-in job and I didn’t even get an interview! There’s no jobs.” Jordan shakes her head: “You can’t follow the path, because the path doesn’t work right now. The path that people have been taking, in the last two or three years it’s just roadblocked. You have to find a way to jump over it. I think that’s what our generation has to learn.”

The economic crisis of 2008 changed everything, for herself and many of her friends. They weren’t the only generation affected, of course – many parents lost their jobs – but they’d grown up in a world of plenty, and suddenly the rug was being pulled out from under their feet. At the moment (she says), the much-touted recovery of the US economy isn’t helping 24-year-olds: some older people have found jobs, but few employers want to risk training youngsters with no experience.

And of course so many are coming out of college saddled with debt. “My education cost over $200,000,” says Jordan ruefully (fortunately, she had scholarships throughout). “We’ve been told since we were five that we have to go to college, if you don’t you’re going to work at McDonalds,” – but maybe that’s another paradigm that needs to be shifted. After all, does college really give you job skills? “I think for most jobs you don’t need any of those skills,” she says, then pauses: “Well, I do, because I want to be a university professor!”. She laughs, the entire lower half of her face beaming joyously. “I want to be, like, an intellectual, I guess, in my life. Hopefully I’ll just learn more and more.”

That desire to learn – especially to learn about other people – has taken her to some “interesting situations” in the past couple of years, from hitch-hiking across Germany in search of those Nazi concentration camps to a stint in Denmark working with mentally-ill refugees and asylum seekers. She also went to Prague on a “leadership programme for students of human rights”, which is where she first heard about Cyprus. “I’d never heard about Cyprus before – but whenever you learn about the EU and the UN there’s always an asterisk at the bottom that says ‘Except for Cyprus’!”

Is there? In what, for example?

“Oh, just like immigration, refugees… Because there’s, like, issues,” she adds with a touch of mischief. “And I was like ‘Where’s Cyprus?’”. She came here for a year on the Fulbright programme, as a teaching assistant at a private high school – and is now back again for the dig in Dali, having meanwhile watched our economy implode on TV in Texas (“oh well, they’re lazy,” was people’s reaction, she reports with a sigh; “In Texas they’re so conservative, everyone thinks that if you don’t have all the money you’re lazy”). She raves about all the ancient sites – “What’s cool about Cyprus is that people have always lived right here” – a reminder that she also spent a year studying Ancient Greek and Latin, and five years listening to nothing but classical music (Wagner, Strauss, “all the racist music that I didn’t know was racist”) when she was a teen.

Does she ever feel like a woman out of time? Not really, she replies. She’s very pro-technology, and wouldn’t want to have been born 100 years ago: “I mean – I’m a woman. I think this is a perfect time to be a woman. When I grew up I grew up as a person, not as a woman first”. Yet she also grew up being slightly… unusual. “I wasn’t the normal teenage person,” she recalls. “I didn’t like going out. I would go and watch [public broadcaster] PBS at home, and read books and things.” She was shy. She was smart. She liked classical music.

Yet, amazingly, she was never bullied. “Oh, Jordan’s gonna go do her own thing,” shrugged her friends when she went home to play the French horn or read some improving volume. There’s something about her – something about her personality – that defuses tension. She’s bubbly, and relentlessly positive. Above all, despite her basic shyness, she’s interested in people, and people sense that. “I think that most people are innately good,” she affirms, rather touchingly. “I think, if you ask for help, people will help you”. She’s not speaking as a sentimental fool, she insists, she’s speaking as a scientist. People are social; helping others isn’t a choice, it’s an instinct. Society may have changed beyond recognition – but human babies still get born and need looking after, for the sake of the species.

If anything, she’s too much of a scientist. If Jordan Johansen were a ‘type’ – and we all are, to some extent – she’d be the high achiever, the academic in utero, responding more to knowledge than emotion. She’s not an activist; she’s not ‘passionate’ in the sense of sloppy, untrammelled feeling. Her sister, for instance, is passionate about organic food; “She goes on all the rallies and protests. She’ll cry at dinner, you know? And I’m just like…” She makes a face, signifying something like ‘Is that really necessary?’.

Jordan doesn’t get angry, she gets “frustrated”. She doesn’t lose her temper; “I’m more of an internaliser”. And as for intimacy, that thorny subject… “I think, my problem? I have a hard time making really, really close personal relationships. I have really good friends, [but] any kind of, like, more personal relationship, I always – I’m too rational. It’s always like I’ll keep my distance, because I like standing back and watching. You know, I’ll do it – but in my head I’m always standing back and watching myself do it. I think I’m looking at my life as a historian, but in the future!”

It makes sense, of course. The long view, the slight detachment, the sense of perspective, the love of music – raw emotion coded, transcended, mediated by technique – the fascination with the distant past and humanity as a whole. It all coheres, all part of the same diligent, coolly cerebral worldview. Maybe it’s just that it somehow feels unexpected to find it in someone so young.

‘Do you feel 24?’ I ask Jordan Johansen, and she shakes her head. “No, I don’t feel 24. But I feel like I’ve always been this way, though. I’ve always seen things a little bit differently. I always forget how old I am anyway.

“The thing is, as I grow up and I meet more adults who are older…” She shakes her head again: “I just assumed that I was prematurely older, mature or something – but I’m not. Some of them are just as immature as most 19-year-olds, you know? I think people’s ages don’t necessarily say anything about them”. Tell that to the rent-a-car people.

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