Second dispatch in a month. How I spoil (or torture) my loyal readers? Lots of changes afoot, why not take record? First of all, after three years in this madcap apartment, Dracula’s Mansion as I named it in Sarah’s rambling blog Episode 13. Long story short, the landlord (to whom I brokered deal of selling the flat from my previous landlord, the son of my professor during my brief and pandemicy journalism fellowship days) had been talking about wanting to move in for a while, so I decided to get ahead of the ship jumping and land in the home a friend who might, quite possibly, be a vampire herself.
She hates the sun. She has white blond hair and even whiter skin. She spends her days in an echoing warehouse filling canvases with gloomy, mythology-inspired abstract shapes, dreams up sculptures of blood, puts on performances where she crouches on her knees and counts from a collection of her own hairs in whispered Russian.
We met last year at an exhibit of a Jack London-meets Alistair Crawley-style art space that is run by someone with long, billowing, Viking-like hair, grills and a selection of leather waistcoats and skull-shaped rings with whom she had a history. We connected over a shared interest in art, psychoanalysis and healing journeys. So far, so serious. So dark and mysterious and intellectual. One night, she comes round, lights up numerous cigarettes, suggests we listen to gothic rock pioneers Bauhaus, and starts to tell me stories from her life.
Stories about going in search of very old trees who offer up a sense of security and rootedness no human can offer, of removing a stone from a graveyard only to feel cursed by it until she returned it to its rightful place, of the experience of creating an artwork being akin to giving birth to, nurturing and inviting a child into freedoms and autonomy of adulthood.
‘It makes sense that you’re a journalist, you always ask such probing questions’, she says. And of course, it is this quality of attentive listening that I do enjoy offering that makes her so proactive in ensuring we become fast friends.
The rare delight someone feels in the company of a listener whose craft is directing them towards the story in which they play the central role. Some people hanker for that experience more than others, some people pine more than others for a witness to their heroic moments, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. With this desire. Or, a better word I think would be ambition.
There’s nothing wrong with this ambition to be understood in heroic terms. The only thing about ambition is that, along with all the positive qualities it brings to the party of life (and there are many), there’s a whole lot of dark sides
.If you’re the hero of your own story, that means that a) you’re kind of always doing everything on your own because claiming any support would negatively impact your heroism ratings, b) the odds you’re always facing up to have to belong to an increasingly insurmountable chain of insurmountables and c) Every noteworthy event that occurs will have to fit in neatly with the overarching story of how you became who you are and what that says about where you are going.
Some years ago, I asked someone, a budding literature academic, if they were the main character in one of the books on their reading list, which they would want to be. “Oh, none of them. Heroes never really have actual friends, do they? I mean, not real ones,” she said.
As I’m packing up my things slowly in this big, echoing den I’ve called home with an obnoxiously blood red paint wall and all that for the last three years, I take stock of the chain reaction of events that brought me here. First, the person in my industry who hired me for my first journalism internship well over a decade ago suggested I apply for a fellowship that introduced me to a professor whose son was looking for a roommate who ultimately sold the flat to my neighbour’s son whose mother I befriended in friendly stairway chats through the pandemic. In fact, if I interrogate all the big events in my life in this way, I notice all these spider diagrams of interplaying agents other than myself driving some of the disruptions and changing courses, for better or for worse, or for whatever we call all that in between stuff.
Another event: a career segway into the world of advertising, a new role for which a friend recommended me, who by coincidence, was the friend I adopted my rat children from, via a post in a whatsapp network of female creatives I was invited to join when I offered to edit text accompanying the film of friend’s collective. The downside of all of this is, of course, the more I take stock of the support that surrounds me, the more my own achievements threaten to diminish next to it. But on the flipside: All this support.
I recently discovered that my vampire friend had a sense of humour. Not just all ‘we listen to Johnny Cash’s Nine Inch Nails covers, chain smoke and talk about our trauma’. She had invited me to a gig at her ex’s art space, and told me to wear black. I joked that she only ever hung out with other goths. ‘Not only goths wear black’, she rebuked. ‘Monks do, too. And funeral workers. And crows’ she continued. And most Berliners. She’s well aware of her circuit’s silliness. ‘Posers!’ she whispered in my ear at a recent vernissage at a gallery in Kreuzberg, where I lost count of the face tattoos and everyone was dressed up as if it were the set of a Tim Burton Alien remake. Something someone said to me recently, a posh guy from Düsseldorf who was a bit dismissive of Berlin’s bad -latex-leather-clad boy status. ‘Everyone in Berlin tries so hard to be different, so much so that they all end up being the same.’
Hmm. To be honest, I would prefer being around people whose goal is to find their own way than people who strive to be just like everybody else. But it does seem to mean the following: The fight for individualism does make integration a much trickier game.
Recently I was talking researcher of AI who uses bots to orchestrate mass conversations of intimacy at scale. On platforms across the world, individuals are talking to programs repurposing text from previous conversations he’s had to build new connections. He’s trying to understand how easy it is to simulate a connection, and what that means about the connection in question. If someone on a dating app, for example, manages to get a date out of you by using a program that has been fed previous conversations. So it's still their words, but not intended originally for you. How would you feel? Cheated? Lied to? I mean, it’s still the same person. But the words you thought were for you were originally meant for someone else. But then they worked for you, didn’t they? So there you have it. You are not the hero of your potential love story, anymore. You are not this unique, rare, wondrous person this other person has seen and embraced as uniquely you. You are a potential agent in a chain involving other agents that quite possibly moved and lived and all that, just like you. Is this a disappointing or comforting way to look at humans and love.
I mean, I guess that depends on how you want to look at it. The researcher was telling me about one Chart Gbt program designed to give users a taste of love, via bots-as-boyfriends-and-girlfriends, had shut down over ethical concerns. Users were distraught, heartbroken. The connections they had made with their bots had felt real, genuine. ‘Well, I suppose you could say when you fall in love with AI, you’ve fallen in love with the universality of the human experience,” I said. He laughed and said I should get in touch with Chart Gbt’s PR arm as I’d do good work for them. But the thing is, one of our major fears really does ring true when we consider AI’s potential: the realisation that, really, none of us are heroes. We’re all an endlessly replicable blob of human data points feeding on and being fed by other data points, and that is, well the total mass that is the human experience. Soon to be human cyborg but whatever I think this tangent is a bit overbaked now. But anyway, humans as a mass blob of replicating experience and identity. Don't you love it when I talk dirty like that, baby? 1010.
One of my pillars of support in my interlinking webs of action and reaction is of course my therapist, who has recently shown a bit of tough love in badgering me into going on more dates, as per my TOP-SECRET immersive journalism project 100000. The resistance in me to it all is still strong. But now, this resistance feels like the defiant tantrum of a toddler who is convinced they only need to put on one shoe. A toddler with a hero complex.
If we can have phantom limbs, maybe we can also have phantom unhealable wounds. And what do we do with phantoms? We recognise them as what they really are: a whole lot of nothing.
So, I’ve been trying to give my summer a tone-setting, punchy caption, because who doesn’t love a good caption?
And, with the help of friends, I’ve come up with a couple of good ones: ‘Outlaw Summer’ was one suggestion of one new friend, a sex writer I’m collaborating with who is trying to stoke an internal rebellion in me while I, in turn, try to teach her to ‘fitness’ which mostly, so far, has involved the drunken overtures about protein that most of my non-fitness friends have barred me from making. Another friend suggested I rename my ‘summer of microdosing’, ‘summer of Sarah being kind of high all the time,’ which made me reflect a little bit on my chosen dosage, especially as it had followed an evening of telling her, quite emphatically, and repeatedly, what a lovable person she was, and that yellow really was her colour. Sometimes, sound does bend a little bit.
One event that prompted me to take a break from it (which is, the diligent researcher that I am, to be advised as it allows for elucidating points of comparison), was a visit from my best and oldest friend, C.. I don’t really need anything at all when I’m in her presence to feel that same sense of peace and reassurance and wonder about the world. When we’re together, everything is right with the world, nothing really hurts. And that’s true love, mannn. Flashback: We’re 13 years old, and we’ve just met. I’ve just arrived in London, at a new school, the third one in three years. It’s a girls school, we’re decked up in these hideous, boxy green and pink uniforms. I've decided I hate everything about my new life in the U.K, even though I’d always looked on the place from afar as the ‘home’ I would return to.
One thing that doesn’t entirely suck about this weird school where girls (or ‘young ladies’ as the teachers call us) send themselves love letters from fictive boyfriends, sing Nelly songs as they gyrate against hockey sticks in the changing rooms, slap each other in the lunch lines, is that I’m accidentally popular, only because I’m enigmatic and new, and have a weird American accent I picked up as a social survival strategy in my last school.
It’s all very Mean Girlsesque. The popular girls, many of them blonde and caked in foundation, would invite me sit with them at lunch -- and I can’t for the life of me remember what any of them ever said so it can’t have been very interesting -- and query how much time I spent with the weird two girls that would wind up being my best friends, mostly because they were the funniest people I had ever met, and also because we had agreed that a Harry Potter fanclub was the one thing our school desperately need, which we would go on to create. It had, and maintained, a membership of three.
We tried to make our own wands, our third friend, V., kept a folder and minutes, and I was tasked with creating lyrics to go with the Harry Potter theme tune of the film that had just come out. My offering began with: ‘Harry, Harry, show us your wand, please”. I think it was only a couple of years later when it actually dawned on us that this opening line was not ideal. We were all Gryffindor, although I think if C. had a choice she would ask that V., -- who I think regressed while we grew up and who is now a self-anointed, crystal peddling “empath” (read: self-aggrandising, sanctimonious and hypocritical bully) with psychic abilities -- be moved to Slytherin. (To be honest, I missed most of that drama by being out of the country a lot of the time, but V dealt some seriously low, insecurity-addled blows that C. -- perennial pacifist and placater that she is -- did nothing to deserve. I suppose her only crime is that she is just, in almost every way imaginable: wonderful.)
This specific brand of insecure, scarcity-mindset driven, ego-inflated woman. I think I’m allergic to them. Andrea Dworkin has a quote that I love: “Eat shit, bitch. Nobody said the sisterhood was easy.”
Anyway, back to the HP fanclub. C. had no official task, mostly because we knew she wouldn’t remember to do it, and it was hard enough for us to get her to hand in her homework (sometimes doing it for her…) and not get expelled out of pure dopiness (a dopiness which I only now understand as dissociative coping strategies that speak to personal stories of hers that aren’t mine to tell).
Regarding the popular girls: I was Switzerland for a while until one day, one of our ‘plastics’ saw me pull out a top I’d accidentally packed instead of our PE gear, an awkward, hand-me-down long sleeve polo shirt from my brother, whose clothes I basically lived in. Social armageddon. The beginning of the end. The best thing that ever happened to me.
Snapshots through time
One thing you need to know about C., my best friend, is, and she’ll absolutely hate me for saying this, but she really reminds me of Ron Weasley. A gorgeous, vivacious, Turkish but London-born, sexy-as-hell whip smart Ron Weasley. The same intonation. The same ‘bloody hell’. The same, “whaaat?” The same lionhearted loyalty that takes expression in how she will always break her chocolate Fredo in two and share it with you without you having to ask, she’ll always be the one waiting in the wings with an inventory of your talents to offset the dementor-like shadows of self doubt swooping in, and she’ll always rip you to shreds like the court jester you never thought you needed.
She’d visit me once a term while I was at Oxford, surrounded by all that posturing and pomposity, and do things like log on to my Facebook account and announce to the world my undying love for boy bands I’d never heard of. And when I started to develop a crush on a pompous boy who lived opposite me in first year, who had a tendency of inviting girls into his bedroom to croon songs about heartache at them, she made sure I saw through the bullshit. “Christ, it’s the fucking Twilight Zone over there,” she quipped.
Almost everywhere I’ve lived she’s visited. That’s 20 years of my lone wolf wanderings with at least one page for her in each chapter of my life. And I was looking through all the pictures of us from her every visit. I do not enjoy having my picture taken. Not even before the accident, but certainly not after it. And yet, in every picture of the pair of us together. In Budapest. Prague. In Hong Kong. In Istanbul, I look happy and relaxed. I glow. I think that says something.
Now we're friends
One especially funny memory offers itself: C. meeting my Hungarian uncle in the middle of nowheresville, Kisújszállás, one of Hungary’s poorest towns out in the dusty and arid planes where everything smells of rotting eggs, train stations don’t have platforms, and family members obsess and squabble over where their grave plots will go. He’s had quite a few shots of cherry schnapps, so he’s jolly and intense (but not crying, yet) and I see him grab C. by the shoulders and say, empathically, and using the only English I’ve ever heard him say): (please imagine this spoken with Dracula’s intonation): “Turks and Hungarians used to fight. Now, we are friends”.
True enough, our family crest, which we apparently earned as warring knights in the late Middle Ages, features the head of an Ottoman Empire soldier on a sword.
Of course, it would be nice to say this moment spoke to something heartwarming about bygones of healing and the peacemaking power of love and friendship. Whereas in fact, regrettably, the comment might speak more to a bubbling and problematic alliance between Hungary’s fascist prime minister and Turkey’s strongman leader, both seeing eye-to-eye about ideologies that claim some kind of shared roots and racial superiority. To be fair, bilateral ties run deeper than the wars Hungarians and Ottomans waged against each other. My friend C. even thinks that the name Karacs comes from the Turkish word “black lake”. I don’t know. What I do know is that hearing the Turkish language instantly puts me at ease and feel warmth, because of C., so I’m quite happy to be living in a neighbourhood in Berlin which has a huge Turkish community. “I don’t like to automatically assume people are Turkish by looking at them,” she says. But everyone is assuming it of her, striking up conversations in Turkish, where she details our long friendship and describes the Turkish Cypriot community in London. They nod and smile.
Another memory from our trip to Istanbul, which is something we’d always planned for our 30th. Walking through the gorgeous (and politically-complex) Hagia Sophia, our hair covered, I ask C. questions about the rituals involved in prayer. “How should I fucking know?,” she says.
Precious and fragile things
Twenty years of friendship and we’ve accumulated our own set of rituals. C. is the official keeper of my face. I remember one birthday present she sent to my Hong Kong address, not only had eyeshadow palette, a lipstick and an eye liner, but what reads like love letter in which she makes an inventory each of my facial features, elaborately describes what makes them beautiful and how I can accentuate that beauty using her handy toolkit. Every time she visits she does my make up, explaining all the tips and tricks she learnt from her mother, passing on a way of interacting that they had that my mother and I never shared. She always puts on a bit more than I’m comfortable -- she’s ever so glam -- and sometimes I rub a bit off, but it’s nice to look into the mirror and see a face she likes so much, and like it a bit more because of that. If the romantic overtones of our friendship seem obvious here, that’s because they are. We make comments to each other and interact in ways that have raised many an eyebrow. At school, rumours swilled about our friendship circle being lesbian for the simple fact that we loved each other so intensely. We thought them hilarious and hammed it up, and still do. There’s no shame in thinking that your best friend is the most gorgeous person in the world, whatever your orientation.
“Want to join us for a drink?” a friend texts me here in Berlin. “Sure”, I reply. “Just give us a sec while we finish reading our tarots and put on some clothes,” I reply. “Oh, sorry, hope I’m not interrupting witchy naked time,” my friend quips. By putting clothes on I had meant that “going for a drink” in the land of Sarah and C. means going through a drawn out dress up session where each takes their time to look their best. I throw on a loose, lilac summer dress, she looks it up and down and goes: “Nah, something more sexy,” and I nod and go for something black, tight, low cut, with some leather and costume gold jewelry. She looks super classy, classic Sicilian housewife vibes, dash of black sequins at her shirt’s hem. Flawless.
She does my face, and gives me a spritz of one of her ridiculously expensive perfumes. “My collection of these is way too big, when you come visit, I’ll give you one.” she says. I’d never splash out on these sorts of things the way she does, they cost an obscene amount and I really don’t know how she can afford them, or why anyone would spend that much money on a smell. But this is one of the many things we don’t have in common. And I think it’s good there’s a lot of differences between us. What’s the point in surrounding yourself with people who are just like you? Isn't love all the more precious when it comes from a place of peaceful, happy coexistence in spite of all the ways you’re not alike?
Just as she’s the keeper of my face, I’ve always been her protector. “When I told my boyfriend I was visiting you, he said: ‘From what you’ve told me about her, I am sure you will be safe’”. This was a compliment of course, but it did make me bristle slightly. See how different we are? If a guy I was seeing said something like that to me I’d break both his legs. I live in Berlin, not Bagdad, for Christsake, and I’m her friend, not her babysitter. But I’m also glad of course that she feels that safe with me, that I can offer this sense of security that sometimes I struggle to give even to myself.
She’s always had a long list of anxieties that just don’t make sense to me. Moths. She’s terrified of moths. Babies, sometimes. She once freaked out because a baby was looking at her funny. A baby. Dogs, too. I remember that because apparently, once, when we were drunk and on the streets of Prague, a stray dog came loping towards us, and I instinctively stepped in front of her with my arms outstretched, “thou shalt not pass” style. No recollection of the event, but she recounts it often. I would take a bullet for her, and she knows it.
I was joking around with my training buddy recently that I was the Robin to her Batman. And she said, very quickly: “No, I am the Robin to YOUR Batman”. It was a very sweet moment, sort of testament to a friendship that feels very adult and healthy a la: we take turns to superhero and sidekick each other and no one puts anyone on a pedestal. A beautiful, healthy friendship built on the foundations of adult wisdom that our childhood selves just didn’t have yet.
If C. was always the Ron Weasley to my Harry Potter, then we’re only just getting to a place where we can work on her being the Harry Potter and me being the Ron. All these years and she’s only just started see me as someone vulnerable and fallible, occasionally fucking up like I did in the year that I left Hong Kong, and learning to cope with the reality that I have my own weaknesses, too. My own moments of pure stupidity. My own anxieties, my own dopey, helpless moments. Part of that comes with the reality that in order for her to see it, I have to let it be seen.
You know what really doesn’t suck? Not having depression.
It just makes everything so much easier, it makes me feel much more like I’m the person I actually want to be, even though that person has to do an awful lot of things, involving an awful lot of people all at once and is like a spinning fairy of joy who is in desperate need of a personal assistant while being old enough to acknowledge that that’s not really a thing that can be outsourced because personal responsibility about such things is the only thing that saves us from being an annoyance to everyone.
I’m not chalking everything about my newfound, happy exuberance to the microdosing, though it’s obviously played a part in what’s been feeling like a transformative stretch of time in which I’ve unflinchingly taken more leaps of faith than I have for ages. The adventure began as an experiment in which I would act according to one question: What would Sarah be like if the fear of rejection played no part in any of her decision making? And that fear of rejection cuts both ways: fear of rejecting, and fear of being rejected. I can’t decide which is more painful, if I’m honest, although what is clear is that any immersion into the dating world involves experiencing both with a regularity that makes me think about those beautiful lines in Paul Simon’s Graceland:
There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I'm falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
"Whoa, so this is what she means"
She means we're bouncing into Graceland
Living fearlessly, what does that mean? Living according to the rule that it’s OK that the things you want you grasp for even if you might not get them, and that the people that want things from you, you might not be able to or want to give them and all of that’s OK, too.
The rejecter, and the rejected. Roles that show up in all areas of life when you’re actually moving through it with an emotionality that has turned techicolour after a long stretch of monochrome. Most recently, I’ve found myself in the unfortunate role of rejecter in a short lived friendship in which I have, as I understand it, failed the ‘emotional availability’ test. ‘I just want to get close to you’ were words from one voice note I was sent, along with many others detailing my many omissions in friendship acts, the clincher being that I was too engrossed with a story I was working on that had taken longer than expected (which is usually the case with stories I actually care about), to be able to accompany them to a film about a cocaine-addled freak bear on a murder spree, which admittedly does sounds awesome.
If I am honest, if I had graded myself on how I had gone about performing my role in the friendship, I thought I was doing quite well. I sent encouraging messages in response to some voice notes, and comforting messages in response to others. I didn’t send voice notes of my own. I don’t really have this reflex to treat whatsapp conversations like ongoing podcasts, and, well, I like my human contact like I like my journalism: succinct. But then I also showed patience when boundaries were overstepped, took none of the projections or misunderstandings personally, tried my best to make myself understood to someone who, admittedly, found me a bit different and ‘exotic’ (weird wording to be honest, but again, I have to make space for the fact that a lot of people just aren’t as finicky about words as I am and that it’s not fair of me to use this sensibility to catch others out).
So I did all of that. But what I didn’t do was match this person in the frequency of attention they wanted to give me. After some hours of guilt I asked the friend in question to make peace with an asymmetry in needs from one another, asking that our friendship deescalate to something more manageable to me, at which point I lost a friend. I tested a theory I was turning around in my head that I might be a bad, or unavailable friend somehow and that many people resented me for not reaching out more to chat about mundane things with them: I tried to spark a quick conversation with a friend I love dearly, but only see and contact intermittently. I was met with a “I’m tired, but looking forward to seeing you soon” which I understand is hoe code for ‘love you but piss off’. Well that was a relief.
Does this mean both of us are unavailable, closed off or avoidant or whatever word we want to use to describe our dissatisfaction with someone who is not giving us the attention we feel entitled to? Or does it just mean we’re just happily being busy with things that really interest and matter to us? I keep meeting people that inspire me at the moment, keep finding out things that inspire me, keep thinking up things that I want to do that I’m actually excited about doing, projects and people that have motion to them. I wish there was room for everyone on this journey, but there just isn’t. And likewise, some people’s adventures can’t involve me either, and that’s OK.
Dispensing with scalpels
Spring has sprung, as they say. As it did last year, with a lot of palpable enthusiasm and joie-de-vivre from everyone, myself included.
I’ve been on a bit of a trip for the last couple of weeks, to be honest, and a pretty enjoyable one at that. Microdosing has helped, although dosage management is still a work in progress, as is finding my centre when everything gets too colourful and life starts to spin.
The nicest thing it does is take the edge of the kind of emotional triggers that I would normally have an outsized response to, which is great because it makes me feel like there’s more coherence between what is actually happening to me in the present, and how said things are making me feel. Best of all, it helps me embrace the absurdity of human behaviour -- myself and everyone around me, too.
“I hope what you are doing now sucks. Like you just found out you had overdue taxes, or wound up in a cult. And not a good cult, a crappy, bougie, hemp-smelling one,” was a text message I sent to someone who had ghosted me after approaching me on a night out with all the usual, probably drug-fueled effusions that disappeared as quickly in the light of day (ok, a couple of days) as they had materialised in an evening of hedonism.
I liked my silly takedown because it matched the circumstance: I didn’t wish anything heinous on this person, I just wanted them to feel as irritated and nonplussed as they had made me feel, releasing them from my orbit of frustration as efficiently as they had wormed their way into my consciousness.
Most importantly, I didn’t really internalise it. The thing with being a desirable object under such circumstances is that the attraction is so skin deep, you are so thoroughly fungible that you have to make peace with that fact. And likewise, the person you are engaging with is not really a fully formed person yet, but, if things are going well, probably a mirage of all the things you’d hope them to be that reality will slowly (or extremely quickly) chip away at until you’re left with something far more cringy and real.
Did I mention that I went on a couple of dates with someone who turned out to be almost a decade older than they claimed to be? Just, don’t brazenly lie to an investigative journalist. Just don’t do it. No witty takedown sent to that guy, just lots of thoughts on the topic of the false self. Is this what we’re all doing now? We’re so wrapped up in the veneers of ourselves that we present in such jarring and discombobulating forms, that sort of, help us hurtle from one potemkin-village of dopamine kick to another, that we are completely incapable of seeing ourselves or being seen at all? But anyway, I am trying to psychoanalyse people less, especially recreationally. “Stop trying to dissect people, embrace their mystery,” my therapist advises.
Because this endless scrutiny takes up a lot of needless bandwidth, and I’m starting to accept that there’s just so much I can’t control, and even if I can figure out why someone behaved in a certain way, it doesn’t really give me as much power or protection over the interaction as I’d like. As they say, the only thing I can control is myself, (and how funny my takedowns are). And anyway, it’s all matter.
It’s all stuff for all of us to churn through as we figure out what it is that’s supposed to matter to us, what’s supposed to stick. And as my therapist keeps reminding me, none of this ‘getting out there’ is in pursuit of a 'soul mate', it’s alchemisable exposure therapy, and it’s getting easier and easier. And sometimes, also kind of fun.
Introducing side project
This blog has obviously been a deeply personal, ongoing memoir-type thing.
I've been planning, for a while to start a separate, more journalistic thing that points its lens a little bit more outwards, curated completely on my own terms. Similar themes of belonging, dislocation and elsewhere-ness. Think interview-style culture analysis and QandAs and the like. But hopefully funny and jargon-wary.
Have a look: welcome wordly interlopers - by Sarah Karacs (substack.com)
Sheets upon sheets of snow outside our window. An endless landscape of things buried under it, spinning past us.
Snow capped fir trees and vast granite rock faces covered in cracking ice. Little wooden houses, many of them red underneath all the white. Train stations with funny names like Grog, and Trog and Tund or whatever it is these places are actually called, all rectangular wooden structures with chipping paint and sometimes the odd person standing in front of them. Fur-lined parkas, almost-mullets and nearly-handlebar mustaches. Hefty rucksacks.
Salmon rivers, chunks of floating ice, the kind of slippery rocks my mother would unthinkingly jump to and from only to turn around and watch me grimace as I pull my boots off and wade through. Sometimes she’ll meet me halfway and extend a hand which I’ll begrudgingly take. Blue tinted everythings come out in the endless pictures I take.
“This is the boring part, wait til we go further north,” my mum says, peering up from her computer screen where she’s been editing the paper of a PhD student of her’s, the one I jokingly call her parasite given that she seems to need much more attention than my mum, who’s now semi-retired, is supposed to offer. “You undo all your union work when you work overtime like that,” I say. “I know,” she replies. “But I like it”.
There’s a Chinese expression. “Falling leaves return to their roots.” My brother is one such leaf. He now lives close to where our family is originally from, a five hour train journey, one hour bus ride, and 30 minute drive away from Trondheim, where my “Nordland” Mormor settled and raised two girls whose father, loving and good as he was, had kind of hoped had been boys. This is the corner of the world my father first visited when he came up to meet my mother’s family. “What does a Hungarian man eat?” my great aunt wondered at the time. She went to the shop and came home with a packet of Asian noodles.
My mother now divides her time between Trondheim and London, a half-fallen leaf herself. Her sister’s place is a ten minute drive away from her flat, and they’ve lived there since we were kids, in the district Mormor and Morfar had chosen originally to set up base. The red district. Politically, I mean. In my aunt’s home, the same framed picture of Keith Richards stares at you as you take a piss, and Pattie Smith’s wry smile can be found next to pictures of the boys in various states of mullet. Dogs have come and gone, but all of them have been rambunctious and wild. The latest edition is a beautiful but feral border collie mix who you’re invited to offer snacks to, an exhilarating, reactions-testing game where if you’re slow and authoritative enough in how you hand it to her, she’ll sit obediently. Move too quickly and she’ll assume it’s a play fight and take your fist in her mouth, breaking the skin on your knuckles.
At one point in the evening, a cousin will come home from his pizza delivery shift, hand you a snus which you put behind your gums, and smile his charming, conspiratorial smile. You’ll compliment his beard -- which matches that of the guy on his shirt, Dude from The Big Lebowski -- and ask him about how the shooting of strangers on the internet is going. Same as always, he replies. Of course, when the evening comes to an end, he won’t be the one taking the dishes to the sink.
Seven peaks, and farting sheep
It’s true, the landscape that surrounds Trondheim has its charm, but this journey north has conjured up something far more epic. We’re now just below the Arctic Circle. Our destination reveals itself in the form of huge, hulking mountains, seven eerie peaks that line an archipelago of a cluster of hamlets, and snow caked homes of wood sprinkled across a series of islands shrouded in sea mist and bludgeoned by crisp gusts of wind that turn your cheeks pink. The land of sea breeze weathered farmers, fishermens, straight shooting salt-of-the-earth types. This is my brother's partner's stomping ground, replete with a swimming pool that doubles as a cultural centre and centre for all sorts of other things, a small lab in which my brother worked for a brief time measuring methane levels in sheep’s farts, and, apparently, a biker gang. But mostly just old people who are still shoveling snow well into their eighties.
Not far from here you’ll find a municipality home to some of our poorest ancestors, and further north, my Mormor’s home town, close to one of the world’s wildest maelstroms. Legend has it, when my Mormor was a child, my Mormor’s father tied her to a boat and rowed her across the deadly waters, a test in fortitude she apparently passed. He was a good man.
Falling leaves return to their roots. Here I am, enraptured by the night sky and the sheer volume of stars on display, lying in a pull out bed surrounded by framed Moomin sketches and purple-haired toy trolls, trying not to think too much, trying to stop the head spin. I am the bad one. I’m not the bad one. We are bad ones. I’ve been wanting to set a novel in this very spot, been sent pictures of their home, told fascinating stories of their surroundings, felt inspired by every little detail shared to explore the imaginative possibilities here.
Every effort has proved wanting, felt like circling the superficiality of things without getting into anything real. So here are the real things. I haven’t seen my brother in over five years. Before that another four years had passed during which I’d broken all ties with my family and wouldn’t communicate with them at all, despite multiple attempts (some less mad than others) on their side to open up a dialogue I just didn’t feel capable of having. I fended for myself, kept my walls high, worked. Also began therapy.
Life is about choices, and through that time, I chose myself, however painful that choice was for everyone. It just felt like there was no other way for me to figure out who I was without everything else piling up on me. It was the hardest, most heart wrenching, most important choices I would make for myself. Besides one other: choosing to come home and piece together all the shards of myself I had been running so chaotically from as to be endlessly spinning in circles of my own making.
Better and better
Here is a beautiful baby to meet. Tiny hands and gorgeous, rose-tinted cheeks, tufts of blond hair, the back of her head feels so soft when you run your fingers along it. How her little green eyes light up when she sees you, how she snorts and chirps and gleefully chucks cucumber pieces on the floor for you to pick up, how she presses the button on the book that has it sing about wheels on buses, going round and round, again and again. How each new press of the button brings her a whole new thrill.
She is so perfect and so good. She wraps her tiny hand around your index finger, looks up at you like you’re the best thing in the world. Adores your hectic go go dancing, chaotic singing, breathless bouncing to and from avoiding the quiet things in favour of the familiar family ruckus. Loves the trumpets in A little bit of Ronya in my life, a little bit of Ronya by my side, a little bit of Ronya’s all I need… Her giggle cuts through the tension like a knife.
All this pressure to be good to each other despite all the things we are thinking about one another, all the things we’ve previously told each other in moments of unedited rage and hurt none of us can take back. But I’m just trying so so hard to be good. Not with Ronya. With her you don’t need to try anything at all. She just thinks you are good.
An eventual, little explosion of my brother’s. Ronya’s been wrapped up warmly and put in the buggy to nap outdoors, I didn’t even know this was a Norwegian tradition. But then, I was never the Norwegian one out of the pair of us. I was the one who wound up with all the fiery Hungarian genes. I wander outdoors with them, chattering loudly, oblivious to the child napping in this magically-restoring Norwegian air. He hushes me angrily, swearing, furious about this indiscretion. That tone. Like I’m a small, selfish, stupid, wilful little girl. A tone reserved only for me. He never uses it on any other woman we know. Yes it sounds patriarchal, sounds like everything that I’ve been running from that keeps finding me again wherever I go, in whatever circle I try to ingratiate myself in. Wherever I go, there will always be at least one man who tries to talk to me like that, in whatever language he knows how. Bitch, be humble. Sit down. I can’t escape it. There’s just something in me that makes them do that. A badness.
And how dare he use that tone with me? After all the things I’ve done that prove I deserve just as much respect, just as much portioning out of that validating goodness that seemed so easily to come to him, with his gleaming school reports, gorgeous blonde hair, this sunflower-like soaking-up of everything good that he does.
How dare he use that tone with me? After everything. After all this proving of myself that I’ve done on my own and without any help from anyone and with all these odds stacked against me. The spot at the same Good University as he earned. The impressive jobs I talked my way into. Star-studded mentors I therapised. The frontpage exclusives I spilt blood over. Every new place in which I’ve built something for myself, all the hearts and minds I’ve won along the way. Every academic I’ve been the wisecracking, fresh of breath air around, every party addled maniac who has leaned on me because I know just want to do and say as that k-hole is creeping towards them, every musician who has relied on me for my sense of rhythm and weird fucking melody memory bank, every fighter who’s found me a “fun” partner to spar with. Not technically proficient, mind. Fun. Unpredictable. Every journalist who has bashfully, secretly, passed their copy onto me so I can transform their boring story of a plane crash that killed no one into a fucking Shakespearean masterpiece.
I even taught myself all the science stuff mum shared with you. Scientists salivate at the work that I do for them, turn my colleagues down. I’ve earned so much approval now, you wouldn’t even know.
You’re so strong Sarah. So impressive Sarah. So strong and impressive and smart, Sarah. No one works harder than you, Sarah. Can you do this for me, Sarah? You’re an angel, Sarah. What a badass, Sarah. Just as good as you. No. Better. Stronger, faster. Braver. Smarter. So worthy, no one gets a chance to think anything else of me. Ever. So much approval. Never enough approval.
Just as smart as you. No, smarter. Just as fast as you. No, faster. Bolder, better, brighter. Stronger. Wiser. How dare you use that tone with me.
Retreat to the guest room, lock the door. Angrily pump out bicep curls to grime tracks, calming. Come outside again. He’s rushing around, fretting in the kitchen.
“Please do not use that tone with me” Spoken softly, controlled. Learning to set boundaries takes practice. Gets a little bit easier each time you do it!
He turns around.
“All you want to do is come here and make me feel bad,” he says. “You just want to make me feel bad.”
“You’re a toxic person. You make everything toxic. I don’t want you here. I don’t want anything to do with you. I’m trying to build something here, I’m trying to heal. I don’t want you here.”
Arms tingle. Legs too. Hands go a little shaky, then everything starts to shake. Nothing else to do in a moment like this than run. My signature move. Out of the house, onto the road, no phone, thin coat. Doesn’t matter. When I’m like this I don’t feel anything, that’s the only good thing about this state that I’m in. Running in parallel to the seashore and these epic, snow capped mountains. Slow down eventually, find a little campside, walk down to the beach, breathe doesn’t take long to regain. Tiny red cabin at the end of the peer, safely isolated from everything.
Easy to break into, not even locked. Inside it smells like fish. Pipes, ropes and rods, knives. Snow floating, waves crashing on the other side of the window. Chattering voices. Yeah, so you’re toxic. Nobody fucks with you. You’re a bad bitch. Such a fucking bad bitch no one fucks with you. Fucking try me, man. Fucking bring it. I’m fucking toxic. And then, finally, the quieter, wiser voice underneath all of it is allowed to speak. The voice that took years of therapy and solitude. And love. To tease out.
You’re not here to prove to anyone that you’re a good person.
When we were very little and on one of ferry trips between Liverpool and Trondheim, my brother and I teamed up on a treasure hunt organised by staff to keep us entertained. This is one of my earliest memories, definitely its sharpness is uncanny. We’d unthinkingly wandered into a men’s bathroom, and were joined a few moments later by an old man who, on examining this memory with adult eyes, was obviously quite drunk. He stumbled towards me, put his arms all around me in ways that a young child would only understand were not good and. Well. Being me. I knocked him out cold. Jazz hands. I violently jolted away from him with a force that brought him crashing to the ground, his face smashing against the tiles, glasses hopping and sliding across the room. Brings a whole new meaning to the killer instincts an MMA coach joked that I had, doesn’t it? My brother froze. A few moments later another man enters the room, sees the motionless body on the floor, tells the two children to leave.
A therapist has asked me to milk this specific memory for all its trauma-informed juices, and I have done, diligent student of the therapeutic process that I am. Trust the process! Although I’m starting to grow a little bit wary of this increasing fixation with rooting through every little moment of our lives for endless nuggets that can clearly and definitively explain to us why we are the way we are the way we are. Pick at so many scabs and you end up making new wounds that don’t even have to be there. But I think the most important piece of information this memory offers is about how two quite different but equally ‘good’ (whatever good even means!) people instinctively react when they are just trying to survive something. And that there should be no shame or guilt in any of it.
My brother’s partner slows down in her minivan as I’m pacing down the road.
“I appreciate you coming, but I really just need to be on my own."
“You really shouldn’t be out here alone like this, you need to talk to someone”
“I can’t talk to you, he’ll just think I’m being toxic. Anyway, you shouldn’t have to deal with this stuff”
“No he won’t think you’re toxic. Just get inside. You know he doesn’t mean what he said.”
My sarcastic jokes, sarcastic laughter prompts giggles from a beaming Ronja strapped in a car seat in the back. Few sounds have pulled at my heartstrings with greater intensity than the ones she makes when she’s being playful.
“Such a great kid. I just want to be a part of her life.”
“I know. Look, all families have their shit. You guys. None of you are bad people. You just don’t know how to talk to each other. You just push each other’s buttons and blame each other for everything.”
Looking out of the window. “Yeah, you’re right.”
The winner takes it all
Home. Back in the guestroom. Locked door. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. That big rock that presses down your chest like that? It’s back again. Can’t move under it. Someone on the other side of the door. Can I come in? No. mum, I need space. Dinner’s ready. NOT HUNGRY. Can’t you be civil? (underbreathe: what a catchphrase) and finally. Sarah, I’m sorry. I want to apologise. Come out when you’re ready. We need to talk.
Stay motionless. Two options present, really. Option a) stay here. Refuse to speak. Get the train tomorrow. Never look back. Hold on this one final win over him. YOU are the bad, horrible person who needs to apologize. I am the person YOU hurt. Do this and I win this moment, but throw thousands of dollars and euros of therapy, years and years of working on myself to be a better person, down the drain in the process. Option b) I suck it up.
Go outside eventually, walk up stiffly to him. Yes. Let’s go talk. Yes. Let’s go to the guest room. No. I’m not eating. OK, sorry, can I. Please, don’t look at me when I talk I’ll sit here. I’m really sorry I was just flustered and frustrated that you couldn’t see I- when you use that tone you make me condescended to, you used a tone that everyone uses that makes me feel small and stupid. I’m doing all this work on holding boundaries with men and you blast me for asking to be treated with respect- I don’t think you're stupid. I was always in awe of, envious of, even, how quick footed you are. Improvisational. The way you bounce around, getting all these different jobs. My intellect feels stodgy by comparison. Look I know I sublimate a lot of my feelings about others onto you, but I just feel so much panic around you. You just get in my face. You never give me time to come to you. I wanted to come to you earlier and apologise but you wouldn’t let me. Like when we were growing up, always walking on eggshells around you.
What can do so that our interactions don’t create so much panic around you? What? What can I do? What are the words that I can stop saying, the gestures I can stop making. What do you need me to do and not do so you can feel safe around me?
For a start, I don’t like it when you use those psychotherapy words against me.
You feel like I weaponise them? I can see that is how you might feel. I will try not to do this
Therapist: The thing about you, Sarah. Is that you feel so much. And then, as you are feeling it, you are analysing all of it. This is your gift, and your curse.
I want us to stop feeling like one of us needs to win. All this pressure around winning against each other.
I know, I hate it. I hate it too.
And what do you need from me?
I need you to accept me.
I accept you.
He brings out a tray of fish and potatoes which I eat. We go outside together, shovel snow and joke about old teachers, and all the other stuff I have no one else in this world to joke about with. What a head on her shoulders Ronya’s mama has. What fierce and loving parents she has, I tell him. That’s the thing about us. What we never lacked was fierce love.
The next day, we’re packing up to leave. Sun’s out, can almost see the peaks of the fantastic looming mountains, Ronja with peanut butter all over her mouth, bobbing this way and that, pulling faces at us all, knowing that it’ll make us laugh. I take her in my arms for a final gorgeous cuddle and think, how can something so wonderful come out of our messy and complicated lives? T
his tiny magnetic otherworldly bundle of joy. I would do anything for her. I think. Anything. Bad things. Good things. Messy things. Anything to make sure she stays this -not good- This wonderful.
I showed that text to a German friend the other day, and the response I got was: “How cute! I mean, you can tell that you’re not a native speaker, but it’s quite endearing!” Not really the critique I had hoped for, if I’m honest. I’m not the next Günter Grass? The horror. I thought I was perfect.
It seems clear that a lot more work than a brain-splitting week of cramming is needed to master anything approaching sophistication in that language. And now my head hurts a lot and German words look like soup. I’ve done it, though -- burst through whatever barrier had shamed me into hiding my shoddy German grammar from the world. Felt like the first time I recorded myself playing the flute after basically not touching it for a decade. What an amateur. Embarrassingly uncontrolled tone. And kind of how I felt when I came back to Germany after Hong Kong and struggled to string a sentence together. “This should feel like breathing for you. This is who you are,” were the words rattling in my head.
Well, who we are changes, some things come with those permutations, other things fall away. The devil that angrily flogs me and my disobedient flute-playing fingers (still too inefficiently bouncing off the keys…) has lost some of his thrall, and I’m learning to find, hold on to, stretch shamelessly at the contours of the pleasure that comes with this devotion to craft. To have this power to turn breathe into something magical. It’s a really nice thing to have. Like an old friend who always reappears to celebrate and commiserate, provided you treat them with the right level of respect and attention.
I was talking to a friend, lately, about loneliness. She’s a bit of an interloper, like me, struggles sometimes with the yoga world she’s part of. “One of the girls said something like ‘nobody has to feel lonely, you can always choose to come closer to people. Such bullshit, sometimes I just feel lonely and I can’t help it.” I commiserated. Sometimes we all feel lonely and we can’t help it. I kind of think that’s why art exists, it fills those scary spaces between us and sustains us in our fragile places. Me and Bach vibing, me digging his arpeggios, him telling me he digs my richness of tone but could I please pay closer attention to the time signatures and not make up my own. Yeah I just read that back and it does rhyme. To be honest I am not sure Bach would approve of me if we did actually get close.
What he’d think about the vegetables I forget about, left to rot in the fridge, or the fact that in most ways and about most things I’m really just winging it and my success rate is really changeable but what would drive me even more nuts is the threat of doing the same thing each ad finitum (unless it is Sonata BWV 1034, because Bach, that one’s a total banger), the fact that I probably shouldn’t enjoy trespassing and asking people uncomfortable and annoying questions as much as I do, the fact that a lot of things still scare and embarrass me much more than I want them to, the fact that there’s still this ridiculously needy child inside me that I can only really placate with compulsive scrolling of fat animal pictures. The fact that my training this month (averaging two to three hours per day sometimes) churned up too much of an edge, that I had to dial it down and let the adrenaline leave me.
See, the devil stalks my gym sessions too. Loves the point where pain alchemises itself into exhilaration. Loves the power and strength coursing through my body when I’m up in its jam like that, loves the complete abnegation of anything else mattering in that moment. Loves how swiftly those fast twitch muscles fire, that acceleration, divine coordination. Loves the nod of respect from fellow athletes when they see that you're not pissing about. Loves all these new neurological pathways formed about what this body, this mind can do when they are working in sync with one another towards goals that satisfy us both. Me and the devil. Still, give the devil all your power and a breakdown is imminent.
Strained my back on a smith machine of all things, got far too jumpy, my body taking on something of its Hong Kong charge, got far to rambunctious with my box jumps (hip extension on point, though), so have self-prescribed a deload week and taken a foot of gas on the lactic-acid inducing conditioning side of things. To fill the time I’ve been sociable. The kind of social encounters you need to have when you’ve gone so far into your own head you think you’re the only one who has problems or insecurities and find out they’re everywhere. One of my friends grows things that make you go sparkly, and had me try some. Revolutionary. At these doses your brain is like a technicolour playground of joy and creativity, but with no real loss of control over your critical faculties. Or your physiological ones. Picked my flute and wacked out my hardest piece, and guess what? Those fingers were on fire, not a single glitch (OK, so maybe my diaphragm should have been better controlled, the recording’s a little bit too bombastic for my taste, but anyway…)
Obviously I will be exploring these insights on the mat, when I’m ready, and, well, many other arenas as I play with forging new neural pathways that replace the old. If we want to carry on with our quite lazy religious metaphor: In these iterations, I am no longer the devil’s slave, I’m its master.
Hi, ich heiße Sarah.
Ich komme aus Ungarn, Norwegen und England, bin überall und nirgendwo aufgewachsen. Ich bin immer im Gange und kann nicht stillstehen, denn der Boden zwischen meinen Fersen fühlt sich an wie Treibsand.
Schreibt man das so? Dass etwas wie Treibsand sich anfühlt? Ist solch eine Metapher übersetzbar? Das prüf ich schnell nach. “Halten wir daran fest, so haben wir Felsengrund unter unseren Füßen, andernfalls begeben wir uns auf den Treibsand menschlicher Spekulationen.” So schreibt jemand: Menschliche Spekulationen als Treibsand. Diese Formulierung klingt gut. Sehr klug. Philosophisch.
Dann: Dass Treibsand der ? .... Was soll denn hier drin? Ich brauche ein Wort, das die Eigenschaft des Bodens verkörpert. Bodentlichkeit? Ich glaube, das ist ein echtes Wort, aber ich verkomplizierte alles. Dass Treibsand der Bondentlichkeit. Was für ein Kopfschmerz.
Nein, ich erzähle nur eine einfache Geschichte.
Ich hatte kindisch Norwegisch bevor ich Deutsch lernen musste, weil ich immer so gerne mit meiner norwegischen Großmutter Zeit verbracht habe, und sie weigerte sich Englisch zu sprechen. Sie verstand alles, aber wir durften nur in ihrem Zuhause Norwegisch sprechen. Eine einfache Regel: Ihre Kohärenz war einer ihrer wunderschönen Reize. Mein Vater sprach kein Norwegisch. Jedoch musste meine Mutter Ungarisch lernen, während wir in Budapest lebten.
Da war sie sehr oft alleine mit uns Zuhause, als mein Vater immer überall bei der “Story-Jagd” durch Osteuropa und die Sowjetunion verreisen musste.
Wieder diese redaktionelle Bearbeitung: “Story-Jagd?” Verfolgungsjagd der Geschichten? Diese Deutung ist so hesslich. Ach, Geschichts Jagd. Das passt.
Meine Mutter musste in Budapest mit zwei kleinen Kindern auskommen. Freunde von Freunden haben geholfen, aber manchmal nicht so ernsthaft. Ungarische Menschen sind sehr wörtlich und äußerst überzeugend mit ihren Wörtern. Zudem war das System, in dem sie zu überleben gelernt haben, einfach anderes als was meine Mutter kannte. Wenn man in einem System erwächst, dass das Vertrauen meistens fördert, weisst man nicht wie, und wo, und wann man die Regeln des unzuverlässigen Systems beugt, damit man sich um sich selbst richtig kümmert. Meine Mutter war zu nett und zu naiv. Ausbeutbar. Menschen, die an zügellose Korruption gewöhnt sind, beziehen sich einfach anderes auf Regeln und Verbrechertum. Da die für sie geltenden Regeln kein Sinn machen, befolgen sie nur ihren eigenen Kodex. Man vertraut niemandem außer sich selbst. Meine Mutter hat mir erzählt, dass sie einmal von engen Freunden überzeugt wurde, ein Auto aus Österreich ins Ungarn zu schmuggeln. Wollte nur hilfreich sein. Jetzt lacht sie darüber, aber man hat dass ein großes Drama ausgelöst, als mein Vater von seinen Reisen zurückkam.
Jetzt beugt sie gerne Regeln, die sie stört - vielleicht ein bisschen zu gerne. Und ich? Ich habe keinen Boden. Alles hängt davon ab, wo und mit wem ich fliege.
An intellectual challenge came up this week that of course I’ve unquestioningly lept on.
(Sarah trying to punch above her weight again, making things hard for herself as she always does.)
By the end of the week, I’ll need to get my German back to where it was in my university days, where we were translating into and out of the language and marked with a harshness that still gives me a bit of angst every time I put a German word to paper.
I remember the words of my German grammar teacher, Rainhild -- an absolute battleax of a tutor (but very much with her heart in the right place) as we broke up for the Christmas holidays:
“Tell all your friends, ‘I am sorry, we can’t spend very much time together. I am a student at Oxford and I have to study”.
Of course I ignored her advice and spent my holidays in London trying to play catch up on the fun all my school friends had had at their universities. Life is about choices, as my mentor says. (This articulation is pretty binary, but): We either sit with our declension tables and verb lists for hours on end or we hang out with the tribe of misfits who adopted us in high school and led us by the hand through the city’s rave culture, one of whose mother is an artist and collector of dead objects and houses them in a museum in Crouch End which doubles up as a den for a bunch of teenagers who could do whatever they want, so long as they didn’t touch the dead lamb which potentially had been embalmed with arsenic. Very different from my home, of course, which was similarly chaotic but far less bohemian, where I’d had to dismantle the lock on my window and sit precariously on its ledge to smoke, and in which strange things like the instruction to “go up to your room and learn these 300 French words in the space of an hour and I’ll test you” would descend upon me apropos very little. Weird flex but OK.
These friends were great of course, but sometimes they were a struggle to spend a lot of time with, and I’d regularly get comments about the disappearing acts I’d pull on them, too. Trying to integrate the two very different people I was at home and with them felt impossible somehow, like I had no core to fall into. That’s the challenge with us shape shifters, we’re too easily swept up by someone else’s dance and struggle to find our own rhythm. Makes it even harder to find time for those declension tables, doesn’t it?
So this week, I’ll return to the dance of proving myself in German, ask myself tough questions along the way. I’m kind of excited about it, to be honest. What is it that has hampered my progress in this area? Since my return from Hong Kong the language, at least the spoken part, has mostly come back. For sure I understand everything without hiccups, and I have fully functional friendships in German. Many Germans I know insist on only speaking English with me, so they can practice their language. I’m starting to push back a little, but I get lazy if I’m honest.
The biggest hindrance is of course my ego. Words are my domain, I derive a lot of pride and joy for being the person who just always has the perfect word at the ready, delivered at the speed of a bullet train. In German I falter and grasp for the right ones, arrive at sort of next-best-thing verbal contortions that aren’t exactly what I mean, and cheat a lot by throwing around English words that I know are understood, and just have this serious mental block when it comes to putting words to paper.
I understand where this comes from. Speechlessness for me is still sometimes a fright, sitting close to the threat of powerlessness and a loss of agency. Something apt my (lovely) therapist pointed out a couple of months ago.
“You and your words. You find them so quickly it’s almost like you grab hold of them so that you don’t have to feel what they mean to you. It’s like, if you find the word for the type of tree you want to describe, and quickly note it down, you won’t take the time to witness how it moves, its smells, its colours, and all of that.”
She has a point.
Walk beside me
Saying goodbye to a special person
Hi blog, are you there?
It’s me, Margaret.
So 2023 thus far has been, interesting. A week of gorgeous crisp blue sky opened with more sobering news: One of my mother’s closest friends (and certainly, my favourite) passed away abruptly after a relatively short battle with Leukemia, here in Berlin.
She was the mother of a classmate from when we lived in Bonn in the late nineties. We spent most Sundays at their house playing Mortal Kombat as the adults smoked, joked and talked adult things in the kitchen downstairs. Bonn was a happy time for my mother, and I think this friendship was a real contributing factor to that sense of belonging the small expat circle there gave her, at which this friend played the role of glue that held everything together. I’m writing this because she was an inspiring woman, and I feel inspired to write about her.
She was a warm, strong and highly intelligent Israeli woman of intense principles. Passionate about politics and a staunch critic of her government, she uprooted her family to start a new life in Germany, where they knew no one. She held onto that rage and indignation such that those political values and strong sense of right and wrong reverberated through her family, so much so that each funereal speech given explicitly referenced the sacrifices she made that kept her moral compass intact, and articulated her anger at the Israeli state within Berlin’s largest (and extremely beautiful) Jewish cemetery. And she did all of the above while living struggling with MS that gave her severe limp, having to provide for her family, while maintaining her wicked wit throughout. A real force to be reckoned with.
My mother really loved her. Their large, loud and generous family welcomed our small and awkward one with open arms, and when my mother and I visited her it was so nice to see that bond they shared was just as strong as it always had been, despite years of life they had living apart. “We’re soulmates,” they said.
By coincidence, my mother spent the final years of her career researching treatments for blood cancers. They spoke about the drugs she was on, and my mum was pleased and hopeful about the fact that she was on a new and really promising drug. Her friend mused that the MS and the Leukemia could be connected to pesticides used by the Israeli government. “Well, there’s no data to back that theory up,” my mother said flatly, the way she always does when she’s got that scientist’s cap on a little bit too tightly for the room. To be honest, I’ve come to love her for it.
She was telling me mostly recently that another old friend of hers has found a new boyfriend who it turns out is an anti-vaccer nutjob who believes pandemics can be healed through singing at a specific vibrational pitch. That was a dinner party that didn’t go well, apparently. “I just tried to explain the science to him,” she said. He got so annoyed at her his border collie leapt to her defense. Imagine that. Being so off your rocker that an animal specifically bred to stand your ground picks the enemy side.
But back to our departed friend. More nice things to say about her: On seeing her again last year I was struck by how clearly she saw me. My mum joked about my odd hobby of picking up big rocks and carrying them around when I’m at the family hytta in Norway.
“I can see why you like that. Sounds really stabilising,” she said. I told her that whenever my mum sends me pictures of my niece, I respond with pictures of my rats. She leaned her head back and howled with laughter. Seriously. Total badass bitch vibes, even through chemo. On leaving her flat, she loaded me down books, including an analysis of the life of my favourite German playwright (Kleist), and shared my number with a woman who lives near me and likes to go running, the daughter of a Syrian friend who had been trying to teach her Arabic.
And another thing, a diamond quote from her shared by one of her family members at the wake.
“Do not walk in front of me. I won’t follow you. Do not walk behind me. I won’t lead. Walk beside me, be my friend.“
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.