The other night I’d dreamt I was lost inside the roots of a tree so large an old friend of mine had made a home of it. And while she was nowhere to be found, mutual friends of ours were lost in there, too, listening out for a voice that proved impossible to follow. In my wanderings, I came upon a pile of her clothes, tried each on for size before stripping off.
My brilliant friend is short like me and in the time I remember being close to her, took painstaking care in dressing for it, pulling haphazardly from a pile of clothes that swamped the floor of her room a building opposite mine at university, trying not to knock over the paper cup of black coffee that would inevitably be placed not far from that pile, near a separate pile of papers she’d scribbled all over in red pen.
We became friends quickly, in that first-week-rush of tribe-finding undergrads are told to relish but which most find nerve-wracking and exhausting and during which I’d spent drunk enough to feel permanently likeable. Her sardonic wit had charmed me instantly, and I left her very little choice but to be my friend, inserting myself into her life and the circle she orbited -- a group of equally sarcastic smokers that congregated outside the library attached to our college. That library was housed in what counts as one of Oxford’s oldest deconsecrated churches, where we stood, smoked and postured among gravestones of bodies exhumed well before our time there.
There’s a saying, a very old-fashioned one, thankfully, that a woman applies to study at Oxford with the aim of accomplishing one of three goals. A first, a blue (that is, an athletic award), or finding a husband.
From day one, it was quite clear that my brilliant friend was unabashedly gunning for academic excellence, which she went on to achieve -- and then some. A talented and published philosopher, who has spent her career moving between Oxford and Cambridge, she’s remained at the top of her game, and, speaking selfishly, continues to set this benchmark of excellence I know I’ll never reach however hard I apply myself to this subconscious project of playing catch up with a mind that continues to dazzle me.
Ambition and its opposite
If my brilliant friend had her sights set on that first, I entered Oxford with no idea of what I wanted to get out of the experience. She applied with the dream of finally finding friends with whom she could discuss Keats. My own application had far less erudite motives.
My brother had earned a place a year before me, and by some fluke that had stumped everyone involved, my grades had matched his -- so applying seemed worth a shot. We’d moved a lot growing up, so he had always been the most consistent, closest figure in my life. It made sense, in a way, to follow him.
I’d applied to read joint honours in German and English, having had to dispense with the dream of studying art when I floated the idea with my father, who suggested I might as well start working at supermarkets straight away to avoid the pointless expense.
A fading table
Studying a literature-heavy degree with a language as solid and respectable as German seemed like a viable compromise, and, during the interview process, I had the fortune of meeting my professor Chris, who had a glorious white moustache, and is one of the nicest and most encouraging people I’ve ever met.
A medievalist approaching retirement, his cleverness came from a place of gracious curiosity, and being interviewed by him was one of the nicest experiences I’d ever had. It felt like there was someone inside me he’d woken up and invited to sit at a table I didn’t know I had a place at.
The story goes that I hadn’t impressed the English department all that much, especially given the lukewarm references my teachers had sent in. But that Chris was willing to pull whatever strings were available to him within the modern languages department, to get me a place at the university.
I should have been pleased, but all I heard during that conversation was that I had been rejected, that that place at that table had disappeared. I retaliated by turning the offer down, convincing myself that I hadn’t actually wanted to go and that the promise of four years of partying at a ‘normal’ university was far more enticing anyway.
Some time passed, and I changed my mind. Milan Kundera was my favourite author at the time, so joining the university’s tiny and mad Czech department in lieu of its famously old-fashioned English one didn’t seem too much of a sacrifice, even though the language itself proved ridiculously complex. Chris responded warmly to the decision with a letter I wish I’d clung on to.
He wrote about how that library that was once a church had in the 14th century served as centre for followers of religious reformist John Wycliffe. Wycliffe had had strong ties with Bohemia’s Jan Hus -- a key predecessor to the protestant movement, who met an especially nasty end in Lake Constanze when he had been falsely promised safe passage by the head of the Holy Roman Empire, who instead branded him a heretic and burned him at the stake. ‘Wycliffe and Hus were rebels, like you. So I think you’ll be in good company,’ Chris wrote.
On my arrival, we met and he said another nice, Cheshire-cat like thing: ‘You’ll feel like you don’t belong here, and that’s because you do.’
Friendship and aspiration
Oxford’s own C.S. Lewis has a quote about friendship that is quite overused now: ‘Friendship is born at the moment one (wo)man says to another ‘what! You too? I thought no one but myself...’
For that first year at that university, there was no one in this world I thought understood me better than my brilliant friend, no one who completed my sentences as cleverly. No one could leave me in stitches as she could.No one knew how to so elegantly stick a metaphorical middle finger up at anyone whose argument didn’t fall in line with hers. No one could so engagingly articulate a vision about how the world should be such that any other possibility would fade from view. Her thoughts flowed like a powerful river whose water was crystal clear. Mine felt, by comparison, a stagnant, muddied pool. ‘I don’t need my journals anymore,’ I told her, once. ‘I have you’.
In later years, in one of the many long and agonised phone calls we’d have in which we’d pick apart the emotions, the motives and wider meaning of everything we did and everything that was done to us -- she, always, with more astute observations than mine -- she pointed out my bad habit of hero-worshipping as a way of bypassing responsibility. I’d complained of heartbreak wrought by a journalist whose work, swagger and professional stature I’d envied. I’d idolised him - and fabricated a connection - to the point that the person he was in my head resembled nothing of the person he actually was, an infatuation as silly and egotistical as it was a distraction from the real task that lay in front of me: that of establishing my own career.
‘You’ve attributed to him qualities you deny in yourself,’ she said, with her trademark mic drop. ‘It’s the sort of thing women do all the time.’
Words on belonging
Chris’ words on belonging only made sense on reflection and in hindsight. Of course I felt like I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t like any of my peers. I didn’t work as hard as they did because I didn’t care as much as they did, so of course I couldn’t contribute with the effortless confidence they all exuded, with this glow they all had of intellectual brilliance.
I’d arrived through a back door, buoyed by a series of episodes of great luck - the mysteriously good grades, and having happened to have been taken a liking to by Chris (and Ray, and Wes, ...and Jim). Being on the course itself, in those surroundings, was a reckoning and a challenge that I wasn’t, for a whole tome of reasons, prepared to take on, and which I pushed back against with an apathy I still sometimes think about with regret.
I masked my insecurity in a party girl persona that gave me one thing to have over these swotty (albeit still pretty ‘rad’) nerds, boasted about the desperately cool raves I’d go to with my London friends, made my room available to anyone who wanted to show up after night outs, wasted and obnoxious enough to carry on debates on topics I had never read enough books about to warrant my inclusion.
But as Chris had implied, this quality I had that made me feel so anxious about where my thoughts came from and whether they were correct. This insecure, questioning quality is what tied me most to my peers, a quality that can turn you so far into your own head sometimes it takes you everywhere and nowhere at all. Maybe.
Chris’ words also recall the popular aphorism; ‘don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.’
On Kleist and fragility
Come second year I would start to find something of my intellectual stride. The joy I’d once had in writing had evaporated in first year, in which every essay I wrote read like someone trying and failing horribly to parrot the confidence and the language of the authors of the secondary literature we were tasked to pick apart as if we were cleverer than all of them. My writing was so bad, I even had one tutor ask me, in the nicest possible way, whether my heritage made me struggle with English.
I told my friend this and we had a good laugh, and she joked about my being a ‘foreign child’ in a way that I think she’d now be horrified by, especially given how hard both my parents had worked to be assimilated into British life.
My writing began to improve after a eureka moment I had late one night trying to read a piece of student journalism reviewing the Alien films that was so obscure and obfuscating and bewildering that it said nothing. I think I read it three times before arriving at the conclusion, that maybe, just maybe, sometimes -- if I didn’t understand what I was reading, it wasn’t because I was stupid, it was because what I was reading was badly written.
I applied that new insight to my own work, strove to simplify as opposed to obscure, and found the stirrings of a voice that could express itself well enough in this world. I started actually enjoying the essay writing process. My friend and I, we’d write side by side in last-minute all-nighter sprints in which we’d take breaks to read passages to each other, or else run to the kitchen and complete the writers-block-busting ritual we created together which involved hopping around playing air violin to The Devil Went Down to Georgia. Honestly, these are some of my fondest memories of my time at Oxford.
So things I think were going kind of OK until my life turned upside down. That is, when, one day, I think it was a Wednesday, I was drafting an essay in my head about feminism and folklore in 19th century Czech literature when I was mowed down by a car that accelerated into me. My body was fine, but my face.
Well, the impact was great enough that I’d lost my two front teeth and fractured my jaw, injuries which took two years of complex, painful and expensive surgeries to fix, which certainly wasn’t the easiest situation to juggle alongside an Oxford degree that had already challenged me. The driver shouted ‘dumb bitch,’ left me bleeding in the middle of the road, and sped off.
Luckily a small crowd had formed and taken care of me. The driver returned I think some moments later, having realised that someone would have noted down his number plate. He came up to me and explained that he’d intended to brake when he saw me crossing the road, but had accidentally put his foot on the gas. I apologised and claimed all fault, which he of course quoted in the paperwork he filled out when my Dad filed a lawsuit against him.
Sometimes, when randomly bad things happen to us, we blame ourselves because it helps us restore the sense of control we lose during a traumatic experience.
At the time I got quite into a German playwright called Heinrich von Kleist, he was one of the two German authors I specialised in for my finals (the other being Guenter Grass). Kleist enjoyed a revival in the 70s onwards, having spent the majority of his career in the late 18th and early 19th centuries feeling like a failure. As far as I can remember, German literature’s golden boy, Goethe, was especially dismissive of him (although I’m having a little Google now and it seems like they were both as bitchy as each other).
Anyway, Kleist wrote a number of plays, but his short stories are especially good. There’s an expression around which a lot of his thinking and works orbit, that of the Gebrechlichkeit der Welt, the world as having this fragile property to it we only discover when something about the life we know shatters. His characters are often painted grasping at moral absolutes that end up being their downfall.
A couple of weeks after the accident, I told my friend that I felt I had become too fragile. She picked up a glass and said: ‘This glass is just as fragile now as if I had dropped and broken it. The fact that it is fragile does not change whether or not I break it.’
What was she saying? That I was brittle, like that glass, and had broken? An accurate assessment, actually. But not what I needed to hear at the time.
Beginnings and endings
As I stepped into a dark tunnel whose end I was very uncertain about - my body didn’t take all that well to a lot of treatment, which wasn’t that surprising given how badly I was treating it at the time. But yes, as I was falling apart, my friend fell in love. With my other best friend, of course. Someone I’d nudged her towards, knowing that they were well matched.
I think under other circumstances I would have been happy for her. In fact, I was happy for her, for them both. But then, the closer they got to each other, the more disposable I felt, especially now that the one thing that I had to offer them - I think what my friend had once described as a ‘swashbuckling charm’ - had completely gone. She had also once told me that I was the warmest person she knew. And, well that wasn’t exactly true anymore.
We drifted. She became more and more engrossed in a life beyond the refuge we’d established in one another, with her boyfriend, and her studies, where she was just hitting home run after home run. I fell back on the self-sabotaging and hedonistic habits of my high school years that now had a much more nihilistic flavour to them.
Luckily I was able to get away for a year as part of our course, and being elsewhere helped stop the spiral I was in. I performed quite well in internships despite the fact I spent most of the time talking with my hand in front of my face. I suppose trying to avoid opening my mouth at all costs helped sharpen my writing.
I returned to Oxford for my final year having adapted to the rhythm of term time interspersed by operations. I’d grown closer to the students on my course and different friends from college -- friendships that didn’t have the intensity of connection that my brilliant friend and I shared, but with people who were caring and considerate and special in their own ways.
My friend was studying for her masters, but we rarely saw one another. She showed up at the end of my last exam, and, as per tradition, was part of the group of friends who dowsed me in Champagne and confetti and incited me to jump into the river Cherwell, which of course I did without hesitation, having jumped in it regularly in our first silly years there - before the accident when I was game for most things. She left quickly after the celebrations to join a party of philosophers which I took a glimpse at and which, I’ll admit it (I write this fully aware of how obnoxious and bitter this comment makes me sound), looked pretty lame.
Through that time, I never actually told her how mad I was at her for abandoning me in my darkest hour. It felt like she had broken the oath single women (who aren’t like those women) enter into in which we don’t treat each other as placeholders until the ‘real thing’ comes along.
In arcadia ego
My final exam and my final operation behind me, I left abruptly for China, returning two years later to get my journalism masters, much of which was covered by the compensation for the accident. I lived at home, to save money.
I hadn’t really planned to go back to Oxford, but then my Czech tutor Jim passed away and I was invited to his memorial held at my old college. My brilliant friend was working on her PhD at the time, and I reached out to her and she was happy to put me up.
The reunion was lovely, and staying at her place, hanging out with the coterie of postgrad friends she had made and who were kind and curious and welcoming and sat around discussing interesting things with far less pomposity than any of us had while we were undergrads. That made me reflect a little bit on how insecure we all were, how challenged we all felt to perform in a certain way and relative to each other that met the expectations of such a uniquely intimidating environment.
I was also able to observe all the qualities in her that once delighted me. The way her whirling mind meant she often struggled with insomnia she could only assuage in listening to Harry Potter audiotapes. The way, for all her brashness, for the fierce adversarial spirit she has that always made her the most convincing voice in the room, she could be extremely sensitive. Those lame philosophy parties she was always running off to? Well, the prospect of not being invited to just one of them would send her on a spiral of existential despair. The way there were so many things she just couldn’t be bothered to do because they didn’t register as at all important. Like remembering to lock the door when she left the house. Like cleaning dishes.
A few weeks later I was at her doorstep again, this time with a suitcase. I had been offered a job in Hong Kong. needed a place to stay while I completed my final paper, took my exams, got my thoughts together before abandoning everyone for my new life. And just like that, she slotted into the role I’d always assigned her, that of my saviour.
Light and shadow
We’d both grown up a lot all that time in which we’d drifted apart, she especially in the context of herself and her work. After wrestling with institutional biases that had relegated feminist philosophy to a lesser realm, she had a rebellion of her own and is now an important and strident voice in this arena.
For my part, living in China gave me a chance to re-establish myself as capable and independent. After bursting into tears several times trying to navigate the crazy traffic, cars stopped stressing me out so much, and I learnt to flag down taxis with confidence, developed that pushiness you need to get things done over there.
I worked as a teacher alongside a lot of colourful characters from all walks of life. One of them especially left a mark. An ex-alcoholic turned magician from Australia who gave his 120 per cent in every class, creating colourful, wild and thrilling pedagogical experiences that lit up the minds of Chinese students who had up until then conflated learning English with the terror of their high school years.
Thanks to him, I realised that there were many ways to have an impact in this world, not all of them had to involve dazzling your clever friends or professors with a brilliant theory or a gripping read. I also grew out of my habit of instinctively hiding my face, mostly because for a lot of language learners it helps to really see what their teacher is doing with their mouth.
So when my friend and I slotted back into an old friendship, it had a new texture to it. But an intellectual differential persisted. It was like there was a light she could only hold and I could only grasp at.
The last time I saw her in person I was getting on a coach that left for London, where I’d stay one night at her ex-boyfriend (and my best friend)’s place before getting that flight to Hong Kong.
We remained in sporadic touch while I was in Hong Kong, where I started seeing a therapist who helped by holding up that light the way she had. Of course, the whole point of therapy is that you’re taught to hold your own light, but that’s something that still seems like a lot of responsibility to take on, something that a little frightened voice inside keeps telling me people like my brilliant friend are better equipped to hold.
But of course, even the smartest person in the word is not fully capable of understanding the specificities of our lived experiences, nor can we expect them to commit any more than they are willing to offer in trying to.
She ended up in Cambridge for a bit, for her work, and then back to Oxford. Her career was going really well, but I don’t think she was ever capable of taking her success for granted. Whenever she had some kind of application she’d just get so stressed out.
As an outsider looking in, I never understood why. All I’d seen in the entirety of our time together was her getting what she wanted. She fell in love, again, and got married. I missed the wedding. I know I should have gone, but flights were expensive and I had a lot of work on. Besides, part of me worried that she didn’t want me there. That I’d cast a shadow.
We lost touch. I felt she was drifting from me, again, and lashed out to tell her how much her abandonment had hurt in the second year. That blind sighted her. All she had really heard from me until that point was how grateful I was for her friendship, her support, her wisdom. And all I could really think of was this need I had for her guidance, this dependence I had developed on her mind that had grown selfish. I’d given my power to her and was mad at how she couldn’t hold on to it. That had created a structure between us as brittle as that glass.
I’ve apologised since, clarified that in articulating certain hurts I hadn’t forgotten about much she had helped me. Owned up to a thread of victimhood that lived inside me that had made me feel entitled to a level of support that ultimately it was her choice to offer to give. For my own part, I’ve come recognise that maybe she doesn’t have all the answers. Maybe she’s not the perfect fantasy friend. Maybe there’s no one in this world who can tell us what to do with our messy lives. Maybe not all friendships are meant to last.
We’ve remained civil but distant. I still read and admire a lot of what she writes. I still wonder about whether she reads me, what she would say if she scrutinised my work as she did at university, when she’d clean the mud from my sentences with that clarity of thought I don’t think I’ll ever have. I still feel glad that I met her.
Snow fell on Berlin, the first I’ve seen in seven years. I was grateful for it. Grateful for having adjusted to the cold again, too. This time last year I couldn’t stand it, layered myself up like the Michelin man, made a b-line in whichever room I entered for whatever chair was closest to the radiator. Now something about the cold thrills me a little bit, especially when sucking in air after a tough run that tastes like it’s descended from the north.
Snow fell one day after the second of January, the day two friends and I had agreed to complete a circuit of the city that had amounted to 21 kilometres – my first half marathon. Theirs too.
Again, another thing to be grateful for. Having the kind of friends who would agree to do something like that, with almost no notice and with little prior training besides the variations of a much shorter route we repeated week after week in our local park, raking up a commendable mileage during a time in which the possibilities in how we could actually spend our time together had narrowed and narrowed. If it’s true that we are what we repeatedly do, then I’m a runner now. And a relatively good one, despite my short legs.
Of course, like everyone else, I am looking forward to the lifting of the lockdown and the end of the pandemic. Most of all because the spreadsheet of people and organisations in my head that I worry about, all over the world, will, I am assuming, shorten a little bit. I am not worried about myself. The year provided the crisis I personally needed to step into a career and a professional arrangement that has a sense of security, support and optimism my old life always lacked, just as everything from the year before served as a much needed prompt to make a home in the city I always wanted to end up in. I know all of this makes me quite lucky, that these options were available to me, and that what it was that I had to do was determine the door I wanted to open and knock politely but determinately enough until it did.
When you worry a lot, you think quite often about all the bad things that could happen. And you often forget to think about the good things that might sometimes be on the other side. Not necessarily ruin. Sometimes, and in some cases, renewal. I’ve enjoyed being a plant mum. Ernie and Bert –winter plants that grew voluptuously and which I am certain thrived all the better when I placed them next to each other (a gesture that perhaps speaks to my own social distancing blues) –have been joined by a set of daffodil bulbs to help mark spring’s gradual onset.
The streets on the day of the half marathon were relatively empty. It was a nice way to see the city, especially with the added variable of an absence of tourists. And I had a fresh and nice feeling one rarely has at the beginning of a new year: “This is exactly where I want to be. This is exactly how I want to feel.” It’s been a very strange year to return to Berlin, but not a wholly bad one, for me.
There has been something in the narrowness in possibility that has felt quite calming and comforting, especially knowing that it isn’t going to last forever, and having these rituals and routines to which I’ve grown quite attached. Like the beautiful park I see at least three times a week, with a lovely hill that comes especially into its own at sunrise and as your indefatigable training buddy powers ahead of you.
Sometimes this year makes me think about my first in China, in a third tier city in the middle of nowhere that proffered the most intense feelings of culture shock that I’ve ever had. It was quite a difficult adjustment. Actually, I was surprised by how difficult it was. You walked the streets with constant dread (albeit of getting mowed down by a motorcyclist, not contracting the horrible flu that shut down the world), you spent a large portion of your time feeling confused and frustrated, and entertainment-wise, certainly. Well, Toto– we were far from London.
I think we accumulated the most time sitting on a large rock outside a small shop owned by friends we could barely talk to, but who we liked very much, whiling away the hours drinking beers, chain smoking terrifyingly cheap Chinese cigarettes and chucking peanuts shells on the ground. Initially, I worried about making a mess with my peanut shells, but soon learnt that this was what everyone did, this little behaviour showed that I belonged. So I took pleasure in it. I even developed a taste for rice wine.
Sometimes, someone’s very cute toddler would be plonked on your lap, which would be an interesting variation of an evening. At other times, someone would walk past, first rest their eyes on your friend. And then on you, and say, in Chinese. “A foreigner! No… TWO FOREIGNERS.” And then move along. That Christmas there was one of the nicest I’ve had. A shopkeeper’s dog had just had puppies.
Anyway, when I look back on 2020, I think I’ll feel about our weekly running route the way I think about that large rock we always sat on in Foshan.
Da Capo al Fine
I haven’t got nearly as much reading done as I’d imagined I would, but I did finally get around to finishing Jane Eyre –a book I wouldn’t have been caught dead with a couple of years ago, but which –paired with Gloria Steinem’s chapter in her book on self-esteem, has proffered welcome insights. And I love Jane Eyre’s sass.
Other developments that might not otherwise have transpired include a renewed patience for flute practise, and a sense that I am getting close to sounding almost like did when I was sixteen and took it quite seriously –to the point where playing stopped being at all fun and just became another instrument for self-admonishment.
When I picked it up again a couple of years ago, promising myself to focus on the pleasure of it and not turn into that scale-gunning ogre I was, it was nice, though I was disappointed in how much skill I’d lost, the amateur-ness of my sound. The solution has, of course, come, in making space for both. The pain of endless and at times infuriating and crazy-making repetitions. (A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A flat to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat –sorry neighbours – A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat .A sharp to E flat .A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat. A sharp to E flat.) And the pleasure of a piece you can play well as a result of all that pain.
I have been teaching myself some new pieces, but actually the ones I like playing the most are the ones that most challenged me as a teenager. I still can’t get through Danse de La Chevre without making at least one mistake. Those arpeggios are mental.
And you’d think, having played them hundreds of times, that they’d bore me. But they don’t, really. That is the whole point of classical music performance. You go through each repetition seeking mastery and perfection, and each time bring in something special and unique to a moment unlike any other. And it can be nice, even if what transpires isn’t exactly what you thought you wanted.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.