Two perfect angels moved into Dracula’s mansion last week. When I say angels I mean rats.The transgressive and withdrawing Hermann and the convivial and attention-seeking Kotti. They are named after two U bahn stops near us.
Their human had regretfully placed them in my care having developed an allergic reaction to them. She loaded me down with their plush blankets, a pot of their favourite treats and their multiple toilet trays. She also warned me not to give Hermann too much coconut water -- it’s making him fat -- and not to smother them.
Rats like doing their own thing, and, like cats, prefer to approach their human for affection as and when suits them. After spending the day running around the flat, which is now filled with all sorts of rat toys, they retreat to their elaborate cage to munch on greek yogurt and muesli and nap in a hammock I wash each week.
Perhaps there’s a comment to be made here about the gentrification of pets. I don’t know. The more pressing point to make is that rats make excellent company. Even Hermann, whose intrepid spirit means we sometimes wind up playing a prolonged game of hide and seek in which he always thinks he’s outsmarted me -- even when he’s tucked under a pile of clothes with his tail poking out (“nothing to see here, lady”), has scampered his way into my heart.
Kotti likes to have the side of his face stroked, this is heaven for him. And if I’ve been out for long, I’ll come home to find him pressed against his cage waiting for a greeting. I put my finger through the cage once, and he reached out with his little hand (hands, not claws) placed it on my nail, and looked into my eyes. When I give them treats, they take them so politely with both hands you’d think they’d gone to butler school.
Ludvik Vaculik's Guinea Pigs
Caring for them has made me think of a Czech novel I studied at university. Ludvik Vaculik’s The Guinea Pigs is a dark comedy set in Cold War-era Czechoslovakia by a dissident writer. Here’s a passage:
“The hardest thing in the world, girls and boys, is to change your life by your own free will. Even if you are absolutely convinced that you're the engineer on your own locomotive, someone else is always going to flip the switch that makes you change tracks, and it's usually someone who knows much less than you do.”
It tells a story of a banker living under the absurd and hopeless conditions that characterize corrupt authoritarian rule. As an escape, he turns to his pet guinea pigs for solace. He takes refuge in their vulnerability, in fact, it empowers him. He finds himself playing games with them that help him feel powerful where elsewhere he is powerless. At one point, he finds himself, well, waterboarding them:
“Take a paper bag, place it open on a table and let the guinea pig crawl inside. Then twist the bag shit, just so the air can get in, and go to the movies. When you get back, you'll find everything just the way it was when you left. Take a glass, fill it with water, then change your mind and pour the water out, and take the glass and turn it upside down over the guinea pig. You can observe the guinea pig through the glass walls, watch it sit there in astonishment, its nostrils quivering in excitement, its tummy undulating nervously, and yet it doesn't even try to determine the penetrability of the wall around it, at least not during the first hour”.
Monkey see, monkey do. Especially when it comes to the exploitation of power.
Nightmares about war
The day I picked up my rats from their human, she told me she’d slept badly that night. She’d had a nightmare about a war she’d have to fight in. I’ve been having nightmares too. An elaborate one about trying to stalk down a murderer who was after a friend of mine. Another in which my teeth are pulled out. One counting dead rhinos, a whole field of them.
I have a friend in Russia who is eight months pregnant. I send her pictures of the rats doing silly things and she responds with hearts and kisses. It seems crazy to think that not even a year ago we were walking through Tempelhof together talking in German about how much we liked foreign languages. She was planning to learn Arabic. I agreed that the script is beautiful.
She’s one of my only Russian friends. Another one once falsely described Chopin as Russian. She backtracked very quickly when I pointed out that he was Polish. That was the end of that conversion. We quickly went on to discuss how great corgis are -- a far more comfortable conversation.
My own family history means that I’m wired to mistrust the Russians, it’s been a bias I’ve had to work on.
I view pictures of the Kremlin the way my Hong Kong friends think about Tiananmen. Creeps me out. So I’m not as shocked about the decisions that have been made within the Kremlin by a certain steroid-addled gnome-faced freakshow as maybe others are, but I am of course horrified.
I went for drinks last week with a journalist friend from New Zealand who's been covering the Middle East beat for almost a decade, so she is not surprised by the level of brutality that has been on display. She took in a Syrian sniper a few years ago, when she asked him what made him join the resistance.
“It was a gradual thing. He didn’t think he would fight initially, he just joined the protests. But then he did,” she said. The righteous indignation made him take up arms.
“I was thinking, if the war came here, would I stay and fight? I think I would,” she said. “Would the Germans, though. Would they stay? Are they ready for something like that?".
I don’t mean to be alarmist, and I’m not interested in making any predictions about how this war will end and what role average Europeans outside of Ukraine and Russia will play in it. As a reminder, few people predicted the fall of the Iron Curtain in ‘89, that deeply traumatic event for Putin.
A new precarious era
I think the fact that this horror feels closer to home than most Europeans of our generation are used to is worth examining.
These are the conversations we are having as we enter a new era of global uncertainty and precarity, and in which the faultlines of authoritarianism versus democracy have been clearly drawn.
If it came to it, would I stay and fight? Like those Ukrainian women cutting down their lacquered nails to hold AK 47s? I know I’m in the physical shape for it. But the mental game? And the threat of rape? Let’s move to another topic. A clip from a female Ukrainian politician who has stayed to fight plays out in my head a lot. She talks about going to bomb shelters and teaching children to “drop down and play turtle” when the siren goes off.
“What our generation wanted was for our children to grow up without trauma. We failed them,” she said.
I went for drinks with a group of non-Europeans this weekend, hoping to get a break from the doom scrolling.
We were in a very Berlin bar where burlesque dancers poured hot wax onto one another and complained about a meddling neighbour trying to shut them down. An American had been saying that, if push came to shove and they needed to get out of Europe, Central America would be their exit strategy. Imagine that. Leaving Europe for the safety of Central America.
“I’m sick of how Eurocentric the coverage has been,” said another friend of Asian descent. These were words I didn’t really want to hear, given how painful the last couple of weeks of witnessing have been. But there is a point there, too.
Living without the precarity of a looming war (with, albeit, the threat of the looming climate crisis) has been a privilege here. As has living with the assumption that freedom can be taken for granted. That was something that really depressed me when I first came back to the city two years ago, having witnessed Hong Kong’s bitter fight for freedom.
That’s changed now, at least, perceptually.
Nothing can be taken for granted.
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.
A great triumph of science entered my bloodstream last week, an event that involved the bizarre, post-apocalyptic experience of entering an ice-skating stadium turned makeshift vaccination centre and being told off for taking photos of men in army suits.
‘It’s a historic moment,’ I told the nurse who stood over my shoulder and made sure I’d deleted each one.
I was surprised by the extent to which my body reacted, its weakness, and the strange fever that followed the night of the vaccination, in which I’d dreamt of my brother strangling me. It’s one of my most recurrent nightmares, but this time had the twist that I’d fought back.
I’d had assignments that week -- interesting ones -- and was annoyed by the slowness of my mind, worried that attempts to preserve my sanity through lockdown had dulled the critical faculties I need to perform well professionally. Sometimes, it feels like when you turn a light on too bright you don’t notice the cobwebs you’re supposed to as a half decent journalist.
I ask myself the question - In making concerted efforts to be happy, had I turned my back on my own intellect -- and at what cost? And where’s the middle ground between living a life of joy, and a life of purpose?
I’ve been making concerted efforts to follow and scrutinise the news again, properly, and in German, writing out each unfamiliar word as I used to, back at university when the fear of blowing up my brain had no hold over me, when everything was a frenzy of learning, and where everyone was unapologetic in their love of knowledge, complexity and of depth.
And more than willing to put up with the discomforts that came with that sort of cognitive stretching and scrutiny.
But now I’m romanticising a time that was also really challenging, and an environment against which I’d actively rebelled sometimes, too.
Seems like wherever I am, I find a way not to fit. But maybe that’s just where I’m meant to be.
P.S. I'm towards the end of Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, and it's literally the best thing I've read in five thousand years. Highly recommended.
As I write this, I wonder whether I have anything at all noteworthy or useful to say. An intention to stay as upbeat as possible has persisted through the month and through this half of the lockdown, although I really am struggling with the extent to which life truly feels like Groundhog Day at the moment, struggling to find the patience for it. It feels like it's cracking me up a little bit, like it is everyone.
What to report when everything is more repetitions of the same? Well, two new plants have entered the household. Joe and Karmala. Karmala flourishes, Joe struggles to get the sunlight he needs, however many manoeuvres around the apartment I take him on. The rescuer in me struggles in watching him suffer, keeps wondering if there’s something else I can do. Perhaps I need to let go a bit, let him find his own way.
Caring is hard work. Hard work but important work. That goes beyond these four walls, of course. I see a hashtag trend on Instagram that I approve of. “Community-care” as a subcategory of “self-care” –and as a step away from the increasing egoism of the aforementioned movement. I like this. If I were an inspiring influencer I would say, now “what are you doing to extend beyond yourself and support the spaces that bring us together which we once so took for granted?” I am not sure that is quite the language an influencer would use, though.
I don’t think I would be a very good influencer. I am far too awkward. Recently I had to listen to my own stupid voice when I was transcribing an interview I did for an article. Who says “I feel you” five thousand times to a computer scientist explaining ‘multi-agent systems’? What’s wrong with me?
What else to report?
What else to report? What else have I discovered helps in such strange times? The usual suspects: gratitude lists and little projects. Trips outdoors whenever there is a sliver of sunlight. I am grateful for my job, that I have work interesting enough I can get lost in, challenging enough that it feels like there’s always something new to learn.
I am grateful for the tiny wins along the way in discovering more and more about this new field I am in. One is that I managed to sneak a cheesy pop culture reference into a complex computer science piece this week. That was ‘fun.’ I report this fully aware of how nerdy it makes me sound.
I always say that learning anything feels like stepping into a forest in which you are quite alone. At first, everything feels so dark and scary, and you can’t find your way. You are fumbling so inelegantly, and –honestly– the only thing keeping you going is the sort of blind faith you have that clarity will eventually come.
So you keep going, moving through this darkness that is at once terrifying as is it electrifying. There is just so much to learn. A whole, completely uncharted territory waiting for your footprints to wander through it. And slowly, through all that bumbling, and faltering, and tripping, and looking like a complete idiot, your eyes start to adjust. Your ears sharpen. Your fingers develop a cleverness to them you never knew they had.
Slowly, this darkness is no longer an unfathomable mesh. It’s gloomy shapes you begin to identify, little pieces in these endless puzzles of knowing. For my part, this is one of my favourite stages on the journey –the first crossing of total unknowing into some form of intelligibility. In language learning, for example, that’s the point where you can listen into a conversation and start knowing what the subject matter is, even if you can’t really follow it. In discovering a new field, or investigating a story, it’s the place where you start being able to join the dots together you wouldn’t have seen before.
In fighting, it’s being able to hold your own and not completely freeze up, in having and holding to a rhythm. In settling into a new city, it’s being able to ride a bike around and know where you’re going. In getting to really know someone, it’s the arrival of that indescribable gravel that comes with letting them get under your skin. And all those strange frictions.
Each journey of course is completely unique, unfolding at its own pace and with its own specific ups and downs. But one thing most have in common, is that –unless they are forced upon us –they only begin in our being brave enough to take that first blind leap into the unknown. Brave enough, and trusting enough in our own capabilities in charting a course through the forest, and being OK with whatever happens to us along the way.
But anyway, it’s now light outside, and honestly, this is all there is to report. BerlIn’s dark and strange winter, they say, is on its way out. Nights are supposedly shortening despite how very long they still feel. Perhaps, then, I should see this experience as its own dark and endless forest, something to keep moving through and moving through and moving through and moving through.
And moving through.
News from the fjord
An elk fell from the sky and landed on the roof of a car speeding down a winding highway in the Norwegian west country last week. The driver survived. The elk– which it turns out had fallen off a cliff overhead– did not.
I know this because my mother read about it in her local newspaper and shared the story with me in our now weekly phone call, a new ritual that has come out of these long and, at times eerily isolated months.
The routine of weekly phone calls between us began when Norway went into lockdown earlier this year. She was worried she’d get lonely. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed talking to her that often.
The phone calls continued while she was in our family home in London, too. Why she went, when she could have stayed in Norway– a far safer place for a pandemic, was beyond me. But as I said, she doesn’t like being alone. And I was glad she wasn’t alone. I sent her workouts for the park. “I’m in my sixties, Sarah. I’m not going to crawl around like a bear in public.”
Now she’s back Norway again, enjoying an enviable freedom, keeping me abreast of all the latest wildlife news interspersed by observations of her own of how ‘mean’ seagulls ‘bullied’ an eagle out of his dinner near the boathouse of the family cabin out in the Trondelag fjord. And how a ‘rude’ woodpecker has made a home on the front porch, loudly digging holes into the wall to impress his lady friends.
My father and I used to make fun of how inane the Norwegian news cycle was. This year I’m grateful for it –I’m almost tempted to get in a subscription to one of these papers, sift through pages and pages of astonishingly-sized fishing conquests, and Norwegians in their silly folklore costumes marking some event no one outside the country has heard about. My grandmother was especially fond of a magazine called ‘See and Hear’ (Se og Hør), which as far as I could see, was just a catalogue of B-list Norwegian celebrities and their fishing boats.
“This poor elk, just landed with a ‘thump’ on the car. Of course he died on the spot,” my mother said, in the Norwegian lilt that has grown more noticeable since she moved back to her homeland six years ago, a sort of limbo situation forcing her to straddle London and Norwegian family life while finishing off her final years as an immunologist at her hometown’s university in Trondheim.
“What did you do this week at work?” I ask her regularly. “Oh, you know. Science,” she always says, looking to change the subject. It’s funny, journalists go on and on about their work, you can’t really shut them up. Scientists are usually quite different. They tend to have more humility, the work itself being much more mundane on a day-to-day basis.
Over dinner, journalists talk about news events as if they were in the middle of all of them. Scientists return home with very little more to recount than that they might need to invest in a more upscale pipet.
Vindictive lab rats
My mother trained initially as a nurse, working in this capacity for long enough to realise that there lived inside her a hunger for solving the sorts of long and complex puzzles to which scientists dedicate themselves. I think I always respected the level of engrossment and dedication she had with her work, although there might have been frictions around the long hours. During my early years, before school started, I spent a lot of time with my father. He worked night shifts at a London newspaper at the time.
My mother moved to London in the eighties on earning a little inheritance from an uncle, and with the aim of completing a PHD. This is how she met my father. Their marriage came faster than it might have done otherwise, owing to changes in immigration laws implemented by Margaret Thatcher.
“I’ve always just gone with the flow,” she says. By flow, I think she means that her capacity for devotion, for moving through the patterns of her life without questioning too much, is rather strong.
She’s a person of faith, too. Never saw a conflict in what she had learnt as a scientist with what she felt about her God. I respect her for that, though growing up I found this Nordic fatalism trying. If you don’t ask yourself the right questions at the right moments, how do you know you’re on the right track? How do you know you’re not an elk about to wander off a cliff?
When I was little, she’d sometimes take us to the lab, introducing us to the rats you were allowed to hold, alongside the white ones that could never leave their glass cabinets. Once, she placed a grey one between my fingers. It bit me and I cried.
Words that swim
My brother was the budding scientist. I was the kid who couldn’t read. I hated it. Words would sort of– for want of a better way of describing it– swim on a page, and I couldn’t make sense of the ways the letters came together, couldn’t really see the logic that came naturally to everyone else. Learning to write felt like trying to paint on paper with a spear. It just didn’t really work.
“L-A-P” – what word is that, Sarah?” I didn’t know. Trying to know always put me in a panic. Reading terrified me, but I didn’t really have much choice but to plough through it, trying to conceal this slowness as best I could, trying desperately to find my own solutions. I’ve ironed out the worst of it, now. Sometimes, when I’m in flow, I don’t notice it all– this panic and doubt that makes me second guess every word such that they start swimming again.
If I need to, I can stem the way they swim by isolating a sentence, and tackling it word by word, remembering breathing exercises that have helped create calm in sparring scenarios, too.
I am not really sure where or how this arrested development came about. With each new language I have learned, I have struggled with the initial building blocks of it, and fluency for me has always come in the form of having a handle on the unique rhythms and flows of a language, not really in mastering the grammar or spelling on any innate level. I still compulsively spell check. And I still harbour fears around being ‘found out.’ Which is funny, because I do this professionally now. And I’m good at it.
But maybe it’s not that surprising, maybe it’s what I do to claw back some sense of control, however uncomfortable the process can still make me. It’s always a relief to finish with an edited piece. Tidy something up so there’s nothing wrong with it anymore.
Don’t get me wrong. I genuinely love what I do. And I love words in a particular way that has nothing to do with the pain they initially brought to my life. Most of all I like how they sound, and that feeling you get when you finally think of the exact one you need.
Some self-help gurus say that we either do one of two things: We either operate out of fear. Or out of love. And that it is ultimately up to us to choose love over fear. I understand this premise and I see its value. But I don’t think matters of the human heart are ever that simple, or that we always have that much power over what drives us. I think a lot of the time, we can’t really help the fact that our motivations and passions are driven by an interplay of both.
Back to Berlin
This weekend I had a friend come round. My funniest German friend.
“Oh my God. This place! You’re Hannibal Lecter!” she said, before diving onto the piano and cracking out some of “Freddy ‘Small Hands’ Chopin”’s greatest hits. Though she’s a self-proclaimed ‘loner introvert’ who enjoys her own company, I think she’s going mad like the rest of us muddling through this strange year of repeating disconnection. This reflects itself in how she played, which felt more frenetic and passionate that usual, more magnificent. Makes sense. Art that endures usually comes from a place of discomfort and yearning.
For my part, It was nice to get company in this hall of dark and ungodly things, to punctuate time spent between watching the frost settle outside my window in the mornings and trying to fix the pink flamingo figurine in a Christmas hat that I accidentally decapitated last week.
Honestly, I thought I would make better use of all this time skulking about at home in a robe, to read and write. I got halfway through a decent Danish thriller that I enjoyed up until the point where I felt like it was making me lethargic. I have yet to complete the third draft of the beginning of a short story that has decided that it never wants to be written. One of these days I might end up printing out the entrails of these aborted efforts just to shove a spear through them.
In the backroom of this lair –Hannibal Lecter’s lair– is a punch bag. Probably the crown jewels of the place. I could easily spend about two hours a day in there if it weren’t for other commitments and a fear of annoying neighbours.
Bag work isn’t optimal –nothing replaces having a human partner, however many scenarios you dream up in your head as you shadow box. (Shadow box: how lovely is that phrase?!) But it’s a great way to focus on the foundations of the movements and the sequences, which is probably what I need anyway. I am out of practise in my striking, having mostly focused on trying to learn the interlocking logics of grappling this year as and when training has been possible. And last year, everything was so mad and gungho –I didn’t get enough time to just, sort of. You know:
Jab, cross, right roundhouse, switch kick. Jab, cross, switch kick, right roundhouse. Right tee. Step back. Right tee. Step back. Right tee. Jab Jab. Right elbow. Block. Block. Jab. Cross. Jab. Jab. Jab. Cross. Jab. Cross. Knee. Step back. Knee. Block. Knee. Elbow. Block. Jab. Cross. Uppercut. Cross. Decoy jab. Gnarly right hook. Pause. Step forward. Clinch. Knee. And he’s down.
On a side note, I’ve replaced the wilted, cut flowers with pot plants which I intend to water regularly and watch grow as a lockdown mood-lifting strategy. I have been told that I am unlikely to do well with plants, owing to my struggles in maintaining focus on simple tasks.
“You can barely take care of yourself, Sarah,” a flatmate said this year. I don’t know. There are a lot of things people have told me I can’t do that I’ve done. So I don’t see how gardening is any different.
In which the writer marks her first year back in Berlin with a foray into the colliding worlds of myth and reality,
I celebrated completing my first year back in Berlin this week, marked the occasion with a remote call with the two friends –Ben and Alice- who had felt most like 'family' in Hong Kong –beleaguered but kindhearted journalists from my old newspaper who also happen to be some of the wittiest and most cynical people I’ve ever met.
I gave them a tour of my new place, an eerily charming and quite expansive space with creaking floorboards that I discovered via the city’s journalism circuit. Here, chandeliers hang from high ceilings, an 150-year-old ‘atmospheric’ sounding piano complete with candle-holders stands next to a full-blown walk-in bar of dark wood and faux-gold furnishing and a beer tap that appears to only serve aesthetic purposes, as black-and-white illustrations and maps showcasing the Berlin of yesteryear abound. A panel of blood-red wallpaper completes the look.
Lighting is quite low, so many of my evenings are accompanied by the glow of candlelight, placed next to the large, fat-stemmed and rather mysterious purple and white flowers I bought. I've left their fallen petals to wilt.
A luxurious enough experience can be had lounging on the baroque-style, sheepskin-rug-bedecked sofa overlooking the hinterhof complete with trees that now sulk with their forlorn and jagged winter nudity, though the highlight of the space can be found in my bedroom, which is certainly more regal than any I’ve ever occupied and which overlooks a rather quaint graveyard.
In self-help books we’re told to create a visual image of who we most desire ourselves to be. I’ve always had this picture of myself, feet propped up at a vast and powerful-looking desk complete with piles of books and papers, with a cigar in hand. This desk here comes close to that visual, though it’s of a rather grim and haunting dark wood that exudes undead vibes.
“You’re renting from Dracula, aren’t you, Sarah?,” Ben says.
I wouldn’t say Dracula so much as I feel like this place resonates more on a Huysman level. Huysman’s book Against Nature (À rebours) was one of my favourites at university, a recommendation from a tutor who always knew exactly what I needed to read, a rare talent that never goes amiss. Looking it up now, I find a version of an early translation in which its first page opens with the subtitle "A Novel without a Plot". Brilliant.
Novels without plots, plots without novels
Against Nature (described in on review I read as “one of the strangest books ever”) follows the eccentric Jean des Esseintes– the last scion of an aristocratic family– as he shuffles wearily around in a robe rarely leaving his luxurious but somewhat haunting home bemoaning the modernity and chaos of the outside world, entertaining himself with classical French and Latin literature of specific eras (the only good ones, he insists) and the companionship of a tortoise who he inadvertently kills when he sticks jewels onto its shell.
As students of literature we are taught to think about the messages characters have for us in the present day. The book was written in 1884, and des Esseintes is presented as a relic of a bygone time, having retreated completely into a world of fiction he believes far suits a person of his lineage in an age of social and technological upheaval. (In 1895, by way of example, the Lumière brothers — pioneers of film — produced a short movie of a steam train roaring down a railroad, which marked the onset of the moving image, to name one major development that brought about the rise of mass culture).
Des Esseintes is an interesting character to think about for a number of reasons, not least that if he lived today and had assess to Wifi, I can see him as one of those anonymous internet troll decrying all sorts of things in a last ditch effort to maintain a semblance of relevance ('to feel heard') In a world in which he can't keep up.(#notallaristocraticscions)
The character also has a rare and specific "decadent" illness not without overtones of vampirism (a spectre that best symbolises these old-world/new-world clashes and fears that Decadent literature so evocatively explored).
He is sickly and prone to sensory oversensitivity such that, in fact, books, books more books accompanied by the strange orientalist gongs of the so-called "East" that he has farmed in from worlds he has never seen (Said eat your heart out)– suffice in sustaining his creativity and enjoyment of life such that he never need step outside, nor seek companionship at all).
Some people seem to think the onset of new technologies like AR and VR will turn us all into Des Esseintes. I am not ruling out the possibility. But it should be said that humanity has been inoculating itself against the realties of the world through fiction for millennia. We've always had access to that form of escape– the more shrewd humans among us have always found ways around the mythological noises that take us off course from the truth, however enchanting (and in many cases, rewarding) these meanders might be.
A globetrotting granny
Sometimes when I think about Des Esseintes and the question of fiction as escape (versus fiction as freedom), I think about my grandmother, a singular and cerebral working class woman who decided quite early on that the likelihood of finding a man who would show her the world she dreamed of seeing was quite slim in sleepy Tunbridge Wells. So in lieu of the pursuit of a husband she taught herself five languages and worked as a secretary in a multinational organisation.
She met my grandfather while she was working in Vienna. Her marriage to the Hungarian Calvinist of Transylvanian roots was short. Some years later, she had an affair in Brunei, but if I am correct spent her longest stint in the city that agreed most with her besides London: Paris. This is why I have a half-Malaysian half-uncle with a Hungarian surname who speaks French like a Parisian.
If there was one thing that charmed my grandmother more than travel and the promise of new worlds, it was the world of ballet. All she wanted to do in her retirement was attend every dance institute in the area. She was probably a patron of more than she could afford, might have single-handedly kept many open. She lived for these fictional worlds, they sustained her in a way the real world couldn't.
Conversations over the phone always centred around that season's theatre and dance programmes, and I was supplied with more novels from her while I was growing up than I knew what to do with. Of course she was the person who gave me my two favourite books from childhood: Little Women, and Chinese Cinderella– the latter being the work that sparked my own dream of globetrotting adventures I eventually realised (an event in which myth collided quite rudely with reality).
Prone to falls and incidents one assumes come hand-in-hand with being rater bookish and otherworldly (as opposed to robust, coordinated and grounded), my grandmother approaches her 90s with a surprising lucidity and promising bill of health, despite having always been too "something or other" for this world. Smart, maybe?. This said, she has recently moved into an old people's home, a confronting experience which has inspired some of degree of myth-making on her part. "These women are all prostitutes or lesbians!" she has said on one of those days she has in which her grip on reality is less strong.
But anyway, back to Against Nature. I love the symbolism and the haunting hopelessness of the work, it's so eerie and meandering and mystical, captures the sort of total retreat into introspective god-knows-what-world that can happen to some circles during times of seismic change. That poor tortoise. To hammer down my point: In the words of my best friend from school, Ceyda: “I hate Trump because he totally took the fun out of conspiracy theories”.
It's true. The fun has been taken out of myth-making and risky meanders from the truth. Our other school friend, an artist-turned-social worker specialising in drug addiction –who is my best source for understanding London's increasingly worrying crystal meth scene, (alongside the best confidante I've ever had), no longer sends me bizarre articles about airports designed by the illuminati from 'Vigilant Citizen,' the website that also inspired some of her weirdest illustrations.
Our WhatsApp group is still riddled with snapshots of Occultish dolls and Victorian taxidermy fails, though. She most recently reports a great time to have been had at her virtual 'Moon circle' retreats, an activity she squeezes in between virtual gong baths and sobering phone calls with clients from all walks of life, and phone calls with me.
Last month, when I was struggling with a greater degree of emotional disturbance than felt manageable at the time, I spoke to her about wanting some kind of emotional vasectomy, something that could efficiently remove these feelings from me so I wouldn't have to bother with them.
"We all want that sometimes, Sarah. That's literally why people take drugs," she said.
To return to our main event
But, actually, my understanding is that, the previous tenant here was not Dracula, nor an aristocratic scion-turned-nutty-mystic, but a rather jolly German man who, according to neighbours, was prone to noisy, convivial late-night antics. “You mean sex parties?” Ben queries.
Possibly, who knows about the stories that came here before mine. “I’d love to see you at a sex party,” Ben adds. “Standing politely in the corner saying stuff like ‘how nice it is we all get to spend time together like this.”
The neighbourhood is quite different from the one I recently left. On my evening walks, which have now transformed into evening runs –the time of my day in which I feel most alive during these bizarre soon-to-be-mythologised, socially-rupturing lockdown times, – I am far more likely to bump into a drunk than a pram-wheeling lady holding a chia seed smoothie.
One practise that continues here, as it did in Prenzlauer ‘pregnant lady’ Berg is that of people leaving items out for scavengers such as myself to root through.
I’ve always enjoyed accumulating other people’s things, especially when their story is mine to try and interrogate, bring to life somehow, create fictions in the between spaces of their cracked realities. I now own a scratched gold watch, a flamingo figurine, a pink teacup and a forlorn and slightly ripped photo of someone’s dog, among many other decaying oddities.
I’m not sure what to do with any of it but I am glad they are here in this, in this hall of dark, enchanting and zany things during these strange, long months –ready to recycle themselves out of their oblivion into some new story, a decadent meander between fiction and truth.
Yours, Vlad the Impaler x.
p.s. New (O.K, recently rediscovered #content uploaded elsewhere)
In which the writer faces a second lockdown in her host city, watches a historic triangle choke, remembers her old newsroom and listens to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.
As our week comes to a close and a drizzly winter creeps upon us, Berlin ushers in a grim reality.
Perhaps this second lockdown will not be as challenging as the first, hopefully it won’t feel as indeterminate and perhaps we’re all better prepared than we were the first time round. But I can’t shake a sense of weariness that feels to be everywhere. Can’t unhear every ambulance siren.
On a more mundane level, the clocks changed (something that doesn’t happen in Hong Kong). I wouldn’t have noticed as much if it hadn't been for the failure in an adjustment to be made on some of the analogue faces of the metro system here– the clunky and bewilderingly dysfunctional BVG that has, for the first time in my life, made me wish I had learnt to drive.
You glance up at these clocks as a shock runs through you, confronted as you are by their falsehood. Are you late? No, you are not late. Berlin is late.
I partook in my ‘last dance’ on the mat. I felt tired and performed with very little enthusiasm, though it felt good to be around athletes. I don’t consider myself an athlete so much as an interloper in these worlds where people live in the moment and milk it for everything it can offer. That is why they mean a lot to me, I envy that courage to think less, and do more.
Recently I have felt a deeper pull to the world of words and analysis, out of a combined sense of duty and passion. A sense of feeling needed and useful. This a good feeling, but one not without cause for worry: will I start falling into old habits again?
I bought a packet of cigarettes for the first time in months this week. Reading a pile of newspapers amid a pandemic and ahead of a disconcerting election kind of makes you do that sort of thing. I’ll smoke one more, throw the rest in the bin. It seems selfish to treat my health this way given the wider context.
This said, it's felt good to feel more plugged in, engaged with a world that used to be my everything. Felt nostalgic for the stimulation and the unique forms of interaction you get at such places, especially when things are working relatively well and you've carved out a corner for yourself where you can do good and meaningful work under the right mentorship,
There are a lot of good feelings out there, but I do think living with purpose and a sense that you are contributing to the world is one of the best. And that doesn't have to mean unearthing the darkest of dark stories, though such work usually does earn you more kudos. It just has to be a story that knocks you off your feet a little bit, widens your aperture around the possibilities that come with experiencing and learning about this world.
"Look at this bird, Sarah. How stupid does this bird look?" my former editor, a foul-tempered but goodhearted and rather brilliant Scot said as he pulled out a print out of a Chinese species of chicken that did indeed look pretty weird. "I need to put a picture of this stupid bird in my newspaper. Find a story, Sarah," he said. And I did a bit of digging, and there it was. A story decent enough for page three. My favourite page.
Reporters salivate over making the front-page, and yeah that feels good because you feel kind of cool and important for about two seconds. But further on is where the interesting, quirky stuff goes. The stuff that's not quite news, not quite fluff. The in-between story.
The in-between stories remind us that life isn't always a constant bombardment of horror, nor is it bubblegum. It's a stupid-looking bird with black flesh and poodle-like plumage unique to Chinese cuisine with fluffy feet that could potentially pose a health risk should another bird flu outbreak present it itself (as they often did) given that it shares the same susceptibility to the flu as common poultry -according to a New York-based WHO-affiliated scientist I found, but are not recognised as such by Hong Kong's clunky food and health bureau.
Something that has cheered me up– besides newsroom reminiscences and thoughts about fluffy birds– is a link someone sent to a historic MMA fight that took place last week in which the famed Khabib Nurmagormedov emerged victorious after wrapping his legs around the neck of his opponent using the triangle choke, a move I have tried and continuously failed to master, and which I tend to prematurely tap out of when I am on the receiving end– more out of shock than the genuine threat of being ‘put to sleep.’
It’s such an uncomfortably intense situation to be in. Worse than being screamed at by editors insistent that you have made a mistake when they’re actually the one in the wrong,
“Yeah, enough about the triangle choke –what about after that?” I was asked. That is, the bit where Khabib, overcome by emotion, falls to his knees and cries, joined a few moments later by his defeated opponent, who wraps his arms around him and comforts him.
Yes, it was touching. And yes, this is the world I fell in love with, the world I escape to.
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool”.
These are the words of America’s lauded rock critic Lester Bangs, a gloomy type but a fantastic writer whose essay on Van Morrison’s endlessly charming Astral Weeks is my go-to feelgood read.
I can’t find it now, which is annoying, but it describes a weariness with a scene and culture he had felt had grown stale and performative somehow. The album blew that away, that nihilism, and sense of social dead-end-ness, a posturing turgidity– to use an expression that feels like something that might be uttered in conversation between Raskolnikov and Holden Caulfield. Astral Weeks brought something real and raw, something that inspired wonder.
It reminds me of the ebbs and flows of passion, numbness and pain, and how there’s always the prospect of something waiting, just around the corner, that might make us feel –in Van Morrison’s words– born again.
It is a beautiful album and I’ll listen to it now as I smoke this last cigarette.
In which the writer has her work critiqued and as a result offers her reader a greater deal of context.
I have recently shared one of these posts with a writing partner whose feedback was as follows: “It’s the rambles of an ‘impossible’ narrator who provides no context.”
I suppose there is some truth here. An editor once made a similar remark about my writing: “It takes you awhile to get to the point.”
He echoed much of what I heard growing up, trained under the maxim that everything worth saying can be whittled down to a headline, and that all headlines that stretched beyond two lines were a disgrace. That everything halfway from here to there says nothing at all. There was news. And there was dross. And then, there was the perfect headline.
Why could I never write the perfect headline? Why do I still struggle in writing the perfect headline? It’s never quite there. It’s always short of that one word that I can’t access, that’s sitting just on the tip of my tongue. Somehow that perfect New York Times-esque balance between punch and elegance eludes me.
There was news, and there was dross. I edited myself accordingly. Kept quiet the places I did not know. Listened for a clarity that never came.
Now I wonder whether these meanders into nowhere and everywhere are my own rebellion.
But here: some context:
When I began these posts I pitched myself to my invisible audience as a so-called “third/culture/kid” having returned after years of timeawayness as a journalish-daughter-of-a-journalist relocating to a city I once knew fromchildhood. Along the way I have described the ethical quandaries, the pain and relief of leaving Hong Kong during its depressingly historic moment, I have gone into the various emotional and intellectual quagmires of my trade, and I have also taken little forays into the world of MMA that had served as a much-needed escape and which helped me learn to embrace parts of myself buried deep underneath all this excessive thinking and analyzing and worrying, and this unshakable, maladaptive perfectionism that always burns me out.
On the mat, I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be game. “Stop thinking about what you can’t do, start thinking about what you can,” my first coach used to say.
Through this time, in which I went from staring bleakly out of windows, and partaking in my favourite pastime, that is, walking wherever my feet take me, new responsibilities came my way, not least a fellowship inviting me explore Europe’s shifting media landscape, and so have various shifts within me taken place. I can’t say I myself have achieved a sense of belonging here (I am doubtful as to whether that would happen anywhere). But I believe I have found my feet. And I am getting a little bit closer to achieving one thing I set out to do: Be imperceptibly foreign when I open my mouth. Last week, someone mistook me for a Bavarian. I consider this progress.
More context: I would pretend that I had bold plans for this little, aimless project of mine. But really it was to help keep my fingers busy and my mind active through Corona, and because writing is always what I do when I need to figure things out, and returning to Europe after all these years away has been one of the strangest, most necessary things I’ve had to do. Bounding into the unknown has always come far easier to me than homecomings.
There is your context, kind, invisible reader.
Oh, to explain another point: I have entered into the habit of beginning each entry by describing the view outside my window: A warm up for my fingertips that reminds me of an early premise made here: That a change in perspective might resolve certain feelings of restlessness in looking at something that seemingly remains the same. I observed seasonal shifts from my window, tried to interrogate my view in a way that would prevent me from growing bored of it.
But I also cheated in this exercise. I have moved twice now since I began this blog, and I still can’t escape my geographical restlessness, much as I know that staying put, creating routines and a sense of familiarity and attachment, are what I need to do to find the roots that elude me.
This new view is so far my favourite. Especially at golden hour, which it is right now. I’m not sure I’d appreciate autumn so much if I hadn’t lived without it for so long.
Read more on Sarah's Mixed Martials Arts journey via the links below:
1. Fight Club
2. Lessons from the mat
3. Good and bad algorithms
4. Taming the lizard brain
Read her summary of why she fights, and what cultural value MMA brings in her BIO.
In which the writer describes a wander into her childhood neighbourhood, and muses on the pressures of the modern newsroom, where informational downloads make navigating nebulous spaces -and a sense of living something more than a hypercerebral, hyperfrazzled existence- a challenge.
I am breaking with blog tradition and writing at night time. It’s a beautiful evening, finally a bit of rain, the sky has a blueness to it that’s ocean-like, the buildings a hulking blackness broken up by sporadic glowing yellow squares. Streetlights shining against the shadows of leaves refract against my window’s glean; makes the glass look a little bit like it’s peppered with stars from a children’s book.
Last week I found myself in my old neighbourhood from childhood, in sleepy Dahlem, broke my rule of not disappearing on companions to see if I could find my way back to my childhood home without checking Google Maps. I overestimated the walk by about an hour and half but found my way in the blistering heat to Bruemmer Strasse 26. Broke into the shared garden to explore. There were weird gnome-like statue things that weren’t there before, but otherwise, it seems like very little has changed at all. The old currywurst stand down the road is still there, even.
It was strange being back there, but, after months of spending more time in a state of lost as opposed to found, it was kind of nice to know that something inside me was able to find my way. And, after all these years, the same McDonalds lives in the same place. Almost as if no time has elapsed at all.
I’m not sure if the newsagent’s is still there, the one where our family had a standing order of around five newspapers a day; papers which still exist today - none of which have yet folded, which is nice to know.
Sometimes, when I’m being good and productive, I’ll buy a weekend edition of one, bring it home, leave it sprawled out on the kitchen table, marking my territory. It’ll rest there for an hour or so until my housemate folds it up and tidies it away, returning our shared space to its barren order. Sometimes, there will be flowers in its place.
From my understanding, newspaper mess does not count as mess; it makes somewhere home. Same as how the three beeps that precede BBC’s radio service aren’t so much noise as a daily reminder to be quiet, and to listen to the world.
These days, though, my morning rituals are kind of different to how they were some years ago, and what I grew up with. This sounds silly and/or Daoist, but if I’m honest, I like my mind empty in these hours. I don’t want to be thinking about everything big and grand happening everywhere else. I want to be here. In my own skin, in my own body, thinking about simple and unexceptional things like breakfast and whether it’ll rain later and what kind of rain that’ll be.
If I was plying my trade in the traditional sense, finding my way daily to the hellishly fantastic quagmire of modern day newsroom, where everyone is at the verge of a nervous breakdown and the coffee tastes like electric mud, I’d be forced to download large swathes of data, ideally generating out of all that increasingly incoherent informational noise a pitch or two up my sleeve, ready to rebuff whatever wisecracking-journo-bro correction is fired my way when I’ve been stupid enough to make a comment vague enough to be misconceived and misrepresented by someone desperate to appear the cleverest in the room.
The other week, a journalist friend corrected me on a subject that was supposedly my area of expertise, not hers. She was so forceful and convinced about it that I conceded to her position. It was only going home, to look up stories I have in the past edited, that I was able to confirm to myself that I had actually been right.
I think many journalists like to feel and seem like they know everything. I find trying to uphold this deceit boring and exhausting. Of course, we don’t know everything. How can we? Most of us just know bits and bobs about the world that come under the, rather restrictive, (and-in-constant-need-of-reassessment), banner of newsworthy, or, like me, have a peculiar and insatiable appetite for burrowing into underexplored landscapes of knowledge and experience, such that we come out the other side having woven all sorts of strange informational threads into something pretty, interesting and informative enough to warrant being shared with a stranger.
I’ve been recently reading some texts on some distinctions between fiction and non-fiction writing. In one article I came across, a novelist brings up a term coined by Keats, called “Negative Capability,” which describes a style and form of writing that does the opposite of inform. Rather, it prompts the reader to make space for, and manage discomforts around uncertainty and nuance, leading them into a state of confusion that has its own sort of charm to it which you wade through in a half light, anchoring yourself to what can hold onto while inevitably submitting yourself to the strangeness of it all.
These informational downloads that I used to put myself through, which I now don’t have the stomach or the will for, or maybe what’s lacking is the drive. I’m no longer trying to keep up with peers who can sort of confidently chew down on huge chunks of knowledge and whittle them down into news segments, shouting them into the Twitter ether like a closed-circuit tribe of baboons. It felt like trying to be that person was giving away too much, like barrelling towards a certainty in ideas I don’t think I could ever have. And like being all head, and nothing aside from that.
Sometimes, when I lie in bed I can hear the screeches of the S-Bahn, and it sounds like there are banshees living there among the tracks.
*For the sake of accuracy, I'd like to note that the anecdote from buying newspapers and keeping them in the kitchen is a little bit out of sync with the rest of the blog, as it took place in a different flat to the one in which I now live.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.