Monday, March 30, 2015


   "What are some things about yourself that you don't tell other people?"

The question took me brutally by surprise. I was sitting comfortably with my back against the wall, in the upstairs bedroom of an old Cambridge house. Lazily, I had just pulled on my trousers and a tank top, and was drinking wine from the bottle and playing music on the tablet to my friend who was daydreaming on the bed. In through the window filtered a lukewarm orange spring sunset, to the smell of drizzle and tree blossoms.

I most certainly had not expected such brutal inquisition in such a tranquil space of intimacy.

   It was the second time that week that I had independently been asked that same question, and it freaked me out. Not because I am genuinely hiding anything, but because I've gone to great lengths to rid my life of toxicity and negativity, and I wasn't ready to even want to open up that Pandora's box in my head.

   "Well, I suppose... trauma. I don't tell other people about my emotional trauma because in my mind, I relate to it as growth pain, and I don't want it to be trivialized."
   "Do you think that's what I'd do? Trivialize you?"
   "I don't know. I can't trust whether you'd..."

   I stopped. My friend rolled over on the bed, and was now staring me straight in the eye with a predatory smile.

    "You have trust issues :-)."

   I felt slightly repulsed by the apparent hasty judgement. Of course I had trust issues. Doesn't everyone have trust issues? I was beginning to feel claustrophobic again, trapped by having to profess to the emotional conflict between my Nietzschian belief system on one hand, and my desire for a just and honest world on the other hand. I felt my heart race, and I was struggling to resist the emotional fight-or-flight taking hold of me.

   "Look... we will always be alone. Whether we listen to music, talk, make love, or sleep in the same bed... we will always be alone in our minds. We can look to each other for evidence of companionship: the little gestures we make every day, and our continued relationship. But we will never cease to be mysteries to each other, mere projections of a formless conscience through the respective lenses of our past -- our trauma. I see love as a deliberate process of getting to know aspects of each other's trauma-constructed reality. But there can never be a true union, we can never truly know each other; we were born, and will die alone. And I cannot trust something I do not know. Knowing, loving and trusting each other are all different names for the same thing. But we'll always be alone in our heads, so none of the three is truly, irrevocably possible..."

   My friend rolled back on the bed, and went quiet for a while. The song stopped playing, and I turned back to the tablet on my lap to look for another one. I lingered undecidedly. Suddenly, my friend let out:

   "I don't think true selfless love can exist, either. Stretch anything thinly enough, and it will break. But if one fakes it for 50-60 years, that would be enough. Of course, it will have to be a carefully deliberated conscious compromise. It's something you have to want to believe in."

   I stayed the night. A few months ago, I turned 26. Some days I wake up and I feel like I understand everything, love everyone, and accept past pain as part of the making of my own self. And other days, I'll wake up overwhelmed, consumed by sadness, and fall prey to the hurt.

   I woke up the following morning, turned to my friend, and pulled us closer to each other under the covers with a kiss. We are all lonely, scared, incredibly hurtful and dangerous conscious beings lost in time. Some of us have long died, and some are yet to be born.

   But I suppose, when we talk, if even for a brief moment, we are lost together.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reise, Reise

It is now mid-autumn 2014, and I am sitting in the dark in my room in Cambridge, listening to music and thinking away. I'll have to pick myself up and go to gym practice with the rowing team eventually, but that's not for another two hours. I have somehow managed to find myself in a moment of peaceful solitude today, so I switched off my phone, made myself a cup of coffee, and I am lavishing in the luxury of not having to think about anything. I know that if I don't enjoy it now, it will quickly go away.

Between formidable work stress, dealing with personal losses, and managing sporadic anxiety attacks, I haven't had the chance to feel so tranquil in a very, very long time. It's as if time is finally standing still, and I can freely catch my breath. It feels nice for a change...

It recently dawned on me that I've changed a lot as a person over the past two years. I was browsing through some of my older photo albums on Facebook one day, and I realized that I can no longer read into the eyes of the guy tagged with my name -- they strike me as the eyes of someone else: someone younger and more naive, who looks tired and pensive all the time. But no matter how hard I try, I just can't make out what he might be thinking or feeling in any of the pictures.

That saddens me, but it's OK to let it go. I promised in 2012, upon breaking up, that I would just let myself feel whatever it is that I need to feel, and then let go of the old life belief system. The unfamiliarity of my old photos means that I've managed, at least to some extent. The past few years have been mostly about letting go of things.

The hardest of them, by far, was learning how to gracefully to let go of my grandmother. I had always imagined that losing a person would be a well-defined event that would turn my life upside down. But the truth is that, sometimes, people slip away unnoticed. Her awareness, memory, and sense of self slowly crumbled over the years, while I was busy moving between the US and the UK in a frenzy, and by the time I was ready to admit to myself that she was no longer able recognize me (and no longer remembered who she was), it was too late. She had just faded away, slowly and peacefully out of cognition. I love her with all my heart, but when I hug her now, I just can't help but wonder whether it really is my grandmother that I am hugging, or this scared, helpless old woman who is desperately asking me to take her back home to her parents' house. Perhaps it doesn't even matter any more, I just put my arms around her so that she feels safe and calms down, and that in turn brings me peace.

And then I let go of the idea of romance. I don't know when or how this happened, but I knew that something had definitely changed when I heard "I love you." this one evening, and my first instinctive reaction was immovable disbelief. "Don't be stupid, there's no such thing. You'd never fall in love with me if I were homeless, disfigured, or illiterate, because you would have never even given me the time of day to learn my name; you don't love ME, you love this person who just happens to be me," I thought to myself, while mimicking an uncomfortable smile and silently reaching for more coffee.

I didn't know how to react, not wishing to hurt feelings, but yearning on the inside to reveal that there's no such thing as love; friendship - yes; partnership - maybe, but I have yet to find it. But love? I'm afraid not...

Once these two were finally out of the way, everything just got easier. I then gave up drinking, and I gave up on punishing myself for things that are out of my control. And wanting to please everyone at all costs. With every little thing that I was giving up on, life felt more and more liberating.

*   *   *

I was walking home from the office in Mountain View, California, almost a month ago. It was just after midnight, at the end of a long day which had been unusually productive, and which I was feeling very happy about, and I took a moment to stop on the bridge crossing highway 101 and look down at the traffic flowing underneath. I put my hands on the grate, pressed my face against it, and just stared.

There's something hypnotizing about watching the cars running on the highway. It's almost as if looking at them from above gives me a guarantee of freedom. Freedom from what exactly, I don't know, because I feel like I've been aimlessly drifting through life since forever now, fueled by nothing but my skills and my insecurities. But freedom, nonetheless...

I wonder if I'll come to look back on this picture two years from now, and not be able to understand what was going through the mind of the young man who took it. By now, my blog has become a trail of mental bread crumbs, leading back to versions of myself which no longer exist, but which I acknowledge the loss of, almost as if they were good friends that I once knew.

I read a book the other week. I had jet lag, and was feeling very tired in general. It was a nice book, but my favorite part about it wasn't the content, it was the acknowledgements section:

"This book was written over the course of a few years by several different people, all of whom were named David Eagleman, but who were somewhat different with each passing hour."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Friß mich auf mit Haut und Haar

Today I want to tell a story of friendships and eating disorders.

I was living in New York in June 2012, and I wasn't really doing that well. I would come back from work, stop on the way to my apartment to grab a six-pack from a deli, and then go back to my air-conditioned couch. Most nights, I couldn't really be bothered to take off my clothes and go to bed. My bedroom didn't have any windows, and the whole room just gave off a smell of claustrophobic suffocation; I could feel the teeth of anxiety sinking deeper into my chest every time I wanted to sleep in there, so in the end I just resorted to drinking myself lights-out on the couch in front of the window. On the evenings that I didn't drink, I would go running, and that pretty much sums up my entire June, day in and day out. I ran over 100 miles that month.

My own personal and social lives went through a series of increasingly destructive hiccups, and I felt as if my brain had muted the outside world in response: the visuals were just playing out in front of my eyes like on the screen of an old black-and-white living room TV, while the sound had been suppressed by the skull-resounding unarticulated noise of my breath. I didn't have it in me to strike up banter with anyone. But there was this one person I met that June in New York, with whom talking came easy. Her name was Emily, and she was from Australia.

Emily and I had a few things in common. She was a foreigner, just like me. She was a software engineer, just like me. And, most importantly, she had low self esteem. Just like me. Emily and I would sometimes walk up and down Battery Park, sipping on some iced tea, and having a drawn-out, hour-long conversation with perhaps no more than 30 lines exchanged throughout. Part of the reason why I didn't feel claustrophobic around her was because I didn't feel pressured to say anything. You almost never get the luxury of long and comfortable pauses in conversation with people you've only just met, but there was just something psychologically undemanding about our interactions.

There was a reason for it. It didn't take me long to recognize that Emily was struggling with depression. Yet, far more unsettling for me was the fact that I could tell that she also had an eating disorder. It was most apparent in the little furtive gestures when she reached for a bar of candy, only to stop and withdraw her hand mid-air. Or in the way she glanced at my burger with a mixture of conflicted craving and disgust that she was struggling to hide. Or in the way she claimed to not like sweets. Or in the way her voice emphasized the word "diet" when ordering a coke on tap, followed by the way her eyes would follow the hands of the bartender like an eagle follows its prey, to ensure that she really was getting diet, rather than regular coke.

We never brought up any of these things. I felt it was none of my business whatsoever to remark on my new friend's eating habits. Before you go ahead an criticize me for being indifferent, cowardly, or just polite and uptight, I want to say that it might have been too personal, or otherwise hurtful for her. I wasn't there to confront her, or to force her into an uncomfortable conversation that would have probably brought up nothing new. I barely even knew her. I was there to walk up and down Battery Park with her. That was my job. Emily was a very bright girl, and she picked up on the fact that I knew, but she likewise never mentioned it. It was just another one of those scenarios where something is shared and acknowledged between two people without a single word being exchanged. But what I didn't wholly realize back then was just how dark a place she was in.

Above all things, Emily struck me as consumed with a deeply-set belief that she was ugly. I felt horrible and guilty every time it transpired in our conversations, but I felt even more silently outraged when I caught other people smirking in unspoken confirmation. She tried being as witty, funky, and adventurous as she could in order to dominate her inferiority complexes, but all she was covering up with her hyperactivity was her depression, not its causes. New York is one of those cities with a reputation for crushing people. In a city of eight million egos, each of them sitting on an iceberg of personal fear and the need to prove ones self, insecurities you never knew you had are sure to flare up like fireworks over your already clouded judgement: "I'm lonely" quickly becomes "Nobody wants me", which quickly becomes "I'm not good enough".

I, for one, have always felt ugly, for as long as I can remember. And no matter whether, as a reader of this blog post, you'll admit it or not, one thing is certain: So have you! And so has that crush of yours that you've put on some pedestal somewhere. It's a universal post-puberty human experience. Some people with naturally great looks and weak personalities cope by actively seeking out confirmation and admiration, while the bulk of us simply accepts it as a fact of our minds' mechanics. But for a few of us, such as Emily, repeated rejection by a few outstandingly shallow and self-consumed people ultimately cost her her health and well being.

*  *  *

I was away from New York for a year, during my Master's, and I went back in the summer of 2013. I wanted to meet up with her and hit the downtown like we used to. She saw my text messages on Facebook, but she never replied, not even to decline or to say that she was busy. I felt rejected, confused, and disappointed. All of them are feelings I'm familiar with, but that doesn't make them trivial. I didn't necessarily feel like I deserved an explanation, but I did feel that I deserved a reply. Well, I suppose no answer is an answer. Despite that, I understood that I shouldn't hold it against her.

As fate would have it, I randomly bumped into her one day. She looked extremely thin. She hugged me with what struck us both as politely-faked enthusiasm, and we started talking, but we quickly dried up. In complete contrast with the year before, the silence between us was now unsettling. I could see that she was in pain, but that she was withholding from saying anything to that effect, so we ended up just exchanging pleasantries and talking about... nothing.

Being unable, or unwilling given the circumstances and blacked-out state of our friendship to open up about the one thing that was weighing down on her shoulders, whatever petty conversation we had was of no interest to her, and I immediately understood that she had just shut me out. Perhaps because of shame, perhaps because of fear that I would judge her. Most likely because she projected her internal cringes on me. I walked away from that encounter with a deep feeling of sadness, as if a friend had been unfairly taken away from me.

It was obvious to me that I had no choice but to let her go without having had the chance to explain to her that I value her for her company, not for the dysmorphic standards of thinness and beauty that she holds herself to. I stopped texting to ask her to meet me for coffee, and at the end of the summer, I moved back to Cambridge.

A few days ago, I learned that Emily had been admitted to hospital. Her eating disorders had swerved out of control, and she collapsed after having gone a very long time without eating. Someone else called the ambulance for her. I felt my heart sink as I was taking in the news.

It is frustrating to cope with the fact that all people are, to various extents, shallow. As Claudiu phrased it, "shallowness runs deep" in our nature. We give disproportionate amounts of our attention and brain power to people we find attractive (either physically, or by virtue of some other attributes), and undeservedly hurt so many others in the process. We can deny we're doing it, and keep hurting people, or we can accept our intrinsic immorality and overcome it. As I've probably said many times before, it's impossible to start solving a problem if you won't admit to it.

I can't even begin to explain how much I want her to pull through and get better. Not for me, because that would make her feel less worthy on her own. Not for her, because self-motivation is void in the grips of depression. And not because the world will have changed for the better and become less shallow in response to her angst - it hasn't, and it never will. I want her to get better because she is fine, and because she is enough as-is.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Zeit für Geld

Anxiety is an extremely difficult topic for me to talk about. Over the six months lapsed since my last post, I must have picked up my laptop dozens of times. I would open up the browser, and I would stare at the blank page for 15 horrid minutes before succumbing to nervous breakdown. I would put the computer away and sigh in defeat, acknowledging that the whole routine had become just a rehearsal for a heart attack.

Last July, I was attending a workshop in Los Angeles. I had jumped through hoops to make ends meet and to be able to attend without taking leave off from work in New York, and I hadn't slept the night before my flight because I was busy packing and getting everything in order at the office before my departure. I landed in Los Angeles after having gone 26 hours without sleep, spent another two hours queuing and filling out forms in order to pick up my rental car, and finally made it to the hotel past 2:00am.

At that point, all I could think of was going to bed and passing out. A few hours later, the four Spartan alarms I had set on my phone, 3 minutes apart from each other, started going off one by one. I needed all four of them to finally push myself in an upright sitting position on the edge of the bed. After making a mental note about where the script writers of Inception must have got some of their ideas from, I dragged my feet across the floor, got into the shower, got dressed, and off I was again... to the convention center.

I met some amazing people there. Some of them I had interacted with before, but had never met in person, and it felt amazing to finally put a face to the name. Others I had collaborated with for a while, and it felt good to finally get to see them again. It was an effervescent day on the overall, but towards the end of it, I felt that I was running on fumes, and that the only thing that kept me standing on my feet was willpower.

And then something gave: all of a sudden, I got this overwhelming feeling of being completely alone in the middle of a bustling crowd of hundreds of familiar, as well as not-so-familiar people. It's amazing how your entire subjective awareness of the surroundings can be changed by a moment's realization. All that chatter which my ears had been carefully filtering from the background the whole day suddenly felt like it was piercing through my brain. And within seconds, the physical proximity of others became suffocating. I tried to calm down as I picked my way through the crowd towards the nearest exit, gasping for air, but the more I forced myself to breathe normally, the more I felt an upsetting tightness in my chest, as if I were twisting in a straitjacket. I just... needed... to... get... away...

*  *  *

I was dropping things on my way to the car. It took me four attempts to put the key in the ignition, and I was shaking so badly that I couldn't even realize when I'd managed. I first stopped shaking when I finally heard the radio running. I took a moment to lie back in the seat, buckled up, put the car in reverse, and left the parking lot. Ten minutes later, I was on the highway, driving towards the desert, and breathing normally again.

I took this picture with my phone as a way to remind me of that day.

There is something about driving that calms me down, and brings out the best in me. It always has. It's a trance-like experience, almost like I am on autopilot: my mind quietens down, all of the panic and intrusive thoughts fall beside me, and my wrists and feet surrender to reflex. Within fifteen minutes, the pounding in my ears subsided, and the stiffness in my ribcage mellowed away. I turned the radio up, kept driving East for what must have been almost two hours, and then took a random exit to a village somewhere along the way to Palm Springs.

Though it was 6:00pm, the place seemed completely deserted; there was no movement at any of the windows I drove by, or in any of the front yards. There was a somewhat run-down pub at the main street junction, and a Starbucks just opposite it, with an old woman sitting on a chair in front of the place, behind an empty olive can turned improvised donation box. I left the car on a side road, walked into the Starbucks to get an iced latte, and then came out and sat down on a crooked bench in front of the café. I leaned back, stretched my legs half way across the sidewalk, closed my eyes, and just kept breathing. Dry, warm gales of desert wind would slowly drag litter along the road. There was a decidedly calm and peaceful vibe about that place, and time seemed to just stand still. While I was sipping on my iced coffee with my eyes still closed, the woman stood up from her donation box, leaned on her cane, and slowly came over to sit on the bench next to me.

I opened my eyes when I felt her weight shift the otherwise shrewdly-balanced bench. I looked right, her eyes met mine, and we both smiled. She was African-American, and her white hair contrasted vividly with the color of her wrinkled skin. She had beautiful eyes, and a serene air about her. She pointed to the donation box.

   "One more hour of sitting here, and then I'm going home..."

I couldn't tell whether she was thinking out loud, or whether she was trying to make conversation.

   "Are you out here all day?", I asked. For some reason, I didn't feel claustrophobic talking to her.
   "These days, yes... I don't do much any more... I just sit around here and wait for people to drop a dollar in that can over there.... it's not for me... the money... I'm doing it for charity... we raise a couple of hundred every month, and we help that Hernandez family with the bills... Maria is her name... the mother... she is raising her children alone, in that house over there... her husband is in prison now, got what he deserved... but the woman and her children, they're good people..."

I had already reclined on our bench, and closed my eyes to feel the wind on my face, but she just kept talking on. I wondered if she had noticed my lack of interaction, but I kept listening anyway. She had an amazingly warm and soothing voice. She continued to talk about random events in her life. How she got mugged when she was 45, how she ended up in hospital, how she got involved with charity as a reason to live for. She said all that in such a peaceful tone, that she had me under a spell. I opened my eyes, sat upright, turned towards her and asked her if she likes cinnamon. She was so surprised by my question, that she had to stop and think about it.

   "I love cinnamon!", she said.
   "Wait here, I'm coming back..."

I got up, went inside for a moment, and then reemerged through the doors holding an iced decaffeinated tea, and two cinnamon rolls. I gave her the tea, and then I sat back down in my former seat and put down the rolls on the bench between us. I invited her to take one of them, and I picked up the other. We both kept eating and sipping on our drinks quietly.

Over the next hour, we continued having a midsummer evening's long and drawn-out countryside conversation. She told me many things about her. That she was born in Texas, and that she had moved to California when she was in her 20s, looking for a better life. That she had married, and both she and her husband had worked on an orange grove. That her husband had died. That she finds solace in faith. That she was... lonely...

After saying that, she suddenly stopped. I could sense that she felt uncomfortable, perhaps even embarrassed. She thanked me for the tea and for the roll, got up, and caned her way back to the donation box, where she sat down on her camping chair and turned on a cheap pocket radio to some really loud and dusty-sounding local station. I remained on the bench for another 20 minutes or so, and then got up and walked past her on my way to the car. I stopped in front of the donation box, and wanted to drop a $5 bill in. Much to my surprise, she pushed my hand away. I was confused.

   "No.", she said stubbornly. "No. If you drop that bill in, you'll never know whether I talked to you for the sake of it, or for getting a dollar out of you. No, you go on your way. God bless you..."

I was left speechless. I wanted to tell her that I, too, had felt lonely that day, and that I understand. But her logic defeated me, and I stuffed the bill back in my pocket. I bid her to take care, smiled, and said good-bye. She smiled, but didn't want to look at me. I walked back to the car, started the engine, and drove back West to Los Angeles. I felt less anxious that evening. I was grateful for having experienced someone else's reality in such an unexpected manner. I felt... human.

*  *  *

I think the main reason why I find anxiety completely unapproachable in writing is because I have trouble admitting to it, and because I subconsciously associate it with a measure of stigma. How do you start solving a problem, if you won't even talk about it?

We go to great lengths trying to suppress our racing pulse and our impending feelings of doom, because we've been brainwashed from an early age about the importance of being stoic. We are being systematically, yet never explicitly, taught that not feeling in control is a sign of weakness. Which is ideally not a bad lesson in itself, except that I have yet to meet a human who is both not dead, and in control.

If you don't believe me, try and come up with a different explanation as to why the casual "Hi, how are you?"-question is only ever answered with "Fine, thank you.". People rarely acknowledge that they are scared, lonely, or insecure until it's too late and they break down altogether. For example, that time when my otherwise OK-seeming friend got drunk, sat down on the curb outside the pub, affectionately hugged some stranger's dog, and insisted with teary eyes that the dog has come to be the only soul in the world who understands and can be close to him. I could almost read the heavy emotional discomfort and silent confusion on the dog's face, as I was talking my friend out of sobbing in his native Croatian, and trying to pry his arms open to release the poor canine soul. The sad thing is that the older I get, the more often these things seem to happen.

We've either become, or always have been a society of scared people, who can't sleep at night because of anxiety. I've met people -- quite a few of them, actually -- who tell me that they are afraid to go to sleep because they are afraid of losing control of their consciousness. I ask them why they are so consumed by this need to always be on their guard, and I get blank stares back. They don't even know what they are afraid of any more, and they are afraid to open up and share the reason for their perpetual fight-or-flight.

And the irony of it all is that everyone is scared of talking about anxiety, and that right now, we all live in a comfortably numb isolation, surrounded by our own bubbles painted with fear on the inside, and blown-up social images on the outside, which prevent us from seeing each other and growing as people.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Aus alter Zeit

It's been a slow, but healthy Saturday so far. I spontaneously woke up around 5:00 am, snoozed the alarm that I had set for 7:30 am, put on some good music, and returned to the comfort of my bed to daydream in a lazy-weekend, semi-awake state. The sunrise sky I caught a glimpse of through the window was beautiful. My eyes then wandered around the ceiling for a while, and finally locked on this year's wishlist, which I scribbled on my last birthday and taped to my ceiling above the bed. The tape on the bottom has since partially come loose, and the list is now hanging by three corners, making it hard to read. I raised my right index finger towards it, pointing at Item 3 with my arm fully stretched out, and sketched a swift mid-air gesture at the end of the line, while uttering to myself: "Check!... :-)".

A little over six years ago, on the day that I turned 18, I went over to my grandmother's house to have a cup of tea and a talk with her. I remember it as if it were yesterday. She gave me a long, warm hug and a kiss on each cheek, like she always does. She then opened the lychee-flavoured black tea packet I had handed her, smelled it, and disapprovingly returned it to me.

   "Oh... I don't like your tea. I've already brewed my own earlier, and I'll have a cup of that. But I'll put the kettle on for you, and then we can talk.", she said, smiling sheepishly.

We both laughed, because she always does this. Being a tough customer is just one of those things that you have to love about her. We talked for an hour or so, and then she lit up as she suddenly seemed to remember something.

   "Oh, I almost forgot. Wait here!", she said, and disappeared to the other room, only to return later holding an old, brown paper bag. From the bag, she took out an old wrist watch, and gave it to me.

   "This is just gathering dust now, so I wanted you to have it. It might even still be working, I don't know... the winder is missing.", she said.

I took a closer look at the watch, and turned it on all sides with curiosity. It had a simple and elegant design. The hour markings were cut straight into the convex-bordered beige dial. There were two fragments of text inscribed thereon: "ᴘᴏʟᴊᴏᴛ", the brand name of the manufacturer at the centre, and "ᴍᴀᴅᴇ ɪɴ ᴜssʀ", written in a finer print below the number 6. The backing was plain steel, with no inscriptions on it, and by the looks of it, was not the original backing that had come with the watch, but a later replacement. I made a comment on it being a Soviet watch, and asked her where she had got it. She stopped for a moment, as if to sort out her memories, and then proceeded to tell me the story in a half-firm, half-sad voice.

The watch on my desk in Cambridge, as it looked on the day I had received it.

My grandmother is very old. When the second World War ended, she was orphaned at the age of 11. Her father had died on the front, while her mother died from exanthematic typhus six months later. The outbreak of the epidemic in the wake of the retreat of the Red Army that autumn had claimed the lives of thousands, as the towns and villages lay in ruins without access to clean drinking water.

The experiences she recalled from the years of her early childhood are horrific. Firstly, the entire Jewish population of my home town (at the time, roughly half of the population) was deported to concentration camps. Only a few of the German residents (which at the time, counted roughly yet another quarter of the population), also fearing for their lives, managed to flee to the United States; most of them stubbornly stayed put to protect their homes, businesses, and life savings, only to be later forcibly relocated to Nazi Germany. The only ones that got away were the ones who could lie about their ethnicity. The rest of the civilian population (Romanians and Ukrainians) were evacuated away from the front line. Following the war, Bukovina was partitioned between Romania (the Southern half), and the Soviet Union (the Northern half), before peace was eventually established and the surviving refugees could safely return and try to rebuild their lives from scratch. These things you can read from history books. The following, however, is a more personal story.

As she was an orphan, my grandmother had no choice but to work to earn her living. She engaged in daily labour for a short while, and was later taken in to care for an old woman. From there, she went on to work at the rebuilding of the town's hospital, moving out construction rubble and wiping the floors of the wards after they had been newly painted. When the construction work was over, the doctors, who had been impressed with her hard work, put in a word, and she became a member of the hospital staff. First as a cleaning person, and then later, after being trained, as a nurse in the paediatric ward.

This sums up more than a decade in a paragraph. By the time she became a nurse, the political atmosphere in the country had strained considerably. The king had long been forced to abdicate, Romania had been turned into a socialist republic, and it had fallen in the Soviet sphere of influence. All previous ties with the West were severed. She remembers how the hospital cringed in its early years under the lack of medical supplies. In the era of glass syringes, she remembered how the ward didn't even have a clock for timekeeping.

   "We needed to somehow keep time for the patients who had intravenous drips, but the only clock available was the one mounted on the nearby Catholic church tower, a few hundred metres away. We had clear view of it from some of the hospital windows, and that's what we used. It was hard.", she recalled, adding that at home, she relied on the siren from a nearby factory to know when to wake up and go to work.

   The hospital later received a wall clock as a donation from a CFR (Romanian Railways) employee, the life of whose child they had saved, but it wasn't until the late 1960s that one of the doctors in the ward was able to finally travel abroad on unrelated business (to St. Petersburg, as this was in the time of the Iron Curtain), and smuggle back some watches, which were otherwise extremely expensive in Romania at the time.

   "Me and a few colleagues gave him our gold earrings, and told him to sell them and bring us back watches.", she recalled. "He brought back this one, and I used it at work until I retired. It later stopped running, and I lost the winder somewhere, so I put it in a drawer and forgot about it for decades. I found it again last autumn, while cleaning."

   I wrote down her story on a piece of paper, as well as I could remember it, wrapped the watch in it, and put it safely in my desk drawer at home. Last winter, when I went home for Christmas, I decided to take it back to the UK with me. I researched the brand, and found out that it had been manufactured by the First Moscow Watch Factory, which reputedly later produced the Soviet watches used in space missions, including the one worn by Yuri Gagarin during the first manned space flight. Of course, the one that I have is the cheapest mass-produced model of its day, and is barely worth much even today, but the family story behind it makes it invaluable to me. I took it to a professional antique dealer in Cambridge and had it restored. Surprisingly, the mechanics were almost intact. I told him not to re-plate the frame, so he just cleaned it, replaced the glass, and got it running again.

The watch after I picked it up from the antique shop on Friday afternoon.

I didn't go home for Easter. Among the "official" reasons I enlisted were the cost of the flight and my impending MPhil dissertation, but the real reason was because I was scared of getting depressed. I called my grandmother this morning, and told her that I had had the watch restored. She was well, but seemed confused over the phone.

   "Do you remember the watch that you gave me?", I asked.
   "Yes...", she replied hesitantly, after a pause.
   "I'm holding it as we speak. It runs... I really like how it ticks :-)." I put the watch next to the phone. "Can you hear it?"
   "Yes... so you bought this?"
   "No, I didn't buy it. You gave it to me, remember? I didn't write down the year, but do you remember exactly when you first received it?"
   "Yes...", she made a very long pause, but she didn't reply.
   "It's OK, never mind. I love you! :-)"

We exchanged a few more lines, and we hung up. I was very happy today, I haven't felt so wholehearted in a long time. I felt... reconnected :-).

Monday, April 8, 2013

Der Klang der Musik

The more I become aware of it, the more fascinating I find it that while growing up, I've constantly had to defend my taste in trance music (and electronic music in general) in the face of some outstandingly violent hate speech. I think it can make an insightful psychological study how I've heard the same slur uttered by people from all backgrounds, ages and walks of life: from similarly-confused teenage acquaintances in high school, to teachers and professors, and ultimately, my parents.

   "Your music has no message!", and "I don't call this art!" are the all-time favourite lines which I've been told to my face after bringing a song or concert up in a conversation.

   "OK. What kind of music do you like, then?", would be my inevitable follow-up question.

The typical shallow reply is rushed, and unnecessarily emphasized: "Rock!". I'm using rock music as an example here, but you can substitute other genres; the genre itself is irrelevant, and not to blame for people having lost their heads somewhere up their asses. Such blunt verbal outbursts would also be followed by the other person immediately assuming a passive-aggressive smug face, and giving off an air of confused superiority. I am forever amused by how much childishness their condescension betrays, and how easy it is to see through. However, I also make an effort to hold back my smile and always keep my overall composure.

   "Oh, OK... cool... so... why do you like rock music?", I would further ask.

Not because there is an answer to why people like music, but because I want to find out what the reason behind their tunnel view might be. Getting a pertinent answer is rare, because such answers would come from people who actually appreciate all music for what it is. In the above circumstances, most responses do nothing more than to reveal a weak personality lacking either (1) a self-defined aesthetic construct, or (2) the emotional maturity to understand that there are different forms of expression in art, let alone enjoy them.

Two days ago, I attended A State of Trance 600, in 's-Hertogenbosch, in the Netherlands. For years now, I've gone to sleep, worked, and fallen to the music of John O'Callaghan, Ørjan Nilsen, or Armin van Buuren. Finally attending the event where I could get to hear them play live throughout the night was a dream come true for me. And what made it truly special and beautiful was how, for once, I hadn't specifically planned for it to happen. I bought my event ticket only a couple of hours before selling out - the surprising outcome of a random Facebook chat with an old friend. A few days later, I booked a train from London to Bruxelles and a round-flight to go with it. And alas, last Thursday morning I left to Belgium with an open heart and a dumb smile painted all over my face.

I was introduced to, Belgian sour cherry beer in 2011, and it was love at first pint.

I think it's not just hard, but outright impossible to explain why trance music feels so close to my heart. Like all other things I love, I'll have to guess it's just part of who I am. The same way, I find it hard to explain why I enjoyed a traditional Belgian beer, or why I enjoyed being completely lost despite access to Google maps. Or, for that matter, why I couldn't be bothered by having not yet met Liviu's Spanish friend's friend (that's right, thrice-removed), on whose living room floor I would wake up and have coffee the following two mornings.

However, what I think that I can and should explain in this post is how trance music ended up being part of my life today, why I will likely be going to trance events ten or twenty years from now as well, and why I think it is disrespectful to pass judgments about the value of other people's music.

*  *  *

I remember being your average 7th grader at the age of 14. Like any other 7th grader, I would spend my days going to school, getting bored on the walk home, then doing homework, playing video games, and listening to music. I now realize that for the most part, it was my friends' music I was listening to. I would say that I liked it, but I wasn't aware that there could be more to music than other people's reviews -- I thought that the quality of music was something to be objectively assessed. Every now and then, the lyrics would throw words like "love", "pain", or "addiction" at my eardrums. I had gathered from my older friends that these words were supposedly meaningful, and speaking of some very deep and cool feelings. One would speak about these feelings in a very serious tone, and we would all quietly nod in all our teen seriousness -- remind me of the pain and passion that fourteen year olds struggle with :-)...

Of course, I would occasionally use the words myself, feeling really bad ass in the process, but also somewhat aware that I was mostly pretending and trying to fit in with our class' disoriented teen social circle, where being cool was larger than life itself. I didn't know what to like about my music, and I was faking my way through 7th grade with a vengeance, just like the next guy, the guy next to him, and pretty much everyone else.

Little did I know that after having inconspicuously started its own development towards maturity, my brain had decided that year to turn the key for the first time, and give me a taste of what all those serious words really felt like. Without any warning, at the age of 14, I had my first teen crush (on someone who was 4 years older than me and completely unaware of my existence, d'ooh...). I had never felt anything so intense before.

It was beautiful, insane, and scary. Every time we passed each other in the corridors at school, I would blush, lose my voice, and start shaking. During the few weeks before the storm in my head finally showed signs of subsiding, I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, and I couldn't get out of bed. I remember even throwing up. But I still couldn't think of anything else. Every day spent at school was nothing more than another chance for us to run into each other, and every day we didn't make eye contact felt like a wasted day for me. I lost interest in most of my usual hobbies (that was the end of video games), but I would still be caught smiling uncontrollably all the time. As I couldn't focus on anything even during tests, my grades collapsed. In the space of just two weeks, I turned from a regular happy-go-lucky kid into a confused and euphoric mess.

Ladies and gentlemen, I felt that I had been asleep until then. Forget lame puppy love, and third-grade feelings. My friends suddenly seemed pathetic, with their claimed love pains - I suddenly saw through the falsity, and felt more smug than Columbus discovering America -- I knew something that they didn't; I had been shown the real deal.

This was years before my first attempt at asking someone out (in the golden age of mIRC), years before I finally learned to tell the difference between infatuation and love (in the later, but similarly-golden age of Yahoo! Messenger), and what seems like an eternity before learning through trial and error what a relationship really is -- the process of negotiating the trust necessary to begin safely expressing emotion and building a sense of stability, while resisting the urge to occasionally snap at the object of your affection when you wake up frozen and ready to kill for your half of the blanket at 3:00am.

What was really happening to me in 7th grade had nothing to do with feelings proper. It took ten years, a few dinners with a PhD student in Neurology, and a few seasons of "Breaking Bad" to make me finally understand that throughout my crush, I had been high on serotonin and dopamine -- as close as you can ever come to experiencing Ecstasy without actually taking it, I am told. It doesn't matter what I thought I felt, or whether it was reciprocated or not, it was a natural reaction outside my control. And when the euphoria started wearing off, the subsequent panic, anxiety and depression I felt is exactly what junkies supposedly experience when their synapses have burned themselves out of transmitters and the receptors on the neurons have down-regulated from over-stimulation. Not a pleasant experience overall.

According to an Italian Professor of Human-Computer Interaction whom I met last year at a conference, lots of things happen to your brain during this stage in development: your true behaviors and tastes finally emerge, and you begin growing into the person you are really meant to be. He is right. It was then that I discovered things like coffee, nubuck, and cologne, and I slipped into these tastes as naturally as I live and breathe.

Daft Berlin performing on the main stage at ASOT 600, Den Bosch.

It was also back then that I discovered trance music. If I had to say what I felt while listening to my first Paul van Dyk song, I would describe it as an immense relief. It was the same feeling of relief you get when you finally hear a song that you've had obsessively stuck in your head. It just felt... right.

Despite not having been to a concert since Gareth Emery, last August in New York, I felt the same relief two days ago in Den Bosch, when the three Red Bulls had me jumping with both fists up in the air, sharing those moments with thousands of anonymous entranced people, and letting the sound of music and the lights wash over me.

I've long outgrown being a teenager. I've learned to love different kinds of music, the same way I've learned to love people with different personalities. But trance was my first infatuation, the one to which I had the first hints as to what the 'serious' words might mean. From so many points of view, this concert felt like coming home, and I am grateful to have shared it with Liviu, Simina, Alex and the people whom I've met there.

Ultimately, I guess I wanted to show my views on why I think it's absurd to compare or explain music. If you expect it to literally have a message, you're doing it all wrong: music is a message in itself, and one that starts from well inside your head.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Schöne Lügen

  "We all get a bit less emotional as we grow older."

The above reply confirmed that the pragmatic attitude I've developed in the past year is natural. I find myself relieved to realize that I've done away with the expectation that happiness should be manic and overwhelming. If you are on the verge of losing yourself to, or conditioning your happiness on others, then the word you're really looking for is 'insanity', not 'happiness'. And since insanity won't sleep next to me and keep me warm at night, I have no use for it.

It was precisely one year ago - mid-March 2012 - that I found myself in a similar position: filled with an unenthusiastic shyness which was under constant erosion from fatigue and the lukewarm smell of spring filling my lungs. I was very tired, and against my better judgement, I was craving the crush of some form of emotion all over again.

I happen to like fast cars, so I signed up for a Mazda drive test. I remember waking up on the day of the appointment feeling nervous, yet excited. I was happy for my reason to put on a silk shirt, a nice tie, and my good suit, and I felt my knees soften a bit as I walked into the showroom and shook hands with the iron-faced, middle-aged, and similarly black-suited representative who would be my host.

   "It's a pleasure to meet you." he said, showing me the way.

Half an hour later, I was buckled in and passing under the overhead sign that announced the start of the A1 highway. Traffic picked up, I released the tension in my calf, and slowly but steadily stepped down on the gas pedal to listen to the purr. The double espresso I had had before the drive test was making my temples pulse in an anvil, and there was a pleasant, reassuring shiver through my wrists as they fell heavy and locked on the wheel and shift stick. While the force of acceleration was driving my shoulders back into the leather seat, I forgot to breathe. All that horsepower under the grip of my palms intoxicated me. I felt so alive, that time seemed to slow down to to catch up with my heightened awareness of the world.

   "Would it be all right with you if I broke the speed limit?"

I turned my head to check for an answer, and saw the Mazda representative shudder and breathe out heavily with discomfort in the passenger's seat. But... he didn't reply.

   "OK. I'll take that as a 'yes'.", I echoed to myself...

*  *  *

I pulled in the showroom's front parking lot. I stopped the engine, put my hands on my knees, looked back at the salesman, and gave a resigned nod. The time had come to put a damper on my brief moment of infatuation. I didn't want to get out, but I knew that any further moment spent behind that wheel would have been detrimental to my wellbeing. Even if I were rich, and even if I did afford to buy such a car, until I could learn to keep myself in check under those circumstances, I had to stay away. I shut the door and followed the man inside the showroom, where he sat down and started filling in forms.

He looked like he was going to take his time with the papers, so I turned my back on his desk and tried to catch one last glimpse of the car. Light breaking on the black paint revealed strong, subtle, and seemingly liquid contour lines. It looked sexy. Not nice, and definitely not cute. Sexy. I liked it.


I suddenly snapped out of my daydream and realized that he had been growing impatient. He'd probably called out to me a few times before. I felt slightly embarrassed.

   "I apologize, I got distracted.", I replied. He got up and I turned to face him again.

   "As I was saying, we could arrange a 2,000€ discount if you want to be placed on the waiting list before the end of next month.", he said, and held out a business card.

I tightened my lips and lowered my eyes.

    "I like this car. Believe me, it is one of the most beautiful cars I've ever driven. But I am afraid that the timing is not right...", I replied in a half-calm, half-sad voice, while firmly shaking his hand and putting the business card away in the inside pocket of my jacket.

I walked out of the showroom feeling completely exhausted. However... while making an effort to pick up my thoughts, worries and commitments from where I had previously left them off, I also felt grateful...

The following morning, I was leaning over the sill of the window in my room on the fourth floor of dorm P5, propped up on my left elbow and right forearm, rubbing the staleness of sleep off my face with my left hand, and letting the orange sunrise burn its way into my eyes. As I was standing there, lost and staring back at the dawn in complete silence, I caught myself smiling like a fool. I was nowhere closer to having a sports car than I had ever been. And in a way, maybe I wasn't really prepared for one -- the power it held over me was enough to make me surrender my objectivity, and that terrifies me beyond description.

But that hadn't been the point. What I had wanted was to make sure that I would still be capable of feeling that inebriating passion come over me. I still had no idea how to handle it back then.

For a long time, refusing to objectively make inroads into understanding the intensity and (ir)responsibility of the beautiful lies we live by kept me from enjoying them, while growing as a person.