Thursday, January 31, 2013

Das Leben der Anderen

Have you ever woken up from a vaguely interesting, but otherwise mediocre dream, to an intense feeling of agitation which you couldn't explain?

It certainly happened to me three days ago. For about five seconds, I lay completely still in the dark, trying with all my might to remember where I was, what day it was, and what was going on. I then instinctively tried to move my left arm, which in turn made me realize that my hand was resting on my chest, holding the phone. I don't know about other people, but when this happens to me, it can only mean one thing: I snoozed the alarm and fell back asleep.

I instantly leaped out of bed, mumbling a panicked "Oh s**t, it's late!" and reaching for my clothes. Within ten minutes, I was fully dressed in hiking outfit and running down the streets of Cambridge like a madman. I made it to the station just in time to print my ticket, and stepped on the train no more than three and a half minutes before it left. An irrational sense of pride came over me as I was taking off my jacket to vent the hot steam rising from underneath the layers. I've really outdone myself living on the edge. Again :-).

Three hours later, I was stepping down in a small, picturesque coastal town. The only motion in my line of sight came from a middle-aged man selling cigarettes at a kiosk on the platform, and who was making vivid gestures while arguing with someone on the phone. Everything else seemed completely tranquil. I looked about me, put on my backpack and made my way to the back of the building, where the meeting point was supposed to be.

A village church, along the trail back to Angmering.

I knew nobody on the group of hikers, yet I felt welcome among them from the very first moment. After a long winter slumber, I felt alive again to be walking in the countryside, smelling the freshly thawed soil and the wet tree bark. It had rained the night before, and there was ankle-deep mud along the trail winding through the woods, down to a gravel-covered and wind-swept beach, and then up again towards a plain scattered with hamlets. Everything on that walk was beautiful. The sky was beautiful, the pale January sun was a blessing, the woods were peaceful, and the English Channel... well, the English Channel was the first time I'd set my eyes upon the sea in 2013. Everything felt right.

We trekked, talked and joked for more than 11 miles, and by the time we decided to stop by the local pub in a nearby village, we were covered in so much mud that we got kindly asked to take off our boots at the entrance and roll up our trousers above the knee before going in. The pace of the conversation slowed down a bit after the chicken with mashed potatoes and the accompanying pint of ale went down, and with the warm sunset shining in through the windows to finish off the day, we made our way back to Angmering to catch a train. First to London, then back home.

Later on that evening, I was in St. Pancras, waiting for my next train to Cambridge to leave the station. I was looking out the window, spellbound by the day gone by and completely lost in my thoughts. With the corner of my eye, I noticed a young woman sitting down opposite me. I can't explain what it was, but something about her caught my attention. This uncertainty on my behalf intrigued me, and kept me looking at her every now and then, in an effort to explain why I found her so unsettling. Time went by, and her stare progressed from disengaged to outright desolate. She swelled up with tears, and kept sobbing furtively, as if she were ashamed of being seen like that. She looked miserable.

I felt really bad for her. I wanted to say something, but it would have been completely inappropriate for me to do so. I turned my eyes back to the window, with a million thoughts rushing through my head:

"... It's a shame I can't make her stop thinking about whatever it is that's bringing her down like this. It is not good to dwell on negative things inside your head. I should know. But then, she's a complete stranger. If I were in her shoes, I would find it offensive if a stranger tried to talk to me about my mood. Nobody wants or needs pity, and she IS trying to hide it, after all... And then, what if she does want to start a conversation? I don't want to talk to her, I don't really have anything to say to her. It would just be awkward... "

I looked back at her, and I saw that she had started shaking. Unable to hold back the tears any more, she turned bright red and just let them flow. That was it, I couldn't just pretend I didn't see her any more. She was seriously disturbing me. I froze when we made eye contact. I just said in a calm, emphatic voice:


She startled. And then we stood there, looking at each other for a few minutes. There was no need to say anything else. "Hi" meant that I had seen her cry and didn't ignore it. It also meant that I wished she weren't feeling so bad, and that whatever it was that was bothering her, it certainly wasn't hanging in the space between me and her.

I then resumed my own thoughts. Over the next hour, she slowly lightened up. Her eyes went back from pink to white, and she eventually leaned back in her seat. She got off two stops before me. Before leaving, she touched my shoulder and said:

"Thank you. Have a safe trip."

And smiled. I smiled back.

If I had just gone hiking, it would have been a good day. But having been able to share some of my very ephemeral peace with someone else who truly needed it made it much more than that. It made it a great day.

 My boots at the end of the day, after washing them in a river and letting them dry on the train.
(most of the dirt had dried and fallen off in the meantime)

Thursday, January 17, 2013


"One definition of insanity is keeping to do the same thing,
but expecting different results."

I stumbled upon the above line a little over two years ago, on a blog I was religiously reading at the time. For reasons familiar, but not at all obvious to me, it immediately etched its way into my retina back then. Throughout 2011 and 2012, I used it as a status, rationally understood it, and preached about it to other people. But in all honesty, if I were to name one personal achievement of my year gone by, it would have to be that I've finally acquired enough wisdom to feel it.

Today is my 24th birthday, and I feel truly blessed to have had so many people spend a few valuable minutes of their day to wish me well. I appreciated it because I think when someone makes you a birthday wish, they don't just think about you. I wouldn't necessarily want to be thought of as someone in the third person, anyway. Rather, I believe they think about you in the second person, as someone whom they've shared, are sharing, or will share a moment of their lives with. It could be weeks, months, years, or a lifetime - it doesn't matter. Because while nobody can have even the slightest clue as to where the future might take each one of us, I believe this much: there's a plenty going on right now, and it is entirely up to us to help each other make every day count.

I think resolutions are cheesy. I agree to my good friend who pragmatically pointed out three weeks ago (about two thirds of the way between the Mayan Apocalypse and New Year's Eve) that you don't need a specific day to make resolutions. If you're really going to commit to them, you might as well start, oh... I don't know... today. So instead of impossible resolutions, I usually prefer to make lists of things I would like to do if I weren't afraid. I scribbled down the one above after I came back from Z├╝rich at the beginning of last week. With a bit of luck, maybe I will end up writing about some of them in the year to come, though this is not part of the promise. Then, I deliberately left number (6) blank, treated myself to some liquor-filled milk chocolate to seal the deal and went to bed.

*  *  *

I woke up late the following morning. The smell of cold air combined with fresh bed linen (and, well... a warm-enough blanket) goes a long way to improving tenfold the quality of whatever irregular sleep I do manage, so I like to crack open the window before I go to bed. As a result, it tends to be somewhat chilly in the room first thing in the morning, and I tend to cling on to the pillow. I must have lingered in bed, thinking, for about fifteen minutes before I finally worked up the courage to leave the comfort of the blanket, pull on some shorts and a hoodie, and go downstairs to make coffee. As I was breathing in the steam rising from the cup, my morning grumpiness vanished, and I looked up and out through the kitchen window for the first time. I lit up with joy when I saw my backyard covered in white for the first time this year.

It was a fine morning that I wanted to hold on to, so I recorded it, set it to the song playing in my mind, and wanted to share it with you below :-).

Saturday, January 5, 2013


Last spring (it must have been April or so), courtesy of a colleague from my last year of Bachelor's, I read a book entitled "How I Became Stupid", written by a man named Martin Page. Much to my disappointment, the book gave neither definite instructions, nor a weekly training plan. It was mostly just a rant about the materialism that encroaches contemporary society.

Right... this blog post is not about that book.

Yes, it was a fun book to read, but the words gave off a repetitive smell of frustration (... this is where you smile...), and the whole endeavor suffered from a horribly-picked target audience. I think of the people who need to read it, and most haven't cracked open any book in ages. Or maybe they have, I couldn't possibly know. I could say I've learned better than to be judgmental of others, but that would be pretentious. In fact, I just don't care to judge.

So, anyway, I was hoping that this book would teach me how to become stupid ("laid back about life", if you prefer a fancier wording), and since we're both here dealing with this blog post, we can both agree that something went terribly wrong along the way, and I've failed. Although it happens that I sometimes feel stupid, I'm afraid that's a very different feeling. Reality always turns to kick me in the butt like a donkey on steroids.

 Stanley Library at Girton College

Christmas, for some reason, is usually important to me. I'm not religious, although for cultural reasons, I will say I'm sort-of Christian (I'm spiritual, but no Jesus, bibles, or Popes for me, thank you very much). I loathe the fir tree massacre that goes on on Christmas. I hate the flocks of entranced shoppers who create stampedes in supermarkets, and I'm also not that big on giving and receiving presents. But underneath all that, I love Christmas for the personal experience that it stirs up in me. I definitely looked forward to Christmas.

But the problem is that attachment spawns expectation, and like Charles Dickens himself tried to warn us, "Great Expectations" lead to nothing good in life. I'm sitting at the table, looking at the top-right corner of my monitor that reads "Sat, Jan 5", and I'm trying to figure out what the f**k just happened over the past two weeks, while I'm downing one glass of wine after the other. I'm not sad, I just... am. I'm wondering whether Christmas actually was the most recent thing I've given up on.

A few weeks ago, I attended a Christmas carol concert at the Stanley Library in Girton College. Schubert's Winterreise. True to the name of the song cycle, a few days later I was boasting on having booked 3 flights, 3 train rides, 2 bus rides and 1 car ride, all for 218£ - Heathrow to Heathrow. To the wrong people, and out of nervousness, but I was boasting. I was going to gloriously roam half of Europe (extra-)low-cost, so that I could be home for Christmas. I was going to have a great Christmas. Eventually and predictably, I felt like I was putting on a show for myself, and I simply didn't want to attend my own show. Subconscious self-defense, I suppose. I'm supposed to make an effort towards nice holidays, not all the effort. "Home", whatever that means, was the most isolating and depressing place I've been to in the past few months - hardly surprising for Everybodyleftville.

Driving would have normally made me tick, but after my father said "Catch!" and threw me the car keys (much to my surprise, I may add), half an hour later I found myself just holding them and staring at the car. I felt nothing. "OK, maybe if I drive 130 km/h... Still nothing? OK, maybe if I drive on the left instead... no? Slow down and drift sideways into the next curve? Ho-hum... OK, let's face it, this isn't working."

My grandmother is very old. There were moments when she did not recognize me, and I simply didn't know how to deal with it. I thought I would be wiser and more prepared for this, but I just cowardly locked myself inside my head, far from anyone else, and threw away the key. I was hugging her, yet she didn't seem to acknowledge that it was me. Everything was wrong. I left.

At the moment of reading "How I Became Stupid" last year, I saw the point, but I didn't know just how to get there. Whether I want it or not, though, things are starting to fall into place in that direction for me. Slowly but surely, one day I'll get to the point where I can write a post to advertise my achievement of complete, utter stupidity.