Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, was my neighborhood during my first year in the United States. The family that hosted me for a few weeks before I moved into a house on South Linden Ave, welcomed me into their home with a warmth and generosity that made me love the country before I even knew it. Squirrel Hill is the place where I learned to speak American English, where I handed out my first Halloween candies, and where I marveled at the deliciousness of sweet potato casserole with marshmallows and pecans, and turkey with cornbread stuffing during my first Thanksgiving dinner. It’s where I developed a crush on Jim Morrison, smoked my first joint listening to Jefferson Airplane and to The Pretenders, and thought Jennifer Beals’ outfits in Flashdance were the height of fashion. Squirrel Hill Café was where my roommates taught me to drink beer with vodka chaser, and where I learned to accept that I’d never be good at playing darts. It’s where I first went contra-dancing and learned you could make music with two spoons. If it hadn’t been for Squirrel Hill, it wouldn’t have taken me thirty-three years to return to Europe. It lives on in a snow-globe deep inside my heart. At a time like this I take it out and shake it and watch the snowflakes settle on its brick houses and tree-lined avenues to reassure myself that in spite of everything, there still is magic in this world.
Little did the wolf know what he started when he suggested to the small girl with the red hood—such a plump little morsel—she should take the longer path through the forest and pick some flowers for her ailing grandmother. For a while the little girl did indeed think of her grandma as she picked one flower after the other, and tucked them into her basket between the cake and the bottle of wine. But before long she’d forgotten all about her. There were so many paths in the forest, so many sunlit clearings to explore. When she finally did make it to her grandmother’s house, she barely recognized it. Overgrown by gnarled and twisted branches, it looked much smaller than she remembered. The wolf was waiting up for her, and invited her in. The cake was long gone, of course, and the flowers wilted, but the bottle of wine had aged well, as good wine does. Red Riding Hood was no longer little nor did red suit her, but she knew how to drink a wolf under the table.
Today I woke up to rain singing in the wide gutter right outside my garret window. I lay suspended between past and future, listening to water, and remembered this song I wrote on another rainy day, miles away and years ago. “Je recommence,” I called it. “Starting over.” Like my younger self in the song, I got up, and made myself a cup of coffee, and opened the window to breathe in the cold morning air. Autumn. Finally.
Ce matin il pleut, et l’eau chante dans mon cœur,
de mon lit je vois le ciel bas vidé de couleur
j’écoute le bruit des voitures,
et je sens ma joie revenir,
et je sais qu’elle a disparu cette envie de mourir
Aujourd’hui je m’lève, je m’habille, je fais du café
je regarde l’eau bouillir dans le pot fêlé
et puis j’ouvre la fenêtre
et j’inspire de l’air glacé,
et je m’ dit alors, comme c’est bon, ce café au lait
La tristesse de hier s’envole, plus de drame, plus de romance,
je m’invente des paroles pour
pour une histoire qui recommence
Aujourd’hui je rebranche mon téléphone,
et je dit bonjour au voisin qui s’étonne
puis j’ouvre la porte de la maison
et je reste sous le seuil un moment
et mes pas sur la rue battent le rythme d’une vieille chanson.
At about the same time I was looking through the IKEA catalogue in an effort to recreate the home I left behind, nostalgically affixing feelings of belonging to a salad bowl, Alexander Gauland, leader of the German right wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD), blamed the ills of the homeland on the “Heimatlosigkeit”, the “homelandlessness” of the urban “elites”.
These “elites”, writes the university-educated lawyer and journalist, control the media and higher education, work for transnational companies and organizations like the UN, and set today's cultural and political trends. And, God forbid, since English is their lingua franca, they are all, at the very least, bilingual.
So how does one reclaim the lost homeland, according to the AfD platform? By closing the borders, arming so-called honest citizens, deporting all Germans who are Muslim, supporting the traditional family structure, and requiring mothers to be the sole caretakers of their children for the first three years of their lives. Home sweet home.
At times like these, I seek solace in the words of the philosopher Ernst Bloch who in Principle of Hope also wrestled with the concept of “Heimat." Exiled in the U.S. in 1938, he denounced the world of business that, “placed under the sign of swindle, … chokes any other human impulse” in its thirst for gain, degrading human beings and their home environment, both natural and urban. For Bloch, “Heimat” was a future concept, a place we strive for, not a return to some past imagined in the interest of ideology.
This new homeland that many of us are struggling to build, surely means loosing some of our local color. It also means being comfortable with not understanding everything that the person next to me in the check-out line at IKEA is saying to his son. He is probably discussing how to put together that IKEA table they are about to buy rather than plotting my displacement. After all, all of us are at IKEA searching for “Heimat”, for that perfect bowl around which to gather our friends and family.
Last night, in the process of making galettes, I reached for a bowl that wasn’t there. I paused, hand in mid-air, uncertain about the country under my feet, until I remembered that this particular bowl stayed behind, in my previous life. It was a perfect ceramic bowl, the color of pale cream with a sage-green stripe around the rim. It had the right heft for making bread dough, the right depth for whipping up batter, the perfect size for serving salad for three on a farmhouse table. An IKEA original, it looked Scandinavian and yet universal. I never thought I would peruse an IKEA online catalogue to try and fill the absence I keep reaching for. Unfortunately for me, they don’t carry that bowl anymore. IKEA moved on, and maybe it’s time for me to do the same.
L’inconnue de la Seine
During a recent first aid workshop, the trainer handed me a rubber mask and instructed me to affix it to a dummy called Resusci-Anne before CPR practice. Once I had the mask in place, I looked down at the female face with the peaceful half smile.
“She looks so friendly,” I said.
The trainer explained the mask was in fact fashioned after the original cast of the face of a drowning victim, a young woman pulled out of the Seine near the Quai de Louvre in 1880. “L’inconnue de la Seine,” the Unknown of the Seine, as she came to be known, so intrigued one of the pathologists he had a mould cast of her face. In the bohemian Paris of the early 1900s it became all the rage to have a copy of this mask on display, and, according to some researchers, later versions of the original mask erased all traces of death by drowning. For several decades, the face of this nameless woman was an icon of female perfection, silent and sightless. In the mid-fifties, Peter Safar, father of CPR, and toy maker Asmund S. Laerdal developed CPR-Annie using a copy of the original mask.
I lowered my mouth to hers, joining my breath to those of all the millions of trainees before me, and tried to make her open her eyes and speak.
During a recent short-lived foray into shift work, I asked a co-worker how I was supposed to get in the half hour break I was entitled to, when there was really no time to take even a toilet break during the eight hour shift. Her laconic reply: “Don’t you smoke?”
Those three words taught me, as someone woefully unfamiliar with the toll of shift work on body and psyche, that the harried smokers outside of restaurants and bakeries aren’t as much addicts as they are escapees. And I learned too, that as a non-smoker I had no good excuse for taking a break. Sore feet are somehow harder to admit to than an addiction to cigarettes.
I smoked for about a year, when I was a student, and I did so for the romance of it. I was in love with my French boyfriend, with his dreams of flying and the blue smoke of his Gitanes. I was in love with Latin American literature, and smoked sitting on the floor of our shared room, hammering out my Masters thesis on a typewriter.
A few years ago I wrote a song I called “Through the smoke”, recorded it at Love Studios in Seattle, and then promptly forgot about it. As I listen to it again now, I think I must then have felt that time slip away, a time when there was no such thing as too much wine, too much coffee or too many cigarettes. When vice was romance and there were no consequences. I’m profoundly grateful I got to live in that time. It doesn’t really seem that long ago.
(Photo credit Hossam M. Omar)
Many years ago, a friend of mine hosted a student from a country suffering from drought. When offered a glass of water, the young man held each sip in his mouth for a while, to treasure it before swallowing. This long hot summer I saw bees die from heat and thirst, and birds lick at windows mistaking glass for water. And yet there are those who use water as a weapon, and are shameless enough to claim global warming as an excuse.
Hasankeyf, the 12,000 year-old city on the banks of the Tigris in Southeastern Turkey near the border with Iraq and Syria, is scheduled to be flooded later this year with the completion of the Ilisu dam. One of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth, Hasankeyf was once an important trading post on the Silk Road. Soon its last remaining, mostly Kurdish, inhabitants must leave this historical and architectural marvel with its narrow streets, ancient minarets, and thousands of man-made limestone caves. Deaf to international, national and local protests, the Turkish government claims the reservoir will help Turkey, Iraq and Syria in times of water scarcity, when it will in fact reduce downriver water flow by an estimated 40%.
When will we learn that tears won’t still our thirst?
I signed up for a three-day graffiti workshop, and knew after the first hour that what I was looking for was un-teachable. Sure, I learnt that spraying is hard on your hand and forearm, that it’s difficult to forget about the uncomfortable mask pulling on your face, that fumes irritate your eyes. My disappointment had less to do with the challenges of the technique—which, as in any art form, one needs to master—but with my realization that graffiti is, in essence, all about layering, about writing (or spraying) over a surface already shaped by others, about the aesthetic of chance. I recognized that most of my life I’ve been looking for the blank canvas, the blank page, the starting from scratch, when graffiti is, quite literally, about “scratching” into something already there. About dialogue. It’s about letting the earlier shine through, not painting it over.
When we feel we have no control over our fate, many of us turn to the animal world for solace, like the prisoner in the medieval Spanish ballad Romance del prisionero, who could tell day from night only thanks to the song of a little bird that came to sing to him every morning--until someone killed it with a crossbow, that is. Or like the young Yemeni man imprisoned in Guantánamo, without trial, from age nineteen until age thirty-three, who befriended the iguanas that came to visit and was punished by the guards for feeding them. I recently listened to an interview with him on a CBC radio podcast titled “To My Heart”, from the series “Love Me”. Mansoor Adayfi was released to Serbia in 2016, without charge and without official apology. To him, languishing in a Belgrade apartment, culturally and socially isolated and under constant surveillance, felt like being in yet another prison. Worse at times, he said, because he was friendless. He’s been on my mind these days since his time in Serbia is up, and as a man with no community, his future looks grim.
I recently came across an illustration I did for a story about a frightened little girl who seeks an audience with Queen Amygdala, the part of the limbic system in the brain that decodes emotions like anxiety and fear—neuroscientists call it the body’s alarm circuit. It seems our collective amygdalas are working overtime these days, thanks to the garish rhetoric of the Trumps and the Seehofers and the Ortegas who embolden those who thrive on a generalized sense of perceived insecurity. German has a good word for this rhetorical style: Rabulistik. The “rabulist” uses self-serving, petty, often circular arguments to obfuscate the truth. This makes it hard work to engage them in constructive debate. Rabulists come in every stripe. Terms like “right” or “left” just play into their hands.
In my story, the girl manages to conquer her fear by finding her way into the rational part of her brain. Right now I'm not feeling too hopeful about our ability to do so.
Regarding my previous blog entry, some of you have asked me if I placed those ballerina slippers under the tree. I did not. Turns out I’m quite German in my taste in shoes, since I have a predilection for width and comfort, for “Bequemlichkeit.” While I agree that, when it comes to German shoe design, “Bequemlichkeit” goes before elegance, I am beginning to think that this has as much to do with a sore heart as it does with sore feet. In the United States day-to-day contact with people is mostly relaxed and friendly, a fact all the more puzzling considering the current hostile political climate. In Germany that easy-going friendliness is mostly a foreign concept. It’s the small indignities that grind down one’s emotional core: a welcoming smile is frequently met with a cold stare, a minor grammatical error corrected in a sharp tone, the polite request to repeat a statement not understood too often answered with curt impatience.
Small wonder many people here have "Fernweh", the untranslatable term to describe longing for someplace far away. Every single time I tell people I moved back to Germany from the US, I get asked why, why would I do something like that? It seems many Germans don’t want to live in their own country. One needs comfortable shoes here both to walk through an uncomfortable life, and also to run away from it. German for "to run away": “Das Weite suchen.” To seek a distant place.
Have you ever seen horses vomit in front of pharmacies? No? Precisely. Horses are physically incapable of vomiting, and if they were, the chance of several horses vomiting together in front of not just one but several pharmacies, is quite remote. This elegant German saying thus refers to the unlikeliness of something happening. As in a conversation I might have had last year:
“Do you think you’ll ever move back to Germany?”
“Sure, when horses vomit in front of pharmacies.”
Well, I did move back, and so far I’ve been able to jump the hurdles of this new obstacle course with relative ease. Yet when I walk to work in the pre-dawn hours, I like to imagine the ubiquitous puddles of vomit are of equine rather than human origin. It means I live in a country of infinite possibilities.
Over the years I’ve dined alone from time to time, at restaurants with beautiful views, or quaint interiors, or interesting menus. No matter what age I was at the time, I rarely got the chance to enjoy my meal without feeling that my sole presence as a woman dining alone was a disturbance. In a Greek restaurant in Chicago, the waiter asked me three times if I wasn’t expecting someone else before finally bringing me a menu, and then served me with a kind of quiet fury. In a fish restaurant in Tofino, Canada, on a short break from teaching, I asked for a table by the window. I was shown a table in a dark corner, where all I could do was admire the wood paneling. I sat down obediently and stared at the white tablecloth. I was early. The place was empty. They didn't take reservations. Strangely, what I felt was shame.
A few months ago, I found myself in beautiful Rennes, Brittany. I had just returned to Europe after thirty years of living in the States, and I was looking for the right place to have my first meal out. I had bought a French diary, still wrapped in cellophane, and a brand-new French pen, and wanted to enjoy a glass of French wine together with a delicious French meal. I found a little bistro that seemed to promise all that. Two men, tall, lean, fashionably unshaven, stood smoking on the steps. “Ah bah oui,” they were serving dinner. Was I expecting someone else? Non? I was shown a table right behind the open door, squeezed into a corner so tight I had to keep my elbows close in order not to hit wall or glass. I asked for another table. The place was empty, after all. I was early. “Non,” all reserved. Not even a “désolé.” Service was perfunctory, the bread dry, the wine they recommended, terrible. I ordered fish. The waiters stood at the bar, looking in my direction, sneering. Did they know they were crushing my French dream? I used the breadknife to slash open the cellophane wrapping of my diary. They snickered more loudly. I screwed the cap off my new pen. I looked at them, leaning against the bar, looking back at me. I glanced up at the board listing the specials of the evening and wrote the name of the dish I had ordered. I looked at the wine list next to the specials and wrote down the name of the terrible wine. I swirled my glass, took another sip, closed my eyes for a moment before writing something in my diary that had nothing do with wine. I noticed they weren’t sneering any more. I took out my phone and snapped a few pictures of the menu, of the place, of my food, writing in between snapshot and snapshot. They looked worried. One came over and asked me if I had enjoyed my food. The other recommended a different, much better wine. I got fresh bread. They had become the polite French waiters I had pictured. When I left, the place was still almost empty. The pen felt warm in my hand.
I paint and write and live mostly in a country of my own making. I've shown my work at cafés and galleries in the US, Spain, France and Germany. Among my children's books are El Loro Tico Tango (The Parrot Tico Tango), El Fandango de Lola (Lola's Fandango), both published by Barefoot Books, and the stories for the Tikitiklip Precolombino series of children's videos (Producciones Ojitos, Santiago de Chile).