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.
According to the German Bread Institute, there are 3,200 kinds of bread in this country. One important reason for this extraordinary diversity is political: the fragmentation of what today is Germany into as many as 340 different states, city-states and duchies for a period lasting from the end of the 13th century through most of the 19th century. Bread varied, and still does, from one town to the next, its distinct textures, flavors and shapes rooted in local traditions.
In Northern European fairytales, bread is meant to be shared. The miserly woman who withholds bread from her poor hungry sister to her horror sees blood gush from the fresh loaf she cuts for supper (“God’s Food,” collected by the Brothers Grimm). A selfish girl who steps onto the loaf of bread she is meant to deliver to her old mother because she wants to keep her shoes clean, is swallowed up by the bog and sinks down all the way into the terrifying realm of the Marsh-Wife, the Elf-King’s sister (“The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf “, by Hans Christian Andersen). I was therefore delighted to find the Lithuanian folktale of the little wheat roll that runs away from its human and animal pursuers only to be waylaid by the fox. The fox bites it in half, eats the soft crumb and then … Well, see, it’s hard for me to tell you the rest of the story. To hold a fresh loaf of bread in my hands, whispering with oven heat, seems to me an act of worship that transcends time and place and culture, no matter how many kinds of bread there are.
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).