Yearly reflections

I leaned back in my chair and looked outside. Who am I but a cyclops, whose sun-scorched lens refracts the brown-leafed misery — the way it gathers into mush — inwards?

It’s been a funny year, really. The last six months plagued by sunscreened bodies of Copacabana, the breathiness of Nairobi, even the deceiving familiarity of Uganda (how things are known, yet different: a shift in focus, perhaps), unyielding of Dar (how Dune-esque it sounds!) — and Mom in Minsk. My icy hand in yours — in anticipation of Yerevan — it stretches out – so long I’ve been away – almost five months, I counted – but it seems less and less. Time protruding out of one’s navel.


I sashayed – no better way of putting it – into the Hamburg Rathaus. Down the stone steps in a spiral, the synthetic red carpet damping the click of my heels — into the damp air buzzing with voices in pre-holiday bliss. A nod here, a hand meaningfully extended to the CEO –thank you for having me- a glass of Sekt vielleicht? with pleasure – and a bout of panic before seeing a familiar face. How goodhearted it all seemed, no doubt, German friendliness unleashed by the unstinted flow of alcohol.


Rewind some weeks back, and you’d find me in the taxi – by your side – I’d imagine – shades of oak in passing as we head towards The Yearly Retreat. We’d hold a presentation deemed excellent (like a well-herbed steak) and I’d draw stick figures of my colleagues in various stages of repose, bored out of my mind those last few hours. We’d walk to the vista, you and I, observe the dwarfed lake flat under the low unintelligent sky.


North Germany, though, a tease, will, on occasion, offer itself up in some unexpected unequivocal visions of startling beauty. Those early dusk hours, a rich purple if not for its fleeting nature, — one can almost breathe in the color, the asphalt and the walls steeped in it.


Observe the tear on my ear – from the way the head slants.



“…When we process, we sort through all the raw material in the psyche, all the things we’ve learned, heard, longed for, and felt during a period of time. We use these processed ideas and energies to implement creative endeavors… The mill is not milling” (C.P. Estés)

And if I get up, and ignore the urge, where will it end up — up whose nerve endings will electric current run its creative course? I am greedy and do not want to share – what’s mine, this hardly legible pastiche of washed off colors in autumnal light, the twist of ankle down a crooked alley – or worse, the cracked white paint on double doors of Paul Celan’s birth house (the real unofficial one) — and what am I to do with it, with all these smuggled riches?

The rosy-cheeked students of Chernivtsi music school, in their lovingly ironed out shirts, surrounded by a moat of admiring and proud relatives, so full of nurtured talent, of fresh nerves, with all the zest that youth can muster on a Sunday morning, made a pretty spectacle for the Chernivtsi City Day.

Two days later, though, in perfumed, gilded, heavy velvet halls of the Regional Theater (built in 1905 to rival all the baroque in Vienna), I heard a different kind of music. A butcher for a violinist, affected préparations (yes, read French) strung out the already painful symphonic renditions of rock songs. It’s been a long time since I’ve been assaulted with such an obvious lack of talent, so much so, that ‘incompetence’, ‘talent-less-ness’ simply doesn’t cut it. It was pure unapologetic bezdarnost. Like bad wine, it enveloped you, grew on you, making a piece of you die with each new sip, stifling the first impulse to categorically walk out at the first flat chord. The red wine, too, they’d measure with a plastic cup and pour into champagne chutes.

I guess we should blame Bolsheviks.


Simply, it crept up on me as I walked back to the hotel — the faint scent of acridity in the air, of something burnt, not unpleasantly, but rather the kind that makes you think of taking long strolls through the forests, of mists circling ravines, and the general state of dishevel before the advent of winter.

And if I am to read Cavafy, ‘because it’s nightfall and the barbarians didn’t come’, for the sudden longing, and break of the job that gave so much – yet is now claiming its first-born — who is to come, knocking on my hotel door, and remind me of unfinished business?


A bright crisp day – a roasted chestnut of a day – autumnal and all-round delightful, even if with sticky remnants of a cold – from sleeping in underheated hotel rooms, with windows thrown open to welcome in chilled September air. The moon, too, rose and dipped as our plane skirted towards Chernivtsi — no impossibly long, impossibly uncomfortable and over-crowded train ride this time, but rather a quick, pain- and turbulence-free commute from Kiev.

I should be writing a proposal for Uganda – but here, with cold rushing in from the Carpathians, Kampala  –with its lush vegetation, and everlasting eggs —is but a distant memory.

…How will Artaxerxes give you all that,

how will you find all that in the satrapy;

and without all that what life will you have.


a certain restlessness  — not quite pins and needles but a kind of trembling in my solar plexus that radiates in giddy streaks down to my toes.

The air, warm and moist, smooths the gentle rumble of the dying tide against my face — like an assiduous seamstress smooths out the wrinkled fabric. Those two guards can sit for hours in the shade of the palm tree, the one-branch bench digging into their femurs, as they gaze out into the Indian Ocean. I watch them, too, from the comfort of my bed, its mosquito net swaying in the breeze, and the door to my hotel room thrown brazenly open – step out, and you’ll find yourself on the edge of the grounds, once used now abandoned boats lying belly up beneath the vehement sun.

The sunrise, too, categorically above, as I wake up with my head pointing firmly east, claims my window, shifts the curtain to the side, just enough to light the still-asleep ocean on fire. Liquid gold as it pours from the sky to the shore, unravels its path between cutouts of trees and anemic blades of grass – and up my eyelash.

Meanwhile, my team leader mutters in frustration under his breath, the project charges rather clueless and defensive; my back has reached an almost point of no return (but for a German mage who wrung the grating stiffness out of it by sheer force of will, it seems); and maybe tonight, a freshly caught lobster served to a glass of crisp white wine. Yesterday, a walk through the seedy bars of Dar inhabited by beautiful and relentless butterflies, their thin calf-less legs teetering on cheap heels, and eyes aggressive and swooning over one or the other white gentlemen. It made me sad and uncomfortable.

On the way back, I put my hand out of the car, hot and sweaty, and felt the resisting air

Трусость, несомненно, самый страшный порок…




Crimean champagne

the sun is a flame-white disc

in silken mists


Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?


I had to be quite frugal. My choice of shoes, and skirts, and poetry books had to be critically examined – the necessity of each assessed against a full month (save one weekend) in Africa — and against a hefty bottle of Crimean champagne, porcelain coffee filters and children’s books that I promised I’d smuggle over to Tanzania (in my ill-considered –now so seeming— generosity). ..The unexamined stuff is not worth taking!..

A new country, then. So full of promise. Of yet un-danced salsa nights, of flirty sundowners on the edge of the Indian ocean, of rampant dusty traffic, of looking up silly lists like ten things to do and five places to visit; of grilled seafood caught moments ago, of having to tuck up your mosquito net under the mattress, and maybe –just maybe—the feeling of pearly sand between the toes, and feeling so loose and limber, cutting through the turquoise waters. Who knows what these weeks might bring?

This week in Hamburg, though, stretched out improbably, had offered itself up to expected and unexpected pleasures… Catching up with old friends, the taste of wine–  oaky, with ruby red deep dulcet tones– wedded to the rich texture of meat; the echo of heels through the empty Old Masters Halls of the Kunsthalle smelling perpetually of paint and aging wood – all too familiar, and yet.

Bildergebnis für birdland hamburg facebook

But then — the sudden welcome of a nimble fingered sax in Birdland, people sat on the floor, on the stairs, the edge of the stage, whisky in hand, swaying to the music, and how articulate you seemed — the long walk home brought (not-so distant memories) of having had to walk – upon return from Singapore – the pelt of rain, the wetted tarmac, and feeling grateful for having brought an umbrella.

In the end, it doesn’t take quite so much.



This place has died a slow and mourn(less) death, Kandinsky’s reproductions strewn across the table, stretching under book weights, and outside the balcony is holding fort to what might seem, was once a stubborn sunset. The monstrous, hunch-back shapes of candles (halfway through burning time) give off warmth that’s almost too much.

It’s nice to be back (in Hamburg/in my apartment/in my own –autonomous—space). In an uncharacteristic fit of organization, I’ve even unpacked to sort out my closet in a decent manner, color coordinated, short sleeves to long sleeves and such.

One week. And then – for sure, off to the sweaty heat of Dar es Salaam – and if it’s anything like Zanzibar, or Singapore, it will be intense. The sheet of sweat that permanently coats your skin makes you think of perpetual detox and pore-cleansing, and takes a lot out of you, especially, if one wants – as I do – maintain any shred of recognizable dignity.

Bildergebnis für old chernivtsi

Dignity. Haha. I spent the last two weeks in Chernivtsi, a quaint town in the Western-most part of Ukraine, that’s seen the rise and fall of at least five empires over the last couple of hundred years, with pipes (of the water utility we are working with) built by the Austrians – a matter of great pride – under the web of broken cobblestone that’s sole purpose is to trip you up.

My Deputy Team Leader – because it’s our second project together — right from the time we were scouring landfills in Poltava – had his 47th birthday – remarkably young and fit for his age (would that be considered an ageist statement?) — smoldering black eyes, some Tatar blood there, no doubt, strong cheekbones and a willful forehead, framed by (unexpectedly) gray hair – spoke of dignity and nobility, and I was not quite sure, if he meant it – my seeming inability to wholeheartedly laugh at a vulgar joke.

The most remarkable of all, of course — as it’s my second time in Chernivtsi, snow-ridden as I remember it, the toll of bells across the tiny 19th century street, lampposts like something out of a Narnia novel, the softly falling snow, and the feeling of my icy fingers in your (barely warmer) hand – now that blue azure sky, unspoilt, cloud-less, save for one finger-painted cloud across the horizon, above the Central Square.

The train ride there – because I’d rather take a 4 hour train than take an extra flight – was something delicate, of things and circumstances unappreciatively coming together – the empty row of seats, the quietly falling dusk, the slowly descending buzz of fatigue – from travelling all day – blended with the steady unfailing rumble of the wheels…