Reevaluation

I’ve travelled the last two weekends, and now that the sky has finally found its studded edge and that the wind has lost its keen and purposeful airlessness — now that Monday is untangling itself steadily and irrevocably towards me — I trace my nail across the bend of RB’s book I have been mangling for the past two months – lilac broken into white resentful folds of a cheap paperback. –‘So that this whole inner world of steppe was mapped on a system of infinite minute recessions, having just those gradations of distance that the outer lacked..’

Travel diaries, indeed. And what of my own then?

I went to Moscow, superintended by a long-legged Canadian, exotic and lithe, with a Hong Kong passport that allowed her to enter to Russia visa-free (despite chronic hold ups at passport controls both ways), and by a jovial debonair Frenchman whom I will have known for a full decade this year in September. The Frenchman lived in a Moscow for a couple of years a couple of years back, and it was Canadian’s first time (as cliché as it is to refer to both by their nationalities—- but try as I might, in the end, I will always be known as ‘that Russian’, or if I am lucky, ‘that Siberian’; our passports dictating tastes, proclivities and what not, in spite of our seemingly cosmopolite lifestyles).

I started off picking my friend up from the Kievskaya station, but not before nearly smashing my face into the metro entrance doors, having tripped as per usual and nearly flown horizontally, with the full force of my signature don’t-see-nobody-power walk. Now I have a nice tender lump on my ulna, that my dance partner thinks is a sign of a hairline fracture, to show for it. We ended up snacking on hummus and vinaigrette salad outside a Russian grocery store near Patriarchy Prudy, where Mr Voland made his appearance some 90 years ago – before snagging a table in a tiny bar, named after Keanu Reeves. Moscow turned to be stuck in the midst of a heat wave, which gave you a lovely glow during the night, and left you perpetually sticky with grime and sweat at daytime.

For the next two days, we explored the main attractions — like the Common Tourist – Red Square, Tretyakov Gallery, Christ the Savior’s church — and searching in vain for an appropriately themed kitchen towel at the souvenir shops in Old Arbat (a magnet in the shape of a piece of white bread, one half of it smeared with red caviar, the other with black, turned out to be a rare and obnoxiously delightful find). For the first time since a long time, I enjoyed Moscow — and not just through eyes of my friends, one of whom had had a really good time here and knew the city well, and the other who had never seen anything like it — in her own words, gaping open-mouthed at the marbled metro and the sheer size, well, of pretty much everything (yet with dutiful attention to proportion, so as not to appear bloated). But also maybe because for once, I hadn’t been in transit – to or from Siberia, anxiously waiting for a visa, or trying to squeeze as much hours as possible to see friends in between flights. Perhaps, too, after Africa and Singapore, and at 30, it felt quite relaxed even despite the bustle. Moscow looked and felt better than I remembered it. Seeing my parents, ‘cute as buttons’ as my friends put it, was a rare treat.

And now a week later, having said goodbye to a dear one from uni visiting Hamburg for the first time, one of the very few people – in fact, very likely, the only one — whom I am still in touch with from Russia — I am quite melancholic. I was told — ever so sternly — not to cultivate it, this very counter-productive, anti-functional feeling. And yet, I carry it around as a rare treasure, this pull in my solar plexus, and how strange it is, how quickly one gets used to one’s presence, especially if it’s a welcome one.

I haven’t done a tourist walk around Hamburg since I moved here, eight years ago, about to start my masters, bright eyed, fresh faced and heart-broken – even if I were unwilling to admit it – the rip of the cord!.. Walking along the Alster, admiring the clean-cut lines of Rathaus, and blackened walls of St Nikolai Memorial, and even the throat-tearing yells of marketeers at the Fischmarkt — all made me see Hamburg differently, same and familiar and yet not quite, as if a reflection in a mirror.

And for a precious few moments it felt reassuring —- when missing a train, or being late, or even losing a year metro pass  in a jazz club, wasn’t as big of a deal.

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Selective hearing

I’ve built a moat with my water bottles — room temperature, as they say here — built castle wall with my trolley, propping my hot throbbing feet on it – in other words, I’ve fully settled in to spend the next hour and a half before they start boarding my plane to Brussels. Trying to ward off the seething touch of humanity of Entebbe Airport.

For I guess, in the end, that is what business class affords you — not the slightly better plane food, or the heavier blanket, or even the much prized ability to fully recline — but the fact that your interaction with other people is brought to a miminum, save for the occasional face of the flight attendant, its lines perfectly assembled into a calm demeanour of friendliness.

I would have maybe liked to speak about that last half an hour down at the hotel bar, watching you school your underlings, for the missing cloche and then cutlery — sipping the chardonnay that is apparently your ‘usual’, and me hardly bothering to keep the bite of bitterness off my tongue for barely having seen you. You’d bring me out to the driveway, with sunset sky lending a touch of the well-bred to an otherwise unremarkable shade of subdued pink walls — lavender? It would remind me of one of your pocket squares — 100% silk – but I might very well have imagined it.

Instead, why not find my way to an Argentinian’s balcony, just coming off business dinner, watching the soft Kampala night draw itself up around the State House —- or that same day, hours earlier, feel the filtered light cut through the cheekbones of my Somalian princess —- or maybe even on my second evening, eating almost in full darkness but for a garden lamp with a drunk ambling patron —- or even the African Water Utility Conference — all these little moments mix themselves – a bright pastiche — but, arrested development, fail to construct a comprehensive narrative. That is the memory’s job — selective hearing of sorts — weed out, rearrange, modify — I can already feel its work begin — so that soon I would be left is a perfect diorama  — Kampala in July ’18.

She wears cashmere sweaters, and I don silk gowns

Maybe birds are German. After all, they are incessantly loud. And. After all. Even though my balcony isn’t Instagram ready, it faces a park rather than a concrete void, filled with worldly possessions, and humans. ——-

 

My bronchitis infuriates me. But on the other hand, having brought my operational temperature to above 35C, it lends a keen sense of enjoyment to the steady ring in my ears, and the way that the ivy – that damned parasite – makes its cut-out je-ne-sais-quoi attitude –  with its hipster abandoned lantern.

I came back after a month in Uganda —- and it was great. Spanish specimens in appreciation of my Siberian “blonde” azure-eyed beauty – ok, quotes here; delicious Argentinian steak grilled by a true Argentinian able to sway his hips in the right – salsa -esque— way, and best of all — wines brought over the Gibraltar, from the sundrenched hills of Spain. My colleague, Chris, used to the meekness of Vietnamese and Ukrainians, was a bit overwhelmed. I told him from the get go – no point in playing a melancholic wallflower, angling his head in demise of Whatever, be it millennial sense of entitlement, or German sense of well-deserved guilt — he has to be up there, with the rest of them, dangling the shoe off his broken foot on the terrace, dancing his way into their fickle hearts, and kissing the pillowy lips of a Somalian princess —-

even if a tall half-French-half-American-ex-special-forces-turned-luxury-hotelier (what would V Bout’s friend say to that?) picked you up, schooled you on the importance of having chilled glasses before the pouring of gin — and

most important of all, despite whatever pressure there is, appreciating your friends for who they are — the inspiration they bring you—

to keep —-

hammering on!

 

Rafa, my mustard-moustached

darling.

Squelch

Tomorrow, off to Yerevan.

A week ago, Hamburg lost its northern demeanor, and surprised itself by slipping into full-blown summer. The green– as far as eye could see — was overtaken by pale German bellies, soaking up the sun.

I, however, took a scenic route. From the passenger’s seat in a convertible, with cloudless sky above, wind whipping my hair around my face, and self-assured practiced lines of my ride, Hamburg looked very beautiful. It was like looking at it through fresh tourist eyes — I don’t quite remember the last time I was so overtaken with admiration for its fine buildings and well-groomed streets. It looked quite distinguished.

The weight of your hand on my shoulder guided me through the Main Train Station, and for once, I was clad in armor, invincible, no side-glance, cat-call, or an impish grin could touch me. I should always walk like that. You left me at Deichtorhallen, having first pointed out your favorite 80s hang out spot – Traxx – there no more – you guessed it – under the S-Bahn train tracks. I went to see Eisenstein/Goya/Longo’s combo, organized by Garage Museum of Modern Art. One of the best curated exhibitions I’ve been to, and a German tour guide to boot — preaching to a group of retirees about Ivan the Terrible and Stalin and Putin and Ukraine. How and why Aleksandr Nevskiy was an expression of anti-German sentiment in the 30s, he had preferred to skirt. My Sunday was blissfully, perfectly complete.

Then my Team Leader for Armenia arrived, laden with Sachertorte and Oberlaa (Konditorei that delivered to Kaiser himself) from Vienna. Bottom line from his two-day prep: all is hopeless, but not serious. I rushed through dinner, and found myself in Hamburg’s new favorite pet, The Fontenay (that even sounds appropriately snooty).

I sat in a low faux-velvet chair and drank red wine. You gave me lessons on how to look at ease in any environment, and slowly, I relaxed. The hurts and slights from the previous week have dissipated like knots and aches in a Russian sauna. Haha. Gotcha.

And now, a week later, it’s raining. This time, though, I know better. Raindrops are full and luscious, and make me think they are conspiring with the willows.

Their catkins make a delicious squelch when I step on them.

 

 

Exercised eulogy

If Christos were here with us today, he would laugh out loud. Really, Yulia, would I? True that. He would most likely say: ‚Compose yourself, woman‘, followed by some terribly crude sentiment conveyed in a highly intelligent manner  —- a heightened emotion delivered in flat voice.

For that was Christos for you – an unusual combination of high and low, tops and flops, of the ability of not just to appreciate but to be moved by one of the greatest surviving pianists — Sokolov (despite all of his sentient self resolute, hell-bent on not being moved by anything), but also the ability to enjoy death metal (Christos would, of course, say it’s not).

This dichotomy, this dissonance of sorts, the infamous Russian nadruiv (the state of string so tight it’s about to snap – and snap he did!), that was very much celebrated by the Russian literature (that Christos so assiduously read), became the leitmotif of his life. A man so unequivocally Greek (in the classical sense of the world) chose Hamburg as his lieu de séjour, a gifted word-crafter who opted IT as his profession and was devoted to his family and his friends… Still, perhaps his greatest quality was not his commitment, or loyalty, or generosity but rather where it stemmed from – the capacity to recognize beauty (the kind that can save the world, Dostoevsky-style), and be its unfaltering champion.

Perhaps for this very reason, looking back from the time we first met (even though I don’t remember it, I had to take Christos at his word), to that bright winter’s day when Christos finally left Hamburg for good, he had always taken it in stride. He was nervous, of course, his voice reverberating in the cold and crisp air, but — ‘I have to do it, Yulia, my nieces need me’.

So off he went to the country he swore never to return, only to discover that his new life – his new family — gave him finally that much sought-after sense of completeness, of fulfilled symmetry and proportion so vital for a classicist. In his later years, his voice had gained volume and depth, and his gestures grew steady and self-assured, making everyone in his presence listen intently.

And it is that image of a man, who was bold and unafraid to stick to what he believed in, surrounded by the most unlikely of people who loved him – from all walks of life – that we celebrate today. To Christos! –may he rest in peace.

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.

Milling

“…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.