We stood on the balcony that smelled of freshly cut wood and putty, with grit of construction dust under our fingertips, feeling the stem of wine glass grate crisply against the rough unpolished balustrade. Once upon a time, the gardens in front of us were designed by a Versailles gardener, to the refined delight of the Mukhrani princes, descendants from one of the oldest royal dynasties in the world.

A world by now irrevocably gone, it would seem, but for that brief moment –with the moon angling itself a particular way against the cellophaned windows– your senses having grown suddenly keen and alert, sending that spinal animal shiver along your meridians.

Time twisted itself, stretched, an awning, the black cat of Schroedinger, or even Bulgakov’s Begemot, eavesdropping on the sounds of party still going strong in the palace grounds. The music echoed and grew distant, exiled from another epoch, and even my partners in crime receded into the shadows— and I was left one on one with the pitch black palace, not daring to look — into the dark void of human memory and emotion, filled to unbearable brim.

Hours before, after a jolly ride from Tbilisi, catching a fleeting glimpse of the Jvari monastery on the way, we had stepped onto the palace grounds in good spirits. The mountain wind blew too hard and too steeply, but the tinsel warmth of champagne on an empty stomach lingered. We pottered about, took pictures and mingled amongst the well-heeled crowd. The palace itself, a looming shape of snow-white octagonal towers, glittered against the steadfast blue of the sky. So it must have stood, no doubt, over a century ago, when sparkling wine flowed from its fountain (legend says) and the Russian emperor scooped it up with a gem-encrusted chalice, heedless of his own tragic fate; and not very much later — pillaged by the Bolsheviks, and left to disentangle itself, slowly, deliberately, into ruin under the same adamant sky.

We huddled into the wine cellars, grateful for the shelter, eager for the wine tasting, paired with Georgian cheese and a special kind of Georgian sweet, churchkhela — walnuts lovingly nestled inside the rubbery glaze of thickened grape juice. The party went on as the Caucasian night dropped its heavy-lidded gaze, to be briefly punctured by fireworks — before finally claiming us for her own.

We found our way inside the palace that had been closed off during the day, but now lay open for us, curiously inviting in its abandonment. All was dark but for the feeble light from a fridge filled with champagne bottles, which stood randomly in what must have been the anteroom. We explored the floors as much as we dared and certainly much more than we were allowed, no doubt risking a broken ankle at best or a broken neck at worst, with a flashlight. We settled ourselves on the balcony, somehow no longer cold, watching the gardens steeped in black, spying on the lone guest ambling towards the washrooms.

And then it was over — as quickly, as unexpectedly as it began. We took the bus, ran towards the hotel (courtesy of small bladders), and woke up to find another day, now firmly set in its own space-time, with its velvet curtain pulled shut. We drove back to Yerevan, my companion and I, hauling Georgian mandarin oranges and stopping to try some homemade Armenian food at a small joint by the road. The mountains covered in threadbare lace of the trees, almost leafless, turned purple — layer upon layer in giddy relief.

I reached my hotel after dark, tired and thirsty, and somehow glad. My mind pleasantly empty from the excitement of the previous days, I walked across the marble of the hotel lobby, exchanging friendly greetings with the staff, unlocked my room and garnered enough willpower to unpack without much effort.

All good things come to an end, after all, and it is a good thing that they do.



I sit here and roll out yesterdays – as they recede in their slow, dimmed consciousness. Along the spaces with blurry corners, and slipping through the floors, to obscurity, my gaze wanders.

(I wish I could do justice to those moments I spent with you, on the edge of a lead-studded day, when I looked into the mirror and saw a hollow-eyed flat-faced creature that no amount of concealer or blush could resuscitate. How then you brought me back to life, slowly, even though now I struggle to remember your face, or recall the particular inflections of your voice, or will to feel the warmth of your skin under my fingertips. The phantom amber notes, and wood, and maybe even lavender still linger.)

You brush your hand against my forehead (am I really sick — as my tender lymph node tends to inform – no doubt, of a deadly African disease?), your touch cascades upwards, towards the wooden beams, where ailing lights lend them unexpected depth. A cavern, then, unexplored, beneath the equatorial sky, and you and I, an island, quite heedless of the rest.

Along this tepid air, I sail – it coldly reverberates along my joints into an aching echo, hollowed out.


And now, having gotten back to the mainland, having not spared myself even a quarter of an hour, and thrown myself from unpacked trunk to hot bath to dinner with friends — pressing repeat, until in one semi-lucid moment of realisation, shivering in my cashmere wrap and head heavy on the couch of Pri’s dad, feeling quite transparent and detached from the tipsy Brazillian camaraderie around me, I understood — I am quite sick, and it’s best to make my way home.

How illness forces you into self reflection, and that is always quite an experience to wake up, with even your forearm — darkly imprinted on the sheets. More so, of course, to observe how time flows in and out, rolling over, turning the blanket, trying to find a dry patch. I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, in broad strokes over the last couple of months, and getting lost in tesseract’s particulars in the recent weeks. Because it’s autumn, my mind eagerly offers its tributes of school days, and uni days back in Russia — not necessarily in terms of how pleasant, or happy, or miserable they were — but rather how vivid.

Kiener wrote, in explaining his proportional theory of time that half of your perceived life is over by the time you turn 18. Then, of course, it should come of no surprise that the plastic uneven feel of the peeling tiles in the school corridor, or the mush, dusty sound the wings of trapped butterflies made against the glass jar — stand out in sharp relief against the blurry backdrop of the memories of the last decade. Even if – for all intent and purpose – it is my twenties that bore the hallmarks of an interesting, eventful life. Siberia to Germany to Spain — through the frightening luxury of having to choose between five scholarships; to doing a masters thesis at one of the best research centres in environmental sciences in Europe; to Singapore and its humid airless glamour; and then back to Hamburg, cold and unyearning, hailing the start of a new career, so full of promise — of travels and all sorts of delicious experiences.

Only, of course, very few know of what went on behind the scenes during these stellar transformations. One says one should not compare – yourself to other people, but perhaps yourself to yourself as well. How very Dickensonian, and — if there ever were a syntax equivalent of a tesseract, surely, it would be this:

‘The Soul unto itself <…> itself <…> of itself The Soul…’


Val told Sylvia to not overemotionalise, to first figure out the cold hard plotline. So what shall it be? 2 week here has come to decisive close, with four days to go. The ‚D‘ on my keyboard is temperamental, and I have to coax it into its printing submission. As far as plotlines go, it seems, two sentences in, and I have failed.

The three pairs of ventilators, rotating, out of sync, above the hotel restaurant blow a sweet warm breeze into my flushed face. The whole of the day I lay suspended on my bed, watching far away Kampala traffic graze its slow sluggish way along the terracotta dirt of street. Crazed overexcited voices rose to greet me, shouting back illegible commands in unison — the Sunday bouncy castle on the hotel grounds. The sky fell backwards and forwards, with me, as I slept, and finally resigned, it settled, overcast and unfocused, a lazy eye with a droopy eyelid.

And now, it seems, I am on fire. There is a shy film of perspiration, and coming to a conclusion, fully formed, it makes its meek way down my skin — a chilled glass, bringing air humidity to a sweet, if only temporary, release. I draw quick and shallow breaths, skimming the edge of my solar plexus, as its tight warmth spreads along the lines, and there might – there just might — be the remnants of tachycardia making its way towards my hot skin, in short unfulfilled beats.

Figures pass by along the edge of my peripheral vision, and one – clad in pastel mint shirt and khaki pants — ambles towards me. We’ve met a couple of times before, and every single time, I’ve had the distinct impression of an elaborate performance. The lashes of one of his eyes are haphazardly curved, giving it a perpetually flirty expression, while the other remain stubbornly straight. His body grunts and groans, settling down on the couch next to me, and I put the books away. He seems flattered, or at least one of his eyes does.

We are later joined by his opposite, long and angling strides, sleek, tailored jacket, and the belt buckle polished to a teasing shine. His face, trained into practiced lines of friendly yet sharply— almost painfully — keen observation. I can see a coquettishly canary yellow socks wrapped around his long, surprisingly delicate curve of ankle, possessing an almost dancer-like elegance. He reaches out, and takes my hot hand into his cool perfumed palm. And all at once, I am taken back to those days back in May, when I would wake up to a steady roar of traffic at Bougainviller, and a hummingbird buzzing against my window, black against the morning light. We would joke about my pimp velvet shoes, as they smoke, and I feel the easy brush of hand against the small of my back.

Later, much later, circling to before, time joins itself, like an ouroboros eating his tail. The strip between the curtains pulled shut grows orange to silvery grey, to finally white. My phone is in the other room, and I feel almost too comfortable, too uneasy to get up and get it to check the time. So I measure time by the way it claims the room for its own, seeping through the thick textile, up the side table, along my own

outstretched arm.


I had maybe half an hour of battery left before they board, so type away.

We cramped into the bus — sky flushed, poised for its golden early autumn glory – and waited ­— to get out, watching other passengers mount the steps in impatient longing. Minutes stretched, air grew thick and heavy, feet shuffled, and an echo of spasm reached my inner shoulder blade. It is still there, a mild irritant, skirting around the edge of my conscious, curling it raw and coarse, a red tongue, smudged in tannins.

Week later, I would strut across Méstil‘s marbled halls, prized vodka bottle in hand – a gift smuggled from Hamburg. The shoe strap on my wobbly long-suffering ankle has gotten loose, and I am keenly aware of each step — it starts — heel-to-ball-of-foot, as taught — to the tightening of calf, how it reaches up the leg, grips the knee, rotates the hip and ends up in the swoosh of shoulder. My head sways slightly, in counterbalance — the body diagonals! and spheres of biomechanics!.. — it is almost fluid, almost limber – it certainly looks that way, and probably only I know that there is a slight hesitation on the right side of my spine, with the lazy curve beginning to lag my mid-back, from lack of discipline.

There is a purposeful and wicked gleam in my eye. Lack of sleep, double americanos, general resentment from work — distilled to perfect pre-dinner bitters — have lent it a metallic aftertaste. No turquoise-if-the-light-is-right, no ‘I-can-swim-in-those-blues-of-yours!’, no ‘Are those contact lenses?’. And yet – the mean gleam is tempered by giddy anticipation. There is a sense of urgency – from being unintentionally late — and ‘everyone is already there’ – a mental equivalent of the frostbite that the vodka bottle will surely give me from having been in the freezer since my arrival to Uganda.

I rush through late Kampala traffic — what’s left of it on a Thursday night – it’s dark and mysterious, breathless and thick, with smog-smudged moon hanging above in languid resignation. We reach Naguru, and it always feels like you are falling out of the car when you open the door – so steep is the  incline. I have to spend three humiliating minutes in front of closed gates, waiting for the gatekeeper to confirm that a ‘Yulia from Siberia’ is indeed expected. My driver refuses to leave in the meantime, and surely, what a ridiculous figure I make in his eyes, a white girl in a white pencil skirt, standing alone by the black gates, in the pool of light of the gate lamp, holding a bottle of Beluga. I am let in eventually, and am more than a little indignant as I skip across the driveway, push aside the mosquito mesh, and enter the realm of the Spanish masters.

I barely say hello to the girl, unconsciously graceful, clad in white, lounging on the sofa, tight chestnut curls framing her strong rectangular face. Natalia. A gastroenterologist from Madrid, with keen hungry eyes and beautiful olive skin of exquisite texture — no longer due to youth, but to nourishment and proper care, and due to most likely, not taking herself or others too seriously. Either that, or good Spanish genes. Even the blue halogen light cannot destroy it.

I make my way to the kitchen, where R. is already brewing his choleric magic, bent over the paellera, his good-natured hyper energetic frame screwed up in fierce concentration. His friend totters about the kitchen with that slightly nervous aloof energy of the lonely grand-uncle, nailing olives and anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea on a toothpick; and of course, the Argentinian man-of-the-hour, salt-and-pepper temples, and tight black t-shirt showing off what non-stop 3-day-long marathons across the Andes won him some two decades ago.

We would sit on the terrace, drink the wine, and savor the buttery glory of paella blossoming inside our mouths, listening to two Italians tell tall tales of their boxing days. I would brush my foot, ever so lightly, against yours, and make my way to get dessert. You’d rescue me later, wrenching the door open, as I would find myself trapped in dichotomy— against the cool tiles, against your own heated skin, breathing in — the determined outline of jaw into the sinews of the neck – we are always warming up, you say.

And then, of course — a cherry on top — the voice, rising unexpectedly pure and torn, and undeserving of the ears and faces, turned listless and shiny by the food and the balmy night, grown impenetrable. The cante. For surely, it sang of heartbreak, and impossibility, and loss of innocence.

I found my way to the late night Uber, and back to the hotel. As much as that truant muscle circling me to the edge of discomfort, there it was – also – the spasm of unfulfilled expectations.





„Love is here“, but apparently not much else. I typed in the wifi password almost an hour ago, but just like everything, it had been slow to connect. Milky light seeps through the cataract skies; how we look, I wonder, when one sweeps through them, shapes and moving shades, forever suspended along the terracotta veins of the lush greenery. No doubt, we look like tepid coffee feels on the roof of the mouth.

This reminds me of the book I left on my way to Toulouse, the one by Robert Byron — not the poet, but the eccentric travel writer who would drown on some ship during WWII, not even 40 — who would exalt over the steppe greenery of Turkestan, claiming it to be the one true green, not the emerald, or turquoise, or the deep blue green of the pine forests… I forget how the passage goes, and now I will never know, the page stuck in the pocket net of the some front seat of a Lufthansa plane… The memory does, however, evoke a sense of deep-seated envy — that I can’t write like that.

That any meagre power of expression I do have— it is spent on drafting proposals, and coming up with graphs to illustrate just how innovative GFA approach is to stakeholder participation, or leading change, or designing a multi dimensional multi criteria decision matrix. I begin to feel some of that ire, some of that black bile that spurted off the pages of the book of some ex development worker that my Team Leader presented me on my first mission in Uganda.

But at least I get to travel, get occasional upgrades on flights, and moved up to suites in boutique hotels because I know the General Manager. I get to deliver homemade mustard to my Spanish friends, and hear all the latest gossip — for expat community — anywhere – is fertile soil to all sorts of salient details about the private lives of the bright and the beautiful. My parents see me of course, as an entrepreneur, the all-time hustler, who should join in forces with CCI and put my language skills and cosmopolite lifestyle to good use to advance the family fortune.

At this point, though, I would very much like to ignore both ventures, with a haughty flick of my pseudo-aristocratic shoulder.





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.

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.