Porto

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Last November I went to Porto. I had booked the trip in the throes of my bachelor’s thesis needing the promise of an escape. The fares were low, the friend who would accompany me willing, the tickets booked quickly. We did not really place great demands on our destination, we only wanted to catch a last whiff of autumnal warmth and go somewhere we’d never been before. Porto was perfect.

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Of course, a benign climate was not the only thing I looked forward to once we had decide where to go. Porto is part of the UNESCO World Heritage and thus the Old Town brims with beautiful buildings, many decorated with the famous white-blue ceramic tiles typical of the region.

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As an average-sized town of about 200,000 inhabitants the inner city is very walkable, which made it easy to get a sense of the place, uninterrupted by public transport. And it was by walking through the town’s sloping streets that I discovered what Porto was really built of. Not stone, nor wood, nor metal, but stories.

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You’ll find a cookie tower in the heart of the city which some brazen youths once climbed and from which they threw sweets down to the onlookers. A bit farther two bellicose churches stand shoulder to shoulder with only the smallest of houses between them to mediate in their squabble. And at every corner you can buy the local speciality Francesinha, a sexist meat sandwich that allegedly was invented in the 60s by a French immigrant.

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These anecdotes make up Porto, make it truly lively and memorable. Thus, what I remember most vividly when I recall the trip is not solely the food, or the views, or the beautiful weather, but the way they were all held together by the glue of stories that adhered to every surface I touched, every street I walked. They all bled together into an underlying, all-encompassing feeling of ease that accompanied my every movement through this city.

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Testimony of Friendship

​It’s a common notion: 
We are all shaped by the people we have gotten to know. Each person you have let into your life ultimately shapes you. Like soft clay you are formed by the hands of a stranger, a friend to be, and maybe a stranger to be once more. Be it gentle strokes, slowly, over time, or the rapid jolt of an impatient hand, everyone leaves their mark. And so do you.

You might nod, shrug your shoulders, ‘so what does that mean?’

Recently I realised how many of the people I care about feel cut off from their friends, their family. It might be due to actual distance, and the fact that you cannot be close to your loved ones infuriates you, it drains you and strains your happiness. It might be figurative distance, a point in your life where others become estranged and are not as present as they used to be.

I just want you to remember, my dear friend, that you carry a piece of these people with you, by being who you are. The way you grimace when you are not sure about something, the way you laugh about the strangest jokes, your favourite comfort food which you would have never found were it not for those wonderful nights in your friends’ kitchen… There are so many ways they are with you, we are with you, that neither time nor place can take away from you. 

Barcelona

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In October I went to Barcelona for a quick post-semester get away. I did not really know what to expect, nor did I look up anything about the city. All I wanted to do was let myself be carried along and possibly soak up a bit of sun. That’s when I stumbled headfirst into the lively, bustling, beautiful place that is Barcelona, the epitome of the phrase ‘joie de vivre’. Its inhabitants have made an art of making everyday life beautiful and enjoyable.

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The best example of this is the fact that art and architecture are woven into the fabric of the city. Antoni Gaudí alone left his mark on the city with buildings like the Casa Batlló or Parc Güell. His most astonishing work is still unfinished though – the Sagrada Família. Despite being crammed with tourists and exposed to construction noise this basilica still manages to captivate you from the second you step over the threshold. Its colourful, alien magnificence is unparalleled by any grand building I’ve ever set foot in. And this comes from the uncontested fangirl of resplendent edifices.

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Like Gaudí, the architect of the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, built in the strange, eccentric style of Modernísme. Finished in 1911, the hospital was a reconstruction of an old structure dating from the 19th century. However, Domènech i Montaner decided to exceed expectations by constructing not only a sanitary and functional hospital but also one that was pleasing to the eye. That way of speeding up patients’ recovery by not only taking care of their bodies but their minds as well is Barcelona in a nutshell: Finding the beautiful in the mundane is what the city’s all about. So it is no wonder that, illuminated by the warm afternoon sun of early autumn, these few days had me longing to return before I even left.

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The Last Straw – Of Moving On

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University seems to have been the last straw. The last straw connecting me and my friends, and everything I know. I have not even left all of my courses, I am by far not finished here but the end is on the horizon and it edges closer, I cannot deny it. The more time passes the clearer it gets that you cannot hold people in your environment, you cannot force them to remain stagnant while you are on the move. And yet university was the promise of identity, of a fresh start after high school – and merely three years down the line this fresh start has turned into another closing.

Thrown back into the stream of figuring out what we want to be doing when we are grown-ups (No, we cannot possibly be called grown-ups yet; yes, maybe this time I mean it when I say we will be grown-ups eventually), who we choose as our companions, and it is scary as always. It makes us question everything we have known in the last years, and ultimately what makes us happy and what has the potential of making us happy and fulfilling us in the future. As a matter of fact, that is a common “disease” in our generation. We always strive to be happy and become increasingly unhappy in the process. In the end we have nobody to blame but ourselves, and who does not feel the burden of decisions yet to come?

While there seem to be a gazillion options as to what the next step might be, we begin to doubt whether we are fit and equipped to be taking these steps. Are we really ready for it, are we qualified enough, will we manage? It feels like we are back to square one, but what do we know about this game anyway? Another plunge, another leap of faith, and here we are, re-inventing ourselves, staggering blindly, hoping to be moving in the right direction. Different people rely on different methods of navigation to get through the maze: what feels good, what pays more, what is the fastest way… but however much you calculate, you will never know exactly where you’ll land – so maybe it is time to let go of the straw and drift to new shores, whether you’ll be swimming elegantly or frantically paddling, coughing up the water of setbacks, we’ll all get there. Eventually.

Life on Trains – The Homely Nowhere

I read a book for one of my seminars called Winter Journal by Paul Auster and one quote struck me in the way it resembled my current situation:

“ […] as long as you continue to travel, the nowhere that lies between the here of home and the there of somewhere else will continue to be one of the places where you live.”

Auster is talking about the numerous journeys he had faced, mostly for work, and how the hours he had spent on the road, or above the clouds, have become a familiar state, something like home, solely due to the vast amount of time he spent travelling. He does not seem to enjoy travelling too much, thus the statement seems like a reconciliation, a way to make being stuck in the Nowhere more bearable.

This Nowhere is a reality for many of you every day, and for me, too. I spend most of the time between work and university on trains, always in between one place or another, always waiting for a final destination. I am on a train. The conductor announces that we will run late due to another train. I grow more and more agitated, I might miss my connection home after all! You can see several other passengers tensing up, calculating frantically whether they should pay for a cab or risk sprinting for the bus. Some are already scrambling to find their keys, zipping up their heavy down jackets to face the biting cold outside before leaving the train. Leaving the Nowhere. Many of us do not like this in-between, being on the road. It’s a moving space, it’s not one place or another, it is a waste of time for some (unless you spend the time on the train writing about the time you spend on the train – as I’m doing right now). Yet I feel this moving Nowhere is something we should all make our peace with and embrace. It’s time to reclaim the time and space, to see that this time, too, is part of what shapes you. This time does not magically vanish and drop into the void, forever lost, minutes and hours of your life wasted.

Instead of complaining that I won’t be where I was supposed to be at a certain time, I can sit here and enjoy the movement, the certainty that when I get off the train I will be somewhere else. The Nowhere is a bubble – you are on your way, a moving target hard to pin down. The Nowhere can be a refuge. My fingers slow down, the clicking of my keyboard fades into a background noise as I lean back in my seat, rest my head against the cold glass of the train’s window and watch trees and houses drift by my consciousness. The train softly rattles and gently, like a cradle, lures me into closing my eyes.

Return to the Lecture Halls

When the door swings open the familiar smell of old wooden benches and hastily scribbled notes hits me, and I smile. It’s been a while and yet the place has not changed one bit. I navigate my bag full of books towards the seat I always used to take. I stop when I see the note scratched on the stained wooden desk – I trace my finger along the lines that a bored student must have come up with when their mind had wandered off in a lengthy part of a session. I know this. I am right at ease.
It’s my first time at my German university in over 15 months. I did study in Spain, and I enjoyed my classes there, yet there is something about listening to a lecture that is held 10 minutes away from a golden beach that is constantly distracting and makes even the most eager student a little impatient. After Spain, as you might have noticed when reading this blog, I threw myself into the daunting world of work. Now I know that spending 3 months working in Edinburgh was the right decision, that I think back and see how I’ve developed, how strong I can be if need be. Oh, and that I can answer the office phone without having half a heart attack (also something worth knowing about yourself). 

I have always liked studying. There’s something deeply satisfying about picking up new books, about writing paper drafts, about reading secondary literature for next week’s seminar, about bumping into your friends each and every time you go to the library – or even just walk around the halls in between classes – and saying hello to your lecturer. All this made me realise that, yes, the university is my home – or at least one of my homes. It’s a place I return to and feel comforted, just by sitting on the squeaky old chairs in the lecture hall, just by having the best of both worlds here: people that listen and books that understand. 

New York, Mind’s Maze

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I’m trailing along

cabs rushing endlessly

getting lost in the city centre

swallows all emotions, feeling

a collective numbness

numb like feet

kicking the concrete sounds like people in the city

perfectly unmatched, fittingly out of place

belonging to the nothingness of everything

smog like opium, enclosing skies

the mind’s maze, destination escape

oh, New York

 

The Metamorphosis of a Small Town Girl


Before my trip to the US and Canada began I was really scpetical whether I would like the big city life. As my destinations include Boston, Toronto (where I currently am, sitting in a park soaking up the summer sun) and New York City, the worry might have been justified. I am originally from a relatively small town, in comparison to the size of the cities I’m visiting here it seems ridiculously small. What I like about smaller cities (and that includes cities with anything up to 500,000 or so inhabitants) is that you never feel lost in the masses, an insignificant spot in the flow of people being washed along the streets and avenues. At least this is what I had thought beforehand. 

With roughly 650,000 inhabitants, Boston is only slightly larger than what I’m usually comfortable with, and I had no problem adapting at all. I could walk everywhere and it turns out you can still bump into people you know in the Boston Commons!

My current stop, Toronto, takes the cake with a good 2.6 million people. When I first arrived the huge buildings seemed to be disturbingly overpowering, and the amount of people trying to push past you at Union Station can also be unsettling at first.

However, by and by I realised that living in a big city has its advantages and its own appeal. Against what I had expected, you can walk everywhere (if you are willing to spend about an hour walking) – or you hop on a subway to take you around. Strolling around the streets of Toronto I also came to see that you are not lost or anonymous; the people in cities of this size seem to radiate personality and make a point of not being ignored. Be it in the way they dress or how they carry themselves, I cannot quite point it down. 

Another major advantage is the amount of events and happenings. In the course of 3 days I went to see a recital from the music faculty of the University of Toronto, saw a Spanish film at the Toronto International Film Festival and been (yes, among all things) to church, something that’s not exactly the first thing I feel like doing on a Sunday.

It turns out, however, that church in a big city (and maybe it’s also a Canadian thing, who knows) is a lot more liberal, innovative and inclusive. While I am a little sceptical of some things that are being preached, the community and personality of the people going there was overwhelming. Everyone seemed so happy to see you and asked a ton of questions – and not even one of them questioned my belief, or if I actually belong there (which I felt was quite a problem for me in German Protestant church, but I will not generalise this – it might be different in other communities). 

I am so glad that I have come to Toronto, and against what some people have told me, it is a beautiful city. Next stop will be New York, which I feel more ready for now, after getting used to the busy and colourful life in the city.

Travelling Alone – With Friends

​This is the first time I am travelling on my own for leisure, to a far away country I have never been to. Reactions were mixed when I told people that I had booked a ticket to the US, for one person only. I experienced anything between awe and excitement to worry and wonder. For some it seemed like an adventure, some have travelled even further distances on their own, and to some it might have appeared to be silly, careless, dangerous, maybe even a little pathetic. After all, who doesn’t ask their friends to come along – apart from if they don’t have any?

So why is it that I got on that plane alone?

I wanted to, simple as that. I like my own company, I know what I want from a holiday and new places. You can go at your own pace, do what you want to do, but most of all meet new people, find new friends.

If there is any tip that I can give to you, if you are travelling on your own but still like the company of others, stay in a hostel. Even if you are more of a shy person, chances are that you will start a conversation with your fellow travellers, and maybe even spend the day together. I have been very lucky this way and have met so many cool people already!

Now I am headed to Toronto, Canada, and I can’t wait to explore more and get talking to potentially new amazing friends.