Alfama Dog

This is a short story I wrote based in part but not entirely on real events.

____________________Alfama Dog_____________________

It was that special ache between heart and stomach that made me stop things. That ache that cannot be caused by the mere knowledge that you have steered your life into a completely wrong direction. To feel this pain, you also need to have no clue why and how it happened and, worst of all, to be fully aware that it could happen again at any time, defeating the very dreams you had for your life. I was my own worst enemy. I had to be taken out. I quit my job at the advertising agency which had left me with only a hatred for neon lights, a fear of ringing phones and a disgust for my subservient self. I spent endless hours on the Internet and on the Berlin subway, looking for something or someone to tell me what to do next. When nothing came, I decided to go away. If I was to do nothing, I might as well do it in a place I did not despise. Also, I missed a certain dog.

I flew to Lisbon, where I had spent many a summer vacation in tranquility and with the feeling of an exciting, self-made future sitting right there on the palm of my hand. Lisbon, the White City, filled with a light almost too bright, and playful winds. Full of musty smells and black garbage bags. Full of old people and dogs. It is a city in decay, a city that has grown too old to leave its apartment by itself, a city where old ladies let down wicker baskets from their windows to be filled with dried fish, wine and bread by the neighborhood kids.

I moved into an ancient rotting house in the cat-infested shadow of the Old Castle, and took a job as cook in a little café. During the day, I toasted white bread for old gossips and fried hamburgers for tourists using the vacation alibi to down pints of beer at noon. During the nights, I stood at my window, smoking and watching the street, emptied now of drug dealers and fierce old women. I was waiting, still, for something to come to me, be it hope, a plan, or at least the final determination to give up on both.

Sometimes I went out in Alfama, the area around the café. A movie set made up of conglomerate houses, alleys so narrow you can hardly turn around, and crooked stairways. Since my first visit, years ago, I could never stroll through this unreal bairro without feeling the urge to knock on the façades to check if they were made out of paper mâché. And without being on the lookout, on some level, for a certain dog – Alfamadog. Everyone in Alfama knew this big, beautiful yellow-white stray dog. He was a frequent guest in people’s homes and in bars, where he napped under tables, warming the guests’ feet. Sometimes he suddenly came running around a corner, sometimes he just strolled around casually, marking his territory, granting audiences. He was never dirty and always free. He was always nice to you, but he would never love you. What can I say? I have never been known for letting an opportunity to get hurt just pass me by.

One night, that summer, I left work late and went home, slowly and with heavy steps. I had a lot on my mind and even more weighing on my shoulders. With too few numbers on my bank account and too many on my face, I dreaded the future more than ever. In front of the grey macho cathedral lay Alfamadog. I sat down, petted his head, and poured a bit of water on the ancient stones. He enjoyed it and wanted a refill. He got it, in exchange for having to listen to my lameass human worries. When there was nothing more to say, I got up with a sigh, mumbled a goodbye and made my way up the hill. I heard a sound and turned around. The dog was following me. “Watch out, we are about to leave Alfama, Alfamadog,” I teased. He looked at me with tired disdain. He had heard that one before. So up we walked. I talked, and the dog listened, and sometimes he just ran off into the darkness. Everytime he disappeared, I felt a sting. But he always came back. He walked me right to my front door. I opened it with a lighter heart. “Wait,” I told the dog, “I am going to raid the fridge for a late night snack. You’ve earned it.” But when I leaned out of the window some minutes later with a slice of ham, the dog was gone.

For weeks after that, the dog was not to be found. It disturbed me, but I had other things on my mind. A new dampness in the house, courtesy of the recently arrived fall, and the constant rustling of mice in the background. An open suitcase on the floor of my room. A plane ticket back to Reasonville. A pressure on the ribcage. I went to a bar with friends for goodbye drinks in Alfama. Cherry liquor and cigarettes. Under the table, I found the dog, sleeping. When we left he got up, looking up at me almost reproachfully. He followed me, and I felt serene. Then, suddenly, he smelled a cat under a parking car and abandoned me. Just like that.

Only reluctantly I continued my way home. Looking over my shoulder, hoping the dog would come running after me. He did not come. In front of my café, I stopped at some steps, suddenly without strength to climb them and continue my way home, to the suitcase. I even found myself crying. How ridiculous, standing there crying and waiting as if for a man. Wanting to be special to a stray dog. But I was convinced that that night, when he had walked me home, he had sensed that I was lost, and hopeless, and needed someone to walk with me, to keep me company. So what if that was bullshit? It was a straw, and I would hold on to it. Some people think it is better to know the ugly truth. I am not one of them. I decided I would not budge. I took off my jacket and placed it on the steps. And I sat down.

After a while, my colleague the bartender came out with a mug full of wine. “Are you OK?” he asked. “Yes.” He sat down next to me, with the sigh of a man who has been on his feet for too many hours. I got restless and looked around to the dark cobble street that led deeper into Alfama. What if he kept the dog away? “What are you looking for?” I had to laugh at the absurdity of the question. “I wish I knew.”-“Are you waiting for something?” -“Yes.”-“What?” I snorted again. “I don’t really know.” I had irritated him. He got up, but left the mug on the stone steps next to me. “You wanna come in? It’s cold. You can help me close up.” -“No, I think I am just going to stay here.”-“What for?”- “Not sure. But as I said. I think I am waiting.” He shook his head. Crazy German. Then he shrugged me off and left. He had real things to do.

I stayed on the stairs, shivering. When people passed by, drunk and on their way towards drunker, I pretended to be sleeping. At some point, I must have fallen asleep for real. I woke up to a clear blue sky and the crisp air only Lisbon can offer. Cold, except for my feet. I looked down. Sleeping on them lay Alfamadog. I carefully pulled them away from under him. I let him sleep and went to the airport.


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The Deal or: How I would love to say “fuck off” to someone just once

There are many reasons why TV shows such as Breaking Bad and The Big C are so popular. Or Sons of Anarchy, for that matter, a show I have become addicted to a year or so ago. But I only want to write about one here. It is what I call the thrill of the ultimate shoulder shrug.

Here, in the Western democratized world, we are born into a system that leaves little room for need, in the most basic sense. And for that reason, we do not easily question the system in which we live. We are provided with certain things, one of them being protection. In return we accept certain restrictions, usually without questioning them. And even if we reflect, we come to the conclusion that the deal we got, without being asked, is not a bad one. So we sign it, ex post. But still, whenever examples of people not taking the deal are put in front of us, many of us react in a way we both enjoy and fear: fascination, desire, doubt.

The show Sons of Anarchy is said to be based on the history and model of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, which was founded in California in 1948 and has since then expanded not only in the US but around the world. The Club today is listed as one of the ‘big four’ motorcycle clubs, and considered by many to be more of an organized crime syndicate than anything else. My begrudging fascination with SoA has led me to get a bit deeper into the HAMC background, mostly by reading the more than biased autobiography of Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, founding member and longtime president of the Oakland, CA chapter, entitled ‘Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club’ as well as Hunter Thompson’s wide acclaimed (by the literary world) and widely criticized (by the Angels) standard work ‘Hells Angels’.

I do not want to dwell on the manifold circumstances – both historical and personal – that led to the development of the club/gang, but what is abundantly clear is that the idea of the outlaw is the main factor in this equation. That is, in the end, what it is about, and also what explains the appeal. The outlaw is a major myth in American culture, his or her existence a fact that has always left the ordinary American with goosebumps caused half by fear and half by excitement. The basic meaning of the term is clear: an outlaw is an individual who is considered to stand outside the protection of the law. The thing about the law is: as long as you recognise it, it will protect you. I deliberately use the term recognise, not follow. Because in our Western societies as far as I know, the law protects you also if you choose or have chosen not to obey it. Murderers cannot be killed by an angry mob, etc. But the outlaws I am talking about are different. They are not denied by the law, they are the ones denying it. They say ‘no thanks’ to ruling law and the protection of both the legislative and executive branch. Which means that they can do what they deem right, but they also have to protect themselves if others do the same. Hence the formation of the gang/club. The Hell’s Angels have rules, like any society. One of the core rules has to do with loyalty, and it also explains the long criminal records of many members: a HAMC member must support a fellow member under all circumstances. Basically, if a member is attacked or attacks someone, you help without asking for the reasons behind the conflict. As stupid as this sounds, the bottom line is that the club offers a system of security that people seem to miss in society – hence the appeal of these kind of groups. It does not have to be a MC, it can also be a student fraternity, or a kind of anarchist collective. Same story, in a way. You are offered something you can rely on. You are offered simplicity. And that is something in a world where nothing is ever simple.

In Sons of Anarchy, this becomes clear as well. People who are members of the club know exactly what they can or cannot do. They know: if I do this and that, I can expect this and that. Not more, but also not less. There is a club member, Kyle, who has betrayed the club and as a consequence is kicked out. One of the requirements for a member fallen into disregard is to blacken out the giant SoA tattoo they all have on their backs. It is a rule. Kyle does not, because he cannot accept the idea of being out of the club. When this comes to the attention of his former brothers, the question is a simple one: ‘Fire or knife?’ Kyle chooses fire, is admitted to the hospital for life-threatening burns. After his recovery he shows no resentment, no anger. Why? Because he knows he had it coming. He knew the rules. He can accept the punishment. That is what I mean by simple (if by no means right, don’t get me wrong). You can also call it fairness. In a world where nothing is ever fair, where nothing ever seems to come around, where managers lose millions and are awarded with a bonus, where an exploited shop clerk eats a piece of bread and get fired over it, where kids die of cancer and old dictators drink brandy in big villas, the strict system of rules and the ancient fairness principle of an eye for an eye is appealing. If you are willing to hand over one of our greatest powers: the freedom of thought.

I hope it has become clear that the feeling of community offered by this and similar groups comes with a price, namely at times pressing the Off Button of your brain, of independent thinking, in order to fulfil your duties to the group. This part is what has always been a hinderance for me when it comes to joining any group.

On the other hand, one could argue that this is what we do all the time in the current system anyway. Looking away, accepting certain bads for what feels like the overall good. The hypocrisy is unbearable, when you think about it. We might buy fair trade coffee, we might attend demonstrations. We might feel guilty after shopping at H&M. We all know the injustices we are part of. But we look away, for the most part. And we shrug our shoulders. So why not do the same, but at least in a setting that gives us so much more in return? Freedom. Fairness. Loyalty. I don’t have an answer to that. All I know is that I have had my time, during university, of being affiliated with different left-wing groups, especially during the big university strike 2003/2004. I have attended discussions, sit-ins and demonstrations. But as much as I wanted to join the cheering crowd fully, something always held me back, some statements, opinions or actions always made me raise an eyebrow. And this one percent, mostly, ruined the other 99 %. Because I am not prepared to make that kind of deal, even if the outcome is this fulfilling, immensely satisfying feeling of belonging, or a common cause. I had the same experience in Israel, when I felt real envy for the young people I met right before they went to fulfil their military service. I know this statement will not make me very popular, neither will this whole article, but that is exactly why I wanted to write about it. The moral grey area I have felt myself enter at times in my life, and recently more than ever. That people can feel this belief in something, this undoubting support of an idea, a country, an institution, is strange to me, and I am aware that it is not a good thing in itself. But the jealousy stung, still. Seeing that life can be so easy.

Besides the alleged fairness and simpleness we encounter in the context of the Hell’s Angels and SoA, the outlaw myth is of course mainly about freedom. Breaking out of the shackles of a society you did not select to be a part of and living life by your own rules. How can that not be an appeal? Especially in a world where we are raised with the exciting and terrifying awareness that we can do anything, go anywhere, achieve unthinkable things – at least in theory. For me, the appeal of the outlaw lifestyle is very much connected to this feeling of shock, of deepest horror, when I wake up in the middle of the night with a gasp, and the dark around me presses against my temples and onto my ribcage, and the thought hammers against my temples from within my skull: You are going to die. A lifeless body, the hands I see now working the keyboard – still. My arms, my fingers, the scars I know, the lip I bite, the eyes I rub – all turned anonymous and cold. Like they have never done or meant anything. Like I was never here, thinking these thoughts. As I lie there, I think of all the things I do every day that I hate, all the shit I take, and all the places I might never see. All the things I might never do. Riding horses in Iceland, sitting on the fire escape outside my Manhattan apartment with a cup of coffee, writing a book, seeing Jamaica, seeing Canada. The list is endless. But life is not. What if there is no do-over?

I know what you are going to say now: this is true for everyone. And you are right. I am convinced, though, that not all people are equally afraid of death, or equally aware of it. In theory yes, but in everyday life, no. I see people building their lives like there is no deadline (pun intended), and am often fascinated and jealous. They grow up, take a job they mediumlike, get married, build a house, have kids, etc. I wonder if they ever wake up in the middle of the night thinking about all the things they will probably never do. The only conclusion to draw from this is that all of these people have no dreams besides those they already live (a family, for instance, or wealth and security). And I refuse to believe that. That said, the only answer I have been able to come with up to now is that their tranquility is part of a bigger deal that we all assume we have with life. Because they live their life in the expectation of the ‘later’. The afterwards (not afterlife, mind you. That’s a totally different story). When all they have invested is going to be paid back, and with profit. When you can finally do all the things you want to do, because you have paid your dues. The problem starts when the normal life we were promised, if not out loud then implied, is taken away from us. When we are forced to question the reliability of the ‘later’.

On Couchsurfing I met an incredibly inspired young man from Canada who has seen his father and way too young friend die. He summarizes his basic philosophy as follows: ‘Although we hope and presume the sun will always rise tomorrow…it may not. LIVE your life, LOVE your life and above all, be INSPIRED to reach an undefined, unprecedented level of greatness!!!’ I find it easy to connect with people like him. I have met many kindred spirits in this regard here in Lisbon. Not so much in Berlin. Or my hometown. I feel like an alien often, because the things that dominate my everyday thoughts are not a part of their world. Like on Harry Potter, where the black horselike Thestrals can only be seen by those who have seen death. I can see them, and I cannot make up my mind if this sight, this insight is an enrichment or a horrible burden.

For the past year I have been the only participant in a social experiment aimed at finding out exactly what happens if the above mentioned deal with life is broken. The basic assumption is that the rhythm of our life is defined by the idea that we do something and get something back in return. That is the essence of the deal. We accept that we have to rise early (in fact, the alarm clock itself stands for everything the deal is about) and hand over most of our time to educational institutions when we are young. We do it because we believe that it will pay off. If we obey, we will receive an education allowing us to take up a profession allowing us to put money in the bank allowing us to buy a car build a house and send our kids to the very same educational institutions so they can have the same. Also, the deal says that we should pay money into pension funds so we can have a beautiful life when we are old – which we will have because we pay a lot of money for health insurance, and it is implied that we will remain more or less healthy long enough to enjoy the fruits of our labour later on. Of course we also need to treat our bodies more or less well, eat fruits and vegetables, don’t take drugs etc. I have never questioned the deal. Why should I have? Life was treating me well. I was a good girl and did everything that was asked of me. And in return I got more or less what I had hoped for. But then the contract was broken, and I found myself standing in a brightly lit hospital bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror, standing there with an invisible, torn-apart piece of paper clutched in my fist, and no words. Wanting so desperately to sue someone but did not know whom. There is a reason why people should only get sick at old age: because sickness can undermine the system. Call it anger, call it realism. Once you reach a different perspective, many things do not seem obligatory anymore. Because you paid into the fund and don’t get the promised amount back, so you get pissed off. And rightly so. It is a burden, but it is also a ticket for the ‘Joyride of Notcaring’. If you have the balls.

I don’t have the balls, but I would love to. That is why I feel drawn towards people who do. I am the kind of person who says ‘Sorry!’ when others bump into her. The one who pretends she was not even waiting when she is not being served, just so not to make the inattentive staff feel bad. I say ‘No problem’ when I want to say ‘Are you kidding me?’ Of course I know politeness is good, you should be friendly, what goes around comes around, etc. etc. etc. But right now I am in the anger phase, and I do not give a shit. I want to be different. I want to be a person who does not take any crap from anyone. Who says “fuck off”. Who is only fair when treated fairly. Who shows compassion when being shown compassion. I want to be someone who does not get bothered by others. Who is shown respect. I do little things, which I am also proud of. Like going to Lisbon, writing, etc. But what is it that keeps me from robbing a bank and going to Iceland to ride the ponies? Morality? Bad conscience? Fear of not getting away with it? Probably all of these.

Recently I have been playing with the idea of purchasing a gun. Which is the ultimate moral shoulder shrug. It is also only semi-serious, but at least I want to go to a shooting range and fire one. It took me a long time and quite the amount of anger to openly admit these thoughts. Nobody said: ‘Yeah, you should do it’. After some explanations most people did understand where I was coming from, but they all suggested alternative ways of achieving the desired effect. Self-defense, boxing, hitting a pillow with a stick. But it is not only about the release of tension or aggression for me. It is about feeling powerless. The feeling, the illusion of power over a situation, over anything, really, is comforting. Not to have to accept others bothering you, restricting you, scaring you, taking from you. I imagine it feeling like a breath of fresh cool air would to a drowning woman. But at the same time I know the air would not really be fresh, it would be stale and poisonous and it would burn my lungs. Power at the expense of others would not give me the peace of mind I so desperately seek. But I sense that the anger does not disappear. I think if not dealt with right, it can stay forever, burning deep scars into the skin with which you encounter others. I know two men whose childhood was characterized by family violence. They grew up always having to ‘take it’. Now both of them are constantly involved in some lawsuit or other, using up their resources both of energy and money, in a futile attempt at seeing justice served. As one of them told me: ‘After what happened to me I am just not gonna take any crap anymore. Never again!’

This issue is the main theme of the popular TV show ‘Breaking Bad’. I do not follow the show, but from what I hear the bottom line is that a law-abiding family man and chemistry teacher turns criminal when faced with impending death as well as impending debt. In order to provide for this family and cover his medical bills, he joins a former student in producing and distributing crystal meth. The concept is also part, in a more harmless way, of a show I love very much, called ‘The Big C’. The protagonist is Cathy Jamison, a high school teacher, wife, and mum, who is conservative, boring and a bit of a control freak. When she finds out she has cancer and maybe one more year to live, she goes crazy in her own little ways: by saying no, by only ordering desserts and liquor in restaurants, by doing cartwheels and smoking in deserted school corridors, by kidnapping her son from a school bus with a paintball gun because she wants to spend more time with him. These examples are fictional, I know. But they only imitate the actions of real people who made similar decisions. Take the HAMC, take Che Guevara. Take political groups like the Danish Blekingegadebanden I have been reading about lately, or the German RAF. Not all good people, that is not my point. But all people who made a choice most people do not make. To live their lives differently. To obey a different law, a different moral code, than the one given to them before birth.

I am not a Hell’s Angel, because I cannot turn off my brain (among other reasons). I am more like Cathy Jamison. The knowledge or rather nonknowledge of my shadowy future makes me make small changes in my life and personality, helps me put certain things a bit lower in my stack of worries and priorities. Career, financial security. Being liked by everyone all the time. It makes me agree to ride on the back of motorcycles without thinking of accident statistics. It made me dance down the streets of Baixa some nights ago to Elton John’s ‘I am still standing‘, and ignoring the people laughing and pointing. Because I knew that fucking moment would not come back.

But to the ubiquitous presence of death and what it means for my life choices I have found no reply. All I can say is that I believe it is good to make yourself aware of the things outlined above – the option of the ultimate shoulder shrug, of a different kind of spending your limited years – once in a while. Either to make yourself appreciate even more the regulated, secure system you are part of, or, if you are so inclined, to have an alternative that makes you bear your current state better. The illusion of an ‘Out’, even if you know, as I do, that you will never have the courage to go through with it.

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Lisbon again

Back in Lisbon for one day, more or less, and already had a lot of revelations. What is it about this place?

I landed at noon, which means I left Berlin at 8 am, which means…well. I was quite crabby, which was not helped by the fact that I am currently in the anger phase of this whole MS thing. Well, counting some weeks in November/December of last year, it is actually anger 2.0. The real anger. Anger – the return. Fortunately, I was picked up by my awesome friend Grant, who likes me, is patient, and is actually one of the few people around whom I am completely at ease with being myself.

So, first thing I learnt after sleeping in his bed almost the entire afternoon:

I need these weeks here to rest. I do not want to make the same mistakes as during my last trip, where I met with so many people, and always felt I came short of their expecatations, was missing something, etc. Whatever I did, I always felt I should be doing more, or something else. It was stressful. And hot. When I returned to Berlin I was exhausted. This time I return to a week of christmas celebration in my parents’ house, so I will need all the strength I can get. Entao, resting! Taking it slow.

The other thing I immediately realised was how Lisbon makes me calm. The first hour or so, walking through Alfama, I felt threatened, actually. I glowed the tourist glow, and people noticed. It was grey, shady, wet, scary. But it went away quickly, and when I went out for a tosta de queijo and a cha preto around 5 I felt at home. Even more so when I realised I could more or less follow the afternoon TV programme A tarde é sua. Nice.

The third thing is my own little project calls XX hostels in 3 weeks. At first it was five hostels, but let’s see. It depends a bit on the prize, my mood/health and willingness to drag my giant 18 kilo suitcase up and down the alleys and stairways that are Lisboa. I just checked into the first one (the project basically is checking out hostels that I do not know yet and staying there for some days). Already, I realise one flaw of the plan, namely: there are no other people. I will wait some days but if all the hostels are that empty, I prefer going back to Grant’s and my all time favourite hostels Rossio and Travellers House, where I know the people. For now, I am waiting. And writing.

Ah yes, the writing thing. I need to make a decision about my freelancing future, namely whether I should continue it, give it up or – my favourite option – combine it with a part time job that will offer me human contact, a structure and new challenges. I miss that. I miss to have a bit of stress… Another option would be a hostel job in Berlin. I had an interview some days ago and need to figure out whether to confirm or not. I need to find out how to become a Redakteurin. No clue, but right now I think that it is probably what I should be doing. Makes sense. Or translating novels. Whenever I read one, I find so many mistakes it makes me angry. If anyone has any insights on these things, please let me know.

So far for now, more soon.

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Finding a country

Today, after a bad night, I decided to take a day just for myself, be alone, and do things that are good for me. I started with sleeping, and then having some tea. Not gulping down coffee, but enjoying every sip of a hand-brewed, hot, aromatic tea. Then I ate some fruit and watched the film “Eat Pray Love”. I saw it once before, in Berlin, and didn’t like it. Watching it felt like someone took my own experiences and covered them with sticky American syrup. The lighting is too perfect, the images of the Italian experience too cliché, and the entire film reeks of a director who has never actually done what he narrates: leaving one’s life, leaving everything that is familiar and reassuring to go to another country and just start from scratch. As I re-watched it now these things were still true but I managed to ignore them, because the narration still touched me. Might be because it is mine, minus the divorce and the giant prepayment of a publishing house that paid for the author’s self-finding journey. Might be because in the meantime I have done some more research on the author, read and watched some interviews and gained the feeling that she, at least, knows what she is talking about. That she knows what I know. That she “got it”.

Right now the most dominant details of my life are the following: I cannot feel my face and legs/feet (I think I am having an episode, and while I am typing this I wonder for how much longer I will manage to type), and I started reading the original novel, “Eat Pray Love” in Portuguese.

After I saw the film I decided to leave my beautiful house to go to a place called Casa do Alentejo to have a perfectly simple dinner. This place, Casa do Alentejo, is one of my all time favourites. It is located in a street full of tourist restaurants, where the waiters do all but tackle you onto the beautiful Portuguese pavement to force you to eat in their establishment. And even though the house advertises its existence with a bright blue neon sign, it remains a quiet island in the middle of tourism hell. I was told the place was used by the rich aristocracy of Portugal as what we would nowadays call a “club”. I can see their carriages arrive, and the well-clad ladies and gentlemen enter the house on the steep stairs, entering the breathtaking lobby and then, after having climbed another set of stairs, finally gathering in two ballrooms, which are still used today as a restaurant. You cannot imagine the beauty of these rooms. The ceiling, not renovated, is partly coming down, but the murals and paintings, the adornments and stucco are still visible. The hardwood floor has not only be treated upon by generations of gentry but still is, by working folks and students, enjoying the soup of the day in the bar or the beer for 50 cents. Parties are held here, old people gather to dance on week nights.

This place, in Germany, would probably be a museum with red cords keeping you from entering. Here, people claim the space, and use it to… live! I love it. Since I left here in January, Casa do Alentejo has changed. The “common people” bar serving wine for 50 cents (yes!!!) has been moved out of the beautiful ballroom and to the ground floor. OK, there it has a nice outside terrace but nevertheless, I don’t like this. But still, you can go there, as I did today, order some wine, fresh bread, butter, salad, cheese and olives and not pay more than 7 €. Simple dinner, as I wrote before, but lovely. And I sat there reading a book about exactly what I am doing, in the language of the country that I chose, in the midst of Portuguese people. What more can you ask?

I got sidetracked. What did I want to say? Oh, yes, right. Everyday, when I wake up, in this beautiful city, and especially here in my new picturesque apartment in Bairro Alto, I feel the pressure of having to take it in, enjoy it, savour every second, be grateful. I mean, I still remember the first nights here, years ago, on hostel pub crawls with my friend Anna from Sweden. I would roam these streets, sangria in hand, thinking: There are actually people living here. How amazing is this! How great must their lives be! Then I went to back to Berlin. Now I am these people. But of course it is not possible to always see this big picture, because my problems have managed to find me, and even in Lisboa everyday life is just that – everyday life. So I sometimes I find myself walking among these unbelievably pretty buildings with a frown. Cursing my heavy shopping bags. Cursing the heat. Talking to myself under my breath about how pissed off I am at my Brazilian roommate and his “I don’t care” attitude that makes me take care of everything while still being the stuck up German somehow. Today was different. After having finished my tea, fruit, and film, I went outside to the viewpoint, and from there down a steep road to downtown Lisboa, and I took in everything. I took the step back (my secret for fighting fear, depression and doubt) and actually visualised what was happening: you-are-in-Lisbon. You-live-in-Portugal. This-was-not-the-plan. You-are-not-supposed-to-be-here. But-you-are. It-is-like-a-miracle. It-is-a-gift. You-stumbled-across-a-country. You-FOUND-a-country.

There is no reason for me being here. No economic reasons, for sure. No career reasons. I have no friends who have been here. There is nothing in my family to have pointed me in this direction. Of course I always wanted to live abroad. But I thought: London, or New York. Because English seems to be my language. Which, now that I come to think about it, happened in the same way as the Portugal thing happened. Without any logic or indicators.

The film says: “Ruin is a gift. It is the road to transformation.” Am I crazy embracing this while I sit here worrying about taking the steps to go to the bathroom? Probably. But what is the alternative? Like I told my friend when she came here to check on how I was coping with my diagnosis last year: “Es hilft ja nix.”/“It cannot be helped – so why fight it?” Not that I do not have my moments of screaming, hitting the mattress with my fists and crying like there is no tomorrow. I do. But what am I supposed to do? The only thing left to do is trying to make the best of it. I bought the book “You can heal your life”, and I think it is actually helping me. The main message is that we should a) do what we want, b) do not apologise for it, and c) do not treat ourselves worse than we would the person we love the most. Which we all do, every second of every day. So, now I try to follow the instructions. Never criticise yourself. Love and approve of yourself. Do not scold yourself. I think I have told myself I am weak, pathetic, ugly and stupid 100 times per day so far. Let’s see what happens if I stop…

I try to appreciate the little things. Or the big things, as they feel sometimes. Today I was sitting on my bed, early, and suddenly loud music filled my little street. “Somewhere over the Rainbow”. It was like in a movie. I stepped onto my balcony, looked at the street and took in the beautiful song. My neighbour across the street also came to the window, holding his cat. We greeted each other. I started singing along. An old lady strolled down the street. I greeted her. My other neighbour entered his balcony and fed his canary bird. He, too, stopped what he was doing, closed his eyes and listened.

I smiled deeply into myself and went back to my movie. Knowing that whatever will happen, I have had this moment. A film moment. A goosebumps moment. And I did nothing to construct it, it just came to me exactly at the right moment. A bit later, maybe 20 minutes, I again felt the urge to enter the balcony, having just meditated and decided not to let my life be governed by my disease and my fear of the future. As I looked to the left a procession of people in automatic wheelchairs went down the road. I did not appreciate this and hope it was not a sign for my future… But I also did not allow it to bring me down. But went back to finish my mental sit-ups for training my positive thinking muscles and mumbling my “You can heal your life” mantras: “I approve of myself. I am safe. All is well in my world.”

In the book/film “Eat Pray Love” the protagonist learns Italian and then ultimately moves to Italy for no good reason. Just like me. She had a gut feeling, and she followed it. I can share her amazement, as described in the book I am currently half-understanding, when she walks the streets of Roma, encounters people, eats the food, and starts speaking in the language. It comes down to the game of “If someone had told me that…”. I go first. If someone had told me that I would once give instructions in Portuguese to tourists in Lisbon — if someone had told me that I would have an argument in Portuguese with a Brazilian roommate who I love, share my deepest feelings and fears with, but who drives me insane, if someone had told me that I would one day live in Bairro Alto… you can guess the answer. I would have laughed, with a snort, and waved it aside. Don’t think so.

Coming to an end, my immediate emotionally loaded response to the film, the book, and my day, was that it is a very special thing to leave your country. To just go to another place and build a life. From supermarket routines to taking on new coffee habits to learning the language. I am tempted to arrogantly declare that this is something everyone should be forced to do in their life. But then I know so many people for whom I know this would not be true. They would not take what I take from it. So what I have arrived at is that probably people can be divided into two groups: The Searchers, and the Non-Searchers. I am a searcher. So is the woman of this trashy book. Many others are not. I have a friend who left our hometown to study, and instead of embracing this stage of her life just accepted it as a necessity. Peer pressure (I had a part in that) made her go to France for Erasmus. She left after maybe two weeks. Now she has moved back to our hometown. What for me would be a nightmare, the ultimate defeat, for her is her own little Lisboa. It is the place she loves, where she finds the experiences and people she loves. Who am I to judge that?

Maybe it is better to be searcher, maybe it is worse. Whatever, no one will ever know because you cannot be both. If you are a searcher, you do not know why. You do not know what you are missing, and if you will ever actually FIND the answer and be done with it. Is it a stage, a process, or an eternal state of mind? I don’t know. I am terrified sometimes. Will I ever be able to settle down and be happy? Will I ever manage to maintain a relationship? Will I be eternally wandering, looking for something I cannot find? Will I ever have a child? I cannot know the answer, obviously, but I when I get terrified I think about moments like the one from today: the moment I jumped off a bridge, little moments like smoking a cigarette after a kitchen night shift, covered in grease, having a conversation in Portuguese, or, today’s gem: standing on my balcony in Bairro Alto, watching the most cliché picturesque street you can imagine, and hearing “Somewhere over the Rainbow.”

(and by the way, this is where I sat 20 min. ago writing this).

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Random thoughts about Portuguese snack bars and old people

Today I went out for a nice Sunday lunch. I really like going out for lunch because, while I love restaurants, I sometimes feel a bit odd eating dinner alone. I do it a lot, for lack of friends who love eating out as much as I do. But sometimes I feel like people are looking at me, judging me or, the worst, pitying me. But for lunch, it is totally acceptable to be alone. In Germany I rarely get to go to restaurants because I cannot afford it. Here it is different, for two reasons. The first, obviously, is that prices are lower. But what really makes the difference for me here is that you do not have to go to an actual fancy restaurant to eat out. There are these pastelarias or snack bars everywhere, which serve hot meals as well as sandwiches and are frequented by many locals for lunch. In the morning and afternoon they serve sweet cakes, sandwiches, toasts and coffee. People here also seem to really like their freshly made juices and yoghurt drinks. And of course there is always a tap of local beer, either Superbock or Sagres. Both beer and coffee are often consumed at the counter, by regulars such as business people on their lunch break or people from the neighbourhood. They sip their drinks while browsing through the newspaper and/or chatting with the staff. These snack bars seem to be run exclusively by older men. I have never seen a young person or woman behind the counter of any of them. The staff is either really grumpy or really chatty, laughing, making jokes with the guests or each other, throwing oranges etc.

For an outsider like me what strikes me most is the contrast because the quite cold and sober interior of these places and their warm neighbourhood atmosphere. They usually feature checkered tile floors, shaky steel tables with disposable paper covers, plastic chairs, and napkin disposers in the form of pineapples The menu is displayed on the wall. And the light, the light is extremely bright neon light. Not even trying to create a cosy atmosphere. Very matter-of-fact: “This is not a jazz bar, this is a place to eat, so what do you want? Sit at the table and eat. And then leave.” Now that I am describing it I realise these snack bars are most probably the Portuguese equivalent of the American diner.

So, today I wanted to go to my favourite snack bar, which serves the best sandwiches in town, made from this rustic brown bread with any topping you could want, including suckling pig, weird smelly cheeses and, for me, tuna.

Also, the place – as many places here – has a tap for green wine. I mean, seriously? That is the dream !!! I would love to have a tap of wine in my house. Next to the sink in the kitchen, maybe. Go get a glass of water and then … oh, yes, might as well also tap me a glass of vinho verde. Brilliant idea! I think in a perfect world all wine should come out of taps. Red wine, a nice cold Rosé. I am getting carried away…

In any case, another noteworthy thing about my favourite snack bar is that it is closed on Sunday. I know this, because I have stood in front of its closed doors many a Sunday. And I always forget it again. Most Sundays I wake up without any food in the house and this Sunday feeling that you should really leave the house and do something. So, the compromise between eating rice with ketchup and going sightseeing in Belem is always – going out for a nice lunch. And then I always end up forgetting the place is closed. These kind of things really make me think sometimes that I might actually be stupid. I mean, sure, I managed to graduate from university etc, but come on, really? Five times? I might be average booksmart, but I am definitely not what they call streetsmart. Today I at least already remembered on the way that the place would be closed and so I entered the next open pastelaria I passed by. It was, of course, brightly lit, and it was almost empty. In the back area there were some tables filled with elderly people having lunch. Regulars, I assume. They were really old, like at least 75 or 80, sitting there with their bottle of wine, laughing, talking loudly, interrupting each other.

I immediately decided that I loved the place and would from now on make it my regular Sunday lunch place. I ordered a plate of fish, salad and rice which came with a glass of wine and a coffee for altogether 4,40 € (… I know…). The food was really good. I made it a point not to read or text on my phone or do anything except enjoying the meal and the atmosphere. Hearing Portuguese all around, listening to the staff bickering, watching the people pass by on the street through the huge glass windows (again, picture a diner), really tasting the food. The food here is often simple but the individual ingredients are fresh and tasty and, combined, form an excellent meal. A piece of fish, with some lemon juice, combined on the fork with some carrot, some tomato, a piece of raw onion, sprinkled with olive oil. A sip of ice cold white wine which was poured from the bottle by the elderly waiter (probably owner, actually) directly at the table, up to the very rim of the glass.

At the next table sat an old man, eating lunch by himself, like me. He had the same food, and a glass of rosé wine. He was looking at me. I looked back, he looked away. It was like a bizarre flirting ritual, seeing as he was probably ninety years old. Finally he made the first move and asked me where I was from. We talked a bit. The other group of old people behind me started discussing what to order for dessert. An old couple from the corner got up and slowly walked up front to the cash register, holding each other up. Obviously, my thoughts wandered to the topic of old people. Being old, growing old, age. We tend to glorify age, for the simple reason that we are all afraid of dying. But there actually is not that much to look forward to, when you think about it. Your body disappoints you, everything is a hassle, death is still an issue, and a pressing one at that. But we all want it. Sometimes I think if only someone, anyone, gave me a piece of paper guaranteeing me “You will reach 80 years of age. You will be more or less ok” I would be happy forever. I would not have all my current worries, fears, pressures, stupid ideas and wrong moves, back pains, wrinkles, self-destructive habits and neuroses. Maybe I would not have my disease. But no one will give me this piece of paper, so I will just have to start fooling myself. Jesus, why do I always have to do everything myself?

Since I know that I am sick I look at old people differently. Before it was more of a pity feeling mostly, not pity but thinking: I am glad I do not yet know what it feels like, having to walk that slowly, being so helpless. But now I find myself in tears, often, because I know it is not very probable that I will ever be them. I am talking about the old people I see here, on the streets, the kind of old people who do not seem to exist in Berlin. Really old men and women walking around, doing the shopping, living still in their old houses in Alfama, greeting the neighbours on the street, gossiping, bitching at passers-by sometimes, visiting their local snack bar. Sometimes the women even wear high heels. There is no reason, medically, why I could not reach their age (the only known common form of “death by MS” is suicide, which is apparently utilised by many people with this disease, sooner or later), but for sure I will not walk down stairs and steep little streets in my high heels. I will not be that fit and independent. Unless medicine makes some major progresses – which could happen.

A little excursion: Did you ever notice how we automatically think about old people as nice? We see old men and women and we think: “Oooh, how nice.” But the thing is: of course they are not all nice. If they were assholes and bitches when they were young, they probably still are now. Only in old. On Monday I went to Alfama to do some writing here at the cafe. I thought the festivities would finally be over and I could start my working routine. But Alfama was again full of people, old people. There was going to be the procession, as I learned later. I had my headphones on, listening to music. I was tired. As I squeezed my way through the crowd, this massive old woman grabbed my arm and started pinning some sort of sticker onto me. I think it had a picture of a saint on it. She started talking to me frantically and wanted to put this paper into my hand. I gestured: No thanks, but she did not care. I started talking back, saying – nicely – no thanks, I do not want this. She ignored me. So finally I had enough and just started to walk away. She literally lunged at me, screaming, gesturing, ripping the sticker off my shirt, cursing. I got angry too and yelled back at her: “I don’t know what you want from me.” (in Portuguese). Finally I managed to disentangle myself from her firm grip and walked on, furious. What a bitch, I thought. So there you go.

Anyway, seeing these old people here makes me think of this TV show I love, “The Big C”. I really adore this show. It is about a woman in her forties with a husband, a child and a job who finds out she has cancer and will die soon. When her husband, who has no idea, throws her a surprise birthday party she meets her aunt, who has undergone like 30 plastic surgeries in order not to look her age. When saying goodbye the protagonist pulls her aunt to the side and tells her: “It is a privilege to grow old!” Which is exactly how I feel right now.

But I am again troubling myself with the future. I want to stop doing that. No one knows what will happen, and the cramp in my back which starts tightening and hurting whenever I think too much has gotten so much worse in the last weeks that I have decided to change my personality. Why didn’t I think of this before?? I want to start doing mediation and just generally become a chilled, positive person. It’s ok if you are laughing right now, I am too. But seriously. One step at a time. I found this great Portuguese teacher here who is also into alternative medicine, meditation and so on and our sessions wind up being part Portuguese class part therapy. Or talking about these kinds of things, at least. Yesterday I did my first meditation and it felt good. I am always so stressed. I realize I am hardly ever just in a situation. Like when I am at a cafe, talking with a friend, I am only partly there in the moment. The other part is already thinking in high-speed: Ok after this I go there and then I will do that and what is it going to be like, maybe it will be like this, and what do I do then??? So what I try to do now is just tell myself: You are ok. You are ok. You are ok. And try to just be there in the moment. Completely. Wish me luck!

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The Berlin rant

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It is true. I have taken many journeys, and fully aware because the night before each trip I just do not sleep – whether it is going to New York to change my entire life (and you can subsitute New York with Warsaw or Lisboa) or a bimonthly business trip to Brussels. Anyway, the saying is true also for the journey home. It begins with a step, and then the journey takes over and there is not much anymore you can do. Unless you live in a Hollywood movie, where people make it a habit to stop cabs, pull the emergency brakes on trains or unboard planes. All romantic gestures, all not part of our everyday life. In my case, it was waking up totally swollen from crying with vague memories of the previous night, dragging myself to the Rossio airport shuttle station and then sitting on the bus trying not to vomit. Lisboa flashed by the windows while I was thinking: I wish I had licorice.

But anyway, the point is, I did take the step. I did leave. Following sensibility, and going against the pain in my guts. I came back to Berlin and tried to enter the acceptance stage without going though the previous ones. It did not go so well.

But I tried. I really did. I did everything that you could expect. I unpacked my bags, went to the doctors, went to the unemployment office, went to every other office and institution you can possibly imagine, and filled out numberless forms. And then I waited. For something to happen. I was curious to see if some of that glittery fairy dust that had landed on me the minute my feet touched Lisbon ground had found its way into my luggage, or was still residing in my hair, and would now work its magic also in this city. In the beginning I was positive, drinking my espresso and eating my bread with olive oil. I also started a Portuguese class, which was a bit bizarre because during the first two sessions I found myself constantly with tears in my eyes because my teacher speaking Portuguese touched my heart and made me miss so many beloved people. The effect of hearing the language is so much stronger than for instance looking at pictures – I had no idea!

But soon the fairy dust got lost. I don’t know if it was too many showers, or the city dust killing those sparkling grains of sands. I was complety broke and stopped drinking galoes (milk is a luxury good) but instead went back to knocking back a couple of mugs of the acid black German coffee every morning. I started to go to the gym again and stopped eating bread. It took exactly one month and 15 days until I first screamed after a missed bus again. Two and a half months until I cried in a public building. Berlin had me back!

Of course it is not Berlin’s fault. This city offers opportunities for everyone, no matter what your goals and interests are. I cannot blame Berlin. I think what was always my problem here was the feeling of powerlessness, of being forced into doing something that I didn’t want to do. Living a life I didn’t want. Well, what a load of crap – as I would learn later. Doing what you want is quite easy if you are as privileged as we all are. It is not that big a deal. In my case booking a flight to Portugal, refusing to take a job and applying for government money. Who knows what could have happened if I had found that courage like five to eight years earlier? The answer is: noone, so I should fucking stop whining about it.

Anyway, I came back to Berlin in anticipating that things would get worse, and they did. But to be fair, they would have gone bad no matter how much optimism I might have generated. Berlin is not the right place for me, and not many good things have happened to me here. Actually, some have, but it seems like the frequency of things happening to me here is very very low. I feel like walking under water when in Berlin. Things pass by slowly, and without touching me. I wade through the air, day in and day out, to the bus station, to the university, to the supermarket. People pass me by, sitting next to me on the subway for ten years now. I do not particularly care about them. I do not look around. I read my book, wear my giant headphones. Things happen but they do not affect me and I do not affect them. When a man does catch my attention and we make eye contact, he leaves the subway at the next stop and I will never see him again. I am the person staring at people’s babies on the bus, standing between giant supermarket shelves staring at couples shopping together. I watch their lives like I watch movies. I feel really alone here most of the time. Sometimes, on the subway I feel so isolated from people that I wonder if I am invisible.

The reason why this post is called “The Berlin rant” is because since my return many things have actually happened to me but none of them were good. Just to give you a feeling of my miserable time these last months here (I am overdramatising for effect) and the neverending list of unfortunate incidents that is my life (again), let me give you a short recap of the most shiny jewels the last months had to offer. We will start with the most obvious, a little thing called MS, that in an inexplicable act of the Gods, whose humour I have yet to understand, was handed to me. As with most things that happen to me, the only explanation I can find for this is a scenario I like to call “the Fate Council”. (Before you continue, please note the following: before you decide I should be institutionalised for being suicidal please read until the end of the text.) OK, what is the “Fate Council”? This is a council of people deciding my fate. In my mind they are male and old, kind of like most parliaments and global councils. They sit at a round table and debate what problems they could throw my way. Usually their job is not too hard, but sometimes they show a level of creativity that I cannot help but respect. Let’s start with the more obvious obstacles they have come up with lately:

Exhibit A: The side effects
I am taking Interferons, which means I have to give myself a shot three times a week. Which I think is bad enough as it is, but what is really aweful is when you have to ram a needle into your own body knowing that this act will make you feel like you want to die during the next five minutes. When I started, it seemed like I was one of the lucky few who actually did not experience any of the really bad side effects. Just some tiredness, a bit of a headache. Obviously, this made me suspicious. But I did not need to wonder for long. Soon the heavy stuff started: muscle pains, bone pains (I never thought these existed, but believe me, they do), fever, uncontrollable shaking. The only solution: go to bed, squeeze your eyes shut and pray you fall asleep soon. I found myself quite brave in the way I endured all of this, especially when – being single – I had to do it all alone. Of course, I have roomates and them and my friends have been nothing but supportive with the whole thing, but let’s face it: in the end, with stuff like this, you are alone. Unless you have a loving person sharing the bed with you. Anyway, the Council agreed they had not gone far enough and read the package insert of my drug a bit more closely. And they found what they were looking for: a rather rare side effect named insomnia. So, for the past weeks not only have I been alone in my bed with all of these flu symptoms that make you wish for the mercy of sleep – but now I could not sleep. Literally. Whenever I use the drug, I fall asleep at seven, sometimes at six am, if I am lucky. Case closed.

Exhibit B: The bank card
As some of you might recall, my wallet was stolen during my first week in Lisboa last June. I reported the loss of my bank card and after a loooong while they actually sent a new card to my friend Raquel. Now, almost a year later, my new card stopped functioning in the cash machines here in Berlin. I went to the counter to talk to a nice lady and she said she would order me a new card. It should not take longer than one week. So I waited. After two weeks of having to either beg friends for cash or having to be humiliated by 23-year-old bank tellers raising their eyebrows, calling me Miss and questioning whether I should really take out 20 € as my account was already far in the minus zone, I asked what the fuck was taking so long. They checked and informed me the card had already been sent out: to Lisboa. My reasoning that I had been actually standing in Berlin asking for a new card did not impress the bank. I would have to wait another week. But they at least deleted the Lisbon address from their system. I waited. Again. After another two weeks I went and asked again. The card had been sent out. Thank God! Whereto? I dared to ask. The bank employee (the same one who had repeatedly looked down on me for my bad financial situation and my general life style) blushed to a deep deep shade of red. What can I say? My friend Raquel now has two bank cards and I still have no money to buy food.

Exhibit C: The bus ride

I have been living in Berlin for ten years now. I have always been a law-abiding citizen who is so uptight that she won’t even ride the bike when under the influence and I never ever ever ever have taken the subway or bus without a ticket. For five years now I have been living near the bus line M41, and I can tell you, in five years (and during the sporadic bus rides I took before) I have never NEVER been controlled. Because they usually don’t do this on buses. The driver checks your ticket when you pass him by, and that is it. Three weeks ago I was finally ready to hand in my application papers for the freelancer government fund I now receive. I didn’t have a ticket, as I had no cash (see exhibit b). The office is four stops away from my house and my bike was broken. So I decided to borrow my roommate’s student ticket, which only said her name and birthday but had no photo. After all, we both agreed, noone ever gets controlled on the bus. You can already see where this is going??? Well, I could not. After not even one whole stop I was controlled. As I could not produce a valid ID I was asked to leave the bus and sign a sheet confirming that I was indeed my roommate. While I had memorised all her dates, it had not occurred to me to look at her signature. Which was exactly what the scary controller guy did while handing me the pen. It was bad. I did not hand in the application that day but went home shaken by uncontrollable laughter brought on by the fact that I had just commited document fraud and, more importantly, that someone out there (up there??) obviously hates me.

As I wrote above, these incidents, while unfortunate, may not be extraordinary enough to convince you of the existence of “the Fate Council”. Which leads us to Exhibit D.

Exhibit D: The false VAT declarations
As mentioned before I have recently become a fulltime freelancer. For this I applied for some government support, which was granted to me last Wednesday (I know, this is a good thing. We will get to that later). I don’t know how it is in your respective countries, but in Germany being and especially becoming a freelancer is a bitch. There is so much to know about taxes, VAT, health insurance, social security, legal issues etc etc etc, it took away my sleep (this was before the side effects). After a long period of suffering, a friend proposed I should take part in a workshop training freelancers-to-be in all these aspects. So I paid money I did not have to be counselled for four days and become a new me, business-wise. It was great but also it was really exhausting. The final day was dedicated to tax issues, particularly VAT. There is a rule that if you are a freelancer you have to declare to the finance office every month the VAT you earned and the one you paid, and the difference is to be paid to the finance office or paid by them to you. There is a form to fill out, and you have to organise all the receipts, etc etc. So far I had never done this which means I probably gave away money to the state but more importantly I didn’t have to deal with this. I have no illusions about this: I am not made for business. Friday was my day off and I was happy that I had finally understood all of these things, and ready to finally hand in all my documents to the finance office on Monday. I was coming – and noone could stop me! Well.

I think the Council was as surprised as I was about how I had nailed all of these obstacles and pitfalls related to becoming a freelancer through this training. What to do?? If they didn’t act fast on Monday I would hand in all the correct papers, and then what??? They would have failed. So a special meeting was scheduled and a long debate held. Many suggestions were made, but in the end they all seemed illogical and too absurd to work. There could only be one conclusion: Screw this, so what if it seems absurd and unlikely. We will just have to create a random, not-to-be-explained problem. It is our only option.

That Friday I received an angry call from the finance office, whom I had never spoken to before, convinced they did not know about my existence, apart from my yearly standard tax declarations. The bottom line of the call, which fortunately had gone to voicemail, was this: what about the VAT declaration I had handed in, where were the receipts and why did I suddenly hand in this declaration at all? Please call back immediately. I sat in a cafe, staring at my phone in awe. What the fuck had just happened? This was destroying my entire plan. And I could not make sense of it. I had not handed in ANYTHING. Before this day I has not even known what a VAT declaration was. I finally called back and tried to explain exactly this to the angry late fourties officer, but she did not care. You did this, you did this, she kept bitching, it is in my system so it must be true. I threatened her with my nonexistent lawyer but she did not care. So I had to write a letter, telling them to ignore all of this. Could someone accidentally be using my tax number? No, impossible. Why? Because it has never happened before. Ah…ok. But what to do now? That is your problem.

I had to postpone the handing in of my documents by a week and try to solve this problem, which turned out to be unsolvable. A month later another angry call: I don’t know what you want from me, Ms Korthues, first you write an angry letter and now you hand in ANOTHER declaration for March??? IT – IS – NOT – ME. In the end only yelling. The Council had done an excellent job. This problem was so absurd that not even Germany’s finance office had any clue how it could have occurred and why it was happening to me, of all people… After two weeks I just gave up. The insomnia had started and I had literally no energy to do anything but lie in bed. That was that. The Council had won.

So these were some of the highlights of my past months. As you might have noticed I left out my personal life. I have my reasons. One week ago suddenly things started to get better. It was like a knot in a thick rope. Once the knot is there, there is no use fighting it, it will only tighten more and more. But once one loop losens the rest can follow. The first loosening loop was my former roommate’s news that in our awesome flat directly at Praca Figueira a room had become available for June. Against all financial responsibility I decided to take it. And felt happiness, no, euphoria. Next, I received a mail from a really embarrassed financial officer stating that indeed someone had used my tax number by accident and the VAT issue had been solved. Apolgies, etc etc. And then, finally, on Wednesday, the letter saying that for the next nine months I am not only financially but also geographically independent.

So why “the Berlin rant”? Truth is, I had planned to write this post before all of this happened and I didn’t want it to be taken away from me. And some things still remain. There is a connection between me being unhappy and Berlin, but it is not Berlin, it is me. So the real acceptance stage is not accepting to return here and create a life, but accepting that Berlin and I are not happy together. So I am breaking up with Berlin. Returning to Lisboa in the summer is just step 1 (we are taking a break). I definetely plan to return there many times from now on – with my new status it is just a flight ticket away. And my 30th birthday is in November. I think this is a day that should be celebrated wherever you are happy. Especially when apart from happiness you do not have anything else to show for. My best friend, when I asked her if she had ever seen me as happy as I was in Portugal, said: “Maybe when you did Erasmus.. but definetely never here.” So in the end I have to thank Berlin. I was not strong enough to accept the end of our relationship, with all its implications. But Berlin was, and it has kicked me hard again and again to show me: Face it, Rebekka, this is not right! So I guess I will move. Hamburg has water, and a Portuguese quarter, so it may be a good interim destination before I manage to live in Lisbon. Or, maybe, I stay here in Berlin but just accept it for what it is: the dressing room, not the stage.

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This is not a wrap up

I am standing on the vast parking lot of your typical Berlin Neukölln Lidl (is there anything uglier than innercity discount markets???). Hands deep in coat pockets, eyes closed, face raised to the sky. Someone touches my shoulder. I open my eyes. It’s a friend.

“You’re back.”

“I am.”

“Wow. Well – why are you standing in the middle of the parking lot with your eyes closed?”

“Because of the sun.”

Looking up –

“Oh yeah, the sun. It’s been a while. But why close your eyes, look how beautiful it is with the blue sky. We have been waiting for this.”

“But I need to save it. Who knows how long it will be…”

A question – it will come as no suprise – I have had on my mind for a while now. But this is not a Lisboa “what did it all mean” major life insights post. I wanted to write one, of course, during my last days in Lisbon, and actually have a draft. But then I didn’t, and now that I am back in the big grey city with its huge houses and wide streets I just cannot. I think I came back with just as many questions as I left with, maybe more.

Before leaving I re-read the beginning of this blog, trying to come to terms with whatever development I have gone through, with whatever progress I have made. One paragraph I immediately stumbled across was the following, written in July 2010:

“Berlin is lurking behind the corner, so to speak. I will have to go back at some point. And by then I hope I have some idea of what to do next, how to reconcile all the conflicting interests and demands that I feel inside. And how to have fun. I think I am on a good track towards learning to have more fun, be more relaxed, accept life and just live it instead of always worrying about how to survive it.”

I tried to evaluate in how far I have actually managed to achieve any of these big goals and could not come to any meaningful conclusions. So that’s that. I know I did manage many of these points during my stay. The big question is: will I be able to keep it up? Can I prove to myself that it is in fact me who has gotten wiser and not just the place that had a good influence on me – good but sadly temporary.

So far I have faced this city, including my friends, with a certain grumpiness. Everyone understands, and some even encourage it because they think it is good for me to let out the anger instead of keeping it all inside. Anger about being back, frustration about being sick, helplessness in the face of the fact that once again I had to act against my instincts (something we grown-ups seem to have to do a lot), that I had to give in to what we Germans call Sachzwänge (i.e. practical constraints).

But here is the thing: if I accept this logic and keep up my current behaviour and attitude doesn’t that mean I accept that Lisbon was in fact a phase, a timeout, maybe even a vacation? If Lisbon is the future, as I have so far been convinced, what is there to be angry about? Berlin offers old friends, low living costs, potential opportunities to fill my bank account. I can finally eat healthy again, I can go back to my gym, wear all my different clothes without having to do laundry once a week because the closet is empty. I can take a Portuguese class. I can take a proper shower. I can make plans. What I am trying to say; whatever happened to the base camp concept? Base camp? Here is what I wrote from the hospital three months ago:

“I want to be happy. As simple as that. When I look out of this window I am happy. So, do the math, Rebekka. But – calma. Espera! I am not naïve. I will go back to Berlin. I will see the doctors. I will maybe even take a job to pay the bills and fill my bank account for my next emigration phase. I call it base camp in my head.”

This city has a bad influence on me. As soon as I am back I suddenly feel – defeated. I feel like giving up, like conceding. And then I just let everything happen to me. But the fact that I am aware of this means that I can do something against it. So what I need to do now is stop whining and take control.

I had an inspiring conversation with one of my Spanish roomates before I left Portugal. We were talking about financial pressures and I explained why mine are one of the major reasons I needed to return to Germany. To illustrate my point I listed all the insurances I need to pay monthly. She was astonished. And so was I, seeing her face. I never realised that my desire for security, for insurance, was not common. I pay health insurance, dental insurance, third party risk, legal protection, household and computer insurances. Her completely different perspective on these matters was only one of the many many things I learned from the Spanish people in Lisbon – in fact I must say I learned more from the Spanish than from the Portuguese.

I learned how to enjoy simple things, like coffee. When I was still working I would literally toss down three mugs of black coffee before leaving the house. It did not taste good, it was not good for my stomach, but I was tired and in a rush. Always. In my house in Lisboa preparing and consuming a coffee was  a ritual, taken very seriously and celebrated at the same time: put the coffee machine on the stove, find a nice glass, heat up some milk, mix it with the coffee at the right temperature and proportion, add sugar, stirr, take a small sip, put down the glass, take it up again, stir, take a sip. The entire process might take almost an hour. For one coffee, not three, mind you. Food, too, was taken really seriously. I never thought I would meet so many really young people, especially boys, who had just moved out of their parents’ houses but still all could cook really well. And not just cook well, really care about the food, care about the ingredients, the preparation, about everyone eating together.

So maybe this is something I can do, for now. Reconsider my insurances. Keep drinking coffee with a lot of hot milk very very slowly. Remember how a slice of toasted bread with some olive oil and salt can be more delicious than an elaborate meal. Be more selfish. Maybe even be a bitch sometimes. Talk loud and laugh even louder. Stay calm in stressful situations and quietly smile about those who do not. Little things that make reality a bit more bearable, or even enjoyable, while I try to figure out the bigger issues.

This reminds me, I was talking with my roommates about possible jobs I could take that would not mean as much stress as working again in a big agency. Soon we were discussing journalistic work, in a television editorial office, for instance. I just shrugged and said: “Nah, I don’t want… ” “Why not? You could do this sort of writing, easily.” “But I am just not interested in this sort of stuff”, I replied and then found myself saying, with as much conviction as I have ever had about any statement about myself: “I am just not interested in the real world.” I think this summs up my personality (and the major problems that come with it) quite well: I have very little interest in reality. From reading the paper, watching documentaries, remembering historical dates – or even having any kind of general knowledge whatsoever – to accepting the reality of my life and my relationships to others – all of this is just not a part of my own reality. And what can I say? I prefer my own world. The one where people actually call. Where I get exactly the response to my actions that I had planned. The one where when I ride a bike I am actually riding a pony. Where the music from my headphones is not just a playlist but actually the soundtrack to my own personal movie, in which good things happen to me, in which I am the leading lady – not the best friend. It is nice there, but I am afraid  hanging around there is holding me back in the real world. It makes it unnecessary to make decisions, as I have to do now for my future career. If these questions become difficult I can just escape into some phanatasy where I win the Oscar for Best Script. It is so much easier to write the “script” for that scene in my head than to actually work on the real script which is saved here on my computer, waiting to be finished.

But time is ticking. I turn 30 this year. Something has to happen. And it has to be me to make it happen. In the actual real world. Maybe I can not only accept the real world but at least try to form it to become a bit more like my own one. I guess I will have to give it a try.

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