The Bridge

I think there are many different reasons why you fall for someone – looks, humour, or, as scientists also want us to believe, their smell. Initial attraction may well be based on looks almost exclusively, but I think the falling in love part actually has a lot to do with how a person makes you feel, and, more specifically, how they make you feel about yourself. In my case this is usually things that I would like to be but am not quite: self-assured, funny, tough. This is the image most men I met had of me and liked about me, which of course begs the question what quality a relationship can have if the other person does not see your true self. Suffice it to say, I am still single.

The thing I hate most about myself is how I am always scared. Most people wouldn’t believe it, but I am in a constant state of being afraid. First, there is the little things, like breaking any rules, being at a party with noone to talk to, people not liking me, looking fat in an outfit, being too drunk (this fear is usually the reason why I get too drunk). But there is of course big stuff too, like never getting married and having children, losing someone I love, missing out on a career or alternatively sacrificing my creative ambitions for a career. And, the biggest fear of all: death. I know what you will think now: what is her point, that is nothing extraordinary. Everyone is afraid of death and those who say they are not are lying. Very well. Let me phrase it differently: my therapist once told me that while everyone knows that they will die I feel it. I feel death. I do not want to go into the details of how I got to feel the constant presence of death since my Mum got sick when I was a kid. You can make your own assumptions.

The point is, I am always aware. I cross the street, I see a car, I think I may die. Climbing something, swimming in the Indian Ocean, driving a car on the motorway, all not options. How do you fly, you might wonder. Well, I enter the plane in complete awareness that I may die. Literally. Not a theoretical mindgame that is then brushed away with the embarrassed grin of the enlightened mind that has all the studies to back up her hope that “it will not be me”. The real thing. Totally aware, with a note to my loved ones as always tucked between the clothes in my closet detailling who will get what from my selection of American TV series on DVD and a message that they should not be sad as I was happy when I died. Kind of. When I land I am shaking and I enter each city’s same looking airport terminal with the feeling of once again having gotten away and wondering about the universe’s big plan for me and when it will end.

Which leads me to the person I fell for this time. I would like to think that this was the first time I did not, as I always seem to do, fake, perform or whatever you want to call it. I travelled to Portugal to get away from a life of two years that was focused on working, career, building a future that I do not really want but that gives me a sense of security which helps with the fear. Portugal, the place where I was always the most happy and relaxed, a better version of myself, so to speak, seemed like a nice destination for going on a soul searching trip, to fulfil the cliché. It is the place where I let go as much as it is possible for a neurotic like me, which basically means travelling alone, connecting with strangers and breaking a 16 years long tradition of vegetarianism for bacalhau and later even a whole dorade. This is as crazy as I can get. I was here for the first time three years ago, visiting some friends I met while studying abroad in Poland and during this trip I accidentally stumbled across a country that I had previously known little to nothing about and that hit me in the face: I was in love. Portugal and me is like a love relationship. It is like falling for the totally wrong guy who does not fulfil one point on your list and who makes your friends sceptically raise an eyebrow: “That one – really? Well, if you think so…”.

As mentioned before, Portugal brought out as much good in myself as I had ever seen, so I was happy and optimistic. I was staying with friends in Porto and one afternoon, when crossing the bridge over the Doro to go to an early afternoon port wine tasting in Gaia, we saw local children jumping from the lower rim into the sparkling river.

I was appalled and scared, of course, whereas one of my friends, a daring live the moment girl from France, was immediately hooked and talked about wanting to do the same. I could feel the blood disappearing from my hands, as if my veins were shrieking, and my knees starting to shake at the thought alone. But still, the moment she said it, I felt that actually it was me reallly feeling this conviction. The image of these kids jumping into the water was a manifest of freedom, of letting go. And it stuck with me. It may seem weird for a generation well-versed in bungee jumping, deap water diving, paragliding and now, the newest trend, parcouring. And it was not the actual jump alone, down a distance of perhaps ten to twelve meters, that made this into my own personal challenge. I am not only afraid of heights – go figure – but also socially afraid, if you can call it that. I hope it is not because I am a German, but I am extremely reluctant to “break the rules”, whether unspoken or official, and of sticking out, being watched. Jumping off a bridge into a river lined with tourist cafes will not stay unnoticed. Even though it is not technically illegal, was a far as I know (it would be in Germany, I am sure), it is not what you are supposed to do. I think the step of climbing over the protective banister and navigating to the rim of the bridge is a much bigger step for me than the actual jump. I came back to Porto the next year, standing on the bridge with my friend and with shaky knees. There was noone jumping into the river that day, and I did not mention my thoughts to him. Actually I told noone about it.

Porto was not my destination this year, as I was planning to stay in Portugal for an undefined number of months and Lisbon seemed to be the better place to kill this amount of time. There is a hostel here in Lisbon that I have cherished since I was there two years ago. I have lived in many different shared flats in Berlin, my home city, but the first place I actually felt at home since I left my parents’ house is this place. Needless to say I always returned, even this year, with a permanent room in a shared house already waiting for me. In the hostel I moved into a six bed dormitory which was empty at my arrival, its inhabintants for sure out exploring the castello or chilling on the beach of Cascais. In the evening I met them, though, two girls from the US who were ten years younger than I am and a young guy from Finland travelling by himself. Already during the first evening, when we got to talk a bit, I realised that this man, Pauli, was everything I am not in the department of bravery, and I was fascinated but also jealous. Twenty years of age, extremely sun-tanned and casually attired, he emanated the optimisim, excitement and hope of youth, if I am allowed to use this term with 28. Physically just on the brink between boyhood and manhood, with some soft looking beard stumps and open, curious dark blue eyes, a slender body that looked as if he had just finished a major growth rush. But his dark voice and British pronounciation was that of a man and his self-assuredness and calmness made him seem mature beyond his age. Totally independent, he connected to the small group of travellers that quickly formed – consisting mainly of me, a Canadian guy, a young Englishman and, on and off, the American girls – without letting down a subtle guard that perhaps only I really felt. He wanted to stay unattached, in his mind already treading on the roads of his future travels (he had one month of interrailing and backpacking still ahead of him). He talked bullshit and laughed about silly things with the rest of us, but he seemed almost careful to avoid any bonding beyond that typical solidarity amongst travellers on the road, so to say.

I think what impressed me the most about Pauli was his calmness. Hard to believe that I had managed to move from my small hometown to Berlin, study for seven years, go abroad for studying and for internships, including flying all alone to New York, then work in one of the most challenging and toughening work environments I can imagine for two years only to end up in Portugal being impressed by a youngster who did not even have any idea what his major should be or what job he wanted to do. I felt so detached from his positive “I have everything ahead of me” spirit that I found myself taking on a kind of motherly position towards him on from the start, incredulously and only half jokingly reprimanding him for hitchhiking and driving with a drunken guy in Albania, making jokes about the age difference and how he was only a child, playfully hitting him with the fist against the shoulder in a very platonic, buddy kind of way. We were, after all, bunk buddies. Did I already know then, in these first days, how much I was attracted to him? I want to believe that I didn’t, but I cannot be sure. But one thing that is sure is that I cemented the relationship on this level from the start, even though I highly doubt that acting differently would have changed anything. But I am jumping ahead.

We were hanging around, Pauli and me, in the hostel, when he asked to see my pictures. The occurrence that preceded this and made it happen was what we came to call “the night of the fountain”, a drunk night out in the old town that ended up on Rossio square and ultimiately in one of its fountains. Thinking about this night makes me realise, as I am writing this, that I am probably right in thinking that I did not know from the beginning, as Pauli’s presence during this evening is a taken for granted reality and my memories focus more on flirting and ultimately spending the night with a Turkish man who I hardly knew. Amazing photo and video material was produced in this night, which was what Pauli wanted to see on my computer. I was surprised when he then asked to also see my Portugal pictures from the previous years. Usually I feel myself pushing my holiday memories, which for me are so vital and special, onto people who politely watch without getting the spirit, and it almost always ends with the stinge of disappointment and the feeling of being rejected altogether, of not being seen or understood for who I am slash want to be. When browsing through my pictures Pauli came across the ones with the kids jumping of the bridge, which of course caught his attention. I explained, and, after a sip of sangria, revealed the story behind the photo, namely my two year pondering over the idea to actually do it myself. His reaction: “It looks like fun. Let’s go tomorrow.” If it had been only him and me, I would have brushed away this odd statement with a laughter and would, as always, have made fun of my own fear, comedically displaying it by an exaggerated “Never ever ever.” Unfortunately, the sangria that was also present had a mind of its own, and before I knew it I heard me say: “OK”. A plan evolved, which was enthusiastically spread among the other hostel people, who now all got to hear the story I had offered before to Pauli: how I am always afraid, how I do not like it, how coming to Portugal was a big leap already and how I felt now was the perfect time to also take this other, physical leap, and that Pauli would come along to “jump just for the fun of it.” The thing is, it was a great party joke, people enjoyed my storytelling which I have mastered to hide my fear. Ironically, even in narrating the story of my fear I was faking, entertaining, not being myself. I am not sure anyone really got it. Except Pauli, as I would learn later.

That night I could not sleep. The pressure of what I had drunkenly agreed to do was weighing on my chest and taking my breath. It was not so much the fear of the jump as the fear of what people would think if I didn’t do it. Would Pauli be mad that he made a costly 6 hours trip for nothing? Would people in the hostel make fun of me and see me as a coward? Inside, I already knew what would happen, saw the plot unfolding: how we would go and I would stand on the bridge and not jump. Of course not. But I tried to tell myself that it would be OK, that Pauli would have his jump and in the evening I would just avoid being hurt by being my own biggest mocker.

I woke up at seven thirty and went down to breakfast, only to find out that I could not get down one bite. When Pauli did not get up I started to get nervous, as I had of course already a detailed travel plan arranged. But I was also hopeful – this could be my way out. If he changed his mind it would be out of my hands, I could always spin on the narrative of how I almost went to Porto and jumped off the bridge. Finally I went to my room and gently poked his arm. He opened one eye. “Hey” – I said. “How does it look? If you wanna sleep that’s fine, I totally understand, we would need to get going quite soon and it is early, and also it will cost 50 €.” I had managed to throw him off, he frowned when I mentioned the money and said he needed to think about it. I went back to the common area, surprised by the pain I felt at the thought of not going. Nervous as hell, afraid of both alternatives: that he would come or that he would not. Hurt by the thought that he did not care about me, which is crazy of course, but it is also me. My heart was racing as I was pondering the different possible outcomes of this situation when he came down and said: “I will just eat something quickly and then we go.” My heart leaped. The rest went pretty fast and blurry, packing up, rushing to the subway, barely making the train to Porto. Suddenly I felt uncomfortable and self-conscious around Pauli. He noticed my nervousness and I confessed that I was scared of not being able to do it. “Well, then I will jump and will have had a good time too.” he replied. Again I was surprised by the sting I felt, like he had not gotten the whole point. Of course if he had gotten it I would feel much more pressured. By the end of the three hour trip, I had come to the conclusion that I would definetely not do it but would be happy to take a picture of him. He shrugged.

We went straight to the bridge in Porto. Seeing it made my knees shake, which I tried to hide. It was not as hot as the last times I had been there, always in August, and no bridge jumping kids were anywhere to be found. The cafes at the shore were crowded, though. I saw some policemen. The thoughts were racing in my head: why is there nobody jumping maybe they have made it illegal in the meantime maybe it has always been prohibited maybe something changed on the ground of the river making it now deadly to jump into it will we be arrested will there be a fine I have too little money what if I float away from the shore after I jumped didn’t the kids have a boat last time we do not have a boat ok then its settled I cannot do it. Pauli checked out the banister and said: “Let’s have some lunch.“ We went to a pizza place and I reluctantly shared a selected number of my concerns throwing the fine thing into the conversation with a casual shrug. He picked it up: “Tha’ would suuuuck.“ (in his Finnish pronounciation, he would drag out the as, os and us in most words). “Puh”, I leaned back, taking a sip from my beer. Then it is settled. But Pauli just asked the waiter if it was illegal to jump off the bridge. The man could not been less surprised by the question, just said no and left. Damn, the plan was back on.

It was there in the restaurant that I told Pauli the real story of why I felt I needed to jump off the bridge. He was sharing with me his view of life, why he is not scared of anything like me, it was the typical things people say in his age, but also different. He had this calmness about him that made him seem both sincere and mature. I longed to believe him that everything would be OK. But he was him and I was me, which was incidentally the reason we were sitting there together. I asked him if anything bad ever happened to him, wanting to confirm my theory that only people who have not experienced truly bad tragic things can see life in this careless way. He did prove me right, and I told him about my mother. “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit”, he said, and it made me feel much better than most things other people have said to me when confronted with the story. The conversation was over for a while after that.

In the end I am not sure what did it, I must assume it was the second beer and the feeling of numbness and annoyance at the thought of once again shying away from something that is such a small deal to others. In the end this was not like climbing Everest. Kids did it, for crying out loud. I went to the bathroom to change into my jump outfit, cargo shorts and a tank top. It made me feel strong. As we went to the bridge my stomach began to turn, even though the current status of negotiation was that Pauli would jump first and I would think about it, perhaps even go up to the bridge and then decide spontaneously, no pressure. He went of, barefoot and shirtless, and disappeared behind a corner. I was sitting on the stone wall next to the river, trying out how to best capture this moment. Pauli appeared, climped over the banister without hesitating once, looked left, right and down, then searched the coast for me, found me, and immediately raised his arm – our signal for me pushing the release button – click, and he was in the water with a splash. The fall I had only seen through the lense, it seemed quick and unreal. He came out of the water happy but not overly excited, probably having done similar stuff many many times. “How was it?” “Ah, was fine. But the current is strong, it can carry you away. – Are you a good swimmer?” – “Dont know – you think I shouldnt do it????” – “Dont know, could be dangerous.” “Mmmhh – man, why did you tell me that? I had just made up my mind to do it.” “Really?” “Yeah.” “Then you should probably do it. – Just thought you should know.” “Why, thanks.”

I will never know what gave me the sudden impetus, but I almost felt an urge to get it over with so the bad feelings of fear, nervousness and pending failure and disappointment would go away. It was like I did not care anymore. Or perhaps Pauli making it look so easy had inspired me. In any case, I just dropped my stuff and started up the stairs, barefooted and shaking, to the car level of the bridge. The sounds of the cars and people in them were like blurry background noise, I was unable to see more than ten centimeters to the left or right of my feet and the view straight ahead. One blinking of the eye and I would lose it. The cars were jammed up behind me, waiting for the traffic light to turn. People were sitting in their cars literally half a meter away from me, watching me and making it impossible for me to climb over the banister, which for me was the hardest step in the whole venture as I had absolutely no idea how to navigate around the steel girders that formed the bridge to get to the landing. Pauli was gesturing, do it, my shaking arms rested on the banister, yelling against the wind: “I can’t with all the cars here”. OK so I won’t do it, I thought. Getting ready to walk the walk of shame back down the stairs. But then I saw it – a break in the never ending row of cars, caused by yet another traffic light which had changed to red and gave me approximately 10 seconds. Everything that happened next is a blur: me climbing over the banister, making it to the rim in maybe ten seconds, me thinking how funny it was that I never before trusted the strength of my own muscles to hold me up but that they actually did just that, me thinking how fast the water was running underneath me and that there was quite a lot of trash in it, me thinking that this is ridiculous and I can not simply jump, like make my feet stop being connected to the iron of the rim, that this is an absurd thing, me lifting my arm, me making a step forward.

Wind, a thought along the lines of “oh shit this is not going right”, and then my body meeting the water in a not perfect but not dangerous angle. Underwater, up, Pauli at the landing, swim there, take hand, lift out of the water in what feels like a weightless manner, lie on the warm stone. Realise. Adrenaline. Happiness. It felt like for the first time in my entire life I managed to step out of my ways, out of the behaviour I have adopted for so many reasons but do not like. I am a talker, I talk talk talk, but never do. This time I had done something. Actually Pauli was more surprised than I was. I got up to my feet and yelled, “I diiiiiiiiiiiid it”, and hugged him, both of us wet. He yelled back “You did it” and then narrated the story from his point of view, how he never thought I would actually do it, how he was terrified when he saw me climbing, that he thought to himself “what the fuck”, suddenly aware of the immense responsibility he had, if not officially then morally. Funnily enough he revealed to me only now that he was a licenced life guard, which earned him a fist hit on the arm. I was on fire, high above the ground and reflecting myself in his eyes, both literally and figuratively, I saw that he looked at me with a new respect and fondnesss. Nagging, will-not-stop-talking-when-she’s-nervous-which-she-always-is, insecure German in pre-midlife crisis changed into adventurous what the hell daredevil with whom one could actually have fun. We changed and I forced Pauli to drink beer with me in a bar at the river side. We then missed our train back and resorted to drink many more beers in a pub next to the train station.

On the train home, Pauli slept while I sat next to him, drinking beer out of a can and listening to music. Everything had changed. Since the moment I came out of the water, I felt a deep affection in me that scared me and actually hurt me, the longing to touch his dark brown arm with the almost white hair on it, lying next to me on the table. To always wanting to see myself in the reflection of his eyes. To be reassured by him (again: a twenty year old), to always have him by my side. It hurt, and I felt tears in my eyes and the eternal lump in my throat. I still do not know what happened, but I blame the bridge.

Arriving at the hostel was great, now being able to tell the story of how I jumped and showing off the immense bruises on my right arm and inner thigh. Pauli was a great wingman, offering his view of the story, painting me in a good light and letting me have all the credit. Our conversations were not mentioned. I felt weirdly distanced from him back there, like two people who hooked up secretly without knowing each other would feel awkward when suddently surrounded by what turn out to be mutual friends. I felt uneasy and went to bed early, not without butterflies in my stomach at the knowledge that he was lying in the bed right under me, not wearing a shirt.

Not much special happened after this. While for me a bond had formed that felt unbreachable and I had to restrain myself from not constantly hanging around in Pauli’s immediate vicinity, he seemed to get wary of Lisbon and anxious to travel on. We had two or so ok nights out, but we never again talked and connected like on the day of “the bridge”. Why should we, after all? It had been just a leisuretime adventure for him and we were back to being casual hostel acquaintances among many.

The night before Pauli left Lisbon, we went out and got pretty drunk. Sitting on the pavement in front of some bar, the conversation came back once again to “the bridge” when Mitch, the young Englishman, inquired how exciting it must have been to jump. Pauli just shrugged and said he did not care much for it. I was surprised, as was Mitch. I said something along the lines of “I thought you went with me because you like this kind of stuff, jumping from things, doing daring dangerous stuff.” And again with this sincerity and maturity that had hooked me from the start Pauli said, as if it was nothing: “No, I just went to help you do it. I knew it was really important to you.”

That night we ended up having a drunk discussion in the hostel kitchen about people you meet while travelling and how me and Mitchell were nothing but random people that he, Pauli, would neither meet again nor stay in contact with. I half-heartedly agreed with Mitchell that Pauli simply used the word random in a wrong way and did not mean what he said as harshly as it came across. Inside I was not convinced. I felt him pulling back, feeling entangled against his will in the romanticised thoughts of two less-adventurous travellers. Whether he, on a much deeper level, had felt the ties I so badly wanted to form between him and me I will never know. As I was cleaning the dishes, keeping quiet during the last rounds of the debate between him and Mitchell, I felt the tears coming and went to bed with an abrupt “good night” and a slammed door, not managing (and not really wanting to) to hide how upset I was. I cried that night, half hoping he would realise it lying in the lower bunk bed. In the morning I left the hostel and only came back to say goodbye. We hugged distantly and I said “Thanks for the bridge.” He said “It’s all good.” He left. I watched him leave secretely hiding behind a window in the upper part of the house. Then I went to my room and cried the rest of the day, in the end still surprised about the pain I felt in my stomach area. One day after that, I also left the hostel. End of story.

Now I stay in a students house but keep some my stuff in a friend’s place near Avenida da Liberdade. On the way between the two houses is Rossio square, and the route takes me by a huge subway grid in the middle of the pavement, with mysterious drafts coming from underneath that make your skirt fly up Marylin Monroe style and a neverending pitch black darkness that makes it feel like underneath is an abyss right into the core of the earth. I never walk over these things, not even the one that is one square meter in the middle of Hermannplatz in Berlin, where I live. Afterall, what is the point of risking a potentially deadly accident when you can just circumvent the grid which may take up to 10 seconds, not more? It just does not make any sense. The day after Pauli left I stopped in front of the grid. There was noone around. I inhaled, closed my eyes, and took a step forward. Opened my eyes – still alive. I walked on slowly, crossing the grid, my eyes closed until I felt the upward airflow disappear and the pavement under my feed again. I smiled. A man came around the corner, eyeing my suspiciously as I stood at the border of the grid, smiling frantically, eyes up to the sky, hands clenched into fists, breathing deeply. I skipped on, all the way to my house, reliving a limited version of the high I had felt after “the bridge”.

Since then, I make it a point always to cross every grid I come across. And I think of Pauli, flaxen-haired twenty year old Finnish man with no concerns except what to study (but what does it really matter) and where to travel next, alone with his backpack and the never changing blue black hoodie jacket, his Finnish English, his unshakableness, his lack of fear. Did I really like him or was it just “the bridge” that made me want to feel connected to him? Do I really want to be with him or is it just that I want to be more like him? I do not know and it does not matter. The pain will go away and he will become one of those friend-stiffs on Facebook whose pages you check out once a year. But what will stay is “the bridge”, that he understood its meaning and what he did for me that day, small as it may seem to someone who does not suffer from “the fear”. I hope I will be able to keep that for a while. I will need it.

About juliamaja

With 28 I did the first non-linear thing in my life. After school, university and work without any interruptions, I quit my advertising job and moved to Lisbon to find out what I want. The result: I write for a living, whether in Berlin or Lisbon. I am happy. Let's see how it goes.
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2 Responses to The Bridge

  1. Patrick says:

    Wow. Thank you for this text. Very good and very courageous writing. I nearly died of a heart attack reading this. Really good.

  2. juliamaja says:

    Wow back. What a nice comment, gives me impetus to write more. Thanks Patrick!!!!

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