Oh! The rapture of seeing
ideals spring to life
In the blazing sun
so bright,
one is blind
To realities that wither
In the shadows behind.
But when one turns back
Ideals rapidly become balloons.
They untangle their knots,
Float into the infinite
Depths of the sky.

 

I occasionally think about what it would be like to choose independence. And then the years would stretch out long and dreary before me, and I would shrink back from the precipice. It is not company I want, yet it is loneliness I fear. I pull myself out of the bubble, chiding myself that I am indulging in overwrought drama again… I cannot escape from what I essentially am, a woman raised with practical Asian sensibilities, from a country with a non-existent social safety net, who coos over toddlers…and when my flights of fancy have finally screeched to a halt, that, and regret, will come into sharp relief. How does one know what is ‘essentially’ one or not? What is euphoria and what is contentment? Is youth a time of erratic, temporary dreams, or is it uninhibited glorying in what is real about yourself that is eventually stamped out with age?

Two weeks ago we took the cable car up to Schauinsland, a patch of mountain on the edge of the Black Forest, not too far from Freiburg. Having gone once in the morning, we went again in the evening to catch the sunset. It happened to be the day of the Nachtfahrt – the one day in summer that the cable car operated until midnight. Up, up, up we went, gliding with the occasional creak, hovering just above the sloping path of bare grass that had been cut into the carpet of juniper. It was a gorgeous day; the view was breathtaking…countryside shrinking, inching further and further away, until it seemed to dissolve into the glowing, liquid sky.

For the second time that day, we made our way into the cafe at the peak and found our seats near the edge of the viewing deck. It was cold now; we tucked ourselves into the cafe’s fleece blankets and settled in with our tea and chocolate. And there we sat, quietly watching the world transform.  The light faded, the sky darkened from blue to a deeper blue; the sky darkened still, until there was nothing but a streak of orange marking the horizon…then it finally let go, yielding to the reign of the stars with the twinkling lights of the city.

To think that so many people were within sight! Every one dot of light was likely hundreds of people pottering about, winding down, drying the dishes, preparing to go to sleep. Yet I couldn’t see their faces, I didn’t know their names, their lives…but then again here we were, trapped in our own impenetrable silence. One felt desperately lonely and overwhelmed with company at the same time. They were them and I was me and he was him, alone in our respective existences, which means as far as each is concerned none of us existed at all…

It’s hard to feel present in moments like these. I often find myself trying to memorise the scene. I stare very hard at the tip of a tree or the silhouette of the skyline or an indeterminate patch of green hoping to imprint them forever in my memory, but it is always surreal, always detached, always as if I am living somebody else’s reality and it’s not really me sat there in the cold breeze. After some time gone by I find myself equally able to believe that it hadn’t been me, it was just a photograph or somebody else’s story. What did it matter anyway – now that it is past, as good as a video still in my brain, did it really matter that I had been there at all?

On the occasions when I am able to stop being feeling like a spectator to my inner consciousness, I marvel unrestrainedly at all that vastness, feeling deeply, fundamentally content. I think about Calvin telling Hobbes how our problems seem so small in the face of an infinite number of stars. But as George Eliot sort of said, as much as we indulge in wishful abstractions and romantic philosophies from a distance, whether physical or mental, it is daily life that we are confronted with, that consumes us, that we respond to…and daily life and our temperaments put together are hardly ever romantic or elegant or high-minded.

The moon was exceptionally bright that night. It outshone everything and everyone, and as we rode the cable car down, we saw nothing but our own shadow cast on the opaque wall of the forest. It was just the two of us, another passenger and his bicycle in the carriage. We didn’t know his name, but there we were, him and him and me, still, talking, our disembodied voices trapped in the infinite darkness but freed from silence. It felt almost intimate, like we could each be what we really were, tell our secrets to one another and never see each other again.

In the past couple of weeks I have really derived the greatest of joys from the most mundane of things.

I’d never been so happy to receive a letter from the tax man (because I finally got my Tax ID, thus filling another blank field in the endless reel of bureaucratic forms).

There was a positive swing in my step one fine Friday morning because I’d managed to get my health insurance sorted in broken German.

I rushed home in anticipation of the delight in finding my Packstation membership card in my “Souterrain” letter box (which I did after two tries).

The Sunday morning 2am confirmation I got from iCracked.com that a technician had been appointed and was coming my way to fix my broken phone screen saved what could have been a horrible Monday.

I found the loveliest tea towels in Primark.

I discovered the Aperol Spritz.

And now, bless us all, I have internet!

 

Standing alone in the cold, waiting to go through the lonely, self-conscious procedures of the Ausländerbehörde, you realise that living alone even only for a short period of three weeks has made you discover a steely independence about yourself. You feel it in the moments you celebrate that the loo roll packaging has a cut-out handle so you can walk home with your grocery load; on unexpectedly pleasant solitary mornings when you hear nothing but birds, the whirring of the refrigerator and inner quiet; when you take the less familiar public transport route because after getting lost a few times and still muddling through, what’s the worst that could happen? Sometimes it morphs into rebellion; late at night, as you research how to set up a DHL Packet station, you find yourself mumbling to yourself, practising in German – “I am new here, I’m looking for a language school and German is not easy!” – so you have a response the next time a judgmental Foreigner’s Office lady showers you with contempt. Even now, standing in this surprisingly tolerable 40-minute queue – it’s not that bad.

You can read. You have a book in your bag, articles in your inbox.

And you can write.

This question has been slipped casually into small talk at least three times in the 11 days since I arrived (angekommen?) in Frankfurt. Funnily enough, despite the repetition, I find it no longer riles me up. It used to – I remember very vividly the flash of annoyance when a friend ventured to ask as we trundled along the windswept, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. These were my undergraduate days.

I suppose I interpreted it to mean that they saw me as inferior in some way – I wasn’t white, I wasn’t born and bred in Europe. I didn’t belong. I was Other, an outsider. Or maybe I felt affronted at the insularity – that they thought English belonged exclusively to them. I realise now that this line of thinking was pretty self-defeating. To instinctively presume that these were their motivations probably meant that, somewhere at the back of my head, I recognised these projected views as truths.

In other words, I was hung up on getting mad at other people, and missed the giant signboard on my forehead bearing the word “Insecure!”.

Coming back to present-day in Frankfurt – I suppose growing up comes with a certain level of self-assuredness. The fact that English wasn’t the mother tongue of all 3 people who asked also took away any reason to feel offended. And it was fun conversation; there was beer and orangenschorle, there was a French guy cracking a joke with a punchline nobody got the first time, there was – gasp – banter. And then there is summer, a breeze, fading light at 10pm…far too enjoyable to let something silly like that get in the way.

Anyway, for some reason I ended up giving a different answer every time. These were my answers:

  1. We were colonised by the British (after which I launched into my observations about the difference in proficiency between my parents’ schooling generation and mine)
  2. My parents speak English and we speak English at home (although this would actually raise the question of “How come your parents speak English?” but people seemed to be satisfied with that)
  3. Oh, I attended national school in Malaysia…(after which I launched into an explanation about national vs. vernacular school, Malaysian demographics, Malaysian race politics…)

I’ll try and add to the list. Hopefully better ones.

 

 

 

Landscapes

Imaginary

May

Minute after minute, and no stillness in between.

August 2016
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