Will We Ever Switch Them off?

I’d love to see what would happen if all mobile phones went dead. 

I’m sat in a cafe contemplating this as I observe an awkward scene. People watching is one of life’s virtues, especially when hidden behind a laptop screen. One quickly learns the strategies. Leaning over and craning your neck to eavesdrop in conversation is not entirely subtle. The trick is in the eyes. Learning to quickly divert your gaze from the scene in front of you to the screen of your laptop is the first step towards successful snooping.

I’m watching a couple on a date. It’s going well. They’ve so far managed to order their coffee, and say a few words to each other. Ten minutes later, these words still hang in the air like a bad smell. No progression has been made. Hands reach to cradle their phones. One of them takes a call. The other nonchalantly drinks her coffee, gazing round the room as if to pluck a conversation topic out of the caffeine-fuelled atmosphere.

This is just painful.

Phones provide a justifiable excuse to not speak to each other, a handy tactic when on an awkward date. As young people, we are protected from having to deal with social interaction only by our common propensity to pick up our mobiles and immerse ourselves in Facebook mid-conversation. We just don’t know how to communicate anymore.

Everyone of course talks about the ‘millennial’ generation with contempt. But ultimately, our critics should just feel sorry for us. We are rude and obnoxious; ruthless in our attempts to capture the perfect photo to upload to our social media sites. ‘Likes’ feed our egos more than real-life compliments. GIFS and Memes provide humour where ours has lapsed. We are the avocado-loving, cafe-brunching, news-munching millennials who know nothing of times gone by. We exist in a vacuum, bombarded by the constant flow of information, of which we can’t escape. Armed with a step-by-step account on social media of how we fill our days, our generation are leaving behind us a technological footprint of triviality. Is this all we will have to show for our posterity?

The need to constantly document our lives, however, reveals something a lot more sinister about current social interaction.

Take the prior mentioned date as a case in point. Meeting somebody in the flesh requires a lot more cognitive effort, particularly as their choice to position themselves opposite each other makes them more exposed. In this instance, they have nowhere to hide. Queue the picking up of the mobile phone.

Interacting with a computer is entirely different. A computer does not care about your feelings. When online, one does not have to labour to understand another’s body language, or negotiate with social cues. Instead, our emotions become archetypically summarised in emojis. Virtual interaction removes feelings and emotions. We are, as the world fears, turning ourselves into beings void of the aspects that make us human.

Our self-esteem becomes based on the acquisition, essentially, of strangers who favour our content. Our ‘supposed’ selves, the ones we can perfectly package up and present to our gang of worthy followers online, somehow become more desirable than our actual selves. We come to envy others who are equally as inauthentic. While we know this, we can’t seem to shake the feeling that millions of others out there are prettier, thinner, smarter, richer or just generally more content than we are.

Like everything else in a capitalist society, our sense of self-worth becomes based on acquisition. ‘Likes’, ‘retweets’, ‘favourites’ are currency: we acquire and exchange.

A further frightening aspect of all this is that the more we reveal, the more data we contribute. Companies feed off our online presence, using information about us to tailor their advertisements to our interests, and consequently contribute to this atmosphere of acquisition. I find myself frequently screaming ‘HOW DID YOU KNOW?’ inside my head when my most recent searches on Google appear in my Instagram and Facebook feeds, as if a satellite had somehow supplanted my brain.

It is as if I am competing against a machine that seems to know me better than I know myself. My iPhone can anticipate which emojis I would like to use based on the words I have tapped into a message. It knows all the locations I’ve been in … ever. It knows my exact distance home, the temperature in my room, where I am going to be at certain dates and times and locations. Perhaps at one point it will grow a pair of arms, reach for a stethoscope and conclude after seconds of analysing my heartbeat that I am actually nearly dead prior to my morning coffee.

And yet, what this all essentially boils down to is our generation’s preoccupation with insignificance. We live in a network of spies and informants. Ads are tailored to us based on personal information. Molly from Blackpool knows you’re spending a weekend in Tenerife because of the hashtag you used. Google stalks you at every turn based on your internet searches. Every drip of news is as necessary as the blood flowing through our veins.

It would not surprise me if soon we were diagnosing technological illnesses based on our anxiety to constantly be informed. Perhaps medication will have to be administered to those of us who are addicted to our phones. All joking aside, a period of weaning ourselves off from technology is overdue.

I am actively trying to cut down my time spent on the web before my brain disintegrates. When I find myself having to force myself to read a book – something I have known and loved ever since I can remember – I remind myself of how much I have attuned my brain to autopilot. It’s high time we saved ourselves from becoming machines.

Writer’s Block – The Affliction of the Creative

It’s  five am. Late. Or maybe early. I’m sat at my desk in the dry light of the approaching morn, writing. I’m a walking cliche, I know. The wannabe desperate nomad who seeks solace from the oppressive city in a battered old notepad and pen – thoughts of great poets and her own shaky verses churning in her mind.

But while I sit and stare at the page, no words come out. It’s in moments like these where one contemplates the fleeting nature of ideas. Here I am, stressed and useless, probably (definitely) tired, just thinking about how best to manufacture inspiration. Thoughts and ideas always seem to ebb and flow. Emotions, events going on in my life, a busy schedule, all feed into my ability, or indeed, my inability, to write.

Biting my pen at the end so that the ink swells into large globules on the page, I give up. I go back to bed. I remind myself that I am not the Romantic poet who wakes at dawn to hear the birdsong, the whistling wind, the chords of the Aeolian harp, nor am I the late-night genius working by candlelight to produce his next masterpiece for the court of Henry VIII. My mind races and doesn’t deliver. Especially at five am.

The next day I’m running errands around the centre of Berlin, looking at everything with an author’s zeal, inhaling intricate details of everything I pass to aid my woeful attempt at writing. I gaze at the contours of the buildings before me, some almost beautiful in their concrete majesty. I look to the sky, incandescent in the waning light of the afternoon and to the wily shapes of trees reflected in the river. Is this poetry, or just plain bullshit? I laugh at myself, clutching my books tightly as if to impress their words onto my tired hands and down the nib of my pen, and at the failure of my corny attempt to write something that matters. Darkness approaches, the streets fill up and inspiration has fled.

Writer’s block – the affliction of the creative. You berate yourself for failing. You berate yourself for trying.

Sometimes you just cannot force it. 

We’re taught in life to banish feelings of self-doubt as a hindrance to progress. Yet, here I am, yielding to self-doubt and making up words in the process. I have produced little else but a personal essay composed of self-depreciation, but I have somehow managed to string coherent sentences together.

Writing is about identity. I haven’t quite found mine yet. A personal essayist I could perhaps say, or just someone that rambles on in the direction of something vaguely meaningful. My writing is inescapably inflected by my own experiences. My thoughts and opinions seem to infiltrate my sentences at any available moment, no matter what the topic. A personal essayist, I could say, or just a plain narcissist?

In later years when I am more wizened with age, perhaps my writing will take a different form. Perhaps I will always be overthrown by too many ideas rather than too few. A good writer understands the limits of his or her understanding of the world. The most important lesson, I think, is to stay curious. This brief essay has been nothing if not a practical exercise of self doubt, but by allowing my mind to wander, I reminded myself of my motto: ‘ideas flourish at the hands of the uninhibited.’ Trusting your own process, your own curiosity, can, at times, pay off.

And on that note, in a further absence of ideas, I leave you with a friendly platitude from Sir Philip Sidney on the subject of lapsed inspiration:

‘Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:

‘Fool!’ said my muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’

– Astrophel and Stella 1. 13-14

Lost in Translation: my grapple with the German Language

‘Ich hätte gern die Rechnung’, I asked, shakily. The girl behind the counter giggled. ‘You’ve just asked me for whipped cream,’ she said, ‘but I suppose you’d like to pay.’ 

Before insulting the German public with my lack of linguistic skill, the first phrase I decided to learn prior to my trip to Berlin was ‘Ich kann keine Deutsch sprechen’, or ‘I cannot speak German’, just to cover my back. I hadn’t anticipated that my first week in Germany would render me confused and tongue-tied, like a baby learning how to pronounce it’s first word. We forget about the nuances of phrases and pronunciation in other languages when we’re so used to speaking our own. I figured that just getting the words out right was the first step towards conversation. Who knew that a slight mispronunciation of a vowel could have rendered me a laughing stock.

There’s nothing like visiting another country to make you appreciate your own culture, and how it differs so much from other places. My Englishness is all too apparent even when I do manage to get the German words out right. A prim and proper girl from the South of England, they all seem to think..’Your accent is so nice’, they say in their strict Germanic sound, but all I feel is ashamed for my inability to converse.

‘That’s a whole new kettle of fish’, I found myself saying to my English-speaking German friend on my second week here. He roared with laughter at this. Having uttered an English idiom completely by accident, I had forgotten where I was in that moment. Situated in Germany, I had managed to tie myself inescapably to my Englishness in just a collection of words.

English politeness, while a stereotype, is real and it’s something I battled with in my first few weeks here. As much as we British like to think it is, it’s not common to say please and thank you and sorry a million times, and people’s lack of reciprocity of my excessive manners made me think them rude or ungrateful.

One of the first words I learned here was ‘entschuldigung’ for ‘excuse me’, or ‘sorry.’ Can you imagine my frustration as I attempted to utter this? I’d tread on somebody’s foot on the underground and by the time I’d even tried to pronounce this long, obscure word the person would have already walked away. My lowly, over-polite, english-speaking heart was broken.

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Language is absurd, but it bridges the gaps. If anything, it makes us more expressive. Confused faces are often met with grand gesticulations when trying to communicate in public. My lack of German has made me adept at miming.

The grandma of my host family and I have certainly perfected this art. She doesn’t speak a word of English. We have brief conversations in my very limited German, and we fill in the gaps with a game of charades, literally. My favourite of her mimes are dancing, gardening and an elaborate series of sunbathing movements. We bond over minimal conversation as we play a game of ‘snap’ while trying to match the children’s pairs of odd socks. We make meals together and embrace, chanting ‘sehr lecker’ to congratulate ourselves on our brilliance. Oftentimes, we sit in silence. We may not be able to communicate in words, but her warmth, her energy, her maternity, even for a stranger – (I once got stung by a ‘pferdefliege’ , or horsefly to you and me, and she spent at least ten minutes holding an ice pack to my wound and rubbing my back) – and her humour makes me understand on a human level what a kind heart she has.

If my last few weeks in Germany have taught me anything, it’s that people are, ultimately, good. While I have come up against conservative Germans who will refuse to speak to me in English, identifying me as just another tourist that doesn’t give a sh** about the culture they are trying to preserve, I have met people who want nothing more than to help me settle in.

My German is limited, but it is growing by the day.  I confidently ask for the bill, say ‘entschuldigung’ profusely if I do end up treading on someone’s foot, and I can say ‘Nein, danke schön’, quite kindly to the advances of German men.

I have been asked out on three dates since landing here in Berlin. I say this not to gloat or pat myself on the back as each of these experiences have been no less than entirely awkward, but more to illustrate the different dynamics of heterosexual dating in Germany than in England.

The German guys I have met have all been honourable, if not very forthcoming, and charming. I don’t pretend to be able to read men’s minds but they have always been honest and direct with exactly what they are after. ‘I’ve seen you in Potsdam quite a few times and I like you. Would you like to go for dinner sometime?’, or something along those lines, was my first offer. I haven’t yet had this experience in England. Mostly men seem to observe you from afar for weeks on end before shuffling over and making very weak advances, or the total opposite.

While this guy could have touched up on his techniques in subtlety, at least he stated directly, in a very practical, to-the-point, no beating-round-the-bush kind of way, (which I might add is very typically German), at least there was no misunderstanding. Englishmen, you are not all bad but you need to up your game.

The result of this was, however, nothing. I panicked, probably went a bit red and scuttled off but this was my first, if not entirely fruitless, lesson in German dating conversation.

Up until now, I have been the new girl on the block in the tiny city of Potsdam. I’ve been told that au pairs often assume the ‘girl next door’ trope. ‘You’ve been the discussion of the next door neighbour’s dinner table’, my host mum said to me in my first week. I immediately started scanning my brain for any heinous crime I could have committed. She laughed, ‘They have two boys in their twenties who were eager to check out the new au pair’…

Berlin is one of the most international cities on the planet, and Berliners are used to meeting people from all over the world. What’s nice is that people are always sensitive and inquisitive. I’ve spoken about what I love about England down to the last bourbon, and I have experienced everything about German language and culture that has enlightened me on what we could improve on back home. My skills in German speaking are still much to be desired. I only dread when I have to get a hair cut…

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Re-writing the self: Thoughts on memory

‘When it rains, think of us as we walk under dripping trees or through small rooms lit only by storm’ – Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels.

One of my earliest memories is of being lost in a field near my family home in the country. It was Summertime. I remember the heat and the tall grass looming over me. Small as I was I could see very little, only the sky and the heavy overhang from the leaves of the trees that beckoned me into the forest.

I remember being aware that I was lost – that is, I knew I had wandered away from my childminder in a game of hide and seek and that she hadn’t yet found me – but the idea of being missing wasn’t yet a concept for me. I don’t remember feeling distress, only wonder at this new mellifluous world of the neighbouring field that I hadn’t yet trespassed. I remember my name being called, echoes circling around me, but the length of the grass obscured me from sight so that I was unable to be found.

Perhaps it is a condition of early memories to resemble an ethereal, almost dreamlike quality due to the limits of our perception at that time. This memory of mine is always veiled in a kind of golden haze, either obscured by time or romanticised by my mind. I see shapes, I remember colours. Golds and greens and yellows. I remember the cold relief of wading through the stream. I remember the unsteady path: the soil; the roots that clawed at my ankles. I remember the sensation of being lost but not my emotional response to it. I just remember happiness. A child charmed by curiosity.

While the likelihood is that I entered into a panic and ran through the woods in alarm once I realised I had strayed too far, my mind wants to remember the positive perception I had of my surroundings. It wants childlike inquisitiveness to take precedence over feelings of fear.

It wants to reconcile fragments of memory into a coherent, happy narrative. While our logical minds want to preserve integrity to the facts, there is always a part of us that wants to tell a good story.

Virginia Woolf speaks of the associative potency of memory in her autobiographical essay ‘A Sketch of the Past.’ She tells us that one of her earliest memories was looking at the patterns of flowers on her mother’s dress, as she lay in her lap on a train journey to St. Ives. This is how Woolf always remembered her.

In memory, we are all compelled to understand our lives through narrative and symbolism.

Like the flowers on the dress of Woolf’s mother, I relate my memory to a sensorium of warmth and playfulness, represented by my childlike experience of nature. My memory conveniently chooses to omit my alarm of being lost and instead reframes it as a pleasant adventure.

In Orlando, Woolf acknowledges how our subconscious minds play a part in obscuring memory. She writes, ‘Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.’ Memories are set against a backdrop of narrative that we construct for ourselves. When we look back into the past, we view events through a prism. Integrity to facts falters in our intrinsic desire to tell a more desirable story.

Memory is a seamstress. It weaves together representations of the past into a coherent timeline: a kaleidoscope of images, objects, fragments of conversations, emotions.

It is a mediator between past and present. It preserves connectivity between our present and past selves. More importantly, it situates us in time and place. We make sense of ourselves through the narratives we choose to construct.

Ultimately, we are creators; the seamstresses of our own lives. We subconsciously distort memory, re-fashion narratives, re-write the self and consequently inform the present. We grow by seeing our present selves reflected in images of the past.

Memories, while unreliable, allow us to understand ourselves, our current place in the world. They make artists of us all.

What People Don’t Tell You About Travelling:

12.03.18

And where to find a friendly face

In a city I do not yet

Know how to love.

Some days are not that exciting:

Often you wake up and the clouds are heavy with rain. Sightseeing doesn’t seem all too appealing. You’re saturated with information from countless museums and exhibitions. You’ve met that same person for coffee twice already, and you feel foolish asking for a third. You’ve mastered how to spend time alone and are craving contact, but finding a friendly face in a large city is a task too overwhelming to bear.

Today is that day for me. Admittedly, I have wasted time this morning not knowing where to be or what to do. And the only rational answer is just to give in.

Settling into a new place is tough and it’s only today that I’m realising the gravity of that statement. Like at home, some days will seem like they are lacking in excitement and productivity. Often, I feel lazy. I berate myself for not taking complete advantage of my freedom to travel and immerse myself in everything, but then I remember that I am here for six months, not six days. Not every day has to be jam-packed with activity. Some days you will need to recharge.

Part of finding my balance, improving my mental health and opinion of myself, was taking the pressure off myself to constantly be achieving.

Tell yourself in these moments of self-doubt that time is in abundance. If today is not the day that you order your coffee in the native language, or learn to stand on your head in yoga, then tomorrow will be.

Not everything is always at your fingertips:

There is countless material online about what to do in your country of choice: classes to join, people to meet, things to see. The internet makes everything seem so accessible. You can type in a key word and millions of results pop up, beckoning you to click on them.

Being research-savvy is essential and takes practice. Admittedly I have not yet found the knack. I have spent whole mornings wading through a whole host of sites looking for yoga classes, language-speaking classes etc. only to find out that they are miles away, or perhaps not to my preference.

Some days, you will feel out of the loop.

Often, I have found word of mouth to be the most effective means of finding relevant information. Facebook groups such as ‘Free advice Berlin’ and ‘Girl-Gone International’ have become my best friend here. You can post any number of info requests from where to buy house plants, to how best to negotiate with a medical professional as an international person, to suggesting an idea for a meet-up in a specific area. I’ve learnt that people like to help and I have made connections as a result.

You are fundamentally the same person you were when you left home:

Travel brings perspective, and I’ve certainly had a large dose of that since temporarily moving to Berlin. I see certain aspects of myself in a new light, and have already conquered minor personal fears, but ultimately, I am the same person as I was when I left. I still have the same fears and anxieties, stresses and insecurities.

A change in geography does not relieve you of all emotional baggage. You may feel liberated, but parts of you will still labour with the weight of thoughts and feelings you had back home. This has been an important lesson to me.

An experienced traveller knows that, in any location, there will be good and bad days. There will be days where you have to affirm your purpose. Mine was to learn how to exist out of planning and structure, learning how to just ‘be’.

Don’t reduce this time by attempting to squeeze activity into each day. Just ‘being’, not ‘doing’, is important progress to make too.

Finding my Balance: My Changing Concept of ‘Home’

Home to me is the sensation of peace on a Sunday morning; the sound of the cathedral bells tolling for morning service; the comforting memory of my mum’s bangles jingling on her wrists; the raucous sound of my brothers running up and down the stairs; my dad elegantly playing the piano and then pausing to slowly pace across the wooden floorboards in the wake of a new idea.

The word ‘home’ can mean any number of things to a person. One of the first questions we ask people when we first meet them is ‘Where do you live?’, or ‘Where do you come from?’ Home is our conception of self, the foundation of our identity. Feeling like you have an origin is an essential part of human nature. We are lone wolves, but we will always be part of a pack.

At five am this morning, I woke up contemplating the Western definition of ‘home’. We associate home with comfort, stability, the familiar. But what if home can be the new and unfamiliar?

Before I moved away, home was a place almost too comfortable to motivate me to make a change. Feeling grounded did little to shake off my feelings of despondency. But what if home is meant to be somewhere that challenges you, somewhere that makes you feel unsafe in order to hurl you out into the unknown? What if home can be mobile, transient, ever-changing?

Over time, we cultivate our lives in many different homes. We shed one shell and adopt another.

It’s been three weeks since I moved to Berlin and already my concept of home has changed. I have found home in myself: my passions, my interests, my own company. Home is still a sanctuary, but it has been constructed out of my own being. Home is no longer a physical place, but a concept.

Home is a place to be content, even if you are far away from those you love. Home for me is where I spend time alone, cultivate ideas, immerse myself in culture, literature, the things I love; learn to speak to myself more kindly, reward myself for small personal triumphs. For now, home is within myself and it’s a powerful feeling.

Home doesn’t just have to be with the familiar. Establishing home in yourself actually involves wading through tides of the unfamiliar. It’s surprising how much we conceal from ourselves.

Making home within yourself involves opening the floodgates to emotion. One cannot know oneself without first knowing how to feel.

Home can be any number of places, but it’s comforts are defined by simple, blissful moments that remind you of where you belong. It is in your own concept of home where the fragments of your life are unified. You will leave parts of you in different places and with different people, but home reminds you of what is absolutely true and integral to your life and character.

Home is the place where my facades are shed. I am entirely myself. Imperfect, flawed, but me.

Home is substantial, safe, secure. Places are home. People are home. You, your mind, your body, is home.

 

 

 

A Short Anecdote

This morning was miserable. I was feeling particularly sorry for myself as I stood on the platform, drenched and already drained of any fervour for the day ahead. While sat in the carriage, gazing drearily out the window, wishing the cyclist next to me would move the wheel of his bike unobtrusively from the side of my thigh, I overheard a conversation. A lady, who by the sounds of it had been the subject of infidelity by her husband, said ‘but you’ve got to laugh.’ She had to laugh to make light of the situation, to release herself, momentarily, from pain, to protect herself from the judging, yet kind, eyes of the spectator opposite her.

And this is why we laugh, I thought. We laugh to forget the cares of the world. We laugh to remind ourselves that we still live, and breathe, and hurt. We have a heart beating still, reverberating in our chests, beneath the layers of our paper skin.