La Tristesse Durera Toujours

Years back, I stumbled upon an online article about a photographer’s journey to North Korea. The interview itself did not share too many interesting points. However, it was accompanied by a selection of photographs.

One of these is edged in my mind ever since. It shows a larger city, most likely Pyongyang, in darkness. It is night time. A small bank of fog worms its way through the streets where people should be. It is quiet. Eerily so. I am not kidding here: You can SEE in the picture how quiet it is. Yet, no peacefulness. Maybe it is my brain; knowing the context; that adds the palpable sense of oppression to the picture. The part of the city in the picture is lightless. Apart from two or three lit windows, a whole city district lies there – seemingly abandoned. All one can make out is one main thoroughfare surrounded by silent concrete buildings. Concrete buildings that, I can feel through the picture, hold so many people in silence. The only real light in the image emanates from a floodlight illuminating a poster of the supreme leader.

Whenever I remember this picture, a feeling wells up inside of me. I feel like weeping. I feel an insatiable longing for these places. It is as if some part of me wants to take in all of it. All this sadness. And I somehow know that places like these will always exist one way or another. They are a part of us. All of us. Believe me or not, but these places are necessary. They do not work without us. Wherever we are, these places are. We bring them with us. We create them. We have done so for centuries, and we will do so until we vanish.

Ever since that photo, I realised that my own collection of snapshots often features buildings like the ones left in the dark in the picture I saw online. Images of concrete monstrosities a lot of people call home. In Germany, we call these Plattenbauten. I tried looking up the English word for them. The closest expression I found was ‘prefab buildings’, although that doesn’t quite cut it. For my British or American readers: Think council estate buildings or prospects. It’s the type of housing that efficiently tries to hide away hundreds of families into convenient blocks. You know the type – buildings where the less fortunate live in dystopian futures.

I grew up in one of these before my family embraced its middle-classness and moved to a nicer part of the city. Maybe my fondness for these ugly structures stems from these years. I am not sure.

So many hearts behind all this dirty facade.

Halfway through this post, I find myself rambling as I try to put words to a sadness deep in the pit of my stomach. It flared up today as I watched an early 2000s movie about Ché Guevara’s roundtrip of Latin America. (The Motorcycle Diaries)

My own opinion about Ché and communism are summoned up quickly. It is easy to glean that my views about the world are at the very least left-leaning, socialist ideas. However, I have an issue with cults, and unfortunately, during my life, I have learned that you can dial up anyone or anything into a cult. A lot of good ideas die that way. The older I get, the more I’ll have to admit that Karl Marx has correctly identified how capitalism will destroy us. However, the older I get, the more annoyed I get with folks who can point out the holocaust in everything but refuse to acknowledge a single gulag. To this day, I find this a flaw that needs to be addressed. It is the primary reason I wouldn’t call myself a communist. (Side note: There is three books I’d recommend reading regarding this topic: Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales and Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time) This opinion extends to Ernesto himself. Though I can identify with the idealised portrayal of him in this movie, a thoughtful young student of medicine with a poetic, golden heart, I cannot forget the simple fact that the pop culture idol is a mass murderer. Another truth rarely acknowledged.

The subject of the movie is actually secondary to me. What struck me more is the cinematography of it. I am convinced that the people who financed the flick, the writers, the actors had a pretty specific agenda in mind. (some atheists definitely had a bone to pick in this one; which in turn proves how you can turn even the simple act of “not-believing” into a cult)

However, whoever was responsible for the actual images, and sound design must be some kindred soul. There it is again: All the pain and love we possess in the same place. A melancholy to cry for.

A melancholy eternal.

Papa Was A Rolling Stone

I am pretty sure I must have nomads in my family tree and ancestry. Now technically, if one goes back long enough, we all have. However, sometimes I feel a more urgent need to switch scenery. I don’t necessarily believe character traits are “in our blood”. Of course, there are genetics, but I really dislike the idea that behaviour is supposedly somehow predetermined. I guess it’s the age-old debate of nature vs nurture.

And yet, I have this quirk that after a (surprisingly consistent) period, I tend to get fed up with the town or city I live in. Taking Frankfurt out of the equation (I wanted to leave THAT place ever since I was twelve or so), every place I lived got weirdly sour and stale after around five to six years.

Greifswald? I had a great time there. University life, relentless partying, loads of friends. I definitely had a lot of fun there, and still mostly have positive associations with the small town in the country’s north-east. In fairness, Greifswald was likely never the place where I settle. After all, it is only about the size of my hometown, and apart from a thriving student culture, it did not offer all that much to make a life there. Another issue that cannot be skipped over is that I messed up studying there. Most people like to put distance between them and their failures. Whatever it was. By the end of my time there, I just wanted to run.

Next stop: Münster. Well, Münster still has a place in my heart as a place that could’ve become home. It has a decent-sized population. There was always something to do offering more variety than Frankfurt and Greifswald combined. I spent seven years there and, for a while, honestly thought I’d stay. And yet, by around year six, it bored me. I had the feeling that I had seen every nook and cranny of town. There also was this hitch with the ‘indigenous’ population I never seemed to get over with. To this day, the best explanation I can come up with is that people there were just too Catholic. It sounds weird as I do not care much about religion. Still, somehow there was an ever-so-slight difference in mentality that bugged me. Paired with me not really getting my feet on the ground careerwise, it was eerily easy to let go of the place. Despite fond memories, I remember that I just wanted to run by the end of my time there.

Finally, Berlin!

I remember people telling me that Berlin likely would not change much in my fortune unless I change my ways. I am humble enough to admit they were not wrong. I came here in my early thirties, and in my head was this idea of leading the life of my twenties here. Unfortunately, you cannot be 27 forever. I found myself enjoying staples of that life less and less. Ultimately, I arrived in Berlin too late. Sure, I went to clubs, bars, gigs. Yet, people do grow old; they change. However, Berlin opened my eyes to a lot of things still. It showed me loads of ways of living, I do not want to pursuit. Berlin taught me lessons, and I have decided to be thankful for that. They are part of my biography now, and I am willing to own them.

Here’s the important bit, though.

I am fed up with it. I feel like I have seen everything here that is to be seen. Of course, that is horse-shit, given that one cannot ever fully grasp a city the size of Berlin. But something in my brain wants to move on. Not greener pastures, just newer ones.

I want to run.

Jack Of All Trades

…master of none.

Before I start, I’d recommend that people look up the origin and history of that saying. It is fascinating!

Anyway, let’s talk about a fun part of growing old. Growing old has one perk that is often overlooked or dismissed. It’s a certain kind of wisdom. Not about the world, but about oneself.

Before there is confusion, let me clarify something: Being older does not make you wiser. In the immortal words of Scroobius Pip (the spoken word performer and hip hop artist, not the character of Lear’s poem):

Observation, not old age, brings wisdom.

(Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip – Waiting for the beat to kick in)

(Edit: Apparently, this is a Publilius Syrus quote. Fair enough.)

However, getting older increases the chances of making the right observations and piecing them together to wisdom.

A piece about myself I learned (accepted) recently, is the fact that I have a more generalist nature. I feel significantly better, knowing a little something about a wide variety of topics rather than being a specialist in only one realm. Even subjects that interest me more than others, I tend to attack from an angle that would make them a piece in the puzzle – the grand scheme of things.

This character trait reveals itself in a lot of small ways. I love (pop)music and (pop)culture, but you would never find me memorising the birthdays of my favourite band’s members. Honestly, I just really don’t care. I am more interested in a band’s history and their place within their time, within their scene, within their time. I don’t exactly need to know when ‘Live Forever’ was recorded. My head wants and needs to know what the song means to the band, the fans, the world. (Some might say *tehehehe* it is just a pop song and therefore means nothing, but you are wrong. It is the best song ever written. Fight me!)

I love reading. I have read a bunch. I’d genuinely say, I have read more than most of my contemporaries. Still, you will seldomly hear me quoting books. Or remembering main character names. Hell, sometimes I forget large chunks of the general plot. And yet, I am pretty sure that, if pressed, I can somehow tell you what each book I ever read was generally about.

If you put me in a quiz about the mating behaviour of opossums, I will probably come dead last. Put me in a general knowledge quiz, and I’ll likely surprise you with a wide range of odd factoids from sometimes obscure fields.

Where does that leave me, though? After all, there is truth to the derogatory bit of the saying. Even though I hate the notion that my knowledge is superficial, I’ll happily admit that for the most part, it is not a productive (and subsequently exploitable) skill. I am sometimes astonishingly good at transferring knowledge and skills between topics, but how do you prove this to an employer? In a world of specialization, who needs people like me? Especially when these crossreferences sometimes misfire severely and make me look a fool.

It’s a weird bit of creativity I possess and know nothing to actually do with.

Ape Runs

There I was. Panting. Mechanically forcing one foot in front of the other. My enemies being a frozen winterscape covered in white. Pine trees. The cold. The animal in me was finally roaming. Freedom. Crystal clear, brilliant, exhilarating freedom from myself.

Mankind has achieved wondrous things. We reached the moon while we still dream of the stars. We conquered the earth. We created the Mona Lisa, we build Rome, we write poems about the morning dew, we rule. The only thing that stops us is…us.

Surely we are more than common animals.

Yet, often enough, we are reminded where we come from. Countless remnants of our animalistic heritage remain in our bodies and minds. Often enough, we ourselves are ruled, are tricked by the lizard part of our brains. Fury, love, pure instinct! Try to govern them and realise how little control we have.

Sometimes it feels like our greatest asset is also our greatest enemy. Yes, my brain can do an incredible number of things at once. It’s the most valuable tool I have, and yet, I want to stop it sometimes. No, I don’t want to die. I would love to be able to put it into an idle state. Have it perform all necessary busy work in the background without continually chewing on the multitude of problems my brain usually just made up itself. Every now and then I want to be free of myself and everything that is expected of me.

The closest I get to this feeling jogging. On rare occasions, the constant, steady movement puts me into a trance-like state of mind. Sometimes, I forget myself. I am no one, I don’t owe anyone. No purpose, no need for a purpose. Just existing. Sometimes on these runs, when the last podcast is listened to, I am too exhausted to worry about the future, too occupied to ponder what eternity feels like.

Sometimes, I am just an ape that runs.

There I was. Panting. Mechanically forcing one foot in front of the other. My enemies being a frozen winterscape covered in white. Pine trees. The cold. The animal in me was finally roaming. Freedom. Crystal clear, brilliant, exhilarating freedom from myself.

The Streisand Effect

Here’s a fun fact about me for the uninitiated: I love döner kebab.

For me, a good döner simply is the king of German street food, and being a native of Berlin/Brandenburg, there is also a bit of local pride involved. After all, Döner Kebap is a beautiful success story of integration. A Turkish street vendor slightly altering an existing dish to fit his German customers’ needs – et voila.

Another fact about me is that I am part internet. I will admit (and frequently have done so already) that I exhibit mildly addictive behaviours in my usage of the internet in general and any form of social media in particular. Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise that micro-reviews of places I visit or frequent are something I partake in. In my case, it was Google reviews. Register yourself as a ‘local guide’ and let people know what you think about places or services you use. Combined with a simple gamification aspect (you get points and ‘level up’ – although there seems to be no end goal or benefit), and you have me.

Only a few months back, I came to the epiphany that Google does not care about what I personally think about the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It also does not care what other people think about my opinion. All Google cares about is that I care. I subsequently stopped using the review feature. In fact, I have stopped reviews of that kind altogether. Interestingly, though: Once you do, you’ll realise how obnoxiously most companies will keep asking you about this. It’s data mining under the guise of customer satisfaction surveys.

Now, where is the connection between the heavenly mana that is a well-made kebab and comprehensive surveillance of your taste by Google?

Today, I received an email from the Google team asking me for a statement about a review I posted two(!!!!) years ago. It included a lot of corpo-speak mixed with legalese. Turns out the owner of a kebab store took issue with the following one-star review:

Don’t bother. Overpriced and touristy for painfully average food. What really grinds my gears, is charging extra for a ‘big’ kebap and then handing out a portion exactly the same as a regular one. Better stay away from that one.

(me, not particularly liking a kebab for once)

Well, I am willing to admit that this isn’t the most in-depth review. Heck… review. It’s an opinion. Subjective as they come. But then, this is how crowd-reviews work supposedly. (apart from the fact that the actual reason these systems exist is the aforementioned data mining) You express for opinion/satisfaction about a place or service, and the system aggregates all available ‘reviews’ into a ranking of the reviewed commodity. The idea is that you don’t have to be a certified food critic. Newsflash: These reviews are all subjective.

I am aware that all these systems can be exploited. I am also aware that in our modern society, these systems can be weaponized. However, I would advocate to not take those too seriously. If your business relies on positive Google reviews to this degree, you might wanna rethink the whole approach.

Anyways, I answered the email faithfully, even though I could not resist the urge to take the piss. After all, they asked me to prove I actually was a customer of said kebab store, and my review was legit. I took some delight in pointing out the absurdity of asking for legal proof of a fast-food transaction two years ago. And I made it perfectly clear that I cannot be arsed if they take down the comment or not. Methinks the world has more significant issues right now.

However, I took the time and sent the store owner the link to the Wikipedia article about the Streisand effect. Y’know, because I am like that.