How To Grow Up Socialist-Realist or Not At All

The Russian artist called it: Help me to survive this deadly love.
The Russian artist Dimitri Vrubel called his graffiti: My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love

The Past Is A Different Country Altogether

Dreading the moment my time of magical thinking will come to an end and my bank account will tell me to look for a job, I’ve been thinking about my CV. All 100 versions of it. I also thought about all the places who offer help in presenting me in the best possible light and advise on what to put in and what, most importantly, leave out. How in the past I squeezed and distorted my past experiences to fit some kind of job description, usually ending up feeling diminished and not wanting a job at all.

Now, still not wanting to be employed but simply be a Mensch who gets paid for writing, I can finally pen a more comprehensive, less glamorous but ultimately, more realistic account of my life.

I was born in 1973 in a town on the Polish border to a father who was born in Zagan, Silesia, in what is now Poland. In the gruesome winter of 1945 his mother, fleeing from the Russians and her past, carted him together with his two siblings in a trolley all the way to Thuringia where she sold the little jewelry (and other non-material things) she had in exchange for food and worked in semi-slavery for a farmer. That was the story of bravery and survival she told us and the one she had decided to live with, conveniently leaving out the nasty bits of what happened before, during and after the War.

My mother’s family had been brought to Thuringia by my grandfather from Teplice in Czech. After ’45, with all the so-called anti-fascists and communists remaining in the Russian sector, what was to become East Germany after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, my grandfather became chief of the local agricultural production cooperative (LPG).

My parents, possibly brought together by a shared past of immigration and displacement, fell in love in their teens and later moved to Frankfurt/Oder where I was born. My mother was appointed judge overseeing company law, thus circumventing more political and therefore treacherous judicial appointments and resolved herself to resolving petty conflicts between socialist companies who generally didn’t meet their targets according to whatever 5-Year-Plan had been concocted.

However, after the Fall of the Wall in 1989 when DDR-citizens were allowed to view their Stasi-Files, it became apparent that she also was an IM, which stands for ‘Informeller Mitarbeiter’ (informal collaborator) for the secret service Staatssicherheit. To show you how short memories are, she was allowed to continue working as a judge regardless and later sent into retirement with flying colours.

My father, a surveyor without a proper degree, in the meantime managed to lead a somewhat Bohemian life, working as football trainer for kids and a few other things. And because he lacked professional ambition and the required mindset he got away with not joining the Workers’ Party.

According to government policy, everyone was looked after, had a flat and a job. Some merited the job they had, some didn’t. Mostly, the lowly jobs generally available didn’t merit the people doing them.  A career, even though that word was not part of GDR vocabulary, was only possible if you kept personal opinions to yourself, informed on friends, family and colleagues and were a member of The Party. Being a dictatorship of the proletariat (that term in itself as absurd as it was fictitious) everybody was meant to be equal. There was no class-system; wages were not that different whether you were a dentist or factory worker. So far so Animal Farm.

As most things, apart from the basics, were in short supply, a culture of exchange and swapping deeds was thriving. Car parts in exchange for a sack of cement, Germina trainers in exchange for a bottle of Czech Schnapps. The carpenter swapped his services with the plumber, the builder who got you the bricks for your Dacha was paid in-kind. People depended on one another which brought about a sense of solidarity, ingenuity and, not always voluntary, mutual appreciation.

And thus Ossis went about their daily lives, keeping their hopes low and horizons small, which was aided by only being allowed to travel within the Eastern Bloc countries and having limited access to Western media. Knowing all the time that Big Brother Stasi was watching and keeping meticulous records to later use for blackmail, intimidation and, most importantly, to assert power and control over its unruly citizens.

The dismay of knowing the watchful eyes and keen ears of the Secret Police were everywhere was so inherent in the people’s psyche that the Stasi’s means of mass surveillance became a quasi urban myth. In order to cope with its abstract and at the same time real threat and to go on regardless, the Stasi and its functionaries became something to make fun of with the people one trusted.

It wasn’t until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power that Ossis dared to hope for some light at the end of the tunnel. Words like Perestroika and Glasnost were radical not only in the sense of utter change and renewal they implied but also in the magic they subtly weaved in people’s blocked and brainwashed minds. What a man. What a politician. I still wonder how a quiet revolutionary like him made it to the top of a corrupt and deeply reactionary political system. I had the fortune to see and hear Mr. Gorbachev at the Cinema for Peace Gala at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009 and knew there was the man who not only changed the course of history but also the course of my life in myriad ways. I cried.

If I want to cheer myself up and feel boundless gratitude, I think about what would have become of me if the Berlin Wall hadn’t come down.

I was 15 years old in 1989 and for various reasons not selected for A-levels. The only possibility to get my A-levels anyhow and not end up in some factory polishing metal parts for electric fence energisers for the rest of my life, was to take up an apprenticeship as Storage Technician and do my A-levels on the side.

Trying to picture my impending future brought up Kafkaesque visions of huge storage facilities filled to the brim with boxes and me on a forklift going around and around to nowhere. An adolescent sense of doom descended and I envisioned my life as a grey mass of imprisoned nothingness.

But history had different plans.

As tectonic plates were already shifting in the summer of 1989 and new opportunities sprung up left, right and center I managed to get a place at the local Lyceum, and surrounded by old class mates who had made it as well, the two best years of my life so far commenced. Although the tough East German exam-system was still in place and I almost failed math and chemistry, I remember laughing and joking with my best friend so much that one of us was regularly asked to leave the classroom. Looking back I think it was the hysteria of never-before tasted freedom and possibilities which made us giddy with joy.

Throughout one thought was festering: I NEED TO GET OUT. Leave my home, my hometown, my former socialist-realist home country, to see and become part of the WORLD.

Consequently I did what all American tourists do when they come to Europe – see as much as possible in as little days as possible. And off on an inter-rail adventure my bestie and I went: Paris, Marseille, Arcachon, Rome, Venice, Athens, Corfu, Istanbul. Wide-eyed natives staring at the Eiffel Tower and throwing up in a bistro, sleeping rough in Italian train stations, passports tied around the waist, riding horses on the beach, suffering sun stroke and diarrhea on the ferry, encountering our first proper West Germans in the form of fellow travelers, smoking our first dope, learning from an American girl how to use toilet paper to blow our noses, schlepping our backpacks through Venice in the August heat looking for Marco Polo, drinking apple tea with carpet sellers in Istanbul and wondering briefly whether it would be a good idea to take a bus to the Middle East.

By then well versed in the art of prioritising and survival, culture was taking a backseat and we opted to stay put and for a tourist meal rather than visiting the Acropolis once we got to the top of the hill.

Then I turned eighteen and my life truly began.

Of course, just like my CV, this is an abridged and polished version of my experiences. I left many more things out than I put in. But for now this has to do.

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Ode to Procrastination

mañana is good enough for me
mañana is good enough for me

‘Is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time.’

Procrastination is good. I could leave it that and everybody would agree but let’s go into the heart of the matter. It’s only when we have procrastinated enough, when we are truly fed up with delaying our life/the essential any longer that we do what really matters.

Only, it’s more complicated than that. Before we can start something new we need to go to the end of whatever came before. That holds true for relationships, for unsatisfying jobs or waiting for the bus until we notice the stop is no longer in use.

Procrastination is the great leveller. It might turn out that, having procrastinated long enough, the urgent thing we’ve been avoiding just doesn’t exist anymore, i.e. the flowers we should have watered died, the all-clearing conversation has become pointless now that the relationship is over, or by the time we are actually ready for a walk it’s raining.

Another bonus of procrastination is that the important thing we’ve been delaying has simply lost its importance. Which totally frees us of guilt, because time did that. It wasn’t us.

So don’t be afraid to go to the very end of your hedging. Try stretching it ad infinitum and you’ll sloth your life away. However, it’s more likely you will get bothered with it eventually. It might take an hour or ten years but there will probably come a time when procrastination just won’t do anymore.

It’s not that your flat couldn’t do with another cleaning, or what about that film you’ve only watched nine times and still offers dialogue subtleties you missed previously, or keeping up with the latest FB updates. You are not really postponing, you just don’t want to miss out on life-changing events.

In my case, whatever it is I don’t want to do the most, or perceive as hardest moves furthest down the list. So if I have something I really don’t fancy doing but deep down know that my life including myself would really benefit from, I find something I feel even less like doing.

Suddenly the thing I didn’t want to do doesn’t look so unattractive anymore simply because it moved upwards on the list of things I’m trying to avoid.

So my trick is just finding that one worse thing. Let’s stick with the homely and homemade. I’m still mending clothes and sometimes customise them. Even though this is satisfying work, also in a good-for-our-planet-screw-you-cheap-clothes-slave-labour-kind-of-way, I will avoid it for as long as possible.

In comes the notion that I should be writing my next blog. And yes, I start mending things that are perfectly alright and customise clothes for no reason other than spending an hour not doing that other thing. Now all I need to find is something less pleasurable than sitting down and piecing my brain cells together for writing.

I obviously found it.

How to not get paid writing work

still from my short NIGHT DUTY
writer trying to focus

Zero. That’s how many replies I received for my hustling.

Not even a no-thank-you-no-unsolicited-material-but-thank-you note. Well, it either went straight into the trash or to the wrong person. And they deleted it. Or to the right person. And they deleted it. Or to no person at all but a spam blocker which nervously flashed a red warning light when it saw my email coming and shredded it before it could clutter anyone’s in-box. Or, rather more prosaically, the intern was having a bad day.

However, when I really think about it, zero is way more interesting than having editors clamouring for my work. I’d be faced with a bidding war and, negotiating without an agent, would be promising everything to everybody. Breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it.

Honestly, zero is preferable to abundance as it could quickly become overwhelming. The silver lining on this particular cloud is that I can learn from it. Grow. Go on a Journey and ponder what it is the universe wants to tell me.

The list of possible messages is long. The favourite and most soothing for my bruised ego naturally comes first.

  1. I’m simply too good and keeping me out means other writers won’t lose their jobs.
  2. My writing sucks but no one wanted to tell me.
  3. My writing is interesting but no one needs it. Especially not in August.
  4. Previous means of making a living weren’t too bad after all.
  5. I have to try again. And again. And.
  6. The unemployed writers’ diet of baked beans was good for me and I should continue.
  7. Get a one-way plane ticket and stay there.
  8. When I’m there learn what I was meant to learn from this experience.
  9. Figuring out that there isn’t such a bad place after all.
  10. Get a job in a hipster café.
  11. Write about life in a hipster café.
  12. In my spare time go fishing and on safari.
  13. Meditate to make it all go away.
  14. Have a good think about life and what it all means. Or doesn’t.
  15. Eventually go to bed, hoping that tomorrow will be filled with orthographic miracles and ice cream.

Once I have learned all these lessons on my Journey there will be nothing left to do but rewind my life and do it all again.

Only differently.

Insta(nt) Satisfaction

selfies were already popular in 1997
selfies were already popular in 1997

Have I signed over my life to an app?

After quitting my job I promised myself to take one picture every day, to mark and celebrate my decision and as a reminder to make the most of it.

And this is how the Instagram mania came to pass. In the beginning it was simply a visual diary. But the more I looked the more I saw. My photographic brain kicked in and the flabby muscle slowly but surely got toned and stronger. Rather than passing by buildings and people and trees, I looked up and around. Curious and eager to discover the hidden things, stopping to contemplate seventies high-rises, childhood memories flooded back. I looked closer at people, their clothes, their faces, how they moved, their body language. Wanting to find out what makes them tick and get up in the morning. Why that woman thought a flowery dress was the right choice for this day.

Every time I took a photograph I liked, I immediately faced internal doom. That’s the last good picture I’ll take, that’s it. Finished. That’s all the beauty I can ever capture, there won’t be another one. Or strolling about and not seeing anything, coming back home empty handed.

But then I went out again and there it was, a man sitting by himself staring into the distance, light through trees, and I again felt that sensation of anticipation and excitement. A kind of Pavlov effect taking hold, saliva collecting in the corners of my mouth as I walked around hunting strange, beautiful and ordinary things.

I felt my sense and appreciation of colours, shapes, lines, urban life and its people being reignited. I was becoming a part of everything as opposed to being a disconnected and isolated entity.

And after a while I wasn’t just collecting visual memories of my life anymore but recorded a memory of the city, a memory for and with the person in the picture who didn’t even know s/he was in it. And that building from that angle in the sun would never be exactly the same as at the moment I looked at it.

However, when that doe-eyed Insta-honeymoon period was over, a whole world of picture-sharing madness opened up, ready to swallow me whole. It’s estimated that there are 300 million monthly active users on the app and the total posts exceed 1 billion. Which make it a Brave New World of every kind of picture from every kind of person from every part of the world.

At first I just followed my friends and a few photojournalists from Iran, Afghanistan, Georgia and Japan. Savouring the access their images gave me to parts of the world I’d never been to and cultures I knew very little about. Then slowly but surely I got sucked into the maelstrom of the sheer quantity of images on offer, emerging hours later with my head spinning, my vision blurred and eyes red from the staring. My brain had become a gaudy mash from taking in and decoding thousands of thumbnails at once.

However, I persisted, not allowing a digital app to defeat me and stayed with it. And little by little I found like-minded people in every part of the world and satisfied my curiosity about how a day in the outskirts of Mumbai went or life in a tiny Romanian village, enjoying abstract shapes and lines in Düsseldorf and peeking into a Swedish mother’s daily life.

I also discovered stunning Flemish-style still lives, Cartier-Bresson like street photography, intriguing portraits and surrealist visions on pages with tags like #dreamscape, #abstract, #sehnsucht, #minimalist and #urbanromantix.

Of course, I had to get over the curse of Instagram. Which is, Why doesn’t anybody like
my pictures? Which equals, Why doesn’t anybody like me???

And realising that world domination is highly desirable but unlikely, I resigned myself to the fact that my 300 million potential friends aren’t interested in my pictures and instead tried to get on with real life.

Did I mention my iphone monthly data allowance usually runs out after one week? The remaining 3 weeks I’m forced to pirate wifi from libraries and cafes, which of course limits my time on it. It’s a life-saver because yes, I am an addict. And it’s getting worse. And I would like to join an Instagram support group.

It’s day 43 since I quit my job.

morning pages & smoothie
delicious days – morning pages & smoothie

Now I cannot imagine how i was able to squeeze 40 hours of employment into my week. It wasn’t even that my job was particularly boring or hard or stressful, I had lovely colleagues and often a whole lot of fun. But I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I wasn’t even sure what it was that I really wanted to, but I knew this wasn’t it. I only felt a part of me present and in demand and the others were slowly wilting away and getting number by the day. So after 4.5 years I called it quits and somehow surprised myself with that decision but while i was steadying myself for the life after I also knew it was the right and only thing to do.

I had been saving up, cutting down on holidays, circumventing bars, restaurants and clubs and instead tried to have as much free fun as possible. And the old adage that the best things in life are free was confirmed: meditation, yoga (online), seeing friends, talking, laughing, cycling, lying in the park cloud-gazing, reading – all came free of charge.

I wanted to find out how it would feel not to be accountable to anybody but myself and taking sole responsibility for my life, my time, my days, how and with whom to spend them. Make all decisions myself and risking of not having anyone but myself to blame in case it would go haywire. With that came entering uncertainty, non-employment, knowing that my savings would run out and because London is London, that this would happen rather sooner than later. Not having the next job lined up or a wealthy auntie about to pass away – and be okay with that.

What’s more, doing all this without having anything or anyone to fall back on, neither family nor partner, but doing it under my own steam without safety net. Scary and exhilarating at the same time. What if I got depressed, just stayed in bed? Without anybody needing me to be anywhere at any time this was definitely a possibility. Without any of the artificial structures holding me together, would I have enough self-initiative and motivation to get up just for my own sake?

NO. MIDDLE. OF. THE. ROAD.

American film poster
American film poster

A homage to LAST TANGO IN PARIS
Even though Last Tango in Paris is mostly famous for its highly charged sexual scenes accompanied by blasphemy which therefore caused a scandal at the time of its release and must still have the pope cursing the day it hit the screens, what got overlooked is that Last Tango in Paris is a poetic and narrative masterpiece.

At the core of the film lies a doomed love affair, but Bertolucci also comments on the dogmatic and damaging influence of the family and, drawing the circle even wider, the Catholic church. The two characters, Jeanne and Paul, are like two savages, who try to create their own world but ultimately break when confronted with their past lives and the outside world.

Last Tango in Paris dares to delve into the ugly depths of human relationships and not only that, it digs up the monsters lurking in its murky waters and gives them human faces. Starting with evocative titles featuring paintings by Francis Bacon and trembling music by Gato Barbieri, we know we are in for a ride when the film opens with a shot of a man in a brown coat standing beneath a railway bridge trying to escape the noise of the overrunning train by pressing his hands to his ears. There he is forlorn with disheveled hair and agony in his eyes: Marlon Brando, the character of Paul, the uprooted American in Paris. Maria Schrader plays Jeanne, the Parisian ingénue, and as she passes him in a crème coat with fur trimmings and a hat with plastic flowers she looks like a character from a varieté show at the Pigalle.

And in comes the third character of the film, the obscure object of desire: an apartment to let. When Jeanne asks the old Caribbean concierge for the key, the woman doesn’t let go of the girl’s hand and, like the witch in the fairytale, she seems to jinx the girl with her hysterical laughter, a foreboding of that whatever is going to happen in this apartment will be no ordinary affair.

And we are also entering Vittorio Storaro’s (the cinematographer) world of dirty whites and browns, which in times of intimacy are given a copper glow, but where the light can never quite fight off the shadows and where darkness becomes a place for painful comfort and shared loneliness.

As Jeanne ascends in the elevator like a modern-day Alice travelling to wonderland, the camera rests on a round lamp shining like the moon. When she enters the apartment the American is already there, slouched in a corner, waiting for nothing, but not surprised to see her there. They talk about the apartment, if he’s made up his mind about taking it, he has, she is not sure, he tells her to decide quickly, all marvellous sub-text for what follows next: they fuck. And it is an act of heavy labour, void of any intimacy.

Desperate and confused Jeanne runs to meet her boyfriend, an eager film student who is documenting their lives as a couple in love, and thus transforms any real feelings into acting, taking away the realness she craves.

Cut to a woman cleaning a blood-stained bathroom in a boarding house: the place the American owned together with his wife who committed suicide. Paul’s troubles to communicate are not only language-based, even in his own house, he is a man out of place. His feeling of being trapped inside a human zoo is translated into aggressive action and words.

Jeanne and Paul meet again at the apartment. She wants to know his name. He reacts violently, insisting that there should be no names. He imposes a world without past and memories on her: We are strangers and shall remain strangers. The less you know me the less you can hurt me. And we know that this man is a prisoner of his past and the only way to escape it is by pretending it isn’t there. The apartment thus becomes a sanctuary, a place outside life and reality, a stage where past events can be re-enacted and given a different outcome and the purest form of communication can be found.

But his past cannot simply erased and weaves itself into the present as the mother of his dead wife waits for Paul at the boarding house, eagerly preparing the funeral, holding on to what she can grasp: the cards to be sent out, the flowers, the ceremony. Her grief meets with Paul’s aggression as she tries to overcome the horror of what has happened by throwing herself into organising the aftermath, while utterly unable to understand why her daughter has killed herself. Or maybe she does and tries to escape her guilt by hanging on to the mundane tasks.

Jeanne’s boyfriend, still obsessed with finding out who Jeanne is, takes her back to her childhood house in the countryside, occupied by her racist nanny and the memories of her dead father, a colonel in the French army.

Jeanne carries her memories over to the apartment, to the man who does not want to know them, and who recognises them as what they are: romanticised images of childhood, her youthful naiveté constantly clashing with his middle-aged cynicism. Eventually Paul opens up and his childhood memories are of a different nature. Both his parents drunks, humiliating him, the boy. But when Jeanne taunts him about having let go of his guard he replies that everything he’s told her might be lies. Later on he cries by himself and we know they are not.

Paul’s language throughout the film is violent and obscene, the armour on which he hopes all the pain ever inflicted on him and which is yet to come, will bounce off. But when alone with his wife, covered in flowers and makeup for the dead, he breaks down, releasing his hurt by cursing her and confessing that he’d loved her and that she short-changed him until the very end.

All this is a charged build-up for the core scene of the movie: Paul butters up Jeanne’s rear and rapes her, or does he? But it wasn’t this what caused the controversy: while he is at it, he makes her repeat after him, in a scene entitled “Holy Family”: “I’m going to the family. That holy institution, meant to breed virtue in savages. Holy family. Church of good citizens. The children are tortured until they tell their first lie. Where the will is broken by repression. Where freedom is assassinated by egotism. Family… you… you…you fucking family! Oh God… Jesus”, and he comes.

Here, Bertolucci makes a connection between the family as the nuclear unit to the Holy Family and simultaneously comments on the corrupt nature and righteousness of the Catholic church, stating that both families, your own and the supposedly holy one, are a means of oppressing the  independent spirit, fucking you in the ass, literally.

Yet the more Paul frees himself of his demons and becomes a believer again, the more Jeanne spirals into a dark world of her own. When he finds her under the rail-way bridge, he is a changed man. A man with music in his walk, full of optimism and hope. But Jeanne has passed the point of no return and tells him it’s over. They enter a dance hall where middle-aged couples engage in a semiprofessional tango competition. For Jeanne their fairytale has become stale reality, reeking of disillusionment. Paul is finally himself, a love-struck teenager, if not for the first time then surely for the last. He tells her he loves her, but she only sees the maître d’hôtel in him. As if now, that his guts are displayed on the table Jeanne notices his tie is the wrong colour.

Once more the possibility of their love appears as they playfully dance amongst the couples their version of the tango. Being kicked off the dance floor they retreat into a dark corner and in an act of pity and humiliation Jeanne masturbates Paul, and maybe, unconsciously, pays him back. Then she desperately breaks away from him. Paul runs after her in the streets and forces his entry into her mother’s flat. Jeanne takes her father’s revolver from the drawer. He wants to know her name: She says, Jeanne, and shots him. Paul staggers onto the balcony and, in a final gesture of absurdity, or simply to leave his mark behind, he takes out his chewing gum and sticks it beneath the iron-cast railing. Jeanne mutters,: “I don’t know who he is. He followed me in the streets. He tried to rape me. He is a lunatic. I don’t know what he is called. I don’t know his name. I don’t know who he is.” And it’s true: the one thing he has never told her was his name.

Sex and the Cinema

still from my short GO!
Don’t Look Now

Mickey Rourke famously said that there is no man who wouldn’t rather watch a woman stripping on stage than a theatre play. If there is truth to that, then it might well be that movies were invented in order to fuse theatre and stripping. So that men can go to the theatre and still get their tickets’ worth.

Americans like to censor everything which is not a tamed depiction of the sexual act. And because they are prudish, sex is always portrayed as a clean, civilised thing. Something people do after they’ve been introduced to each other, or evil has been put to rest, or a car-crash.
In French films people go through a lot of talk before they have sex, as opposed to German films where they talk afterwards. In Italian cinema food definitely takes the place of sex, simply because the characters know that pasta carbonara is bound to be satisfying, while with sex you never know. Wong-Kar-Wai’s characters prefer to have sex with absent people. In Russian films the characters often confuse violence with sex, or take it to be the same, which is why one of the lovers always ends up alone.

But wait, there is the famous love-making scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now. Departing from the norm, this is a married couple doing it. How often do we see sex between married people in films? Therefore the average viewer must think that married people and people over the age of 28 don’t have sex. And if it doesn’t happen in film then it surely never happens in real life.

Films from the 30ies, 40ies and 50ies brittle with sexual tension and the mysterious forces between people. Because sexual acts, including kissing,couldn’t be shown, so symbolic imagery and double-entendres had to take its place. Nowadays we can have whatever we want on film and the truth is there is nothing exciting in seeing two actors pretend (or not pretending) to have sex with each other. It’s boring and, more often than not, gratuitous.

But the point I’m really trying to make is this: There aren’t many nonpornographic films that give us naked men in all their splendour, probably because the directors happen to be mostly male. I remember Jude Law’s yummy bum in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but that rare sight was only meant to show the homoerotic tension between Ripley and Jude Law’s character. In 21 Grams, even though the love scene between Naomi Watts and Sean Penn doesn’t add anything to the story, Penn still looked gorgeous naked. So why don’t we get more of this? If there has to be nudity than I want more naked men! At least then female viewers can indulge in voyeurism, too.