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I remember with intense accuracy a scenario I would run through my head as a primary school pupil. Bored, slouching in a chair, my attention span worthy of an ADHD diagnosis, I would imagine the entire classroom filling up with water. The four walls would seal us in as the inexplicable flood poured, turning the classroom into a fishbowl. Everyone would be helpless. Everyone but me. I would swim first towards our young teacher (also my first crush), scooping my arms around her and pulling her to the surface and to safety. Next, I would dive back in for my fellow pupils, who would somehow survive until I reached each of them in turn. I would be a hero. Little did it matter that I didn’t know how to swim. If the moment required it, I would learn it on the fly. So strong was the belief, that any projection of physiological limitations would be brushed off.
Later that afternoon, I would look out the window of the bus that took me home to grandma’s at a superhero-type character running alongside the vehicle. He would jump over cars, run ahead of the bus and circle around it, doing backflips and showing off, always smiling and winking back at me. The hero’s face was mine, but also not mine at the same time. Everything he was able to do, I was able to do, and nothing could stop me from being like him if I really wanted to.
Disappointment struck soon. One day I attempted to move a pen across the table by just watching it intently. The pen laid still. I squinted my eyes and stared hard at it, urging it to move. Nothing. As a last resort, I summoned all the energy that had bubbled inside me for so long and released it onto the pen. If I really wanted it, it was going to happen. I grabbed the edge of the table, squeezed my eyes so tight they started to water, and muttered through gritted teeth, ‘move’. Seconds passed. The pen didn’t move. Instead, I moved on, ruefully ignoring the small crack I had heard inside me, like compressed wood fibre in an aging chair, announcing that the perfection contained within was now starting to decay.
You were born at dawn on the 5th of November. I was there to see it all: your head peering out, my wife, your mother, screaming in a vocal range beyond suffering, and a few seconds later, you yourself—a wrinkled, hairy mess ready to be loved and cared for. You were healthy, your mother happy, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I was present. A strange, pensive silence took hold of me. I sat and watched you breathe on your mother’s chest, all the while wondering about the world we brought you into.
Six years back I met your mother on our first day as graduate students at Oxford. I was cocky; she was hot and so confident that it confused me. It was an accident waiting to happen and I could not be more grateful that it did. Let’s just say that even though I haven’t been looking for better alternatives, nothing as good has come within my range of vision since, or ever had before.
The two of us have moved a lot. It’s part of our story: belonging everywhere but really nowhere. Berlin versus Bucharest has been our long debate – an overdue war of sorts – fuelled for both of us by an allegiance we still struggle to understand. It goes beyond what we used to call ‘home’ and instead resembles a Game of Thrones style allegiance to a house that defines our identity. It is both a blessing and a curse, something to cradle and yet be smothered by. If there was anything that could have torn us apart over the years, this was it. Where we live remains a tender subject for us, reactive to the slightest pinch. Any discussion around it is conducted with care or well-intended humour.
When we found out you were on the way, location became a topic once again. This time, as the destination of your birth. We settled on Berlin, though we now live in Bucharest.
Fortune favoured us and when the day came, it all went smoothly at the hospital and we brought you home. Our rented flat in Neukölln is filled with flowers – bouquets we’ve received from friends and family to celebrate your birth. Their aroma still lingers, faded, overcooked by the heaters, and it floods my senses as I cradle you from room to room praying that you will go to sleep. It takes me days to realize I am now a father. And when it does, it happens at night, the joy cloaked by the heaviness of having given you life. Random thoughts shoot through my brain, smouldering on its sleep-deprived surface. I cannot stop questioning the nature of my responsibility to you. I want to speak to you, to warn you, to tell you all the things you should know about us and the world you’re in.
But I never do. And the nights pile on, fragmented, unpredictable. Even when we sleep we don’t truly sleep. Your mother wakes me up to change you. It’s your turn, she says. I stumble out of bed and go to empty my bladder. My mind races with all the things I wanted to achieve before turning thirty but never did. Then I feel guilty. I should be happy with what I have. And I am. But that still doesn’t stop the optimizing machine inside me, a junkie on a rush, craving for more and more, never contented. My brain moves past the missed opportunities and finds fault in the present, in all the wrong things that I am doing knowing they are wrong. Like being lazy or weak or not recycling properly. A contagious spiral blooms up from there. Soon enough I see myself as the active agent that I am in an economy bound to self-destroy.
A few days later I sneak out for a run while the two of you are napping. I am both free and lonely, all by myself again, and the cold air opens my lungs. I start along the Maybachufer and go through Neukölln towards Kreuzberg. Covid has closed the cafes and bars, but the parks are full. It’s Sunday afternoon. On a patch of sand, four people are playing boules. Next to them a group of men swipe with vigour across two ping-pong tables. Another runner passes me with a dog on a leash. I just try to shut out the noise and focus on my breathing. In and out. If I could only think about my breathing, everything would be a lot better.
I am almost thirty. Still young and yet not so young anymore. Old enough to clash with my own delusions and come to terms with the fact that I am as hopeless as anyone else. My ambition to single-handedly bring about political change in my home country was an exercise in messianic grandeur and now rests putrid in a personal mausoleum of all the people I wanted to be. I am not special. I know that now. In fact, I have lost the sense of what being ‘special’ means and I seriously doubt the intrinsic value the word attempts to carry. I am like everyone else: I decay at the same rate, I am made of the same matter. I float in the same sea of chance. In these moments I want to pray and ask for some privilege, but I don’t know from whom. I wish I was religious. I would find relief in a godly ear ready to listen, a divine hand ready to fix whatever needs fixing. I would abide by the rules, strict as they might be, which, if carefully followed, would (surely) lead me to oblivion.
Instead, I watch myself grow into my parents – shrugging their shoulders in surrender – and greet it with a sense of disappointment, soon followed by shame. I see in you the wide-eyed mini-me of years ago making sense of the adult world’s inaction. What could they all do about the world and all that was wrong in it? They retreated into a shell of their own, thinking of personal financial growth as a sort of independence sufficient to overcome any aspects of life that never truly worked. With time, like all others, they grew apart from stillness and nature.
I try to fight my way out of that lane. I preach about the importance of sustainability, careful and mindful consumption. I buy organic Japanese cotton jeans at 200 euros a pair and promise to wear them for life. I can only afford what I afford by working as a business consultant – a job that is part of somebody’s economic solution and everybody’s environmental problem. I catch myself chasing labels with my eyes above the butt cracks of passers-by. I judge them. And yet, I only know what H&M jeans look like because I used to wear them. Even more so, I used to support the ecosystem they created – one hard to demonize once you’re in the store in the middle of December with dimmed lights, festive decorations and Christmas music in the background. Shrugging it off is what you’re expected to do.
Back at the flat, I sit down and I write this letter to you, the same one I’ve been writing since we found out your mother is pregnant. I say: there are a few things I want to tell you before I forget them. It’s not much and I don’t think it’s really helpful. Or it’s helpful only in as much as one’s transparency and empathy can elevate another person. It’s 2020, start of winter, you’re not even two weeks old, deep asleep on your mom’s chest. You are a wonder to us and a mystery and every day we try to figure out how you work, tiptoeing around, afraid we’re going to break something inside you. You’ve arrived at a strange time, though I’m not sure what a better time would look like.
Four weeks later we pack up and get you ready for your first move. We’re emptying yet another flat and are going back ‘home’, though by now home is wherever we spend more than four weeks. We arrive late and my parents, excited to see you, drive three hours from my hometown to pick us up at the airport. They hold you, eyes laughing above the face mask. In the bright arrivals hall, they look older, as if becoming grandparents instantly aged them. They drive us home and then leave, afraid of exposing us to the potential of them carrying the virus.
Next morning, 8am, minus 2 degrees celsius outside and I’m already queuing, shuffling from one foot to the other. I’m not dressed appropriately. I wasn’t expecting to wait outside for that long. For about an hour I squeeze my muscles under my coat and watch an overweight security guard lean against the door of the Civil Registry office, smoking unfiltered cigarettes above a lowered mask. Covid, he says. That’s why you need to wait outside. I nod and look away. I’m here to register you, but the cold is making me reconsider the advantages of being a Romanian citizen. Like a mirror it’s reflecting all there is to see in front of it and all I feel like doing is looking down.
A year and a half ago I convinced your mother to move with me to Bucharest. By then I had been living abroad for ten years and was longing for my roots like a sailor lost at sea. She, on the other hand, was probably more tired than convinced. We agreed to give it a try and from that point on my mission was not so much to curate her experience, but to do my best in highlighting what the place had to offer. I bought a van, which turned out to be a lemon, loaded it up with our stuff and we drove from Berlin to Bucharest. I rented us a cool, central flat and asked around for recommendations of restaurants and galleries. I introduced her to friends from home, made new ones and nudged a lot of people to switch from Romanian to English. If there was a chance it could work, then this would be it. So I built, bit by bit, not noticing that my castle rose on sand.
At every social occasion, on hearing our story, the question we heard was ‘why?’. Why did we move here if everyone else was moving away? The self-deprecating humour of Romanians, a former favourite of mine, ended up biting me hard. After much time and effort showing her that the medical system is not great but improving, I would get two or three medics at a party laying it all out like a stinking carcass. I went silent, both in the discussion and on the walk back home. At first, I thought it was an isolated incident, but soon more drops of poison dripped over. Bit by bit, we sowed the seeds of doubt and started growing bitter.
Soon after that, the postman dropped our mail in front of the apartment building instead of our mailbox. Your mother had a gift sent to our address and the package miraculously disappeared, signed by and delivered to some neighbour that doesn’t exist. Then none of the lights worked on our staircase anymore. We got flooded by the neighbour. A hole opened up on our street and grew larger every day, threatening to swallow the city. It remained unfixed for six months, a broken tree branch marking the threat to approaching vehicles. More potholes then appeared in the streets, the cars swerving around them, honking and screeching, exhaust fumes scratching the bottom of your throat. It was the cars too that turned the sidewalks into mazes and poorly marked crossings into assisted suicide. Concrete crumbles peeled off buildings like frosting on a stale cake. There were no trees around save for some greyed out birches and the parks were invaded by diarrheic pigeons. Soon the cheese was too white and the butter too crumbly. Why we had come here grew less obvious, and my story weaker. A sour taste built up at the bottom of my throat.
If it weren’t for the indemnity your mother is supposed to receive during her maternity leave, I would’ve left the queue earlier. Instead, I do it two hours later having achieved nothing. I can’t register your birth in Bucharest since formally I am registered in my hometown at an address I haven’t lived at in ten years. Your mother is a foreigner here and for some good reason she’s not allowed to register you either. The surest path is to register myself in Bucharest, which involves changing my ID and finding someone to grant me residence at their address. When I do, the local authority will refuse my application and request that I first register my marriage in Romania since the papers I hold were originally signed in Berlin. For that, they will send me back to my hometown where I am trying to de-register from. Weeks stretch in between. Like in Kafka’s The Trial they send me from one place to another, issuing random requests for papers which need to be in two or three copies, some translated, some verified by a notary, stamped, signed, legalized, mailed, e-mailed. At every interaction I shiver in expectation of yet another paper I need to produce. There’s a lot of cold and waiting around involved, queues with people in thick coats, bored government employees and signs to wear a mask being stared at by people holding theirs under their noses. I thought acceptance is meant to feel like relief and instead it settles on me like volcanic ash – acidic, heavy and cancerous.
Back home, I sit down and I write to you again. I say: even though I’m looking at you every day, I cannot see you grow. Only the photos on my phone, disjointed, glimpses of the past, allow me to notice the jumps you’ve made. You’re big now, bigger than you’ve ever been. You even smiled at me yesterday, though it’s likely you just had gas. There are many things I’ve learned but only a few that truly matter. First, time passes. That is a miracle in itself, both as a healing mechanism and as a wonder of life. Although time stopping would be as much of a miracle, to be honest. Since it passes and we each have a finite amount of it, you need to maintain a constant awareness of how to prioritize it. That in itself is a form of torture and a contributor to the fear of death. Then I stop, realizing that none of this is useful.
That night you make a show. At midnight you’re crying like the world is out to get you. As I cradle you, I watch the prostitutes outside pacing the sidewalk on high heels like fearless impalas. We moved to a new flat right before the birth. The viewing took place during the day, on a weekend. Bad choice. At night, every night, we have several prostitutes stationed right in front of our block. Sometimes they use the boot of my car as a bench and in the morning I find empty bottles of Coke propped up against my windshield wipers. The police’s reply was peaceful inaction, despite our multiple calls. That’s their place, they said, they’ve been there for decades. I fail to calm you down and your mother takes you over as a next level of escalation. I stretch back on the bed and I stare at your joint silhouettes against the light from the lamp post outside. Through heavy eyelids, from the way you rest against her lower chest, she looks pregnant again.
People say you should strive to give your children the best future they could possibly have and that confuses me once I start thinking about it. I have no clue what future would work best. I struggle to come to terms with my own present. Becoming a father was meant to happen at some point when I felt complete. Or at least complete as an adult. I am not sure who to blame for this delusion, but I like to think it wasn’t me who came up with it. And still, I too want to issue some advice. Being the preacher has always been easier than being the disciple and I’d like to send you off into the world with something.
So once you give in and fall asleep, I remain on the bed staring at a stain on the wall, wondering whether my responsibility rests with you, my wife, my parents, my country, my work colleagues, the child I used to be or the man I am now. It’s like I owe so much to so many people, I’m so deep in emotional debt, that I will never manage to dig myself out of it. I struggle to describe my feelings when your mother asks what’s wrong. I shrug my shoulders and tell her some passing thought.
If anything, what I feel is a lot of aggression bubbling up inside me. The sort that is dangerous to no one but the person who carries it. It’s poison, dripping, rousing a thumping headache from the depths of my brain. I take my time to find the source, to slowly trace the river of mud flowing through me. Your mother says I should see a therapist. That it would help. Maybe I should. Maybe it would.
In the dead of night, I decide I should be proactively honest with you. Curating experiences is bound to fail, as the past has shown me. Honesty would mean telling you early on that this world is fucked, in a fundamental, structural way. We’ve made a mockery of nature and grew apart from it, labelling ourselves superior, beyond the natural, and have destroyed it and ourselves with it. The cataclysmic change we’ve triggered through only decades of pollution left its mark on the Earth’s surface and is now spreading every day like a cancer.
In the meantime, we are very, very busy. My friends, colleagues, some of the smartest people I know, are stuck in meetings, back to back, answering e-mails, conducting alignment calls, their phones buzzing with a flood of important notifications, texts, and they all stretch themselves to their limit, sleep deprived, to keep up with everything that we have defined as success. The big man in the office, holding a pen and staring at a chart, still lingers in our common imaginative repository as the archetype of accomplishment. Like cartoonish zombies we stand and walk out of the office every day, remote controlled, living within a reality of manufactured meaning that we’ve given life to and that’s slowly working to take ours away. I read newspapers and they say the economy will suffer this year. I wonder what the economy is, despite having graduated with an economics degree and working for years in the corporate zoo.
Outside of offices, floods rip through villages. Hurricanes trigger mass evacuations. The dry becomes drier, forcing conflict over land, and soon after, waves and waves of refugees. The rich frown and the poor beg on. Yet another shooting. Yet another block of ice separating from the polar ice caps, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces until those too are swallowed by the blue. The water rises here and the fires ravage over there. We build bigger buildings, we buy more cars, we lose sleep over whether the numbers are going to stagnate this year instead of hitting the quarterly projected growth. Everybody has an island to protect, a bonus to hope for. We are here for only a blink, and that blink is here, now, with all these people, not on some ice cube floating somewhere we are not even sure exists. We rely on religion, then we don’t, then we kill each other over it. We believe in what some call conspiracies because it makes us believe that only we can see through the smoke.
There is something toxic about where we are now, about the things we define as good, about what we aspire to or strive for, about the idea of wealth as an end in itself, about ‘more’ being a religion, about ‘better’ just meaning ‘more’, about how changing minds is both incredibly difficult and discouragingly easy. There must be something rotten in us if we set our wallpaper image to a luscious green forest but go out spending time in malls. There must be something wrong about always longing for what’s hiding around the corner and not appreciating what is right in front of us.
We’ve redefined ambition and turned it into the one true goal. I’ve seen men and women cower in front of each other, in glass buildings, afraid of extra work, of being noticed or of not being noticed, of their promotion being delayed, or being fired, or losing face. And I don’t blame them. Hell, I am them. And I am tired of my own mistakes and choices, although put in the same situation I might do the exact same thing. I’ve chased it all for so long – the names and the titles – and even grabbed it a few times. But the hunger only grew and looking back I always prized less the few things collected than the many more that lie ahead. The only way to keep the dream alive was to keep on running.
And there was a time when I thought I could make sense of all of this, that I just needed to read one more book, to listen to a few more people. Somebody surely knew which wheel turns the other to keep it all moving. But I don’t. I honestly believe that no one has a clue. At most, we each understand really well the mechanics of a small cog, and the lucky ones are making a good job of taking care of theirs, but with little to no awareness of how that joins in the entire mechanism. As long as it’s moving, it’s working. Even if it’s too late, or too fast, or the wheels themselves are grinding so hard against each other that the engine is slowly crushing itself to death. I go to bed soon after, my mind still searching for the silver lining.
You are two months now and growing as if we’re feeding you magic beans. You smile and smell divine and our hearts melt when we see you. When I hold you, you nestle around my neck and purr like an enormous cat.
Despite all you’ve heard, there’s really no reason to be scared. Nor should you find fear in the dark, in the shapes that mould around the corners. There comes a point when you are disappointed there’s no one behind the curtain or the shelf, that the scary man is just a winter coat and that the shape is just a shape and you are just yourself, alone, eyes all teared out and dusty. And I know it’s worse when you can’t see the enemy, when it might not exist in a predictable form but the fear still pulsates raw within you. You will live past all this.
I thought for a long time of what I should write to you. So here it is. Craft a story that you believe in and that makes sense in your universe of thoughts. Live in it, grow it and achieve any form of excellence it allows for and then some more. But also allow yourself to break down that story, to tear it to pieces and create a better one. Most importantly, along the way learn about and share in the stories of others. If I figured it out well, this is how growth comes about.
I do that too. On some days it’s easier than others. But most days, I wake up with a sense of unease creeping behind me like a shadow. It’s fear really, or rather shame. Shame that I am less strong than I would like to feel. That I must make do with what I have and that I have not yet been able to accept myself as I am. I’ve retained broken pieces of my past stories like shattered stained glass. I can’t make sense of them anymore, nor can I let go. I can’t see my hero running by the side of the car unless I make myself see him. And by now I know that I am a terrible swimmer. My attempt at saving anyone would only reduce their chances of saving themselves. I still haven’t moved any pens with my mind, but at least I figured out a few things in all this time. Hopefully, if I tell them to you early enough, you can run faster and freer, you can get to enjoy the ride more than I did. In the meantime, I’ll just focus on you, your mom and the few things that I’ve discovered I like. I really don’t want more. I’m now old enough to be confident in what I’ve come to love.
But I am still broken and so is the world. Soon, so will you. But we all mend on our own, we can help others too. I am sorry if bringing you in the middle of all this is just as selfish as not having you in the first place. But just give it a shot. Despite what they say, there is no game, because nobody seems to be winning.