Posts tagged europe
fictions and contraptions

I finished Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being last night. It is a story about two women, two men, and a dog. It follows their lives as it plays out over time and geographies, reflecting on the nature of a post–war twentieth–century concept of being in the face of accident and chance. I loved it for its obsession with beauty and philosophical foundation yet something about it bothered me. I had been stuck on page 250 out of 300 for weeks, couldn’t get myself to finish it and couldn’t understand why. There was something to it that I just did not accept. I am still not sure I understand what it was, but in any case it made me think of this: fictions

Human beings create fictions. We live in a world of storytelling. The reason we are able to create grand narratives is the same reason we are able to uphold grand societies. Religion is a fiction. As are communism and country borders. But fictions do not only serve the grand and pompous. They also serve the individual. 

We create fictions about the people around us and ourselves because it grounds us and provides us meaning. Why am I acting in this manner? Because of the things that has happened to you, the inclinations that you have and the circumstances you find yourself in. In order to understand the self that inhabit your mind and body you engage in constant self–psychoanalysis. In doing this you create a story, and the story you create provide you answers and the answers give you comfort. Why? Because now you know. Inhabiting the unknown and the unknowable is uncomfortable. If you do not know where you are, you do no know how to act. And if you do not know how to act, you do not know what to do. 

So your fictions keep you safe. Granted. But how do you know that they are true?

Perhaps at one point they were. But perhaps today they have expired. You have reinvented yourself. You live and grow and experience and one day you find the fiction you have lived your life within no longer accommodate the person you’ve become. As a child you were afraid and apprehensive but now twenty years have passed and your soul has since evolved. Your hair is messier. Your nails a little dirty. Your sheets are bloodied, elbows scratched and heart a little torn and jagged. 

So what do you do?

You burn your past. The past that trapped you in a shape you were but no longer inhabit. The past of childhood friends and ageing relatives, the ones who only knew the blue–eyed girl from childhood. And you reinvent yourself. You write a brand new story. You contradict all that defined your former self and you leave it all behind. Your taste in music, the way you speak, the men whose eyes and hands you seek in love and combat and the way you make your bed.

Your new story isn’t frail and captive. The book you write today isn’t locked and hidden in disgrace. It is thick and fierce and maddening. It loves repose and refrain, French–born existentials and bleeding battered bruised black hands.

And? Now that you have burned it down, dug up the foundation and ground the pieces to a fine–grained dust. Are you free?

No. You aren’t free. You’re simply trapped within a newborn fiction. It may be grander and aflame but it is still a cage you forged yourself. It still fits neatly in someone’s narrow–minded brain and it still follows a path that’s predetermined.

What you want is to escape. You want contradiction and complexity. Discomfort and irregularity. The truth is not a neat and fitted custom–made affair you made to soothe your need for order. The truth is messy, dirty, politically incorrect, counteractive and condescending. And you know what? That is why it’s beautiful. Frictions are what causes sparks. 

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So tear your walls. Contradict the stories you tell yourself to feel safe and intact and content. Safety is no place for madness and creation. The known has never made a man surprised. By tearing down the house you built to keep you dry you are forced to enter unknown waters. That is where you find what’s interesting. That is where you want to be.

But you knew this. Right? This is why you love the new, the scary and the unattained. The jungles of the rough grand cities, the hypothetical and intricate and the anti–realism of limitless abstraction. The modernists figured this out. Their paintings of solid black squares are preposterous to some. What? This is nothing. True. It it nothing. But by virtue of being nothing, it is also everything. 

What you did in the past does not matter. Where you were born and whom your parents were, how much melanin your skin contains or the hormones flowing through your veins. None of that defines you. 

What defines you is today. What defines you are the actions you undertake right now. The words you speak and listen to and where you go and what you see and seek. Do what your mind tells you at this moment and do it fully, truly, without fear of consequence or repercussion. Sure, you may look back tomorrow and wonder what the damn went through your mind. That’s fine. It’s great, actually. It shows you you have grown.

That is it. That is what The Unbearable Lightness of Being is about. It is about a band of human beings trapped within their self–narrated stories of who they are and why they are that way. And because they are so rigid and determined and so sure this is the truth, the love they harbour for each other becomes not liberation but their deepest source of pain. Because they capture each other within their stories. Like animals within a cage.

“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight”, Kundera writes. “Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy; happiness is the longing for repetition.” Yes, human life runs straight ahead, and it does so because we are aware that we will one day perish. “It means to know that one is food for worms“, as Becker so elegantly put it. But that does not mean one cannot be happy. Human beings long for repetition because in this way the fictions we create are reassured. To be happy one need simply disregard the need for affirmation. Accept the irrationality and contradictions. And find the beauty within them. 

“Haven’t you noticed I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” the man, surprised, asks the woman at the novel’s very end. In her eyes, her faults and flaws and weaknesses had ruined her lover’s life, forced him to abandon his life’s mission and surrender to a life of quietude. “Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission. And it’s a terrific relief to realise you’re free, free of all missions.”

on the virtues of leaving
Freetown

Freetown

When I was nineteen years old, I packed whatever scarce belongings I had gathered in my life and left my home in Switzerland for a four–month trip to Sierra Leone, West Africa. I had finished high school the year before and spent my time since graduation working the ten–to–five night shift in an Irish pub. My friends had all left for university already and were studying anything between biology in England, business in Holland, medicine in France and politics in Scotland. Meanwhile I had no idea what I wanted other than head out somewhere off the beaten path, leaving the monotony that was slowly but surely eating me up from within.

I can’t remember why I chose Sierra Leone. Perhaps because of the very reason that, besides whatever Hollywood–embellished trivia I’d picked up from movies like Blood Diamond and Lord of War, I knew absolutely nothing about it. My family reacted with well–meaning panic. My kind yet slightly authoritarian grandfather used everything in his arsenal to talk me out of going. He came prepared with a pile of documents he’d thoroughly collected and printed from his computer, covering all about the country’s scary recent history, unpredictable climate, unreliable infrastructure and waterborne diseases. When that did not manage to convince me, he sent my uncle to do the same. You know there is a war going on? No, that ended eleven year ago. Cholera outbreak? That was last year. Floodings? Malaria? Corruption? I guess so. And? Still going. 

My father knew me better. When he was my age he left Sweden to work the deck on a passenger ship en route around the world, and I’d grown up hearing bizarre stories from Jamaica, New York, Hong Kong and Johannesburg. He knew that, like him, when my mind was set on something, no authoritarian threats would ever change my mind. Get your vaccinations, he told me, and bought me water purifiers and malaria pills. And off I went. 

The capital of Freetown is a beautiful, loud, hot, dusty, vibrating and awe–inspiring place. During my first weekend there, a few of the locals I met in the city took some fellow travellers and I to a nightclub. We drank fruit wine out of petrol jugs and lost at billiards to British middle aged men in cargo shorts. It felt like a scene from a 1950s motion picture and we all played the part of the expelled European. The locals taught us how to dance azonto and made fun of our ridiculous attempts at these movements they all seem to simply know from birth. When the music became too loud our dancing feet brought us to the beach nearby and we drank pineapple juice from paper cups and played the same Ghanaian music we’d heard in taxicabs and in the street. I lost my shoes in the sand and spoke of life and travel with a French–born photojournalist who could not get passed the fact that I was nineteen and lost in a land everyone else seemed to have overlooked.

Tiwai Island

Tiwai Island

Another weekend we went on an excursion to an inland river island close to the Liberian eastern border. What could have been a three hour drive amounted to about seven on pot–holed forest roads, my head bruised from all the times it jammed against the car’s interior. Upon arrival, the mainland village chief sent for the island guide who picked us up in an inflatable rubber rescue boat. We traded sleeping arrangements for a bag of rice and a tank of gasoline. The next day, our guide took us on a boat trip around the island to admire the serene and quiet surroundings. There are pygmy hippos in this river, our guide informed us. Besides that, no one but the village men and women ever pass through these waters. Turning a corner, we almost crash into a scrawny wooden canoe carrying three men in football tank–tops and a motorcycle balanced perfectly between them. Oh, and Guinean nomads.

A few weeks in we befriended some South American businessmen who brought us to a nearby beach. Their pickup truck wasn’t large enough for an extra three young girls so instead we packed ourselves onto the open cargo space. At the beach they bought Star beer and Savanna ciders and when the thunderstorm rolled in over the soaring mountain backdrop and the lightning began to roar we all ran into the ocean. The air was so drenched in rain it made no difference to be above or beneath the water anyway, and with only our faces floating above the surface we all suddenly felt more part of this earth than our city–dwelling European upbringings had ever allowed us to before. Only days later did I remember my mother’s stern instructions to never enter water during lightning. 

River No 2 Beach

River No 2 Beach

One day, after a chicken sandwich lunch, I started feeling sick. Two hours later I yelled in panic at the poda poda (mini bus) driver to stop and let me out so I could vomit in the street. In the evening when my stomach had been turned inside out more times than my fevered mind could recollect (and no amount of Coca–Cola or powdered micronutrients would do the trick) I finally surrendered and began the search for a doctor. The closest hospital was down the street and originally a surgical centre designated for war victims. In other words, the staff’s unwillingness to treat a spoiled foreigner with salmonella could not have been felt stronger. After an hour of sobbing hyperventilation in fetal position on a cold stone waiting room bench, however, the other patients (patiently awaiting their malaria treatment) finally convinced them to let me skip the line. The Italian doctor reluctantly surrendered, laid me on a stretcher and brought drip with muscle relaxants and rehydration. Before stabbing me with the needle, however, she (suddenly animated) called over her nurses, three local women from the village. Look at this! she excitedly tucked at my wrist. Look how easily you can see the veins on her pale white skin! It’s as if she’s see–through!

Once back on my feet, I spent some time exploring the surrounding villages outside the city. Because paved roads along the cost are scarce, to get around you had to hitch a ride with an okada (or motorbike). For 3 000 leones (around 0,3 dollars) you’d get a supremely efficient yet terrifying ride across the pot–holed dirt roads, holding on for dear life at the person at the wheel. The drivers, 20–something young men, were known to have been former child soldiers of the war. On one particular stretch the road had been prepared for asphalt, that is, covered with large pieces of sharp gravel. A comparatively smooth surface, the drivers always took the chance to max out the speed. What’s that sound? I hollered in the driver’s ear during one such speeding, referring to a vibrating, clinking sound coming off the bike. No worries, it’s just the front wheel. It’s a little loose – he replies casually, then speeds right on. Alright, I frantically think to myself, if we crash now, my parents will have to pick up my splattered body from this gravelled road piece by piece. Well then, mister former child of death whose upper body I am now clutching for dear life – my life is in your hands.

children in Goderich

children in Goderich

One evening, a local we befriended from the community where we lived brought me and another European (a white man from Germany) to a concert. While supposed to start at ten o’clock, when midnight rolled around and the gig did not show the slightest trace at commencing (African time, our friend casually remarked), he brought us to a section in the arena unofficially designated for smoking diamba, or, in more familiar terms, marijuana. A little apprehensive of the legality of our upcoming endeavor, upon entering the section and seeing people of all kinds and walks of life – businesspeople, parents, teenagers and government officials – we relaxed and sat down. Everyone does it, even the police, our friend assured us. Alas, no more than five minutes had passed when, out of nowhere, the white man was forcefully grabbed, handcuffed and dragged away by the uniformed policemen. We jumped up and ran after, our friend understanding the situation perfectly – the police, seizing the opportunity, wanted the white man to bribe them to reclaim his freedom.

Since the end of the civil war, the only people allowed to bear arms in Sierra Leone are military personnel. Police officers are, with the exception of batons, generally unarmed (a small relief in the heat of the moment). Our friend stood violently arguing with the policemen, urging them to let him go – when the camouflaged military men show up, their assault rifles hanging casually across their backs. Suddenly the policemen are no longer arguing with our friend, but with the military men. Loudly shouting at each other in their native Krio (an English–based creole language, mostly unintelligible to me), the military, shaking their Kalashnikovs in the faces of the police, finally convinced them to release our friend. Shaken and confused, we deeply thanked the men in green. Don’t worry about it, they casually replied, shrugging their shoulders and adjusting their rifles. The police can be corrupt. You want some weed?

Inge the puppy

Inge the puppy

One day, out house puppy became sick. We did not understand the cause until we found a bite mark on her belly and she started frothing at the mouth. As recent as the day before, I had gotten scratch marks on my hands and arms from play–fighting with her. No big deal, in usual circumstances. When that very same puppy starts salivating and acting aggressive, however, one is right to start to worry. At 99,9%, rabies has the highest mortality rathe of any disease on earth – were the first cheerful words that popped up in my frantic internet search. If it is not treated before symptoms appear, it is deadly. Closing off the dog behind locked doors, we hurried off to the nearest hospital – only to be rejected. Rabies shots? We don’t do that here. Try the other hospital, on the other side of town. Our anxiety growing stronger by the minute, we hurried on – only to be rejected once again. Try the central medical store, a kind–looking nurse tells us. What’s that? Without receiving an answer, she gives us an address and sends us on our way.

Rather than a hospital, our third location is an outdoor warehouse yard crammed with giant trucks and large blue shipping containers. Confused, we grab the first man that appears from the barren concrete buildings. Rabies shots? Of course! Follow me! He pulls us into one of the buildings, up the stairs, through an empty corridor, into a scrawny, empty top–floor office. Sitting us down in front of the wooden desk, he opens a drawer, pulls out handful of small glass medicine bottles and hands them over. Unsure of how to proceed, we stare at him in confusion. Oh, you need syringes too? Yes, yes please, sir. He re–opens his drawer and pulls out a batch of needles. We resume our staring. You need help? Yes… yes we do. He administers the shots, takes our 30 000 leone (around three dollar) payment and sends us on our way. Before departing, we ask him cautiously – I’m sorry sir, what is this place, and what is your role here? Ah, this is where UNICEF sends their medicine for the entire country’s hospitals, he proudly exclaims. I am the logistics officer!

bartender in Freetown

bartender in Freetown

My time in Sierra Leone was beautiful, mad, eye–opening, terrifying and fantastic. To be sure, I am not trying to romanticise my time there, nor the state of affairs in the country in general. No place is perfect, and this country in particular have had it rough. But a place cannot be defined by its successes or misfortunes. It is defined by its people. It is defined by the generosities and spirits of the individuals that make up the entirety. That is what matters, and that is how we, as outsiders, should view a place. As a composition of individuals trying to puzzle together this thing called a human life with as much tremor and struggle as anyone else on this planet.

And to all you fiery twenty–somethings with restless hearts and minds and souls, without a clue in the world what you want to do or where you want to be – just head out there. It doesn’t matter what you do, just do something. Yes, you will encounter setbacks and adversities and at times you will fall and scrape your knees (or worse). It will hurt. But that is what life is anyway, no? A pile of pains and struggles and if you are lucky a few moments of greatness in between. The only way for you to grow is if you face that. So get out there.

It will do you good.

Sussex Beach

Sussex Beach

the freedom to irrationality

I spent an evening with a man I recently encountered. A notorious self–talker, but not entirely without good reason. He was born in a faraway slum to a drug–dealing father on the run from the police. He used to have brothers. He no longer does. As a youth he used to teach children. Now most of them are dead.

Thirty years later he made it to Europe, started a family and built himself a legacy. Whatever could be considered commonplace circumstances where he is from are anomalies to the core in this society. He knows. But he has never let that define his sense of self. Look at me. Look at where I came from. If I could start out there and still be sitting here today, a million miles from the shacks and drugs and crime in that place, then anyone can do it. Anything else is sheer inexcusable nonsense.

So what does the free will debate have to say about that? Here’s the difference between practical and theoretical philosophy for you. This man has no university degree. He hasn’t read Hobbes or Hume or Harris yet perhaps he knows more than all of them combined. Intellectuals can argue all day long about the illusion that we hold authority over our decisions but in reality we all act as if we have free will. We celebrate the heroes who defy their unfortunate conditions and we shun the people who don’t pick themselves up by their broken ragged boots.

He chose self–mastery. We grant him that and we applaud him. But what of the argument that some people are born with a certain disposition towards persistence, willfulness and assertive problem solving? Doesn’t matter. It’s all excuses. I did it. So why can’t they?

Go ahead, keep meandering off into your complex, winding thought experiments and high level abstractions. I don’t disapprove, those things are of the most interesting adventures that I know. But I cannot help but question. If a philosophy really is as far away from real experience and conviction as this one is, can it really be true? Or is that actually the very reason it must be true? If the answers to these questions were straightforward, would they really have haunted us for millennia?

So perhaps that is the most straightforward answer one can give. We have no straightforward answer. This man has literally battled his way to the life he leads today. Blood and bruises and a broken neck are no exaggerations. But it doesn’t matter. I’m not staying here, he concluded. Why?

There comes a time when what you once so desperately wanted is no longer important. I am done. I have achieved it all. I want to go home.

I want to die in Rio.

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