Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tschüß, Hamburg

Warning: image heavy post.

I am leaving Hamburg today. Yesterday was my last day of work, and my Probe-BahnCard runs out today, so I'll be heading back to Berlin for a few days before flying home to California. I'm going to write more posts about my summer and about my almost six months abroad, and I also plan to write a Hamburg guide similar to the one I did for Berlin.

The whole summer I've been comparing Hamburg to Berlin and finding it wanting in many ways. But on Thursday, as I was showing a friend around the city, I surprised myself with a rush of sentiment. Hamburg is a dynamic, interesting, fun, Free and Hanseatic city with a long and complex history, and although it had the misfortune of being the next city I lived in after imprinting very strongly on Berlin, it is actually pretty great. There are things I regret not seeing (such as, er, the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte) and things that I will miss dearly (Frau Larsson, the Swedish cafe ten minutes from work that has the best cakes ever). I got lucky and ended up both living and working with extremely nice people. Overall, I have just been very fortunate.

Not really feeling in the mood for a lot of words. Here are some photos from the past thirteen weeks, instead.

Birds along the Alster
Schlager Move parade, described to me as "Love Parade but with 70s folk-inspired pop"
Harbor on the Alster
Sankt Pauli, the cool neighborhood
Old turbine (?) in front of the Museum der Arbeit
Frau Larsson's cake display
Fields near Neuengamme, a concentration camp on the outskirts of the city
Friedhof Ohlsdorf
Probably the Alster
Cranes in the industrial area south of the Elbe
Bremen, Hamburg, and Lübeck (the three major Hanseatic cities) in front of the Justice Building

Danke schön, Hamburg. Ich hoffe auf ein Wiedersehen.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

What I (Will) Miss

And suddenly, we are a week into September already. When did that happen?

The past few weeks have been quick. The pace at work quickened briefly, and the project I've been working on since the end of July will wrap up neatly for the end of my internship. Last weekend I was in Berlin, on Friday for the seminar with the other interns that had me stressing, and on the weekend with friends. This weekend I will be traveling again. Next weekend I will travel to Berlin and stay with my host parents a couple of days, and then I travel back to the United States.

Last week, on September 1, I found myself stunned at the thought that on September 1 I was on a different continent. Until college, school always started before then. Now it is the first month of autumn and I am in Hamburg, not the Bay Area.

I've been thinking about things I miss and will miss, and have been too busy planning travel and sending real-person-emails to come up with anything more substantial to post. Here, then, are the lists.


What I miss:

Consistent good weather. The rain I don't mind, and after living in drought-stricken California it's refreshing. But the cold! North German summers are like California winters. I wondered if I was being dumb getting more sweaters after coming here, but they have been absolutely necessary.

Meat. I've been eating vegetarian this summer because I'm living with a vegan, and once I get back to Berlin you know I'm going to go to my favorite sushi place and get one of their combos.

Various foods. These are things I will obtain in short order once I get back to the states:
-burrito with guacamole
-cajun fries with BBQ sauce and honey mustard (from TAP or Five Guys)
-chicken egg drop corn soup from any Chinese restaurant
-In-n-Out. I've been abstaining from mammals for a while now so I might not actually make good on this one. But something about being away from the US for months at a time makes you want a burger.
-chili. I was going to cook it for myself this summer and never got around to it, because I'm lazy.

Friends and family. Of course. I've already written about feeling isolated here.

Speaking English. Not because it's easier (although it definitely is) but because I speak German in a higher register than I speak English, for whatever reason, and I don't like that.

My own bike. These city bikes are absolutely fantastic, but I want mine. This item also includes having a helmet.

Being in the same time zone as people. I'm sure it looks super professional to these engineering firms to get emailed back by this college kid at 0300--but no, that's just me sneaking emails in on my lunch break.

Drying machines. Not that the drying rack is all that inconvenient, but it is slower.

All the music that is blocked in Germany but not in the US because of copyright issues.


What I will miss:

The clouds. German skies are gorgeous.

Cheap groceries. Food is way less expensive here than in the US, although I'm not sure why.

Various foods. These are things I will miss having in close reach:
-falafel dürüm
-savory baked goods like the Kartoffel Teigtasche I had for lunch and the Tomaten-Paprika Strudel from the Podbielskiallee U-Bahn Imbiss in Berlin
-croissants for under 1 Euro
-cake from the Swedish cafe ten minutes away from my work place
-cheap Ritter sport chocolate. My sister informs me these are also available in the US, but pricier.

Living independently. This includes cooking for myself and having to run household errands. I don't know, I kind of like that stuff--although cooking sometimes takes longer than expected and doesn't turn out consistently well.

Living in a city. I like having a lot of different things clustered together. The convenience of being able to run almost all my errands in the stretch between work and home is excellent.

Good public transportation. Good cheap public transportation, I should add. There's a real network here, and although I think Berlin's system is better than Hamburg's, Hamburg outshines the Bay Area a thousandfold.

Perspektiv. In the US it's easy to get insular, and here...well, you can get insular, but the bubble is not quite as present.

Speaking German. I am at a reasonably good level of German for a year and a half, and I want to keep building on it. Living in Germany and absorbing the language I hear around me has been good.

The potential for a rational sleep schedule. Admittedly I have gone to bed past midnight a few too many times this week, but at least I had the option not to. Next quarter when I'm in my four technical classes and trying to figure out how to lead a team, that will not work so well.

High background level of environmental consciousness. Separate your trash. Separate all your trash.

Convenient far-distance travel. The number of countries I've been to has doubled since I landed in Germany in March. An hour and a half to get to various other capital cities? Amazing. Long-distance buses and the rail network? Also amazing.

Not being in a drought.


It's been over five months. This is much longer than the last longest time I was out of the country, which was two months last summer. I don't know the next time I will be in Europe--so I need to enjoy the time while I have it.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Roma Amor

It's taken me a while to get around to writing this, partly because Rome was a lot to process and partly because I had to play the role of the responsible adult more than usual this week, which took all of my energy.

Before I start: in case you have not already heard, on Wednesday a 6,2 magnitude earthquake struck Central Italy. The town closest to the epicenter, Amatrice, has been all but destroyed and the death toll, last time I checked, is over 280. Thousands more have been displaced. Here is a link with ways to help.


I landed in Rome on 19. August 2016, the two-thousand-and-second anniversary of Augustus Caesar's death. I hadn't planned it that way, had picked this weekend because it was when flights were cheapest, but--although I do not believe in fate--it does hint at the tenor the weekend would take.

Rome. What does one think of, when one thinks of Rome? For me it has always been the Roman Republic, the Roman Principate, the Roman Empire. Marble arches and columns, aqueducts, togas, war, blood, iron. Cypresses. Piranesi's carceri d'invenzione. I am a stereotype of the Grand Tour jerk who travels to better themself and goes to Rome to touch eternity, with barely a thought spared to the modern city and its more recent history. If this is reprehensible, then I am reprehensible.

Because I've been in Germany for--wow, five months now, I did wonder several times about the lack of reference to fascism in the city landscape. Where are the memorials? The monuments? In Berlin one does not have to seek them out, one sees them everywhere. Not so in Rome. But I wasn't there to see Mussolini. I was there for Augustus.

I'm struggling to figure out how to present my weekend in Rome. The visit had a strong enough emotional charge that I could go full melodramatic/pretentious. It was also a really fun vacation with lots of sun and gelato and practicing my Italian. An itinerary is probably the most straightforward format, but the narrative of the weekend is not fully linear. But Rome is a palimpsest and if I throw together a bunch of approaches, from various angles, perhaps that is after all the most honest way to approach it.


The basic itinerary:

Here is a photo of the ticket stubs and maps I accumulated. One of the first things I did after landing at Fiumicino was go to the tourist info point and purchase my 72-hour Roma Pass, which is a darn good deal: access to all public transportation (except to/from airports), two free museums/sites, reduced price on everything visited thereafter. If you're an EU citizen under the age of 25 you get the reduced price anyway (or free if you're under 18) but for the rest of us, definitely a good deal. Then I got my train ticket and went to the hostel. At the transfer from train to bus I got turned around in the station and asked directions from an Italian soldier carrying a machine gun. To be fair, I had just seen a pair of French tourists do the same thing. Still intimidating.

After checking in at the hostel, the first thing I did was walk along the Tevere (Tiber, but in italiano e' tevere) to the Museo dell'Ara Pacis. I've written before here about why Augustus is important to me (and if you've forgotten/are a new reader, there will be plenty of that later in the post) but the Ara Pacis is particularly special because in an archaeology class I took my first quarter of freshman year, my final project was about Augustan Rome using the Ara Pacis as a jumping off point.

Some historical background: the Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace, was built by the Senate to celebrate Augustus's return from victories in Spain and Gaul. It features carvings with a procession of notable Romans, including my favorite three (Augustus, obviously, and also Agrippa and Livia); plant motifs with palms and swans to represent Apollo, Augustus's patron god; and of course Lupa with Romulus and Remus. It is the most perfect thing I have ever seen.

After writing an essay in the guest book (not really, it was just a very large paragraph [and in Italian, I'm proud to say]) and getting kicked out (it was closing time and I'd been there for almost two hours), I walked around the Mausoleum of Augustus right next door and then went along Via del Corso, looking at famous sites--the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, eccetera--before eating dinner (spaghetti pomodoro). At this point it was dark, which shocked me because in northern Germany it doesn't get dark until very late. Flux doesn't even kick in until around 2030.

But it's Rome. The city was still very much awake and I wandered around for another few hours, seeing more famous sites under the stars. The Fontana di Trevi is a lot larger than I expected and the marble is stunning. I couldn't quite believe it was real.

A quote from Rilke was dancing around the edges of my thought, and I couldn't remember it verbatim, but here it is:
"Waters infinitely full of life move along the ancient aqueducts into the great city and dance in the many city squares over white basins of stone and spread out in large, spacious pools and murmur by day and lift up their murmuring to the night, which is vast here and starry and soft with winds." (source)

The next day I got up early and went straight to the Musei Capitolini. Well, not quite straight, because I stopped at Coop, an Italian grocery chain whose name I vaguely remembered from learning about it in middle school, in order to purchase the fizzy citrus soda and bio crackers that were destined to become both my breakfast and lunch.

I spent three hours in the museums and wondered what I'd have to do to be allowed to live there. I am an utter pleb when it comes to art appreciation, because my criteria for enjoying art is 1) do I like how it looks 2) does it make me feel or think something 3) is anyone I know in it. By "anyone I know" I mean historical figures about whom I know something. For Rome, that means Julius, Augustus, Livia, Agrippa, Tiberius (sort of, his treatment of his mother makes me not so okay with him), Hadrian, Antinous, Marcus Aurelius. For mythology, I get the most excited about Athena/Minerva, Apollo, and Artemis/Diana. The museums had plenty of depictions of my favorites, so I was happy.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius
This did mean, though, that by the time I got to the Forum/Palatine area I had missed the last turno accompagno for the Casa di Augusto/Casa di Livia. I didn't realize that you need a tour to get access and went in anyway, which royally (imperially?) upended my itinerary but about which I can't really be upset. When I realized my mistake, I considered staying with my original plan for about half an hour.

Then, as I wiped tears from my eyes at the short film A Elegia di Augusto playing in the Palatine Museum, I thought--when Octavian met Livia they were both married and both Livia and Scribonia (Octavian's then-wife) were pregnant. He broke up both marriages in order to be with her. You cannot be serious in saying that twelve euro is the wall at which you will stop.

So I threw out plans to visit the monuments to Garibaldi and the Napoleonic Museum and decided that, well, I'd go back the next day in time for the tours.

I visited the Museo Etrusco next, which is a bit out of the way but astonishingly well-curated and informative. Got dinner to go and ate it on the bench in front of the Ara Pacis.

I decided to walk around the Ara Pacis, just to see the carvings again, and ended up having a breakdown. It's private so I won't say much more about it, and if you know me in real life please don't bring it up, but I did break down. The Res Gestae is inscribed on the wall below the museum (it's on a slope) below the face of the Ara Pacis that has the procession with Augustus, and I spent a lot of time there.

The enormity of what Octavian/Augustus achieved hit really hard. I've been very slowly making my way through a German biography of Augustus and one of the comments in it is that Octavian's decision to accept the responsibility of being Julius's heir is one of the few instances when an individual choice, more than prevailing historical forces, changed the course of the world. He was nineteen years old.

After my breakdown I felt perfectly, blissfully happy and at peace. I crossed the river and wandered around a bit and the Castel Sant'Angelo was open for the night (some special program, I'm not sure) so of course I went in, because fortresses. I went up to the top and looked out over the city at night and somewhere there was a fireworks show. It was beautiful.

The next day, bright and early, I got my new Forum/Palatinate/Colosseum ticket but eyed the line for the Colosseum and thought I'd take my chances later. Instead I went to the Pantheon, which is marvelous, bought some souvenirs from little shops, and wandered around the Altare della Patria, or the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele, il primo re d'Italia. Gorgeous architecture.

I went to the Forum/Palatine early and saw the A Elegia video again, and cried again, and then was twenty minutes early to the meeting point for the Casa di Augusto/Casa di Livia tours. These were as expected wonderful. I got the turno accompagno which is "accompanied" not guided, and I think the guided tours get you access to more areas, but I saw what I came to see.

Inside Casa di Livia

After that, I braved the line for the Colosseum and got in in about forty minutes, which really isn't too bad. The deep intense personal part of the trip was over, and so I just enjoyed walking around the Colosseum and taking group photos for other people. I spent a little time reflecting at the Circus Maximus, looking onto the Palatine Hill, then bussed to the train station. I bought tomatoes for my flatmates and took the train to Fiumicino, and sat on the floor writing postcards (which I need to address and mail soon if I want them to get to the US before I do) and then--back to Germany.

A good weekend.


Bad travel advice/travel advice for people who are bad at traveling.

1) Who needs lunch when you have citrus soda and crackers? Not this kid, apparently.

2) Right after making an inconvenient change of plans, do something nice like ask to take group photos.

3) Visit sites that have deep personal meaning alone so no one can see you break down.

4) If you want to practice a language just keep talking until the person you're talking to switches.

5) If you bring a hat, use it.


California has a Mediterranean climate. I've been aware of this for decades but it surprised me how at home I felt in Rome, just because of the weather. Northern German summers are quite different from what I am used to and although I love the clouds in Germany, these perfect blue skies made me smile. I was also surprised that walking around the Forum/Palatine it even smelled like home. The trees smelled just the same as hiking around in California--or perhaps I have just been away for too long and they simply smell closer to California than the trees in Germany?

View towards the Colosseum

I enjoy being able to communicate with people in their language. Back in the day I was actually pretty darn good at Italian and though I no longer have any idea what to do with passato remoto or congiuntivo and I almost forgot that the word "dunque" exists, I could communicate at the basic level of asking for directions, buying things, and so on. I'd like to keep up my Italian. I'm going to try to get B2 certification in German when I go back to school (and need to email my German prof to ask how one makes that happen) and I'm planning to learn Spanish and my Mandarin is in bad need of repair...but I'd like to keep up my Italian. We'll see how that works out. I'll come up with a plan; if there's one thing I can't stop myself from doing, it's making plans.


I am glad that I ended up going alone. This visit was not just a "trip," not a "weekend getaway." Because I was alone I could experience Rome entirely on my own terms and on my own terms, it became a pilgrimage. This sounds stupid, but it is honestly the way I have been thinking about it. And if I had someone else there it could not have been as deeply personally meaningful as it was.

"In my nineteenth year, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction..." (source)

The Ara Pacis on the night of 20. August 2016, 2002 years and one day after Augustus died. The most perfect thing I have seen. This is what winning looks like. This is victory. This is careful planning and opportunism and tapping directly into the wishes and longings of the people and giving them exactly what they want in exactly the way most beneficial to you. And yet when you say Caesar most people think Julius--but Augustus, Augustus is the one who made Rome into Rome. Without Octavian, without Augustus, would there have been a Rome? Imagine Marc Antony at the helm of the Republic, imagine Cleopatra as its queen. I happen to like Cleopatra (and am indifferent to Antony) but I truly do not believe they could have established the systems that Augustus did, could not have set Rome on its course towards empire.

I like to visit things multiple times, to see and then circle back. In Salzburg I visited the fortress twice. In Rome I visited the Ara Pacis and the Forum/Palatine twice. Repetition is a form of prayer.

I don't believe in gods, just as I don't believe in destiny. But I do believe that the right person can be at the right place in the right time--because Octavian was. And I believe that if your deeds are great enough and move the world deeply enough, you can asymptotically approach immortality, which is one aspect of divinity. Augustus and Livia are nowhere near as Romantic and dramatic of a couple as Antony and Cleopatra--you will see them less in art, in literature--but they were the ones who created more lasting change in the world. Gaius Octavius was a short, sickly guy who was afraid of cats and of storms, and got nervous enough around his wife that he would take notes to prepare for conversations with her, and he created the world that we know today.

Festina lente. Make haste slowly. Change takes time, and you cannot lose focus and you cannot lose patience. I believe that when Octavian accepted Julius's inheritance he dreamed that the Ara Pacis could exist. I believe that he knew his endgame. I am not so sure of mine, but I know that now, having been lucky enough to touch eternity, I want to create some more of it myself.

"I found Roma a city of bricks and I left it a city of marble."

Now go forth. It's your turn.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Finding a Narrative

Last weekend was my second-to-last weekend in Hamburg. I spent it fairly quietly, with a lot of sleeping in and lazing around and reading this truly excellent comic that a couple of my friends convinced me to read. But I also walked around in neighborhoods I haven't visited, and I went to the Kunsthalle and spent a couple of hours looking at the art.

Although I have been living here for two months, I don't feel as though I really *get* Hamburg or belong to it the way I felt like I belonged to Berlin. That's part of the problem, of course: Berlin got to me first, and made such a deep impression on me, that I'm afraid nothing else will ever live up to it. Hamburg had the misfortune of being the direct following act. And I like Hamburg, I do, but Berlin stole my heart. Studying abroad in a city deeply scarred by history and at the center of international politics both in the past and today, especially living as I did with two retired teachers who were both born in Berlin in the tail end of World War Two, and being there with friends who were thinking about and asking similar time in Berlin supported my personal narrative of becoming more aware of the world and caring more about helping to solve its problems.

My time in Hamburg has been, through my fault entirely, far more isolated. I mean, I could have gone to the University of Hamburg more often and been bolder and talked to people. But I didn't, and I probably won't in my last month here. The trips I've taken this summer have been much more past-focused than present- or future-focused: Lübeck, Queen of the Hanse, an organization which declined as nation-states rose. Salzburg, which has significance to me because it features prominently in Übermädchen, a novel set in 1777. The Nordsee, the ocean, the eternal. On Friday I fly to Rome for the weekend and because I idolize Augustus Caesar, you know I'm going to be focusing on what was there two thousand years ago.

I know it sounds like I'm whining, which is stupid because I am ridiculously lucky to have the opportunity and the means to travel so much. And one thing that being in Europe has taught me is that the past matters: being too future-focused, which is what I'd call one of my defining traits, is often dangerous because you ignore the reasons the world is the way that it is. Not to say that means you give up on changing it, but rather, be aware of what has been here before, and what tracks you may fall into.

There are a couple of specific reasons I'm frustrated:

1) The next time I leave Hamburg after Rome will be going back to Berlin for a day where everyone who took part in the internship program shares their experiences (and then a weekend with a couple of friends [the same friends who showed me the comic linked above]). I'm stressing because I don't know what I'm going to say, and I'm worried that I'll look like a fool and a waste of time/money. Like I didn't make the most of my opportunity because I mean, objectively? I didn't. I go to work and I come home. I have not made friends with any Germans beyond the ones with whom I live (and I've had some very good, human-contact-affirming conversations with various Asian women who see me and feel solidarity and thus strike up conversation).

One of the points of the internship program is to strengthen transatlantic ties, and I don't know if I've done much or any tie-strengthening. My personal appreciation for Europe--appreciation as in "I like it" and appreciation as in "I see what it's about"--has deepened, certainly, and adulting more thoroughly than I did even in Berlin has strengthened my own confidence in how I'll be able to navigate the world in the future--but what is so special about the fact that I can now cook more than pasta and manage my money and go on trips by myself without having everything go terribly wrong? And I've enjoyed and will enjoy my travel this summer but I also wanted to volunteer and do something, anything, to help refugees but I just...haven't. I mean, another thing I've realized is that really helping people requires long-term commitment, but I could have tried harder to find ways to do good for others.

But that gets to what I wanted to talk about with this post: finding a narrative. A good thing about being alone a lot is that you stop performing quite so much. That's why I instated the policy where I do memorials alone. That's why I generally prefer to go through museums solo as well, because what calls to me may not call to someone else, and if I'm there to experience art I don't also want to have to justify my artistic tastes. The Kunsthalle has a special exhibition of Piranesi's Carceri d'Invenzione which is ending on Sunday, and was really the reason I decided to go in this weekend, and sure enough I spent a disproportionate amount of time in the room with these architectural grotesqueries, staring at the dark lines and the stairs and arches and threatening shadows. I don't know what it is about them that resonates so deeply, but they do, and I needed to let that resonance happen without worrying about how that was being read.

Yet: I'm going to have to talk about my summer in a way that is consumable by others, and because I'm pretentious and want to keep up the facade of being deep, I want a Narrative. I want to say something profound, that sets the world on its side in the minds of my listeners for a while...when really, I mean, this is a summer internship, on a different continent so I went on a bunch of fun trips to fairly touristy places because I don't know the next time I'm coming back. Could I have engaged more with modern life in Hamburg, the life of the youth and the students and so on? Yeah. But I live and work in a quiet part of town so I just bike to work and back and hey! I learned to cook lentil soup.

Architecture is neat and the people are nice but I want to do something more technical and more responsive to social needs in the future. This is an honest thing I can say, but I also don't want to sound ungrateful for the opportunity because I really, really do like the people I work with. A positive thing I've been feeling--although it hasn't made it onto this blog, because I write more when I'm upset or frustrated about things--is the satisfaction of going around town and seeing streets or buildings where I have touched the work, even if in a small way. I haven't been here long enough to see a project through, but I can imagine how good it feels to go past a building, or for me a piece of infrastructure, being used and lived in/with, and know--I made that. This is why I feel so much more satisfaction working on stuff related to projects that are further along in development. Making a model for speculative future development is technically more intricate work, but my favorite thing I've done so far is the emergency escape paths I drew on existing plans, because work that I did may help save lives in the future. That is a good feeling.

And that is only one thing. I wish it didn't make me feel better to have sound bites ready, but I'm going to keep working on preparing sound bites.

2) I've been slipping on keeping up with the news. Specifically European news, because although I'm here the email newsletters I subscribe to tend to be very US-focused. (This is why I signed up for the Der Spiegel newsletter about half an hour ago). I don't know what the latest news on the situation in Turkey is; despite having presented twice in the past year for German classes about the refugee crisis I still feel as though I don't really know anything about it. The big names in German politics I know--Angela Merkel, Sigmar Gabriel--but after almost five months living here I should have a more nuanced understanding.

Over the weekend I read the New York Times feature story Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart. It is very long and in-depth, and I highly recommend it. But block out a couple of hours. I read the whole thing in one sitting--couldn't stop myself, because it was that engrossing. And at the end I sat back and thought, why was so much of this new information to me? Why wasn't I reading the news more in spring 2011? Of course most of it is my fault, but at the same time, a story such as the above could not have been written without some hindsight...

...and yet, wouldn't waiting yet another few years to see how the current situation plays out add another layer to it? And would the story be worsened if it had been published a couple of months earlier? I write stories in which the arc of the plot is usually pretty clear to me beforehand, but the world is not like that, and when reporters stop recording in real life is far more arbitrary than when a writer decides to end the story. You read one article, more things happen, you have to keep reading. You're never done.

That's one reason why it's more comfortable to be past- or future-oriented than present-oriented: because the present is messier. On such a short timescale as the one in which we live, it's hard to see the trajectory, because if you zoom in close enough it's just a line (thank you, calculus). What is signal and what is noise? Is it significant that I feel ill thinking about a customer service phone call I have to make, or is it significant that I sent a bunch of emails to people in industry? (My confidence in my ability to be an adult has increased but so has my anxiousness about doing so.) Is my friendlessness this summer an obstacle that I will overcome or a character defect that will haunt me for the rest of my life?

The conclusion to this is the usual one: you don't find a narrative, you make a narrative. I'm going to make that phone call, on Monday at the latest, and it's going to be awful because I hate phone calls and if it goes poorly I'll probably sulk for a few hours, and I'll turn in housing paperwork and probably sulk about that too, and I'll make myself lentil soup, and all the other life-maintenance tasks that adults do, and eventually I'll be okay at it. As for the interesting part of my story--I'll keep working on that too.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


This past weekend I turned twenty. To celebrate, I took myself up to the North Sea.



Sea Fog - Keane


The ocean (and I'm counting the North Sea as a part of the ocean because it's all connected anyways) holds a prominent place in my personal mythology. Chaos, the unknown, that which is eternal. I love the ocean best when it is overcast and windswept and cold, which it was on my birthday, because then it is perfect for thinking. "Winter is the best time to set your thoughts in order," ten-year-old me wrote in a poem about cold weather, and the North German summer feels fairly similar to California winter.

This summer has not been one of contentment. Or rather, it has, but I recognize that contentment is not satisfaction, contentment is not long-lasting growth and happiness. I go to work and I do tasks which do not require me to exercise the technical skills I am training, and I have a good time because my co-workers are nice, and I come home and I derp around on the Internet, and I plan fun weekend trips and cook for myself so as to be able to afford them, and it is a quiet, neat, small life and I am frustrated with it. I am frustrated because this work is not the work I will be doing for the rest of my life. I am frustrated because I leave at 1700 sharp some days because there's no sense of urgency, no need for me to push myself late. I am frustrated because I feel as though I am punching below my weight--I should be doing something more, something that is going to leave a stronger mark upon the world, something...

Well, I asked myself as I sat in the dunes the day I turned twenty, what do you want your contribution to the world to be?

I answered: I want to build useful and important structures. The big three are energy, water, and transportation infrastructure. I want to buck the trend of the technically competent engineer who has no sense of social responsibility, and I want to build things where they are needed. I want to leave things behind that will continue to create value for decades, for centuries, for millennia after I die. Projects that achieve progress on multiple fronts: correcting structural injustice, protecting the natural environment, and so on.

Beyond that, I also want to write stories that show people that magic exists, that you can create your own power, that the people who are overlooked are often the most important. That kindness and honor and treating other people like people matters and is powerful and that this way of interacting with the world will win.

My problem this summer is that I've found a nice, comfortable steady state. I've written before about wanting to find a routine, about longing for permanence, but what I've discovered now is that that's only half of it. Equilibrium of routine must be matched by a sense of trajectory--forward motion--progress--in the work the routine supports. The day-to-day has to add up to something, when you look back.

Sitting on the dunes, I realized that, of course, one of the big problems is that I've fallen out of my writing routine. Two years ago I spent a couple of hours every morning working on Ubermadchen and consequently racked up 100,000 words in a summer. I wrote Monday to Friday and took weekends off, and I remember when I mentioned that to people they were impressed. Because, in hindsight, it is a sign of dedication, of treating writing as a job and blocking out enough time to do it that you also have to block out time not to do it. Then college happened and I haven't had a real writing routine since, which is terrible, because I know and have known for years that when I write regularly, things are better.

I decided that although I have a lot of novel ideas, the priority is putting writing back on the schedule as a regular thing rather than pursuing a high-overhead project. They say that college is a four-year sprint and junior year I'm planning to go full tilt into my professional goals, so my writing plan going forward is what my writing plan for spring/summer was supposed to be: short stories (which, because I'm me, will probably end up running to 5,000-10,000 words) exploring various worlds and settings and styles. I had a period of such artistic exploration fall 2012 when I was between the Utopia Project revision and Orsolya, and that was very good for me, so even though it's a compromise, I am looking forward to this. Taking the long view, unless one of my novel ideas really starts calling out to me and I am motivated to put in good, solid effort into worldbuilding and plotting, I'm probably going to be writing short works for at least the next two years.

(What does it say about me that every opportunity to reflect just ends up producing more and more plans?)

I am twenty years old. At my age, Octavian Caesar was a consul of Rome. Since I've been working my way (very [very] slowly) through a German biography of Augustus that I purchased last month, I've been feeling the connection to Octavian even more strongly than usual. I catch myself thinking his famous phrase a lot--festina lente. Make haste slowly.

When I first heard that I thought it was dumb and wrong--why not do things fast but unhurriedly? But I think that growing older is really the factor that has made me appreciate more and more the truth of it. Change takes time. People's opinions don't change overnight, trajectories don't reverse instantaneously. You can work for years and years and things can look the same as they always have. It takes something out of the ordinary to maintain the needed level of intensity over years, to approach your work with urgency and care yet also have the patience to let the seeds grow.

I'm thinking about the policy platform of the Movement for Black Lives. Although I haven't read through the whole thing, I've looked through some of the major points and it takes my breath away how ambitious and thorough their policy demands are. This is what visionary means, not some wonk designing a better damn widget.

For my own work (though if I am able to do what I want to do, there will definitely be overlap with the M4BL platform), I've been thinking more and more about what questions I haven't asked yet. That is, I've wanted to "build roads and sewage systems in places that need them!" for several years now, but I have neglected to ask why such things haven't been built when I am not the first wide-eyed idealist to go into civil engineering. In a lot of places the answer is: corruption and violence. What am I going to do to address these? Am I willing to live in a community that lacks basic resources--and if I'm not, how far removed am I going to be from my work? If I work for a big firm will we even pursue such projects, or will I end up building unnecessary things for wealthy regions and people?

The past decade took me a long way. Ten years ago: kid on the cusp of fifth grade, loved math and writing, really liked InuYasha and Maple Story and other stuff I don't even remember, wore their (retroactively "they"-ing me because even then I kind of knew I wasn't "actually" a girl) hair with an "emo fringe" in the front, played flute. I think my favorite color was purple, and that I wanted to be a technical writer. In the intervening decade I wrote/rewrote 3 novel-length stories, developed most of the worlds I am interested in writing in now, read a lot, grew very much mentally although not so much in height, finished my first two years at my childhood dream school, learned two languages, slowly came to the realization that the world outside of my head exists and is worth learning about and living in.

In ten more years I will be thirty. Done with formal education (although never done with education). Hopefully will have learned a few more languages (Spanish is next for sure [as in I'm redownloading Duolingo once I'm not in Germany anymore], then either Arabic or putting forth a concentrated effort to improving my Mandarin) and written a few more books. Building things. Forward motion. Will I have my Battle of Actium, my conquest of Egypt? I don't know. And although I have very conventional plans for the future, it is possible that something will come in and change everything.

The sea, I hope, will be a constant.