Isn’t grey hair just the first light of a new dawn?

To make sure I got to Tegel on time, I set my alarm for 6:45am, attempting to grab a few hours of sleep on the sofa in Ursula’s kitchen after my leaving party. I had, predictably, reached that point of the night known as Oh Fuck It, Sure I’ll Drink Some Vodka Now, Because I Am Invincible. I had already Tetris-ed most of my stuff into my rucksack; now I just needed to put on clothes, brush my teeth and say a quick goodbye to Ursula and Franzi, too bleary to convey sufficient gratitude to them for making me feel so welcome. Trams rumbled past the open window, sounding like low-flying aeroplanes.

I got a lift to Berlin with a German, a Hungarian and two Iranians. Wind turbines sped by as we talked travel and life. Two of them reckoned they could maybe use my help editing their academic work, and I handed out my new home-made business cards. (As close to home as I’ve been in a long time, anyway; I can say now that I live in Leipzig twice a year.)

The last time I flew out of Tegel airport, I was basically a wreck. On the outside I was keeping it together – I maybe looked physically drained, but at least I wasn’t a sobbing heap, which was what I felt like and what I had been for most of the preceding week or so. I was actually on the brink of a big adventure, except I didn’t have the energy at the time to even consider things from that perspective.

Yesterday Tegel airport was just another place I was passing through, except there were hundreds of police around it, which turned out to be because the Pope was on his way and not, as I had somehow decided, because someone was filming a music video. But I bypassed all the action to queue up at the check-in desk. I was listening to I Am Nothing by Withered Hand.

it’s a victory just seeing out today

And suddenly I was thinking back to a Withered Hand gig in an art gallery in 2009. While the rest of the audience stood dutifully to attention, Neill was sitting on the floor eating beans and complaining loudly about every band that wasn’t Withered Hand. He was accompanied by his sidekick, who he referred to as The French, a notoriously wretched twentysomething with low standards of hygiene. The French didn’t think much of me for a while until I offered to break a drug dealer’s legs for him, which apparently scored me some points. There was the time, also, when the three of us went to the Edinburgh Mela and I watched The French absent-mindedly take out his pocket knife and hack away at some dead skin on his thumb, while he reminisced about the time he didn’t wash for two weeks and got the most action he’d ever had. He was last heard of taking an excess of drugs at Roslin and chasing people around with a dead goat or some such, before running away into the hills. At least that’s how Neill tells it.

Edinburgh had its moments, you know? Before I had to get out. I want to see Neill again, and others too, but I can no longer comprehend going back to a place that’s so familiar. Why settle when I can keep moving? For all I know I could change my mind two months from now, but at the moment I can’t see it.

I’m insignificant, that’s my size
in the greater scheme of things I am nothing

play Withered Hand – I Am Nothing

The greater scheme of things makes it so much easier to bear everything: the petty, transient bullshit that bugs me for an afternoon, or the genuine pain, whatever its source. Maybe the song wasn’t intended to be uplifting, but it works for me.

On the plane, I sat next to a Puerto Rican living in Berlin (“yet another artist,” he said) and reluctantly paid five euros for a glass of orange juice and a box of vegetable chips with excessive packaging. We circled Barcelona several times before landing.

play Withered Hand – New Dawn

Check In: A tl;dr* special

The story so far
I set up this blog with the intention of writing about my New Exciting Life In Berlin, which was just sort of okay, and then Berlin fucked up and I started travelling instead. It is now a year since I left Berlin, a year of just me and my rucksack and whoever I met along the way. And there are quite a few things I want to address in this blog post. Therefore, here is today’s agenda:

I. Where I have been and what is going on
II. The importance of balance, which I will attempt to outline without sounding overly self-helpy
III. Stuff that is good

I
Listing all the countries I’ve been to since July 2010 feels like a pointless exercise, because who really cares besides me (there are a couple maps in the sidebar, anyway), but the new ones were Lithuania, Iraq, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. In addition to these I pinballed around quite a bit. It’s all about cheap flights and creative overland solutions and whatnot.

I think it’s about time I mentioned that I’m not actually a wreck any more, okay? I mean with regard to the whole break-up angst that prompted my departure from Berlin. That episode left me with a couple of issues, such as: reduced faith in humanity (oh, the melodrama!) and newfound fear of rejection, but those have faded somewhat with time. However, it’s hard not to tell my story without referencing it to some extent, since it was the impetus that caused me to begin travelling.

Berlin remains kind of a no-go zone for me for the foreseeable future, apart from its airports, which are handy for Leipzig purposes. But I’m okay with this. A big reason why I left Berlin was because I didn’t have a support network there to help me cope with the break-up. Some people opt to endure unpleasant situations to prove they can do it, in order to ‘win’. Whatever. I won by taking back a little control and getting the fuck out. Berlin still makes me feel kind of weird and uncomfortable to think about, which is why I don’t want to revisit it, rather than for fear of running into my ex or something. But that’s okay. Other people can have Berlin. I have the rest of the planet.

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Armidale, New South Wales

I spent six weeks in a country town that claimed to have a population of 25,000, although I suspected it could be fibbing. I made two friends and I had a couple glasses of wine with the next door neighbours. I was looking after a small dog that was a Jack Russell crossed with a chihuahua: ponder that for a moment. She had these spindly legs and sometimes she’d just stare at me and kind of tremble and once in a while she’d get mopey and emit a heavy sigh like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. But she was cute and she couldn’t get up on the sofa by herself so I felt like a giant elevator sometimes. Other times I’d open the sliding door and she’d race into the house, scrabbling, sort of rabbity, and we’d play chase around the dining table. I called her Pickle.

I did some writing and some editing and some audio transcription. I began to structure my days around my 4pm fix of Roseanne, and sometimes my evenings around The Golden Girls and M*A*S*H, and I wept predictably over Go Back To Where You Came From. In one episode of Roseanne, Darlene has a friend round and makes out with him on the couch, which is her first kiss, and plus she gets felt up, and I remembered this episode from when I was fourteen or whatever and how it gave hope to people like me who were being subjected to advice like “if you’d just tie your hair up and wear a little make-up (and look more feminine) then you’d be really pretty and everyone would want to go out with you” and I was all: hell no, these are not my terms and conditions. Also, like all right-minded people, I totally had a crush on Sara Gilbert.

I remembered how whenever I was watching the show my mother would invariably walk into the living-room, pause, and then go, “I can’t stand that woman.” Every time. And I would be like: Shut up, Mother! Let me watch it in peace! I already know you can’t stand her! And it occured to me now that maybe I started calling her “Mother” because Becky does that on the show when she too is exasperated. And on the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death I didn’t know what to do so I just sort of sat out on the deck with a mug of green tea and tried to be peaceful and then went back inside when I was done, but watching Roseanne and hearing my mum’s voice in my head each time the show was on was kind of nice.

I went to the pub twice. The first time, a caged hen farmer in his early twenties took a seat at our table without invitation and began to chat up a vegan. “If you ban eggs from caged hens they’ll just import them from China,” he insisted. “What would you rather have, eggs from Australia or eggs from China?” “I’m a VEGAN,” she reiterated. His bleary drunken eyes swivelled in my direction, as if I was going to back him up. “If the eggs aren’t free-range I don’t want any at all,” I explained. “Where are you from?” he asked. Oh, don’t you derail me. “Who gives a shit where I’m from, we’re talking about chickens!” He seemed confused, turned back to the vegan, got a bit table-thumpy, and eventually went away.

One day I went to the post office and then I got back into the car I’d been lent and sobbed for a few minutes because things hit you at unexpected times. I sobbed for my small family with two members missing, one due to death, the other due to an impasse to which I could see no solution. I sobbed because my refusal to engage with someone who’s hurt me, who has continually demonstrated an absence of respect for me, means that I get to be the one who’s seen as being difficult. I sobbed for a few minutes and then wiped my eyes and drove on, vaguely recalling that someone had maybe said once that I never especially look like I’ve been crying after I’ve been crying.

I located the fruit market and the supermarket and the bakery. I took some clothes out of my rucksack and put them on shelves for a change. I read A Wedding In December by Anita Shreve. (“What’s it about?” asked Holly. “GUESS,” I told her.) It made me think about school reunions, teenage expectations, and who I’d thought I would become. I got to know my surroundings: unfamiliarity dissolved as I discovered shortcuts and worked out where the streets joined up. I got in the car and drove about fifty kilometres to Australia’s second highest waterfall, singing along to mix CDs with the volume up loud, enjoying that the speed was measured in kilometres rather than miles so it looked like I was going faster than I would at home. I saw a peacock-like bird, and another bird that made noises that sounded like a spaceship, and I saw a dead kangaroo by the side of the road. And the sunsets were pretty epic in this part of the world, spreading dramatic colours across big skies that made it feel as if you were driving into a painting.

I heard these scrabbling sounds at night and I thought it was possums but then two nights before my departure I was going through a bottle of wine for no good reason (I woke up the following morning with the hangover of the soul and decided not to do that again) and I heard the noises coming from a cupboard. I opened it. “Oh, hi,” I said out loud, “you’re a really big rat.” For want of any better ideas I closed the cupboard again.

David Byrne’s voice got into my head every so often, that line from Once In A Lifetime: “And you may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?” I recalled the dramatic departure from Berlin almost a year ago, the hurt and the sadness and the bewilderment and the whole goddamn mess. And then all the countries between then and now, all the different experiences, and how unavoidably cliché it feels for the phrase “change in direction” to apply both literally and metaphorically. I thought about loneliness and how it’s ceased to be an issue, and how saying goodbye doesn’t faze me any more because I’m always moving on. I thought about the last time I had stayed in a place for a month or more: that was October, which meant I was getting two autumns in one year, in two different regions both known as New England. I counted how many places I’d slept in the last year: over sixty. Was that all? It didn’t really sound like that many to me, except it averages out to more than one a week which apparently is maybe a lot. I no longer make plans the way I used to; the only time anything is set in stone is when I book a ticket. I may be a year into this way of living but I don’t think I’m anywhere near done with it yet.

Some people I met as I arrived in places

Kuala Lumpur
The man sitting next to me on the bus from the airport was thirsty and struggling with the heat. I took a sip from my bottle of water and then told him he could have the rest. I was going through my coin bag of foreign currency, digging out ringgit, and he made me a little origami shirt from a Maldivian banknote that depicted a fishing scene. In the spirit of cultural exchange, I gave him an Iraqi note which he refused at first, reasoning that 1000 dinar must be worth too much, but I explained that it was equivalent to about a dollar and anyway I didn’t anticipate many money-changers taking an interest in it.

He seemed kind and jolly, but he had a sad smile. I thought he said that his wife had died, but I wasn’t sure, and I felt too awkward to press for more details. I do this thing too often where I act like I understand everything that’s been said when actually I don’t.

I’d spent the night in the 24-hour restaurant in Colombo airport, trying to doze through muzak renditions of Danny Boy, the staff nodding off on the sofas next to me. The subsequent flight had passed by in a confused blur. I think I broke with tradition and slept a little.

A million encounters with friendly men had taught me to proceed with caution, no matter how nice and agenda-free they seemed. I engaged with the man from the Maldives, I enjoyed talking to him, but I did not give him my contact details. He said if I ever go to the Maldives I should get in touch. I accepted his e-mail address. I don’t know if I can still find it.

Wellington
My flight got in around midnight. The immigration officer asked me to name the people I’d visited in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, and then I collected my rucksack and walked out into the rain. Contrary to the claims of the guidebook I’d browsed in Brisbane, there was no bus, because it was Easter or something. I’d arrived in New Zealand on a visa run, because otherwise I would wind up overstaying my welcome in Australia. And I also kind of needed to just move on somewhere, because Australia Phase One had been defined by all this bullshit going on in my head that I didn’t really need, lots of feeling mopey and anti-social and out of place.

I shared a taxi into the centre of town with two Norwegians; one of them was studying in Sydney and the other was visiting him, and they were going to rent a van and drive around New Zealand and do things like camping and hiking. They asked about my travels, and “Iraq!” echoed through the cab, making me feel kind of like a phony but on the other hand I was only performing the requested recital. Maybe I should just save Iraq as a trump card for when I find myself in the company of oneupmanship travellers: the ones whose chat is all “Where have you been to? Oh, while you were there did you do this interesting thing and that interesting thing? Did you go to this really obscure part that I’ve been to? No?” and then they tell you all about their superior experiences because yours are never good enough.

The Norwegians seemed pretty nice and I almost wanted to ask if I could hitch a ride in their van, but I didn’t want to impose. Anyway I seemed to be on a roll here, being all interesting and independent and stuff, and part of me was kind of amazed at how quickly I sounded like I had my shit together, after spending the past few weeks with the words What The Hell Am I Doing ricocheting around my head. We pulled up outside my accommodation for the next few nights, which was a radical social centre covered in murals, and I said goodbye to the boys and got out all happy and confident, to be greeted by tea and cake by activists who’d stayed up waiting for me. Maybe the encounter with the Norwegians slightly influenced the idea I had the whole time I was in Wellington that it was kind of like Norway; somehow my arrival and the rain that barely stopped and the hills and the harbour and the wooden houses reminded me of Bergen, and hey, it was cold enough.

Melbourne
The white German boy with the dreads had been sitting in the row behind me on the flight from Wellington to Melbourne. As we started to disembark he leaned across and asked me about my Užupio Respublika badge. He’d been in New Zealand for the best part of a year and now he had arrived in Australia without a place to stay for the night. I regretted that I was unable to help him, but there was something about him I didn’t entirely take to. All the same, he suggested we go for a drink and I figured why the hell not – I had time to kill and we were both travellers.

This is the updated version of the many times I’ve thought “hey, you look like a punk, we must have stuff in common! Oh, wait, we totally don’t.”

“Yeah, I was travelling with a friend of mine,” he said as we waited for the airport bus, “but I’m not gay, so living in a camper van with another guy for three months was too much.”

I didn’t know how to respond to this.

“These guys I worked with invited me to Vanuatu,” he said as the bus moved off. “They’re black guys, but they’re nice.”

I thought about whether he might have said this to me if I hadn’t been white. I thought about the white Canadian neighbour about ten years ago who told me she was moving in with some black South Africans and then offered, “They’re awfully nice, you know, Nine, some of them. The blacks, I mean.” I wondered if there was something about my presentation that made people feel the need to explain things like this to me. I wondered if the German boy had considered that I might not be straight.

Instead of going for a drink with him, I packed him off on a bus to St Kilda, confident he’d find a suitable backpackers’ hostel there. I took a train to my friends’ place out in Northcote and sat on the steps outside their place, reading zines and The Day The Raids Came for a couple of hours until Alex came home and plied me with wine.

If Destroyed Still True #6: Iraqi Kurdistan edition

I’ve been to ten or so countries since 2011 began. When people ask, I recite the list, but there’s one place that cancels out all the others. Their eyebrows shoot up when they hear the name. “Iraq! What was Iraq like?”

I have trouble answering this question. I don’t know what exactly they want to hear about, and maybe they don’t know either. I can’t fit all my experiences into a sentence. I think about the mountains and the call to prayer and the food. I think about walking in Dohuk at night, about getting lost in the park in Erbil, about the goatherds in the Zagros mountains, about the central square in Sulaimany, about the checkpoint in Kirkuk, about how my senses sharpened when we realised we needed to get out of that car, about the kindness of the family that hosted me, about the protests and about the friend who I feared might be dead.

Usually I just say “It was good”, or sometimes “It was mostly good.”

So I wrote If Destroyed Still True #6: Iraqi Kurdistan edition. It tells of hitch-hiking experiences good and bad, encounters with Kurdish and American soldiers, the kindness of strangers, being stranded, death threats, and the demonstrations in the region that have been largely unreported in the western press. At 28 A5 pages it’s the longest issue I’ve produced. It’s entirely handwritten, but fear not! My handwriting has frequently been mistaken for a font.

“sometimes charming, sometimes terrifying” – Sticky Institute

“has something to say and is perfectly astute in saying it. A must read” – Fulsome Prism

“beautiful, thoughtful, a testimony of feelings felt and questions asked” – Said The Gramophone

If Destroyed Still True #6: Iraqi Kurdistan edition
review in Fahrenheit C3100 podcast · review by Said The Gramophone

If you’d like a copy, visit jinxremoving dot org for information on how to order; and if you feel like telling other people about the zine, I won’t mind at all. Thanks for reading.

Everywhere and all over

I spent two extra days in Kurdistan because I turned up at Sulaimaniyah airport on time for my flight to Stockholm and the airport staff didn’t know anything about it. This turned out to be because Air Sweden had changed the departure airport to Erbil, two hours away, without bothering to let me know. I was now overstaying my visa. I stayed with an activist friend and his family. I didn’t sleep well at night because I was in the room that he normally slept in and he had received death threats. I didn’t bother to mention it because I had only two nights to worry about a prospective case of mistaken identity whereas he had to deal with it every night. They knew where he lived.

Finally in Stockholm, I had to quickly come to terms with all the snow and the fact that things were super-expensive. And then on to Berlin for half a day, too tired and in a hurry to bother stating that it felt weird to be back. My home from mid-February to mid-March was Leipzig, where I was looking after a cat while its owner was travelling.

I was in a neighbourhood not far east of the city centre. A few times a week I’d head down to the Turkish shops on Eisenbahnstraße to buy flatbread and yoghurt, which I’d eat with my date syrup from Amedi in Kurdistan. I didn’t go out much at all my first week, I was just glad to have some space to myself. I followed the protests in Sulaimaniyah closely, worrying about my friend’s safety.

I found myself narrating the cat’s every move. I couldn’t help myself. “Stretchycat!” I’d crow whenever he awoke from slumber and stiffly attempted to straighten himself out.

John from Belfast came to visit. We went out to Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, allegedly Leipzig’s most happening street, on a Saturday afternoon. The ghost town effect lacked only tumbleweed. That night we got drunk in a cheap smoky pub called Dolly Dimple. “Maybe it’s a stealth gay bar,” I said hopefully, watching the heavily tattooed girl dancing with female friends to nineties dance music. “I don’t think so,” said John, ever the realist. I requested The Key, The Secret by Urban Cookie Collective and the DJ agreed instantly. I drank a lot of wine. “Maybe he’s a nazi,” I said to John when a shaven-headed boy showed up with a dubious smile. “You think everyone is a nazi,” said John. I attempted to chat up the heavily tattooed girl for him. “Du bist sehr schön,” I explained, harking back to Blur lyrics rather than my two and a half years of German classes.

I allegedly turned into a troll on the way home. “You just don’t understand,” I wailed to John, weaving from side to side, “I hate EVERYTHING.” I couldn’t find the way back to the flat even though we were close, and John stopped a helpful passerby for directions. “Yes but what is there to do in Leipzig anyway?” I demanded to know. “Everything,” said the poor stranger after a bewildered pause. I don’t remember any of this. I am sorry for being a troll.

After John went back to Belfast I developed a social life. I met New Friend Andre and New Friend Ursula and went for VoKü with them, got a free haircut, took a day trip to Dresden with its tobacco mosque, attended house parties with cheap bars. I realised there were indeed things to do in Leipzig. If I were to move to Leipzig properly in the future, I’d already have good foundations for a life there.

I knew that one reason why I thought of my time in Berlin as artificial was that one of its main features had been a relationship that turned out to mean different things to each party. But besides that, it was artificial because it was too easy. If you move to Berlin everyone will be jealous of you. Everyone will tell you that you’ll love it. “Berlin is so you,” they’ll say. It’s not as if you won’t like it when you get there, but the experience will already have been scripted for you to some extent. As an English-speaking expat I’d lived in a bubble where I didn’t need to use German beyond the most basic of transactions, and few of the people I ever hung out with were German and in a way we could have been anywhere. Leipzig was different. Its low immigrant quotient was disappointing in the sense of less multiculturalism – beyond Eisenbahnstraße there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of scope – but at least I was spending time with locals and I felt more conscious of being in Germany.

The legacy of the GDR had not entirely faded. “These West Germans,” said one of my friends, “they’ll see apple trees and they’ll still go to the supermarket and pay money for apples. Us East Germans will just pick them.” I learned about the antideutsch people and Kamal K, the Iraqi man who had been murdered in the city centre. I went to the free museum to learn about life before and after the wall.

I watched Anita – Tänze des Lasters. It was in German. There were a few parts I didn’t understand but I got the overall gist and even enjoyed the film. I went for vegan kebabs at Vleischerei.

There comes a time in every place I go when I’m surprised that it’s almost over. But I have become used to saying goodbye. And anyway I will be back to look after Stretchycat in the summer.

Then Vienna, Istanbul, Kandy, and now Kuala Lumpur. I was last here in 1999. I didn’t last 24 hours back then. Cockroach Stuart and I gave up on it and took the first train we could find to anywhere, which turned out to be Penang.

Heading for Australia, crossing time zones in short bursts. Every so often, especially as my expenditure currently outweighs my income, I find myself wondering what I am doing. How did it come to this?

On my first night I stood on Jeffrey’s tenth-floor balcony. I could see the Petronas Towers and the KL Tower in the centre of the city. I could also see a cluster of lights shaped like a lassoo or a speech bubble, glittering in the sky above a tower block. What kind of futuristic craziness was this? But it was Genting, Malaysia’s Las Vegas, a distant town in the hills, not a projection in the air at all.

Pictures of Kurdistan


Lake Dukan, the largest in Iraqi Kurdistan. There was no one else around


Sulaymaniyah and its surroundings


Cave in the Zagros mountains

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