Location

Germany

Travelling with a Mermaid

Schloss Nymphemburg, Munich, August 2022

Mythologically speaking, mermaids have traditionally been associated with things going wrong – thunderous storms, land-sculpting floods, shipwrecks, deception. Theirs is a dangerous beauty. They are the sirens of the sea, sweet voices drawing you in, hungry eyes patient to devour. They would not make good travel companions.

The Little Mermaid however seems to be pretty good at this travelling lark. Stepping up out of the underground train station she merely looked around and then was off, walking at speed. Her walk is not a loiter and I have to move to catch up. When we reach the pelican crossing and the little man is red, she waits patiently, but the split second that man turns green, her feet are on the road. Not once has anyone beat her off the line. Sometimes she glances back to see where I got to.

We sit down at a restaurant and her eyes flick around taking in all the new sights, reading signs – unlike me she reads German – and she’s encountering that delightful possibility of people watching away from home, where the people are so different, where they walk different, talk different, wear different clothes and embrace each other with a repertoire of unfamiliar gestures. She’s observing, thinking, learning.

It’s possibly worth pointing out that the Little Mermaid is no longer an innocent child. She looks like one of the portraits from the Room of Beauties in the Schloss Nymphemburg (Palace of the Nymphs): a soft rounded face and dangerous eyes. These portraits, painted back when Bavaria was a kingdom, show women from different social circles selected purely for their looks. The collection includes princesses and a shoe-maker’s daughter. The gallery was for the benefit of some king or other who was particularly intrigued by feminine beauty (sometimes it’s best not to ask) and he – someone should make a television series on this – ended up losing his throne over a dancing girl.

We admire fancy ceilings and walk through the park, visit the palatial hunting lodge, the palatial indoor swimming pool, the Greek style temple with its fancy white Corinthian columns. The Little Mermaid likes the Chinese wallpapers imported during the 18th century – a Napoleon era fashion. We walk through the bedchambers of the Bavarian royals; they’re filled with portraits. We both agree that the Queen’s study, with its Egyptian theme, is a good room. The Little Mermaid likes fancy furniture. We admire golden coaches and golden sledges. Lunch is salad in the gardens in front of the palm house. We choose table service. It’s the waitress’s second day at work. I have a rosemary lemonade.

We go to the concentration camp in Dachau. It’s not easy going to a concentration camp. You look at the space where too many people were crammed together in inhumane conditions, dying because they hadn’t enough food, had too much work, had barely anything resembling medical care, had everything worth living for stripped from them. The first crematorium was used to burn 11,000 human bodies. It wasn’t big enough, so they built another that was more efficient. When they ran out of coal for the crematorium, they dug a mass grave. When the camp was liberated, there were a few thousand bodies still waiting to be disposed of. And people kept dying: from malnutrition, from the brutalities their bodies had experienced in the camp, from the long-term effects of some of the experiments that ‘doctors’ had done on them.

The sun shines and we seek shade at any opportunity. The museum includes more information than one could reasonably read in a day, and you have to pause because this is not information that is easy to digest. A tightness forms in my chest. Thankfully, for us, cruelty is hard to comprehend. We cross the yard where the prisoners were forced to line up every morning and evening and where they were forced to witness their fellow inmates being tortured as punishment. We tend to silence.

At night we sleep in a hostel. It’s a while since I’ve stayed in a hostel. In fact, I wonder if the last time was in Copenhagen, on my trip to Finland and back. This one is nice, big and airy with trees growing in the courtyard. I like seeing the Little Mermaid asking people questions, hearing her speaking German, and seeing that she knows what she wants. We cook pasta in the hostel kitchen, chat with the women in the dorm room and sleep in bunk beds. The reduction in privacy is part of the trade-off. Simple accommodation, but there are people to meet whenever you feel like socialising. There’s something nice about being reminded of how many people are searching for interaction with other cultures, other people, other places.

“Did you feel comfortable on the flight?”

Flying. Iceland 2015.

I’ve just got back from Berlin and a friend is curious. What is it like to fly at the moment?

Well the airports are pretty much deserted; the toilets are cleaner than usual and there are many signs and instructions. Wearing a mask is compulsory, as it is in many other locations where you come into close proximity with the public, but security is delightfully much faster to pass through.

Being seated for a couple of hours, my legs ached a bit, and when I finally ‘alighted’ from the train at the end of my journey, I felt relieved to be able to remove my mask. Truthfully though, the familiarity of being on the move and the odd solitary state of flying alone soothed my nomadic need. I was glad to be in the air.

There is a limit to how helpful worrying can be

As analytical thinking creatures, we’re pretty unreliable at recognising the severity and likelihood of the dangers we face. We underestimate and overestimate on a daily basis and all of this effort can be exhausting. To avoid it, we delegate to the media who are financially incentivised to provoke our emotions, and to the government, whose job is to manage the whole of society rather than just us, the individual.

Going with your gut feeling is all very well if your gut feeling has a history of actually being right, and by this I mean actually right, not just all right enough that you could rewrite a storyline to make it feel not so bad. I don’t ignore my gut feeling, going against my stomach’s intuition is generally a bad idea, but nor do I think I should be led by my stomach. If your stomach’s twisting and turning in fretful motion, you probably need to do something (although it might just be something you’ve eaten). You should listen to it. However, that first inclination of how to act may well be wrong.

But from a practical viewpoint, who’s to say that my voyage to Germany is any less safe than spending a day working as a waitress? And who can analyse that with any accuracy, certainly not me.

The siren of warning emanating from your insides is just that, a warning. Your stomach is saying it’s unhappy. Most likely a decision needs to be made and action needs to be taken. It doesn’t excuse the analytical mind; it’s a sign that the analytical mind needs to be used. However, the analytical mind is limited and fallible. No wonder we are confused and overwhelmed.

Some people are much more risk averse than others

Sometimes I feel guilty for my lack of risk aversion. I’m not the sort to seek high adrenaline adventures just for the sake of it. Yet, I’m sceptical of fear. I want to live my life as I want to, not dictated by unfounded and uncertain fears. This isn’t just the post-trauma effect, it’s part of my character, although perhaps the post-trauma reclamation of life has added to my stubbornness. It’s certainly added to my scepticism.

Sometimes I do things that other people are afraid to do, although perhaps slowly as I build up my confidence, but the conclusion is the same. I’m focused on what I want. I’m not driven by the adrenaline, I’m driven by my curiosity, but often fulfilling one’s curiosity comes at a price. It asks that you dare.

Not daring has huge consequences

When I arrived in Berlin and stepped out of the airport into the cold, grey of cityscape autumn I felt lighter. I’d been stabbed in the throat with a cotton bud by a chap in a plastic gown, and I’d rubbed excessive hand sanitizing gel into the crevices of my hands, but I’d arrived. I breathed in the German air and relished in the selfish choice I’d made. It brought me a sense of glee.

It’s really difficult to decide what is best for us, the individual

We face a whole lot of confused messaged and contradictory thoughts, suggested to us by governments and news agencies who focus on their needs to manipulate the population as a whole. Nobody is quite sure what behaviour counts as dangerous. Some people flaunt the rules on masks or mixing households and some don’t leave the house. The psychological cost, being invisible and uncountable, is generally feared, but ignored within the risk assessment.

For me personally, the psychological threat is the one with my attention

It’s a danger I know from up close. When I look at my friends, I’m looking for the light of life in their eyes. I’m listening to the threads of negativity and I worry. I worry about the effect of a general reduction in laughter over the year. The lack of excitement about future plans and the dent in ambitions. It’s all rather saddening.

Psychologically, letting myself unfurl my wings for a brief moment was a precious balm. When I booked the flight, I had no idea whether regulations would let me fly or whether the aeroplane would even take off, but I felt it was worth the risk. Travelling is part of who I am.

“Did you feel comfortable on the flight?”

Yes, I’d go as far as saying that actually I enjoyed it. But I can assure you washed my hands thoroughly when I disembarked.

Gut: The Inside Story Of Our Body’s Most Under-rated Organ by Giulia Enders

This book was translated by David Shaw from the original German. It was a very kind gift from Lady Patricia

This book was bought for me, as a gift. Under my own impulse, I would have left it on the bookshop shelf after looking with mild amusement at the rather good doodle style illustrations that do an excellent job of explaining the science. Giulia Enders’ sister, Jill Enders, is the one to thank for these. However, the book ended up on my bookshelf.

Six months later, in search of something a bit different and reasonably light to read, I picked it up.

I consider myself more interested in the brain, how I think and feel and how I can change all this to make me a happier, more content, likeable human being. I prefer to think of things in terms of psychology than biology. Probably due to an unnecessary grudge against my school biology teachers. Giulia Enders however introduces the gut in a manner that would have been acceptable to both me and my biology teacher when I was fifteen. Apparently, my stomach is really much higher in my body than I imagined. And my small intestine really does agree that a siesta – or at least a bit of relaxation – is a good idea after lunch. Enders also points out what I feel I should have recognized as the obvious: we feel not solely with the brain in some mystical fashion, but because it keeps us alive.

Anyone who suffers from anxiety or depression should remember that an unhappy gut can be the cause of an unhappy mind. Sometimes, the gut has a perfect right to be unhappy, if it is dealing with an undetected food intolerance, for example. We should not always blame depression on the brain or on our life circumstances – there is much more to us than that.

Giulia Enders, Gut

There was also a chapter on the cause of various intolerances and some fascinating (and sometimes icky) detail on all the living creatures – bacteria, yeasts, fungi, worms – that you may or not want to be living in your body.

It’s a super easy to read book. The bit on bacteria goes on a while, and you might lose focus at this point, but the pictures and the sometimes unexpected but clear explanations of how we work make it worth reading and easy to digest.

Germany: ein hund, ein cobra but no English

I’m not entirely sure how it came about as an arrangement. However, the deal was I’d write a blog post if Jesska took me to yoga.

Seeing that I was with Jesska, and that I was new, the super flexible soft spoken yoga teacher came over to say hello. Jesska introduced me as her friend from England

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

I know enough German to say ‘nein’, but in that moment, my brain failed.

There was a brief exchange of thoughts between Jesska and the teacher, before Jesska explained I should move mats so that I would have the best chance of seeing what was going on. Because yes, I’d agreed to do yoga in a language I do not speak.

Now I’d always thought of German as a harsh sounding language

However, in the mouth of the yoga teacher, it was soft. We laid down on our yoga mats to the sound of typical calming yoga music. Everything smelt of incense. Pretty soon I was feeling relaxed, and my pre-yoga nerves had dissipated. As I focused on what I was doing, it occurred to me that actually understanding what was being said didn’t matter so much. If I’d never done yoga before, I might have had some difficulties, but a downward ‘hund’ is a downward dog and a cobra is a cobra.

All I had to do was copy

In fact, sometimes I found myself ahead of the rest of the class as sometimes the verbal instruction followed the teacher’s movement.

It was all going well until she stopped demonstrating and started walking around the classroom. I’d focused on watching so intensely that I had completely failed to memorise the routine, so now I found myself having to copy the other students. Of course, all the students’ movements looked slightly different from one another.

As the teacher walked around she corrected our poses

I felt her hand on my back giving me some small prods and a gentle push here. Moving me into a better position. Then there was the additional helpful miming. She demonstrated ‘put your head on your folded arms’ with a purposeful stare in my direction.

Jesska says that occasionally she’s add a word in English. I missed these English prompts entirely. I had no idea the teacher had said them until Jesska asked if an up dog was the same as a downward dog in the car on the way home. No, but I appreciated the effort.

The surprise came right at the end of the session

We lay down, covered in our blankets, ready for the compulsory post yoga nap – chavasana – and closed our eyes. That’s when I heard the teacher putting on her hand-cream.

Odd time for moisturising your hands, I thought.

And then, suddenly, I found that the intense smell of this magic hand cream was making itself intimately acquainted with my head, neck and shoulders. I was being anointed.

Would you try a yoga class in a language you don’t speak?