Gyms, journeys and a Christmas miracle

It’s staggering to think that the first week of December has already come and gone. November came and disappeared in a flurry of confusion, tiredness, and counting down the days to leave for the two day panacea I had planned on the third day I was in Germany.

November was a tricky month to be me, hence perhaps there being such a long break between this post and my last tragicomical update.  I have to say that I felt down quite a bit given the fact that I managed to be almost entirely broke for the whole month after being fined on a bus twice for forgetting my pass at home, the not-yet-Christmassy-but-definitely-miserable-and-in-no-way-golden-and-and-autumnal weather, and my total lack of interaction with my housemate (my fault: I worry constantly about whether I sound like like Borat when I’m interacting in German. Or worse, like my dad when he attempts English). But more on how that improved later (that’s the Christmas miracle).

My Nexus password completely disappeared from my brain, a sign that perhaps I am finally managing to get the Oxford closure that I need as my subconscious stops feeling like it should be working all the time; I had a very dramatic incident involving fire alarms and socks * , and I braced myself for my two conferences in Sachsen, where I would be attempting to convince a whole bunch of schoolteachers that the company I’m working for would be the best one to take on in their schools.

I took up dog walking, which involved being dragged by a Great Dane into mud and chasing Schnitzel the runaway poodle (involuntarily, I’ll point out: he ran off after a squirrel, I patiently called him back, the other five rebelled and a run which was a very good reenactement of the stampeding scene in the Lion King was bought on, with me in tow).

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I don’t know where I read this, but I’m certain dog walking is a very effective way of trying to make friends – I have a feeling it may have been Time Out London, where a walk in Hyde Park with your dog is an excuse to set the dog loose and peacefully watch it sniff a few other dogs and prance around as you sit under a tree talking to someone. Somehow I don’t think it was thought up for Stuttgart, where if I had set the Kray twins in the form of poodles that I was given to enforce discipline upon free, they would quite probably have either been stolen and made into a sausage or aggressively shouted at in incomprehensible Swabian. I wish my eyes could take pictures: I’d have a wondrous gallery of evil stares given to me as I struggled to manage six different size dogs whilst leaving a tube station. One of my dogs, an innocent looking but truly evil Maltese, also walked on someone’s pic nic and peed on it. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to be a mole and disappear underground so badly.

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This picture was taken as I tried to tell them in German “No leads, no walk”.

Oh, I also went to the German gym. People keep telling me I’m putting “German” in front of everything to make it sound odd (“German Zumba”; “German moisturiser”; “German spinach”…). I feel that German gym is one of those places where the emphasis on the German part of it is absolutely crucial. The sign up to the Move Factory that is my gym was extremely straightforward – sign this, sign that, tick this box saying if you squash yourself with weights it has nothing to do with us. I was in no way psychologically prepared for the horror that would await me. There were a lot of classes with odd names that I stupidly signed for and was left a husk of a human after attending: Tae Bo springs to mind as the most memorable one.

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What comes up if you google Tae Bo – a pretty good representation

I walked into a class without Googling what it involved. Never do this. It started out as a normal (and actually quite fun) aerobics class.  Tae Bo is actually a high intensity dancing class mixed with punches and boxing, and I can tell you, doing those at the same time is in no way as easy as you might think.

My instructor was a very, very muscly Warriol lookalike (I did a football course at Chelsea Football club when I was about twelve and that was the name of my football instructor in London all those years ago; toughest man I’ve ever met) , who was both really motivating and seemed to be loving watching us suffer. As the class went on, he started chatting about some coast to coast holiday he’d been on, mentioning the fact that he’d seen The Biggest Loser. For those unaware what this is, it’s a dreadful American reality TV show where all contestants are meant to drop loads of weight. I thought nothing of it, continuing trying to kick and swing my arms at the right rhythm. I was not prepared for Tae Bo Master to start hovering around the room quoting Biggest Loser in an American shout: it started with “Come on, just DO it”, but quickly moved on to “Melt that lard”. “Melt that lard”, it turned out, was the catchphrase of the class, given that these regular Tae Boers surrounding me were smiling along (some even repeating it in German…): the volume of Melt that lard was reaching decibel peaks I thought only planes could reach, often switching emphasis.

MELT that lard.

Melt that LARD.

LADIES: melt that lard.

MELT. THAT. LARD.

I wish I could put the terror this bought into words: forty five minutes of being shouted at shook me. At some point, I kicked the poor woman next to me on her bottom whilst trying to regain my punch and kick sequence. What shook me even more was walking past the class area the next day, on the way to the pool, to witness a Zumba class going on and the same scary Tae Bo teacher shouting “It’s melting OFF. It’s MELTING off!!”

Trying calmer exercise didn’t help: Pilates saw me collapse whilst trying to place myself against a wall to “find interior balance” in a very close neck breaking circumstance, sitting on someone’s hand twice, and suppressing laughter so long when we were forced to display our foot in front of ourselves and “slowly, watching it, rotate it towards the ceiling… higher, and higher…” (you need to imagine twenty people doing this with extremely serious expressions on their faces, most of them over the age of sixty) that I finally peaked in a snort that bought tears down my face, as the rest of the class stared at me whilst I discended into hysterical, and quite frankly, unclassy, hiccups of laughter.  Spinning had me wondering whether I had become a genitals free mannequin, given how numb it left me. Core training was a mere confirmation I was in the queue for facial hair I would be condemned to spend the rest of my life waxing and threading off whilst God was handing out muscles. Also, whenever I see anyone looking extremely serious while doing something stupid, the Miranda that lives in me wants to shout something ridiculous just to break it. I felt like that throughout every minute of “calm” exercises. I just cannot do it. Give me swimming any day.

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Sachsen, on the other hand, was pretty fun. I had been scared of all of the practicalities (do I pay? what for? will the hotel have wifi? what if the place we stay in Bavaria is near Hinterkaifeck and the ghosts of those murdered a century ago come back to haunt us?), but both times were  really good fun. Zwickau, the tiny little town we first visited, was Schumann’s birthplace. It was pretty, and extremely DDR-esque – it had the same houses I’ve seen in Görlitz before, with strange eye windows on the roofs, and pastel coloured paint peeling off many beautiful buildings.

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The main street was, to my supervisor’s shock, completely shut down. She had only been there six months earlier, she explained, when it was a lively, flowery high street. The dark side of the Eastern Germany prettiness I had called home for a month three years ago began to dawn on me as I saw the effects on the economy that this side of Germany was suffering from, the kind that cities such as Dresden keep well hidden in the suburbs, whilst the polished museum area and theatre trigger camera flashes. It was a huge shock to see just how striking the contrast with the groomed, skyscraper dominated Frankfurt we’d zoomed past on our train that same morning was. “Mainhattan”, even if in the Hessen region which is outshone by far by Sachsen in terms of beauty, compared to the sometimes bleak landscapes we passed was a far prettier sight.

Leipzig, my boss told me, was seen as an extremely cool place to be if you were young in Germany, so I had high expectations that weren’t let down – even the station was gorgeous ( a faint reminder of Milan, in fact).

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The Nikolaikirche, right next to our hotel, was one of those churches I couldn’t make my mind up about. I don’t like Protestant churches, I especially don’t like Anglican churches (sorry, but come on, I grew up in Italy), and I don’t like dark, naked churches that are far too simple, as well as churches that are overly golden and twinkly and excessive.

Italy’s a terrible place to narrow  down to an “exemplary” church because of so many different influences on each different region given artistic movements, even though the country is so hugely dominated by Roman Catholicism, as even the majority of those who migrate to Italy come from a mainly Catholic country. Churches range incredibly from Venice, with its Byzantine influence and golden ceilings, golden everything, mosaics, and basically opulence dripping on you as soon you walk in (the one exception to excess that I can tolerate) to Bari’s simple, white stoned and Romanesque charm.

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Yet both of those have a strong link to Eastern Europe, with Turkish pilgrims visiting Bari annually as the Saint the church is dedicated to originally had his shrine in Myra, Turkey, and a twin Greek Orthodox Church built in Bari. Once the Saracens got hold of Myra, common opinion thought moving the relics abroad would be a safe choice, and the legend said St Nicola had passed by Bari choosing it as his burial place. In fact, there was great competition for who could keep the relics between Venice and Bari. Venice shows evident signs of its Alexandrine inspiration, and Constantinople is an eternal presence given its horses and its Tetrarchs placed outside the church as well; the interior is built on the model of a Greek cross. Could either get more Orthodox? And yet, you couldn’t find two churches that looked less like one another.

I feel a church needs a good balance between simplicity and decoration and I’m not sure how possible that really is, because I’m yet to find one I can appreciate that fits those criteria. Nikolaikirche was  the kind of church which looks terrible from the outside and really quite pretty in its interior. Florence Cathedral is the other way round, and my favourite, St Peter’s in Rome, is breathtaking for both, as is Siena Dome.

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Nikolaikirche interior

Anyway, before I get carried away blaring on about churches for this entire post, I’m going to actually delve into what I did in Leipzig and Zwickau.

The conference revolved around Oxford, as my company was hoping to raise interest in the mother tongue magician that could easily pop out of their books by giving insight into the traditions they couldn’t see themselves, but somehow I feel that if anything, even though they revelled in my accent that “really could not get more British”, they were extremely confused. Why did I have such dark hair and a complexion           ” tanned all year round” (it’s called olive skin, folks)? Why didn’t I go to school in England and didn’t I know how A Levels worked?

These questions were bought up in Zwickau, where the teachers were however extremely enthusiastic as to how I had decided to study abroad having never lived there, why I had picked German (could I really not pick English literature?), and so on. All kinds of questions were asked: what do you have to do to get expelled? Do you wear subfusc every day? Can colleges interact with one another? Is Oxford more expensive than other universities? They laughed at trashing photos and oohed at Christ Church hall, and a lovely couple of teachers gave me their emails at the end to contact them if I wanted help with academic work.

Leipzig, as a city, not a tiny little town, with teachers who taught older kids and had travelled abroad, was much less impressed by what was shown and more than anything had more pressing questions, which I stuttered my way through as they were fired at me. Why didn’t the university finance balls for low income students so they didn’t miss out? How do people plan to make the academic staff more diverse? Why isn’t the Oxford Union free? Why are you forced to live out/in? Someone even bought up Rhodes Must Fall, which was extremely hard to explain in German. Then it moved onto me: why Stuttgart? Why publishing? Why Baden Württemberg? Who were my favourite authors? Why?

They, too, were warm and kind to me, wishing me a good stay at the end of it; one of them had a very long conversation with me about both the influences of the DDR on her childhood and the guilt instilled in every German “which comes naturally, and trails down generations” she explained.

“It’s within you, really, because you’re so exposed to the history, to the awareness others have of your country and how it has behaved in the past, that you have no other option than to continually educate yourself, to silently apologise. It’s a moral eternity of if onlys.  And you know, people like those in Munich last autumn don’t help themselves when overall we’re trying to remember respectfully” she smiled bitterly.

~

I also got to see Ella in Leipzig, and we went to the extremely cool Karl Liebknecht Straße and had dinner at the ridiculously Ostalgic Gaststätte Kollektiv, surrounded by 70s newspaper cuttings about the fall of the Wall, strange aprons, and typewriters. It was wonderful to be able to talk to someone who was also somewhere *not* overpopulated by Oxonians (cough, Paris, cough). Sad that she’s not there when I go to Leipzig in April for my conference round two – this time, solo.

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In between all of this, I spent a weekend in the beautiful Oxford I’d so wanted. Upon landing and seeing the dreary weather, I cracked up. I never thought I’d be so emotional in being somewhere really quite boring. Getting off the Airline and walking down Cowley Road was one of the oddest ten minutes of my life: it felt like I’d fallen asleep to walk back into a dream I’d interrupted years earlier. I enunciated my words very carefully when paying my coach ticket, as though I still expected people not to understand me. I felt like a strange intruder, like a tourist entering a college without permission. I felt as though I should make the most of being able to speak idiomatically and engage in long conversations just because I could have control over how I’d steer these and what I wanted to say. Seeing people who were my best friends I hadn’t seen in two years left me oddly surprised when we talked about mundane things as though nothing had happened in between.

New faces, new buildings, people living in the same corridor I stayed in whilst I interviewed, Polaroids I wasn’t in – it was all various shades of strange. I couldn’t understand why I’d wanted to stay longer when I left, of course I had to go, I had work, I had a life elsewhere: a bus journey which normally has me in tears saw me fall asleep to iPlayer until we got to Gatwick. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that other people were so worked up about essays  and timetables, gossiping about the Union and who’d “got” with whom when I’d been that person a mere six months ago.It dawned on me how small Oxford was.

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“You’re not in this one, Aditya”

I loved my friends, I adored the city, but somehow it was like I was trying to force a jigsaw together.  I couldn’t believe I was having brunch in QLC, knocking over jugs of water in Wagamama’s and laughing about crap Eduroam, walking down alleys taking my time, chatting to Ella until late, lingering in Chiara and Aditya’s living room eating toast, watching the sun set on the Saturday, when every time before that I’d just been thinking about how quickly I could get from here to there to the library – how many hours of sleep to give up to complete something by the deadline. I didn’t even see the Taylorian for the first time since I started university in every term I’ve been there and times outside of term time.

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I watched Gatwick as my bumpy plane took off and England shrunk beneath me, thinking about how doing these things had made me realise just how much termtime lacks balance. The weekend had been wonderful because I had no work. It was such a new feeling that it left me puzzled. I have loved my entire time at Oxford so far, and it’s been fun to do everything extracurricular, sporty, and night-out related, and to get to see some great speakers and talks, even with its tremendously low lows, but in loving it so much, I’ve lacked objectivity: I think going back proved that more than ever. I don’t read anything that’s not academic, which meant I missed Italy’s prime minister changing in first year, I never leave the city – we’re talking not even Abingdon. I did go to London regularly in first year, true, but only to see plays and shows and exhibitions related to my degree. It gets difficult to distinguish between what I FEEL I should be doing and what I want to do.

If there’s one thing I’ll take from this year it’s that life is about so much more than how I value myself by a bad mark or by how little sleep I’ve had; it’s about making the time to be somewhere so beautiful without turning into a tunnel of stress and appreciating it. Even in Stuttgart, I feel like I should be making vocab lists constantly, memorising my entire Hammer Grammar, forcing myself to read.  Doing the things I did last weekend isn’t meant to feel like a crime; and I’m going to make sure Finals Carolina has a mental post-it for that at all times.

Once I got home, I unpacked the Chocolate Orange and Quality Street I’d promised my colleagues and laid it all out on our office kitchen table the next morning, sending an email round the department informing them about it, as everyone always did in cooking Lebkuchen and Fruhstücksbrot. It was weirdly home-y, going to lunch with my colleagues, watching them chat about bowling gone wrong at the weekend, complaining about how bad the canteen soup was, moaning about the colour printer being broken. The Christmas markets started the evening I got back and twinkled from the main station.

Last night, I reverted to Oxford me and sat in the Stadtbibliotek and looked down at the people reading books for pleasure below me. But I wasn’t completely Oxford me: I picked up my Woolf, and started to read it in German, surprised at how easily I could understand it, pushing Schiller and Kleist out of my mind, just until the new year. I have folders, and notes to make, and practice papers waiting to be sent off, and so many other things to think about – but I know that I’ll get to do them in my own time, when I’ve come back in January. I know it’ll be easier than I thought it was when I first got here.

A list of exciting things to do is on my desk: Zurich this weekend, Ulm Cathedral, the world’s tallest church, to climb, Heidelberg magic, hiking through the hills of the city to the Uhlandshöhe, the highest point of town, four castles, Marbach, Schiller’s hometown, to explore,  that unread ZEIT on my bedroom floor, teaching children refugees English with one of my colleagues in making posters and flashcards for them to use in school, a trip to the vineyards and one to Hegel’s house. I was so miserable in September I walked straight past his house. I don’t need to escape to Hamburg or Berlin when I have all these things around me.

Finally, after a month’s tiptoeing around each other, there has been housemate contact, just in time for St Nikolaus. I managed to overcome my Borat fear, and make conversation. If that’s not a Christmas miracle, I don’t know what is.

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I have to go to my work Christmas party now, and rumour has it the newbies are forced to karaoke – there’s been far too much snickering the past few days for me not to be worried. Wish me luck.

 

 

 

 

* I tried to dry my socks hanging them over a candle and started a fire. I know now how to both say “fire brigade” and turn on my radiator.

 

 

 

 

 

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