Memento Mori, Memento Vivere

Yesterday I had a headache behind my right eye. It was as if I could feel the shape of my eye nerve all the way from my light brown irises to somewhere in the middle of my head where the pain felt more intense, like the claps of a piano where the pain intensity corresponds to the pitch highness.

Today it’s different, the pain is somewhere above my nose, much closer to my face, and it feels more like pressure causing pain rather than pain itself.

My headaches are varied.

I can remember my worst headaches. In my childhood they used to happen more frequently and they also used to hurt more. I don’t know if they have been genuinely fading or if I have been getting used to them.

Once I took so many paracetamols I overdosed. I was all alone in Manchester in my 2nd year of university and I thought I was going to die there and then without a soul knowing about it, and that they would discover my dead body days, maybe weeks later.

I started to think about death often. As a child whenever I heard adults speak about the fear of death (mostly Woody Allen), I thought it was pathetic. What’s the point of thinking about death while you are alive? I used to ask myself. Now I understand what they meant. Taking a plane becomes a 4h contemplation of how would the world continue if the plane were to crash. A car ride becomes an analysis of all the ways an accident could take place. A headache becomes a step closer to a diagnosis of a brain tumour. A breast pain means breast cancer. My grandmothers both died because of these two things, long before I had the chance to meet them. Reading about genetics feels like reading my death sentence.

Memento mori, but not too much. Memento vivere.

(I started reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and I think if anyone ever reads these lines they would be able to see its influence on me.)

A Matter of Life and Death in Piatra Craiului

Nobody is indifferent towards their family. Many people would classify it as the most important thing in life (like some characters in The Godfather), while others would openly admit how damaging and toxic their family is to them (like some characters in Downton Abbey). Both categories take pride in their relationship with their family. Either due to their efforts to maintain the good ties and a peaceful home or for their ability to escape what they consider a toxic environment. I am not sure if this quality is something that changes over the course of one’s life. Since I can remember, I have been closer to the first category. You can’t turn blood into water, a Romanian phrase says.

Last weekend, my family and I went hiking and experienced some of the toughest, most adventurous and risky moments we have ever been through. We chose a hiking trail that was much above our alpine experience, gear and expectations. The trail is considered highly difficult – to the extent where it is not even mentioned on the maps from the base of the mountain. However, up there at the peak, the trail begins to exist, and a red triangle marks it with pride.

My equipment

We started our journey in Magura, a little village with no asphalt or running water which I absolutely adored, although our host, Claudiu, as I’m sure most of the inhabitants of Magura do, often complains about these aspects of the village and the incompetency of the public administration. From there, we left the car at Fantana lui Botorog, where the trails begin. From there, a 3h hike (which I would rather classify as walk instead of hike) took us to the first cabin – Cabana Curmatura (1470m). A very well maintained cabin shelter protected by an impressively large Saint Bernard, Curmatura is frequented by professional hikers and families on walks alike. We had some tea and lightened our backpacks by eating some of our tin cans and were ready to go after a short break.

Me at Cabana Curmatura

Our next target was Varful Ascutit (2150m) which literally translates as “The Sharp Peak”. The hike was quite steep, but nothing compared to what we experienced in the next days. I was incredibly lucky to see a deer at the top, which I reached right before the sun started to set. It is among the most memorable, magical moments of my life. The deer and I were completely alone on the crest and looked into each other’s eyes for about 10 seconds, before it ran away. I was astonished at the grace and gentleness of this animal, at its human-like eyes, at the amazing mountain peak it chose to dwell on.

At the Peak, there is a refuge which looks a bit like a Pokemon ball, or an object taken out of a science fiction movie set. Inside the refuge, there is nothing but a semicircular metal plaque that fits 8 people, which we were about to test because we shared it with another 4 hikers. In fact, they were 2 groups, each of which was composed of 3 hikers, but 2 of them chose to sleep outside the refuge in a tent. It is still surprising to me that they didn’t come inside the refuge at some point during the night, as there was a really scary storm that night. My mum recalled the next morning that she felt like crying while listening to the thunders and seeing the lightnings entering the refuge through its cracks. We barely slept that night, as the sound of the hailstorm was louder than any alarm clock. God must have left the tap on that night.

The group of hikers who shared the Ascutit Refuge on a stormy night

The next morning, the clouds were still there, not allowing us to see more than 10m in front of us. The rain was coming and leaving, as if trying to baffle us and start the discussion of whether we should venture on the crest, as we initially intended. The crest is among the most beautiful landscapes that Romania, and possibly the world, has to offer. Being at such a high altitude, on a clear day, it is possible to see to the left and right of the crest, as if you are tied to a parachute and suspended mid-air. Nonetheless, due to the clouds, we could not see any of this beautiful landscape, so we decided to take a different route. We chose a track that was estimated at 6h, hoping to get down in time for my dad and my sister to be back at their offices on Monday morning.

Spoiler alert: it took us much more than 6 hours. In fact, it took us 2 days. The trail starts off with very steep chasms on rocks that were crumbling beneath our feet due to the humidity and the erosion of the mountain. The next night, my sister and I both admitted we had PTSD-like flashbacks in which we fell down the chasm. This day was a real courage test. I never understood how people can fear the mountains and hiking until that day. Suddenly everything made sense to me. The panic attacks people described to me in the past, the feeling of your body freezing and the crippling uncertainty, the pressure of knowing every single step you take may be fatal, the gloom of walking past a cross marking another fatality right on your footsteps.

The day ended halfway through our trail, when we reached another refuge, Refugiul Sperantelor (1685m). There would be no point in building 2 refuges 3h away from one another, if we were to listen to the signs. This felt to me like the mountain’s confession that the track was estimated at 6h without being given much thought. Luckily, at this refuge there weren’t any other hikers so we could spoil ourselves with being allocated twice as much room as the night before. This time we slept so much better, although we didn’t have any heat because unfortunately the additional gas tank we bought didn’t match the heater. Also, we ran out of water when we got there. That means we had gone nearly 48h with only 6l of water for the 4 of us. What we were not short of was sleep, as we slept from 8:30PM to 6AM!

My family at the Sperantelor Refuge

We woke up very thirsty and finding water became our most powerful motivator. There was a sign for Orlovski’s Well only 1h30 away from us, which we were very eager to find, and channeling all of our trust into our fella, Orlovski.

This was foolish of us. After 1h30, there was a bifurcation in the track. Our track was continuing to the right, and an arrow marking Orlovski’s Well said we should find it 3 minutes uphill. At this point, my parents were exhausted and extremely thirsty, so we decided that my sister and I would go uphill to fill the water bottles while they would wait for us at the crossing. A horrible thing was about to happen. The well was dry and my sister slipped into the trough. She was covered up to her neck in stones and I couldn’t even help her because if I got near the edge, I would have slipped too. Fortunately, she managed to get up and I returned to my parents 1h later with empty bottles and holding my wounded sister.

After that, we decided not to look for water anymore and just hurry down to the base of the mountain. Because of the thirst, we were all very quiet. After not drinking anything for 24h, every single sound your mouth becomes really painful and draining. We all found ways to appease our thirst. I shook the moist pin tree branches into my bottle and got a few drops into my mouth. I washed my hands on the grass dew and licked my hands, then spat immediately as I felt the taste of soil on my tongue.

Shortly after though, I heard the sound of water. I thought it was an auditory hallucination but my dad could hear it as well. Perhaps we shared the hallucination. I ran at the prospect of water and when I did see it I felt as though I was crying of joy, although tears couldn’t come out of my eyes because of the dehydration. The water itself was very calcareous and almost white in colour. But none of us cared. We could feel our bodies coming back to life. We were laughing like madmen and blessing this tiny well that we will forever remember fondly of.

Afterwards, the track began to flatten and shortly afterwards, we returned to civilisation. The sensation of touching cement with my boots was peculiar – a bit like the feeling you have after taking your skiing boots off after a whole day on the slopes.

My family back to the base of the mountain, safe and sound!

We went inside a refurbished cabin that felt like luxury and ate bean soup in bread. The air inside the cabin felt too difficult to breathe. I had become a creature of the mountains. Seeing other people down there made me feel odd. They had no idea what I had been through and they must have been judging me for the dirt underneath my nails, for my smelly breath, for the way I ate my soup like a famished dog. Equally, I considered them superficial clowns who lacked the courage to climb higher and I choked at their smell of cheap perfume. I saw them taking pictures with the mountain from the bottom and it felt close to jealousy. How dare they take pictures with my mountain? The mountain I have conquered and they haven’t? How dare they?

After this purgatory stage in our descend, we jumped inside a taxi that took us back to the car and in the evening we returned to Bucharest, contrasting the decadence of the city with the serenity of the mountain. We were all amazed by the fact we were all there alive, safe and sound. We began to cherish the little things a lot more. We became grateful for our tap, even though we didn’t have warm water because of a pipe being broken; for our little apartment; for our messy kitchen; for the comfortable chairs; for the dry clothes; for the suffocating heat of Bucharest; for the light bulb; for having our own beds; for a cup of tea.

What made this hike draining for me wasn’t the actual physical effort. It wasn’t even the anxiety of me taking a wrong step or the debilitating thirst. It was the fact that something could happen to someone in my family. I am confident in my own abilities. I knew this trail was not deadly for me, but it’s impossible to know how it feels for a 50 year old, or for my starry-eyed sister. As I said in the beginning of this post, family means a great deal to me. If I was hiking with friends instead of family it would have felt very different.

Anyway… I can’t wait to go back!

Light and Lightness in Sagrada Familia

Although the Rock of Gibraltar is as awe-inspiring and graceful as it has been for the past 2 months which I have spent at its foot, I began to long for a change of scenery. Consequently, we packed up our bags once again and ventured to Barcelona. I could still remember its unconventional taste since I had been there with my family 7 years ago. 7 is a beautiful number, so I decided I could allow myself the eccentricity of saying I visit Barcelona every 7 years. No sooner said that done. However, this time I had to do everything I couldn’t do back then – most importantly, entering the famous Sagrada Familia and visiting one of the houses that Gaudi designed. To my delight, I managed to achieve both aims.

Whilst visiting Sagrada Familia, I instinctively drew an analogy between this Catalunian sanctuary and its Romanian counterpart – Catedrala Mantuirii Neamului, as both caused some stir in their countries. Personally, I know which one I prefer, although I must admit I have not seen Catedrala Mantuirii Neamului on the inside yet. It is now on my bucket list for when I get home.

Meanwhile, Sagrada Familia had a huge effect on me.

The facade of the Cathedral tells the stories depicted in the New Testament. Initially, Gaudi wanted to include the whole Bible, but eventually it has be proven to be too ambitious a plan. Apparently, the intention behind telling the entire story through the facade was that old priests would step out of the cathedral to explain the scenes of the bible to the novices. Ojala the surroundings of the cathedral will be closer to this charming image Gaudi planned. For now, they are full of people more concerned to get their best angle in the photos taken in front of the cathedral, rather than the interpretation of a biblical scene.

The sculptures are modern and modest; the faces of key characters such as Mary, Joseph lack the detail often found in Catholic Cathedrals after the Renaissance. If in Islam, Prophet Muhammad cannot be depicted, in Christianity painters and sculptors have extensively tried to achieve the opposite: to depict Jesus as accurately as possible, to capture his every frown, wrinkle and grin from any angle at all ages, in any material and colour that was available. Sagrada Familia adopts a neutral ground. It depicts Jesus but isn’t concerned with the details of his appearance. Instead, the simplicity catches the eye and reinforces the unconventionality of the church.

The key element of structure that the viewer must remember is that the Eastern of the church tells the birth of Christ and the Western the end of his life. The nativity scene, the 3 Wise Men and the Roman soldiers are located on the Eastern side, while the puzzle revealing the age Jesus had when he died, Judas’s kiss and the Crucifixion can be found on the Western side.

The interior maintains this chronology. The stained glass is blue, green and yellow on the East side of the Nave, and red, orange and purple on the other side.

This may sound like nothing more than a nice design idea, and it is not the first time these colours were used to express certain feelings. The originality comes into play as soon as the light enters the church through its stained glass and the sanctuary is flooded with the most serene yet playful gleam I have ever witnessed.

Normally, when entering a church, I have burdening feelings of shame and guilt. It’s very far from the lightweight, inspiring sensation that I experience in much less grandiose surroundings. When I’m in nature, for example. In fact, I am sure Gaudi must have felt the same, because he designed the interior of Sagrada Familia to replicate a forest. There are no austere paintings in heavy gold frames, but a peaceful forest made of marble that seems to welcome its visitors with joy.

Surprisingly simple for many, I was not so surprised to see this unrefined scenery, where light, rather than paintings plays the main role. Where the eye is not overloaded with inputs and the soul feels light. Etymologically, I recently realised that the English language uses the same word for light in the sense of illumination and for the opposite of heavy. I think Sagrada Familia is the best representation of this poly-semantic word.

Rod Stewart and short poetising of the simulation hypothesis

When I need you, Rod Stewart says, When I need you/ I just close my eyes and I’m with you. As a kid, I was hypnotised by the strange shapes that appeared in front of my eyes when I closed them. When their effect started to wear down and the colours disappeared, it was enough to rub my eyes and the chaotic, colourful spider webs came back on the virtual screen between me and the outside world. Now I rarely close my eyes, and when I do, I don’t even see funny shapes anymore. They might still be there, but I don’t focus on them anymore, so it’s like they’re not there. Now, when I close my eyes it’s often to remind myself that I am still a human being, a simple human being made of flesh and bones, and whatever I do, nothing so bad can happen to an inoffensive and pathetic human being. Whatever happens, the world will still be there, I will probably still be there, and so on. In the grand scheme of things, I am utterly insignificant, and grim as it may sound, that actually lifts the weight off my shoulders and brings peace onto me. I just need to breathe, feel my pupils touching the warm inside of my eyelids, feel the weight of my head through my neck, my core and down to my toes, and I am human, all too human again. This is a micro meditation that I carry out predominantly in times of uncertainty – provoked by either sorrow or triumph. The human circuitry, this warm flesh that covers it all like a blanket, feels so far away from the cold, metal image that we have of man-made things. It’s why it was easier for our ancestors to believe that we are God-made. Man-made objects lacked the internal warmth. Now, another movement rises. What if there is indeed a God, but we are not as sacred as we believe. What if we are just an experiment run by a lunatic who figured out how to make warm circuitry. Instead of processors, wires and cables, his invention had veins and arteries and warm eyelids that hid funny images behind for children to marvel at. Like any platform, this one too has some bugs. That’s why we see children dying of hunger and cancer, and that’s why Werther killed himself of unrequited love, and why Dmitri Karamazov killed his dad, and why I sit here contemplating the existence of a greater force in an universe which is maybe as plain and unsophisticated as we suspect it is while we wait for our turn to draw our last breath and in the meantime make up stories which would give it any meaning at all. 

Stretch Marks on Time’s Thighs

I realised I neglected this blog much more than I expected to when I wrote my first blog post about my trip to France. It feels so recent, yet so far away. Right after that trip, I started working – the painfully normal and socially accepted 9 to 5 routine. It makes life feel so alert, so dynamic. Having weekly meetings and monthly payslips makes you realise how quickly time passes by, and how annoyingly divisible it is. By dividing the time so mathematically precise as corporate offices do, life feels too much like nothing but a series of moments. It loses that natural flow and lightness that it is supposed to have – or at least that’s what art, in general, teaches us about it. It makes you virtually unable to lose track of it. Every action is just the result of another action, carefully fitted into a packed schedule. No evaporation, no condensation. Time only passes at a constant speed when you detach yourself from the rest. You detach at 9 and attach back at 5, as if nothing happened.

I’m sure everyone’s heard about the virus. Spread through conversations, handshakes, high fives, bro fists, hugs, la bise, kisses, love-making and everything else that makes us humans a race. Thanks to this virus, time stands still for a lot of people these days. They have the privilege of watching life merging into one long symphony, unbroken into scenes and acts.

Voyez-vous – a conclu mon chat, en s’allongeant devant la braise – le véritable bonheur, le paradis, mon cher maître, c’est d’être enfermé et battu dans une pièce ou il y a de la viande. Je parle pour les chats. (Le Paradis des chats, Émile Zola)

My Solo Trip to France (Béziers – Carcassonne – Malves – Toulouse – Bordeaux)

Stello est né le plus heureusement du monde et protégé par l’étoile du ciel la plus favorable. Tout lui a réussi, dit-on, depuis son enfance. Les grands événements du globe sont toujours arrivés à leur terme de manière à seconder et a dénouer miraculeusement ses événements particuliers, quelque embrouilles et confus qu’ils se trouvassent; aussi ne s’inquiète-t-il jamais lorsque le fil de ses aventures se mêle, se tord et se noue sous les doigts de la Destinée: il est sur qu’elle prendra la peine de le disposer elle-même dans l’ordre le plus parfait, qu’elle-même y emploiera toute l’adresse de ses mains, a la lueur de l’étoile bienfaisante et infaillible.  

Béziers https://youtu.be/UMcmjdX48SI

A 60 year old man driving a cabriolet in his swimsuit comes to pick you up at the airport, and you wonder why did you leave your comfortable room in the first place. Gilbert started talking to me with the same velocity as he was driving, ignoring the fact that I told him my French is pitiful. One line that I picked up though was “Un souris… un souris est… est une porte ouverte vers la rêverie!” (A smile… a smile is… is an open door towards reverie!). In the UK, I thought, no one would say that. The fear of embarrassing oneself is too high there for any poetic attempts. The British tragic sense is drowned in alcohol and asphyxiated in clouds of smoke, hidden behind kitsch outfits and decors, multilated into a tired and sarcastic grim, not converted into tears and lamentations like the French tragic sense. With this in mind, I started exploring this tiny southern village, walked up and down the narrow streets, with a dumb smile on my face all along, wondering if I could live my life in such a place, far from the madding crowd. Is uneventful happiness boring? Isn’t all happiness boring, in a way? After smelling all the flowers in the flower market and watching the two swans in the pond from the Plateau des Poètes ceaselessly rotating like some celestial bodies, I didn’t want to leave Béziers at all, and considered spending the rest of my trip right there, in the jardin “à l’anglaise”, paradoxically. But then, the guy sitting on the bench next to me turned to me and made a spontaneous declaration of love as I was reading Cyrano de Bergerac. He asked if he could kiss my feet. He wasn’t joking. I had to abandon Cyrano after only a couple of pages and move my (thankfully) unkissed feet to the next destination, Carcassonne.

weekly Flower Market, Béziers

Carcassonne https://youtu.be/l30dY-93_GI

I was disappointed in this commercial medieval town. In a nutshell, it was an expensive, 70 year old tourist-drowned Sighișoara. I walked around the town wearing my long gipsy skirt, holding a baguette and gracelessly chewing its crumbs like a hungry sparrow. I visited the fortress, which failed to impress me. Disappointed, I decided to go to the hostel early. It was part of a 13th century castle, a bit far from Carcassonne, in Malves.

Malves https://youtu.be/4fb5uxIWPfg

I had to wait for a few hours before the reception opened, which I spent lying on the grass and watching the locals getting ready for a festival that they were having that evening. The time spent in Malves afterwards still feels like a strange dream, the kind that you don’t really want to tell anyone about because it feels too intimate to divulge. I was happy. Maybe it was the surrealistic nature of the festival, or the delicious local wine, or the coincidence of meeting another computer scientist from Manchester, or the lovely French girls with whom I have no idea what I spoke about. The next morning, I realised there were no buses to Carcassonne because it was a Sunday, and I had to go there to take a train to Toulouse. Sean (the Mancunian) was very kind and let me ride in the back of his motorcycle (for the first time in my life), and he dropped me somewhere near Carcassonne, where we had a very childish breakfast consisting of chips and ice cream. We said goodbye, promising to keep in touch, as people who meet in these circumstances always do. From there, there was a 40 minute walk to the train station. Everyone in the area hitch-hikes, and it is seen as something very normal and safe. However, I was too scared to do that, so I started walking. A car stopped next to me, and the driver asked if I needed a ride, but I refused it. Then, I regretted it, and thought I was being paranoid. Another car stopped, and this time I jumped in without giving it a second thought. The driver was a 50 year old Moroccan man, and at the end of the 5 minute drive, he parked the car in the train station and started kissing my neck as I was struggling to pull myself out of his arms. I know it doesn’t sound like something very scary, but I’m sure that the girls who have had similar experiences can understand the panic and the disgust that I felt. I ran away from the car and jumped in the next train to Toulouse, happy to leave Carcassonne behind.

Toulouse https://youtu.be/jDT2Vd5OvBM

Any adjectives I would try to attribute to Toulouse would diminish its beauty. It felt like a jewel, a radiography of a sensitive soul, with pink buildings, flowers and trees caressing the paved, perfumed streets, children chasing ducks on the banks of the river, a peaceful tidiness reigning across the city. My excitement did not pass unnoticed by the locals, and I received 3 compliments on the streets: “T’es très jolie”, “Vous êtes ravissante”, “Mon ami vous trouve très mignon, mais il est trop timid de vous en parler”. The latter came from a 16 year old boy, funnily. I went out with the three girls from my hostel room, and I felt very lonely as I was sipping my mojito. I have not hung out with a group of girls since high school. I found it painfully boring, so I went back to the hostel and slept. I spent two days in Toulouse, simply walking along the Canal du Midi, reading in the Daurade quartier, taking photos of the exotic plants at the Jardin des Plantes, haggling in the local market, and chatting with people at the hostel. I met a lovely lady who was doing a biking tour of France. We spoke about movies (I finally found another Almodóvar fan) and about romantic languages. I had to explain her that Romanian is not very similar to French, and that I had to make a sustained effort to learn it, but I noticed the French seem to live under the impression that once you speak a romantic language, you can speak all of them, and ignore the fact that Romanian is not entirely romantic anyway. Then, I packed and hopped on a bus to Bordeaux.

Canal du Midi, Toulouse
Toulouse aka La Ville Rose (‘The Pink City’) due to the terra-cotta bricks used in many of its buildings
Le Jardin des Plantes, Toulouse

Bordeaux https://youtu.be/ng61jY4Ydz0

It felt a lot like England, and I thought I was starting to hallucinate and see similarities with London – mostly in the architecture. But I was assured of my mental sanity when I learned that Bordeaux used to be a major port for the British, hence the influences. It was undeniably uglier than Toulouse, but it had that kind of aesthetic ugliness, with symmetrical imperfections and dirty gems in the rust at every corner. If Toulouse is the ideal, Bordeaux is the reality. Beautiful and painful at the same time. I felt at ease in Bordeaux, as if I belonged there. I stayed at an Airbnb where I spent the whole evening chatting to my host, Gabriel. A man in his 40s whose wife left him 6 months ago, when he was working as a truck driver and was overweight. Now, he is fit and he works as a graphic illustrator. He is renting the room that his wife and daughter left empty to make some money to buy clothes that fit him. He had a very tragic life, and told me stories that nearly made me cry. I was very happy to meet someone so sensitive and kind. I hope he finds love again, more than I’ll ever hope that for myself. My final day in Bordeaux was rainy, and I spent it trying to translate Stello in English at a coffee shop. The quote at the beginning of this post is the first passage of the book, and I must have read it at least 30 times. I consider myself a very lucky person, which is why I tend to have an optimistic view on life. Reading the quote felt very familiar, as if I was reading about myself, and it fits perfectly with my journey to France.

can it get any more french?

The next morning, I took a flight to Rome.

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