A grand unified theory of everything

My mother’s family has never been normal. And they’ve never been satisfied with ordinary explanations.

Extreme beliefs run rife there, in particular beliefs of the ToE variety – Theories of Everything. Grand ideological edifices that explain and prescribe How Humans Should Live. My grandfather and my grandmother, I am sorry to say, were life-long passionate believers in National Socialism, mixed with Nordic religion, and the collapse of the Third Reich, detention and a life on the margins did nothing to cure them of their fervor. If anything, it made them feels like possessors of special knowledge, which the masses were too dumb to understand.

One aunt took those selfsame beliefs and added a dose of Wiccan magic and started her own cult.

An uncle ran a youth organization training the next generation of right-wing activists.

Another uncle sought refuge merely in a particularly austere variant of Protestantism.

And yet another uncle became a committed communist and staunch defender of the Soviet Union, but after the grand collapse switched allegiances to buddhism and the new age.

Many of my cousins were or are members of right wing organizations. One is a fundamentalist Christian. One  of my sisters is a new age practitioner and teacher of highly unorthodox therapies and for a while became a breatharian until reverting to raw veganism. Another sister believes that chelation will take care of most diseases, and is busily prepping for Armageddon.

My mother’s journey has taken her from astrology, to Christianity, to the power of crystals and other new age practices.

I am of course not saying that these Theories of Everything are equivalent – they range from the outright evil to the benign. All I’m saying that my mother’s people are either genetically or through upbringing predisposed to search for Meaning with a capital M.

I’ve always prided myself on my dry pragmatism and my pursuit of scientific knowledge. After all, I didn’t just study philosophy, I also studied psychology, physiology and statistics.

And yet, I know I have that Meaning-seeking urge in me. I’m drawn to ideas and theories that propose grand solutions that promise to make everyone healthier, wiser, happier. There is something elegant and seductive about a good Grand Theory. It begins to answer the question of How to Live – the biggest, unanswerable question of them all.

And I have to keep reminding myself, that Theories of Everything have a terrible record, especially in the hands of politicians and dictators.

And then I remind myself that I am also my father’s daughter. A long line of hardworking, humble, honest people who tried to do the best they could for their families and the people around them. Most didn’t go to school beyond their 14th year and yet they all read widely, were curious about the world, traveled, but never thought they had all the answers.

Those are my people too.

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What are you afraid of?

I wandered through big cities by myself day and night, going to concerts and the movies when I was in my mid-teens.

When I was a teenager I quit high school one morning, got myself a factory job, and went home and told my parents.

I went on a television quiz show when I was 17 to make enough money to run away.

Instead of going to work, I took the train to another country, without telling my family beforehand

A country whose language I didn’t speak very well and where I knew no-one.

After working many menial jobs I applied to a famous university and got accepted after finishing high school in evening classes.

I moved to New York City where I knew no-one.

I studied art in my thirties even though I didn’t have a background in art.

I’ve photographed almost a hundred strangers whom I found on the internet.

I regularly present to large audiences, CEOs and senior business leaders.

I quit my job a few years ago and started a freelance career even though I am the main breadwinner in my family.

I’m no daredevil. But I have no fear of big decisions and big changes.

So why the hell am I so deadly afraid of putting on even just a couple of pounds?

Crazy, irrational, self-destructive, bizarre, ridiculous fear.

What are you afraid of?

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The art of walking

“Walkers are ‘practitioners of the city,’ for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.” ― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I’ve been a walker all my life.

When I was little, I walked from necessity. I spent my childhood outdoors, and to get from home to anywhere you had to walk.

When I got a little older I woke up to the liberating power of walking.

I walked hundreds of miles on the streets of Berlin when it was still fenced in, still somewhat pockmarked from the war, wistful and forlorn. I walked the ruins, I walked the East, I walked the West. I saw it transform over the years, but every time I walk I still discover places I have never seen. I walked there from loneliness, I walked from curiosity, I walked from boredom.

I walked all over London, freshly arrived as a teenage runaway, I kept moving, to grasp the city, to understand England, to understand a culture that was entirely foreign to me and quite hostile. I walked many evenings and nights when I had nothing else to do, when I just wanted to be among people. I walked the East End, I walked the canals, the river, the old industrial areas, the docks, the cemeteries, the Metro-land suburbs.

And I fell in love with New York by walking endless hours until my feet were swollen and blistered, because I couldn’t possibly stop  – the streets were so exciting, so busy, the people so beautiful and odd. I walked the Bronx, the outer reaches of Queens, every neighborhood in Brooklyn from Maspeth to Gravesend, and every block in Manhattan.

Many of my literary heroes used walking for epiphanies, for transformation, for understanding.

Louis Aragon, who wrote so well about the chance discoveries, the peculiar magic and mystery of Paris, creating a larger framework for experiencing the world.

WG Sebald whose books are from the perspective of the solitary walker, the solitary traveler.

I thought nothing of walking 10, 15 miles at a time, and I would have walked longer if my feet wouldn’t give out.

But the point is, I walked because I wanted to.

When I first got a pedometer I was intrigued to learn how much I actually walk. But when I started to set goals everything changed. I began walking for mileage. Five miles every day, six miles every day, eight miles every day. I walked circles in the neighborhood, circles in the park, circles in the cemetery because I had to hit my goal. I’d pace up and down the apartment just hit a round number.

I no longer walked for pleasure, for curiosity, for loneliness. I walked just to walk.

“And once had, the data mind is hard to shake” writes Craig Mod in his essay Paris and the Data Mind, where he describes the abject disappointment of climbing the Eiffel Tower and then realizing that he forgot his Fitbit, making the trek not count.

“Part of me wanted to cab it back to the hotel. Cab it back and clip on the Fitbit and do the walk again. All of it. Mirrored and remapped. Climb the Eiffel steps once more. Ground it. Make it real in the ether.”

I’m trying to rediscover my old way of walking – open to what’s around me, ready to be transformed, open to detours and adventure, unconcerned with mileage.

The basic rules are:

To never walk just for exercise

To walk into the uncharted

To walk with my eyes wide open

To lose myself

“To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away … to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” ― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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In the daylight for everyone to see

Anyone who knows me knows of my obsession with the village of my birth. I’ve talked about it here and here. I’ve been photographing and researching it for at least a decade. A couple of months ago a friend invited me to take part in an art exhibition at a New York City university, with a loose theme around apparitions in the landscape. My central thesis is that the 20th Century is buried just outside the perimeter of that little village, and there are traces everywhere, for those who care to look.

So I said yes, reluctantly.

First of all, I don’t really like my own pictures. Never have, even though I’ve had a bunch of shows. In fact I can barely even look at them.

Secondly, I didn’t just want to show pictures without context. I wanted there to be enough fragmentary evidence for people to begin to do their own excavations. Even publish a little book to accompany the show. Which means, doing a lot more research, fast.

Which is what I have been doing over the last few weeks. Which has become obsessive and painful.

I’ve managed to pull together more information from the village archives, from a distance. I’ve also found, for the first time, people who passionately care about what happened 70 years ago. I’ve been handed the information on the forced laborers who are buried beneath the 665 numbered grave markers. Names, birth and death dates, names of parents, villages of birth.

And that information just breaks my heart. It’s teenagers and young men and women from the Ukraine and Russia. And many of the young people from Ukraine were likely orphans, survivors of the Holomodor – that terrible genocide by famine. They were double victims of the vortex of evil created by Stalin and Hitler. So young. Dying of tuberculosis, mostly. At the rate of one or two a day. In that beautiful countryside.

I asked the question to my informant how the mayor of the town must have felt signing one or two death certificates a day, for boys and girls, for babies, for young men and women. When normally he’d sign one or two a month, for old people.

She surprised me with her answer. She noticed he would always note not only the day but the hour and minute of their death on their death certificates. There was no pattern to the numbers, so they were likely real, not made up. It could have been a Nazi bureaucrat doing his diligent best to do his paperwork. Or it could have been a human being, doing one small thing to honor the humanity of another being, recording the exact time of their death as if it really mattered.

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Gaumarjos saqartvelos

Back in 1988 when I lived in Berlin for a few months before going to college, alone, cold, and cleaning out duplicate names from a large database, my aunt-in-law invited me to accompany her to a concert. She was then a card-carrying member of the SEW, the West Berlin branch on East Germany’s state party.

This meant that she’d been to numerous trips to the Soviet Union and its satellites, and therefore interested in the cultures behind the Iron Curtain.

I was utterly transfixed by the music I heard in that concert, of an unearthly masculine beauty, by a group called Ensemble Kolkheti, from Georgia. A place seemingly very far away, entirely foreign and unknowable.

I proceeded to buy their LP and played it many, many times.

Which meant that I spent a lot of time looking at the cover, and the more I looked, the more beautiful Georgian writing looked to me.

Which, a few years later, led me to decide to learn the language. The fact that it was so different from Indo-Germanic languages and relatively useless in early 1990s Britain made it all the more alluring.

But who would teach me? Even though the Soviet Union was in the process of dissolving, no large Georgian diaspora existed.

I posted a note at a Russian bookstore in Great Russell Street, and waited.

Eventually, I did get a response. My teacher was Vasily, a man in his forties, born of a Russian father and a Georgian mother. He was the night security guard of a beautiful modernist building, an icon of its time. His job was to sit in the silent empty building from dusk to dawn, staring at the security cameras. Teaching me Georgian in the evening was a welcome distraction and he did it for free. We’d also wander through the empty building admiring its glassy expanses.

I learned how to write those beautiful letters, to master the plosives and non-plosives, to read Georgian poetry, and to begin to understand its history and unique way of looking at the world.

But I left the country and I never persevered. Now it’s just another atrophied, melancholy skill.

The mystery of far-away countries has decreased. Georgia seems reachable and understandable. I miss the times when there were places utterly out of reach.

Further excavations

As I have written before, the village of my birth is a place of layers upon layers. Everyone has been here from the Celts to the Alemanni, to the Romans to the Nazis to the Americans. On a recent visit my father told me that the mystical square mile – his hunting grounds (he’s a hunter), where American Nike missiles used to be buried deep in the ground, where a small labor/sick camp once stood, where planes used to take off heavy with bombs during the Second World War – is about to become an industrial zone.

Porsche already has a large storage facility there and other buildings and distribution centers have gradually colonized the area. But the latest wave of development will obliterate, or at least cover up most of the remaining evidence. He also reminded me of old stories about the village, when had was a military airport, that planes would get stored in the woods for protection. American or British planes would bomb those woods and there is still so much shrapnel in the old oak trees that no-one will fell them. The metal in there would ruin any saw blade, so old oaks grow majestically, undisturbed. It is for those mystical oaks that I first set out, to see what I would find in the dark fairy tale forest of my childhood.

This is what I found. Foundations of buildings, with cellars beneath them. Trees with damage to their bark. Traces and signs.

My town for many years was home to its small American village. Many people harbor happy memories of their time here. But after the Iron Curtain came down many military bases were closed down and dismantled. Few traces remain of the radar towers, the barracks, the compound, or the place where missiles facing Russia were buried deep underground.

Soon, even fewer will be left.



I also tried to find out more about where the camp once stood but did not find out anything further.

Actually, I just found the map that would have pointed me in the right direction

I did however notice a gravestone for the camp’s Jewish unofficial doctor Adolf Levi (who died there, like so many others in 1944), among the gravestones of people who died in the final days of the war.

As I walked back to my father’s house, musing on how inside village limits everything looked as if forgotten by time, a strange apparition entered from left field. A young black man on a unicycle, wearing headphones and a baseball cap. What could it all mean?

What’s wrong with Germany?

That’s the question I often get asked by my relatives and other locals who are puzzled by my peregrinations (left 28 years ago) and nationality changes (two). After all, it’s not a bad country. It has more than its fair share of culture; of great writers, composers, artists, photographers. It’s clean, people are reasonable, landscapes can be amazing, the wine and beer are lovely.

My desire to leave Germany started early; I’d say when I was around eleven or twelve. I still have my very first atlas, an atlas which happened to contain detailed maps of major global cities. I marked up both the New York and London maps with a view to where to settle in the future.  (While I have in fact managed to live in both, I never actually could afford to live on Green Park and on Central Park West, but never mind).

So, why? It wasn’t just a case of getting away from my family – that could have easily been accomplished by moving to Hamburg or Bremen.

I think I never really like the German language in its spoken form. Many of my favorite authors – Sebald, Bernhard, Klemperer – write in German. But spoken German has always sounded harsh and unmelodic to me, with little wit or elegance. A language particularly well suited to giving orders or filling in forms. I’ve never found it easy to express affection or be funny in German. I am sure this is just a deficit on my part. But it’s why I’ve always loved Yiddish, a language I discovered at the age of 13 and that I started studying in earnest last year. It’s soft, generous, witty, tender, wistful and melodic – everything German isn’t.

And while Germany has produced wonderful classical and serious music I’ve always felt that its “people’s music” – it’s children’s songs, radio hits and other mainstream music – was an abomination. What you hear played on TV and radio lacks any kind of subtlety, there are no minor keys, no complexity, no beauty. It also has a complete tin ear. A lot of German popular music in the 1960s and 1970s was sung by supposedly exotic singers with foreign-sounding names about locations far away. I guess it was a way of reconnecting with the world after the thirties and forties. But how could anyone sing along to “Theo wir fahr’n nach Lodz”, “Das Polenmädchen” or “Moskau” and not feel a shudder?

German children’s songs are all the same few notes in the most predictable sequences. It is then not at all surprising that Germany has so miserably failed to produce any popular music of world note. Appreciation of complex melodies and complex emotions are never developed unless a child happens to get exposed to classical music or music from other countries and cultures.

Rock ‘n’roll, punk and new wave music from the UK and America were a revelation to me – they lit a spark in me, opened new worlds and made me determined to leave Germany behind.