Wednesday, 1 June 2011

X. Limited Days of Limitless Time: A True Story

I have always believed in Irony and Circumstance. I was a bridesmaid at their wedding, in fact. It was quite an unexpected affair.

But such is life. Without unpredictability it would not be nearly as much fun (or dreadful). And with unpredictability, with chaos, there are moments. Moments in which you truly feel, or truly believe, or truly understand something—or all three at once. Moments of incandescence, as I like to call it. Like Virginia Woolf, I fundamentally believe in their importance. [But more on that in a future chapter.]

This is why I always take risks, regardless of the potential consequences. I almost cannot help it. As long as there is a possibility of attaining one of these moments, I will take the risk, the leap, the plunge. And this is why I decided to travel alone over spring vacation. For the first time ever, I put my complete faith in letting my future unravel all on its own. Spontaneity was my guide. And she guided me well.

As much of a control freak as I am, I also accept that there are some things you cannot control in life, or measure in any way with mathematics. Nature, love. The two are inexplicably intertwined. They are by definition always a surprise. There are patterns that can be traced, but they are embedded in a deeper chaos that nobody can ascertain. Nevertheless, we keep trying. We keep trying.

So much has been said on nature and love. So many stories have been told, and almost all are trite to some degree. But no two are ever the same. Because it is different, every single time. It is always unexpected, and usually Ironic. The Circumstances have to be willing. It's an endless genre, really.

I was not sure when I would be able to tell my story. Ever since last spring, I have been waiting. I thought I would be waiting for a long, long time. Because this time, it had to be right. I did not want to make another mistake. And over the past few months, there have been moments, moments that suggested that maybe, just maybe I would finally attain incandescence. Ineffability. What I had once glimpsed and wanted to have again, for real.

But until now—or, to be more temporally precise, until two months ago—I had not attained it. The moments were all superficial. Fun, but ultimately superficial. And I knew this all along.

I suppose I should begin at the beginning. I had not known it was the beginning then, but that is what makes the story so wonderful. Premeditation ruins the honesty, the integrity of things. It just happened naturally, as the Circumstances permitted, and it was perfect.

From Paris, I arrived in Madrid exhausted to the point of collapse. I had spent a sleepless night at the Orly airport because my flight left at 6.30am, and the metro is closed from 1 to 5am. Lugging my 20kg rolling suitcase and a 10kg handbag, I managed to get to my hostel at 10am without getting lost, prepared to sleep all afternoon because I was planning on meeting a friend for dinner and drinks. But that could not happen, as I was not allowed to check into my room until 3pm (they had to clean everything). So I sat in the lobby until the lounge was available, and moved there. Since the Wi-Fi connection was quite good, I replied to emails and did a final read-through of my submission to the New York Times Modern Love Essay Contest. My first paragraph directly stated that although I knew many people in stable, happy, long-term relationships, I knew I would never be in one myself, because things are always complicated when I am involved. I think I submitted my essay a little before Volker and his friend came in.

Sparks did not fly, trumpets did not blast, angels did not descend from the heavens—either literally or metaphorically. I want to make this absolutely clear. Sure, I thought he was attractive, but I had encountered many attractive people on my travels and was not interested in a fling (not to mention the fact that I both looked and sounded like a zombie given my sleepless night at the airport). And to be perfectly honest I didn't even notice his attractiveness at first because I was so dead tired. We talked for a bit—his friend could only speak German—and from this conversation I gauged that they were nice, friendly, cool people. They had arrived the day before and were leaving the day before I would, so they were also staying for six days. At that point I realised it was 3pm and I could finally go to my room, so I did. We made no promises to hang out or meet up or anything; it was just a brief conversation that started because we happened to be in the same room at the same time. Merely a matter of coincidence.

That was Thursday. On Friday I went on a walking tour and met this very intriguing Polish boy. He resembled someone I had once known and trusted very strikingly in appearance, but thankfully not in personality. I could instantly tell that there was something strange about him, but not necessarily in a negative way. He is an artist and used to operate his own advertising agency and is currently building a house with his own bare hands in a small Polish village. He also claims that he has died three times, used to be a fish (among various other animals), and has a shaman. He had just spent three months exploring the depths of Colombia and Peru. We spent the entire day together, trekking all the way from the Royal Palace on the west side of the city to the Crystal Palace in Retiro Park on the east side. He was leaving on Sunday afternoon, so we agreed to meet on Sunday morning to go to El Rastro—the biggest open-air flea market in Europe.

On Friday evening I met up with my friend again, very late, to go out. In Madrid (and all of Spain, for that matter) this means 1am, midnight at the earliest. We went to a trendy club that was quite far from my hostel; I didn't make it back until almost 6am, throwing my sleep schedule even more off cycle. But we had been planning to go to El Escorial on Saturday. The problem was that for some reason I could not call my friend's cellphone with mine, and the phone in the hostel could only call other landlines, so we had to communicate via email. We agreed to confirm where we were meeting at 11am, but I overslept and was not able to get to the computer until 1pm. My friend had sent me a message, though, suggesting we meet at a certain metro station at 1pm. There was no way I could make it in time, so I sent her a reply telling her this, but I still really wanted to go to Escorial because it was supposed to rain on Sunday, it would be closed on Monday, and Tuesday was my last day in Madrid. I also did not want to go alone. So I wandered into the kitchen to make myself some tea and figure out what to do.

Volker and his friend just so happened to be in the kitchen, drinking soup. I remembered them from our first conversation and asked if they had any plans for the day. He said that they didn't. I asked if they wanted to come with me to Escorial—if we left within an hour we would make it there by half past three, and it did not close until seven, so there would be just enough time. They agreed without any sort of a reservation. It was as easy as that.

On the bus Volker sat next to me and his friend sat across the aisle. I had asked him to write some German vocabulary into my little Rembrandt notebook (which I always carry on my travels and ask people I meet to write in). We talked about random general things and at some point I remember asking him for his email, just so we could stay in touch. He did, but he also gave me his mobile number and his address in Munich, where he is attending university. And somehow we were able to call and text each other, even in Spain.

Escorial itself was lovely, and four hours of time was perfect; we were able to explore all the areas of the monastery at a leisurely pace, and see the outdoor gardens as well. It was definitely nowhere near as extravagant as Versailles, which I had visited exactly one week prior, but its austerity had a beauty of its own. When we returned to Madrid in the evening we went to a popular chain restaurant, Cervecería 100 Montaditos, for their signature little sandwiches and litres of sangria (only 2 euros each!). We returned to the hostel at midnight and showed each other YouTube videos in the lounge until 2am. He asked what I was doing the next day and I mentioned the market and he wanted to come too, but I had to wake up early to meet Piotr (my Polish friend), since we had planned this in advance. So I suggested that he text me when he arrived at the market and we would figure out how to meet up.

The market was wonderful, and very vast indeed in scope, but overpriced (as such things usually are). After an hour of milling around we decided to go to the museo de la Reina Sofia to see Dalí and other modern art, as it was free on Sunday. The collection was immense—the biggest I have ever seen of Dalí's work, actually. I could easily have spent half an hour standing in front of each one of his paintings, but I'm not sure if my faculties of perception could have handled it...

Volker had texted me while I was at the museum, and we arranged to meet at 3pm back at the hostel to go grocery shopping. I had volunteered to cook dinner—my specialty fried pasta, as always—because the hostel had a clean and spacious kitchen, and Spanish cuisine is both unhealthy and unpleasant (in fact I would say it is worse than British, which is definitely saying something). Then we watched part of a movie in the lounge, as there was a nice TV and a respectable collection of DVDs. It was still a bit early, though, so Volker suggested we go to the Las Ventas bullring, as he and his friend had visited earlier in the day and bought tickets. None of us knew exactly what would happen, but I was intrigued because it is one of the main things to see in Madrid.

Although the bullring itself was very impressive and the tickets were quite cheap (3 euros for the very top seats), the performance was traumatising. I will not go into specific details but I will say that they stabbed the bulls to death after about ten minutes or so of "torturing" them, and then a team of horses heralded by a fanfare would come out and drag the bull away, leaving behind a trail of blood. This happened over and over again, and the steady rain only heightened the drama. After three bulls, each of which was worse than the previous, we had had enough and left. I cannot believe this is still legal in Spain. Here is my video footage of the heartless affair.

Dinner was a wonderful success—I used pesto this time, which always works wonders. We had wine as well and strawberries for dessert. Then we went back to the lounge to watch some more movies. First Legally Blonde just for laughs, and then after much deliberation The Pianist. Let me just say that I had no idea what The Pianist was actually about (I did not know it was a WWII film set in Nazi-occupied Poland); all I knew was that it involved, well, a pianist, and was on the sad and serious side. But we had to see it because Volker is a pianist himself—he plays, composes, improvises, and teaches—and on that level alone the movie was perfect.

Volker's friend fell asleep midway through Legally Blonde and was literally knocked out for the rest of the evening (an ability that I quite admire because I cannot ever take naps, regardless of my level of fatigue). The three of us were on the couch, Volker in the middle, and Volker and I were lying next to each other sharing a pillow because it was just big enough for two people. We weren't holding hands or anything, but our arms were touching. And in retrospect I suppose there was a steady buildup of tension, but I was actually paying attention to the films (and asking Volker to translate all the German), so I didn't really notice. Not to mention the fact that there were some other people in the lounge, several of whom were watching with us, but everyone left sometime during The Pianist because it was getting really late.

At one point about two-thirds through the movie, I sat up to drink some water, and he sat up too, and when I settled back again his arm was around me. It was natural, though; I had almost expected it would happen. We did finish the movie, which was incredibly sad (but with a bittersweet ending), and listened to the theme song over and over again. He took out his phone and we played each other more songs on YouTube. It was nearing 3am at this point. And then, just as naturally, I sort of turned toward him and the tension was finally released.

Some minutes later, though, the person on duty at the hostel just so happened to come into the room and switch on the light. But it was good timing because I was getting extremely tired and we wanted to wake up early the next day to go to the park together, since he and his friend were flying back to Germany that evening.

I remember feeling a little strange when I got back to my own room and tried to fall asleep. I wasn't giddy or anything—rather, a little exasperated at myself. I did not want to have another fling and here I was, in Spain, hooking up with a German boy who I probably would never see again in my entire life unless I visited him in Munich (which I did admittedly want to do, as I had only been there for one and a half days over winter vacation and it was too dreadfully cold to really enjoy the city). But it had been nice, another in-the-moment type of thing. Nothing to complain about, really. I was just being ridiculous.

The next morning we woke up early as planned and bought bread, cheese, ham, and tomatoes for a picnic. It was a beautiful day, very sunny and in the 20s (Celsius). We walked to Retiro Park, which I think is even prettier than Central Park in New York. After the picnic, we decided to go on a boat ride in the beautiful lake. But his friend did not want to come (he probably suspected something at this point), so Volker and I went alone. It was perfect. He rowed for the most part, as I am quite terrible, but I did try and wasn't a complete failure. Then we lay down together in the boat and just talked about things. I felt as if we were in a vacuum, completely detached from our physical surroundings—it seemed as if we were drifting forever, without even the concepts of space and time (the last time I had felt this way was in Budapest, when I went to the hot baths). There was Spanish music playing in the background too, from a band on the shore. And since it was a Monday morning the lake and park were not crowded at all. I could not resist the opportunity to make a lovely little video.

The rest of the day just unfolded by itself, as is always best. We walked back to the main plaza to go to the Museo del Jamón because Volker and his friend wanted to buy ham for a souvenir (it's a Madrid speciality). Then we went to McDonald's for ice cream, walked across to the other end of the city to see the other park, and lay in the grass there for a bit. After this we had to return to the hostel, as Volker and his friend had to be at the airport by 8. When we went to the kitchen to throw some things away, we were alone for a moment, and he suddenly said, "I am really going to miss you," and kissed me. I was a little startled. He sounded so sincere. And we had only spent two and a half days together.

I walked him and his friend to the metro, where we said our last goodbyes. And that was that. He left, and as I traced my steps back to the hostel, I suddenly realised how much I would miss him too. I started crying a little; the tears sprang from out of nowhere. I texted him to thank him for the candy he and his friend had given me (giant key-shaped Haribo) and for the lovely time we had spent together, and he texted me back, saying that he too was reflecting on our time in Madrid, and that he wanted to see me again as soon as possible. I sent him an email in response, to which he replied the next day—again, perfectly. That was the start of the email chain.

On my last day in Madrid I went to the main museum, Prado, and spent the entire day there (I had done more than enough walking around outdoors in the past week). It felt strange to be alone. The tears came again, from nowhere, on and off, off and on, like a light switch being flicked arbitrarily. That was when I truly realised how much I missed him and how much I wanted to see him again too.

Plaza Mayor

Royal Palace

Bear Eating Naturally Fermented Berries (Madrid's Symbol)

El Escorial


El Rastro

A Wonderful Hostel-Cooked Dinner

Lake in Retiro Park

Museo del Jamón

My plan was to fly to Venice the next day, stay there for two nights with some friends from Columbia, and then take a train to Siena to stay with a friend who was studying there. She said she could definitely host me for two nights (until April 11, the day before my birthday), which was perfect because I intended on going down to the Amalfi coast for my 21st birthday. I had a friend who lived near there; he is also on an exchange program at Oxford but is based in Siena. We had planned on taking the midnight bus down together on April 11, because that was when he was returning home. The problem was that he was having guests over that week so he could not host me himself, but he promised that he would ask one of his friends. At this point he still had not confirmed, though, and I had been waiting for his final reply for almost two weeks—I really wanted to book my flight to Dublin, where I was planning on staying with friends from April 14-17, from Naples as soon as possible. But I could not do it without confirmation.

I began to reevaluate things. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be partying it up with the Italians on the Amalfi coast after all, as ideal as that may sound for a 21st birthday extravaganza. And then I thought that maybe, possibly, I could go see Volker in Germany. It was a random crazy idea at first, but the more I thought about it the more it didn't seem completely infeasible—I hadn't booked anything, after all. So I emailed him to ask if it was feasible, and he replied that if it could happen it would be like a dream turning into reality. He was at home until the 26th, on vacation, and his parents were fine with having me over, even though they did not speak English. I wanted to take the train because I had already been on four plane rides in the past three weeks and would be on two more before returning to Oxford. But I had no idea how far away it was—about 1150km. He lives in western Germany, in Neuwied, a little town that is about 20km from Koblenz and an hour south of Cologne.

Because I wasn't entirely sure how I wanted to arrive and was busy sightseeing with my friends, I did not book anything in Venice. I had looked up the trains and realised that it would be about 12-13 solid hours of travel, and more expensive than taking a plane. But the only option was Ryanair because there were no easyJet flights to Cologne from Pisa, and Lufthansa was way too expensive. I had only taken Ryanair once before (from London to Rome, the first destination on my winter trip), and even though I arrived with all of my luggage and limbs intact I swore that I would never take it again; I had felt highly uncomfortable with not only the flight itself, but also the booking process (not to mention my extreme aversion to its yellow and blue colours). In Siena, though, on my first night, I properly sat down to book things. That was when I realised something terrible: my wallet, which contained both of my debit cards, was missing.

I did not panic. My friend was with me the entire time and the apartment she lives in is insanely beautiful (think high sculpted ceilings with chandeliers, lots of paintings and family photographs on the walls, antique furniture), and I was in denial. I knew that it could not be stolen. I always keep my wallet in my handbag, which is on me at all times. It could only be missing if I had taken it out and put it somewhere. Which was possible, but the problem was that I could not remember when I took it out. The last time I had deliberately done so was at the McDonald's in Madrid to show Volker a picture of my sister and my driver's license, but I had definitely put it back. In Venice, however, I had emptied out my entire bag to fit in a beach towel, so it might have been lost in the hostel. The thing is, I would have put it in my suitcase or my carry-on bag—and it was not in either of those. Luckily, all of my euros were in a separate envelope, and I had more than enough to tide me over for the rest of the trip.

I called the Venice hostel and they said they would call back if they found it, but they never did (it turns out that I must have lost it in Madrid after all, because last week my mum told me that it had been mailed from the U.S. Embassy in Spain to my house—and miracle of all miracles, none of my cards were missing!). My only option was to call my parents and have one of them give me their credit card information so that I could book the flight. They were obviously not pleased with the situation, but after an hour of vehement pleading my dad relented. I was also Skyping Volker at this point. The flight on Ryanair was, I thought, the only option, and I was still hesitant to book it, but I knew I had to—it was past midnight, the price had gone up by another 20 euros, and I was technically leaving the next day. But then Volker said that he would do a last-minute search for a cheaper flight. And miraculously, he found one—on Germanwings, which is a very reliable airline. It was actually about 25 euros cheaper than the Ryanair flight. While I was booking (it was nearly 1am now), I was still in denial that this was all happening. The fact that I was very unfamiliar with Germanwings only enhanced the unreality of the situation. It almost seemed like a joke, as official as the website looks. Part of me was convinced that the airline did not exist. But I successfully booked the flight, and boarded the next day.

I arrived at the Cologne-Bonn airport at about 6pm, half an hour later than planned because there was a delay. I expected that I would have to take a train to Neuwied; Volker said he would text me about how to get to his house. And he did, but he was at the airport waiting for me—he had driven all the way there in his little red car to pick me up. We had a bit of trouble finding each other but it all worked out, and then I was in his car on my way to his house. It was, to say the least, surreal (although the highway did remind me of the New Jersey turnpike, funnily enough).

When we entered the house a lovely blonde lady welcomed me with a big hug and she looked very much like Volker, so I could only assume that it was his mum. His twelve-year-old brother was there too, and soon his dad had also returned home. I was not nervous at all, even though I could not communicate directly with his parents and only in a limited capacity with his brother, who is learning English at school. There is so much to be said for the language of expression, of gesture.

After a delicious dinner, Volker told me that he wanted to take me someplace special, the top of a hill with the best view of Neuwied—especially at night, when everything is illuminated. We went on foot, and it was a little tiring but the view was well worth it. We first sat on a bench and talked and then we moved to the grass, which was clean. He lay his two extra jackets down and we lay on top of them and gazed at the stars and listened to more piano music on his phone until almost 1am—so it was technically my birthday at this point. If it hadn't been slightly chilly I would have wanted to lie there until we fell asleep.

The weather was appropriately uncanny on my birthday: it was hailing. On and off, off and on, all day—like me and my turbulent tears. But the periods of sunshine were all the more transcendent because of it. Volker and his mum gave me a lovely scarf at breakfast with a cute little card and I was happy. Very happy. Incandescently happy. I didn't need to have a proper celebration; just being with him and his family was enough. After breakfast (which, like every meal in his house, involves an inordinate amount of tea, the best tea I've ever had), we went shopping for some ingredients that his mum needed and I purchased breadcrumbs because I wanted to make my special rice and chicken dish for his family at some point.

When we returned to the house we went downstairs to the piano room and he played for me. The tears came again, despite my efforts to hold them back. When he touched the keys it was like magic. I cannot quite explain. Not just the music itself, which came so smoothly and effortlessly, but also his expression when playing—so carefree, so detached from the physical present. He sort of looks off into the distance, as if he knows, as if he feels, exactly what will come next. It is a skill I have always wanted to have. He does a lot of improvisation and can transpose pretty much any song after he hears it; his version of OneRepublic's "Apologise", which I requested, was particularly exquisite.

We had homemade tortellini for lunch courtesy of his mum, and then drove to the house of his best piano student because he had to give a lesson. Afterwards he took me to the Rhine, which cuts through his town, and we walked along the shore and onto a very cool bridge. There is an island on the river directly beneath the bridge that is only accessible by it, but the gate was locked, so we clambered over illegally (which makes everything all the more fun and memorable). We settled onto a little area of sand and rocks that jutted out into the river and talked endlessly. When we finally decided to leave it began to hail again, and at one point it was so heavy that I was clinging onto him for dear life, on the staircase leading back up to the bridge.

It soon passed, however, and we made it back to the car, wet and laughing. He drove me to his church, which was empty of course, and played me more piano (the videos are linked above). Then he said we had to go to this amazing Thai restaurant in town, Yum Yum, because he is familiar with the owner and eats there very often with his family and friends.

But we did not go there. Instead we drove into a residential area and parked in front of a house. It turned out to be the home of one of his best friends, Willy, and five of his other friends were gathered there as well—they had prepared a surprise party for me. I hadn't been expecting it at all; although I had been a little suspicious because he was getting an inordinate number of phone calls all day, I thought nothing of it because I am so gullible. There were many different cakes, one made by Volker's mum that very morning (which he had somehow hidden in the car without me knowing), one made by Willy's sister, and an assortment of German delights. Best of all, there were seven kinds of tea, including a special variety (pineapple) from Munich. Not a single drop of alcohol, and I did not want any. They sang to me and we ate and talked and played silly games—including one called Psychopath that had me stumped for two hours (I had to guess what "disease" Volker and his friends had based on their actions and responses to my questions; it was utterly bizarre).

When we got back to Volker's house it was past midnight, but we still had time to watch a film. His room has slanted ceilings because it is on the very top floor, and he has a projector that can be directed onto one of the ceilings, so it was like being in a special movie theatre. We lay on his bed and watched 21, which I had never seen before, and it was perfect—not only because it was my birthday but also because Volker loves maths; besides music it is his passion. And after it was over we listened to more music and softly sang together and then talked about some more serious things—i.e., where exactly all this was going—until 4am.

I was still a little uncertain at this point. Distance tends to make relationships very, very difficult, if not impossible, but it always depends on the couple. And I wasn't sure if I wanted to take the risk, as blissfully happy as I was. I was in a bubble in a bubble in a bubble—on vacation while on my exchange year in Oxford while still being a student at Columbia—and I was worried that once I got back to "real" life I would reconsider things. But we talked about this, and he said that he wanted to try. And I was willing to try if he was willing to try. Even though I had known him for such a short amount of physical time I knew that I could trust him. I knew he was genuine. I knew he would keep his word.

The next morning, I booked my ticket to Dublin. The cheapest flight turned out to be on the 19th, so I had to adjust my schedule a little, but I wanted to stay in Germany for as long as possible. Two days was no longer enough. And it worked out for the best because one of the friends I was visiting had come down with strep throat, so she wasn't sure if she could accommodate me from the 14th to the 17th.

Here is where I will stop with the day-by-day narration of detail. I have already established a sufficient framework. For the rest of this chapter, I will only sketch impressions, and focus in on specific moments from our week together. Because when you spend every waking hour with someone, for seven whole days, in an environment where there are no pressing real-life concerns (school, work, etc.), time really does seem limitless. One day blurs into the next. It is the impressions, the moments that one remembers.

We went to the most romantic and magical of natural landscapes. Long winding dirt paths through lush verdant meadows, and fields and fields of the brightest yellow flowers I have ever seen. The shores of the Rhine in Königswinter, which is very close to Drachenfels and has made me determined to find a real dragon. Several more rock beaches, where we lay down and listened to the rhythm of the waves and soaked in the sun and skipped stones. The wine mountains near his town, where he used to jog every morning (it is the perfect environment because of the high elevation, panoramic views, and intoxicating scent). The woods near his old house, which enclose a huge meadow where he used to play when he was little. The beautiful park owned by a friend of his family, where I picked a bouquet of flowers. The only landscape I did not experience was a desert, but Volker showed me the sauna in his basement, which is an adequate metaphorical substitute.

We read aloud to each other. He read excerpts (in German) from a biography of George Washington Carver and Into the Wild, one of his favourite books. I read sections from Einstein's Dreams, a series of profound meditations on time, each of which presents a different hypothetical universe. In one, everything repeats itself. In another, there are no memories. In a third, everyone is immortal, and the population splits into the Laters and the Nows. In a fourth, mechanical time and body time are separated. In a fifth, there are only images. We talked about all this, and related it to what we had experienced together.

I spent time with his parents and with his little brother, who is perhaps even more obsessed with maths than Volker himself. We exchanged many riddles, all of which were ultimately solved. We spent more time with his friends at their houses, and visited the bistro that they all established and operate together. I met friends of his family at church on Sunday service. We even visited his grandmother, and she gave me a pair of lovely slipper socks that she knit, which I wear very often now.

We also made two day trips. The first was to Cologne, where we met up with one of my friends from Oxford who lives in Düsseldorf. We climbed all the way to the top of the cathedral and my legs almost died—it was 509 steps and the spiral staircase was incredibly steep and narrow (even at the halfway point I thought I was never going to make it). Before we left I bought an enormous dark brown loaf from the bakery for his mum, just because I wanted to give her something and because I love bread.

The second trip was to Koblenz for Bundesgartenschau (BUGA), a garden show in Germany that changes places every two years. This was the first time it was in Koblenz, and the city had made extensive preparations, building not only quirky installations but also a magnificent cable car across the Rhine. Most of the show was within an open fortress on a cliff, and consisted of resplendent floral displays and strange constructions, including what I hope was a mock graveyard. Best of all, there were numerous random places to sit or lie down, most of which we took advantage of: lounge chairs, beanbag cushions, and even an inflatable bed with "nature" noises emanating from the ground nearby. It would have been perfect had it not been for the fact that various people were staring at us and taking photographs of us too (the main demographic for the show was elderly couples and families; we may have been the only young couple there). At one point, when we were on the orange cushion (definitely the most comfortable), someone actually said "They have courage." But it was funny, at the very least.

Before I knew it, it was time to fly to the Emerald Isle, and step one degree closer to reality. As much as I wanted to stay even longer I knew that this was the right time to leave, because I felt terrible for sleeping in his bed (he slept in a cot in his brother's room for the entire week), and we would be seeing each other again in Munich in two months. Now those two months have become two days—I leave on Friday and will be staying until Monday. And I know that when I see him it will be as if the two months apart had never happened.

I wrote him a letter. I hadn't been planning it; the words just came to me, spontaneously, at 3am on the day of my flight. They kept coming, in waves, in oceans, and I could do nothing but write them down. I finished the letter as he was driving me to the airport. He said it was ineffable.

We are from different cultures, we speak different languages, we live in different places, we have different academic interests. But we can understand each other, despite all this. We think, we feel, in the same way. Our minds are parallel, or perhaps complementary. And I am going to learn his languages (German, numbers, music), just as he is learning mine. I am giving him words, my words, pieces of myself. He is giving me words (and numbers) in return. This is just the beginning: our Chapter One.

But I end this chapter with no more words. Only images.