I’ve recently put two large photos onto the wall of my room. They are almost identical. Their upper part is a dirty grey, their lower part a muddy green. There is no straight horizon between the two parts, as the landscape was undulating, the weather rainy and shots taken from a moving train. More importantly the camera focussed on the window pane of the train. The drops of rain can clearly be seen. They are the only distinct objects.

I recently came across a piece of music named … until…. It features a guitar and a single, synthetic note. The note is stretched out over the whole rendition of nineteen minutes and slightly lifted. The guitar repeats the same motif, slowly, sometimes altering it. Never playing any two tones simultaneously, the sequence is based on a triad and a second triad, which appear one after another. The guitarist plucks the strings with different techniques in uneven intervals; the guitar is slowly detuned over the time.

Years ago, on a calm London evening at home, I heard something that appeared to be the cries of a woman for help. As it seemed to come from outside, I went to the window, opened it and leaned out. Clearly there was something, but I was still not sure of its nature. A rain set in and, after two or three minutes, became torrential. Its monotone sound drowned all other sounds. I waited for the rain to die down, but it didn’t.

As for the two photos, they are kept in sombre colours. Because I put them one above the other, an observer can see the transition between the two. They belong to each other, because they are taken seconds after each other with a very similar field of view. I wanted to capture a specific landscape of Southern China, but failed. What I gained is a document of two moments in time, when I was on the move. I forgot how I felt. Was I happy?

As for the music, it is written in the seventies of the last century. I am a layperson with regards to music and hardly understand the comments by its composer, Clarence Barlow, and others about employed techniques and strategies. So much I can hear: the two triads are set in minor. I notice their sadness and cherish the lack of clarity in their production. There is a slow, hardly noticeable development to the discord between the guitar and the synthetic tone. It is not easy to discern, because the synthetic tone is not as loud as the guitar, and it is somewhat thin; sometimes the tone almost seems to have vanished. Surprisingly, at the end, the guitar and the synthetic tone meet. However it is not the end that is the challenge. It is the fascination with a composition I understand not in the least. Or have I understood all that is important?

As for cries for help, they usually stand out – they might mingle with the environment, but the environment is reduced to an epiphenomenon of the expressed distress. A distress call doesn’t leave questions. In the given case however the calls were undiscernible. The gentleness and formlessness of the sound of rain is consoling, and I couldn’t avoid noticing this while tracing something urgent and possibly horrible – something that got increasingly engulfed by it. Years later I’m still wondering, if the cries were what they appeared to be.

I love the sight of my two photos. There they are: The world in its arbitrary, ephemeral state. My distance to the relevant. The sadness intertwined with happiness. The rain and the incomprehension. The redundancy of the observer. Composure, simplicity, inscrutability. Of course no one else will ever see these things in my photos. Or hear a voice in the artificial note of that music. They are there for me only, welcoming me with my particular life.

Advertisements

As an office worker and rather guarded member of the middle class, I haven’t been exposed to physical violence since childhood. It is a long time ago. But violence found its way into my life nonetheless. I witnessed it on the street. I saw it on TV. It developed in me. Sometimes it haunts me.

We are rarely surprised by our own thoughts and sensations. In the beginning something outrageous in us is faint and tentative. Slowly it grows, as if every increase is checked by inner controls. And finally it is there: maybe huge, but familiar and unremarkable nonetheless.

Reflecting on the history of my feelings about violence (i.e. inflicting pain and bodily harm), it has not been much different. There were a handful of moments in many years when I looked abstracted and from a distance on my inner life. With sort of a forgiving smile, I registered its contradictions. But these moments remained isolated and I never took significant interest.

Some astonishment came when I noticed my delight to listen to grindcore music, e.g. Scum by Napalm Death. I’m still ready to vindicate the verity of this album. Or industrial music, e.g. The Land of Rape and Honey by Ministry. The former genre developed more anarchic-chaotic, the latter more methodic-deliberate, but both epitomised aggressive music. There has always been a slight titillation. Still – listening to such I can calm down. On the other hand, listening to an opera of Mozart makes me agitated and want to get away. This is not said figuratively or jokingly, but literally and earnestly. It is however not simply a mirror image, as if the sentiment of the music gets converted to its opposite in me. I do appreciate a lot of clearly peaceful music and I can calm down with it too. It is just that peaceful music has similar soothing effects on me as aggressive. Surprising is the ease in discerning “aggressive” from “peaceful” music, when the judgement is completely decoupled from the psychological effect.

Where does this penchant for aggressive music come from? One reason could simply be, I got used to it. My friends listened to it. It expressed something that I could not express any other way. Maybe there is less intrinsic in aggression than appears to us. Maybe it begins with something small and arbitrary, and familiarisation by repeated consumption is all that is needed? When violence is not used to achieve anything, maybe choosing violence for pleasure is as arbitrary as any other chance preference, like a favourite colour or movie actor – for no particular reason?

Years ago a young couple visited me in London and surfed my couch. Being vegetarian for ethical reasons, I felt sympathy for them before we even met. I knew they were not only vegans, but radical animal rights activists. They would not only campaign in public, fully convinced of the detestableness of our consumer habits and industrial processes. They would plan physical attacks on animal farms and related business. And of course they had met police violence on demonstrations.

The young man had a wondrous fascination with violence. He wanted to visit London’s Imperial War Museum, something none of my visitors had ever wanted before. By accident, he had had broken a bone of his girlfriend in a friendly tussle. They both told me stories of a new form of dance event that was popular in vegan music festivals and dangerous to everyone participating (“moshing”). More than anything else, this guy was into mixed martial arts, which he practised in training sessions.

Mixed martial arts is a combat sport with rules that prevent the combatants from being murdered, from having their eyes scratched out and the like. Reading the history of the sport, it seems its rules were formalized in the end of the twentieth century to facilitate commercialisation. For understandable reasons the sport was forbidden in many countries in the nineties. It used to be very unruly back then. But still today: in mixed martial arts a bout is much more violent than boxing. It is kick boxing, wrestling and freestyle. It continues when one combatant got knocked to the floor and is hurt. There is blood, sometimes lots of blood. The sight can get very gory.

After my two visitors had left, I subjected myself to an experiment. There was no lack of online footage of respective fights. MMA is popular and fights are organized by big professional organisations – in the US, Japan and other countries. I tried watching. Then I got addicted watching. There was a fast transition from desensitization to habituation. It didn’t occupy me every day, not even every week and there were months without. But there were also evenings that turned into mornings, with me watching bout after bout after bout and the inability to let go. I became fond of some of their personalities, e.g. the Russian Fedor Emelianenko. I somewhat liked his smile, he behaved less smug and, funnily, seemed fair. I was stunned by the camaraderie of some of the fighters – remembering Shane Carwin vs. Brock Lesnar (utterly vulgar and repugnant characters), where, before the second round, a bleeding Lesnar with a disfigured face returns Carwin’s honest wink like to an old mate (do not watch: brutal and sad). I also developed dislikes against some and wanted them to lose. I got, to a degree, emotionally involved.

It is a well known fact that the relationship between violence and learning is complex. It is by no means as straightforward as we think. It is not as simple as our model of our own mind. Sometimes it is bewildering. MMA is real, it is based on consent. On the other hand, I have not managed to watch much of the movie Pulp Fiction. The violence the movie displays appears real, but there is no consent. I want to try again.

The respected and much read Israeli historian Yuval Harari has written about farm animals that “their fate may well turn out to be the greatest crime in human history. If you measure crimes by the sheer amount of pain and misery they inflict on sentient beings, this radical claim is not implausible.” (See the excerpt from his book on his website.) With the same caution regarding our own fallibility I can not but fully agree with him – in fact, in a very broad sense, I have for most of my adult life. A couple of days ago a friend and (of late) fellow vegetarian asked me to provide her with material about vegetarianism and animal rights. She felt uninformed and (so it seemed to me) undetermined. For me, a single photo of a scene from an abattoir is enough evidence to substantiate the immorality of our animal economy. The damnability of an animal “becoming” flesh in an industrial process appears striking and unquestionable to me. The judgement can not be much less harsh than a judgement based on the photography of prisoners in a concentration camp. (The Wikipedia article about Animal rights and the Holocaust is worth reading.)

In a way it is astounding I can have friends that indulge in eating meat; that I enjoy a meal with relatives, when their dish is, in my eyes, the end of a life of fright and pain. I often ponder how strongly we distance ourselves from racists. No one wants any of them in the neighbourhood. However a racist is less dangerous than a carnivore. Where I live, racists are not mainstream. They need some level of audacity to succeed: to commit arson to destroy a home of refugees; or vote one of their lot into parliament. Carnivores go to supermarkets. Carnivores interpret my lenience as tolerance and liberal. I myself conveniently do so. But is it not yet another welcoming of violence?

 


 

In the evening of the 13 November 2015, just when the above text was ready to be published, I stood in a small bar in Menilmontant in East Paris. It was a single, run-down room with a sympathetic, cheerful crowd. A young, short man sang into a microphone, played the accordion and handled a sequencer. Rap, electro, chanson – he mixed it beautifully. There was my glass of red wine. I liked the musician, I liked the music, I liked everyone.

This was when the infamous terror attack happened. Two of the shootings were about a mile away. We didn’t notice anything.

Then I walked home. On my way I drank a second glass of wine in another bar, in nearby Belleville, another East Parisian neighbourhood. I noticed people staring at mobile phones, but, absorbed by a text on atheism, I didn’t pay much attention. Arriving at home I found e-mails from two friends in the UK, who wanted to know, if I’m okay.

That was my 13 November 2015 evening. What happened, was close. Its proximity could be felt after the event. We were told to stay inside, not only the night, but the next day too. People were following the news stream relentlessly. I didn’t. Or I did, but not relentlessly. Where I was, were no TVs. And I regarded the sequence of events as irrelevant anyway.

What I did however do is to equip myself with some knowledge fragments on violence in this country. As an example, from Wikipedia (see here) I learned that 3268 people died from traffic accidents in France in 2013. Since the beginning of the decade fatality rates in traffic accidents had constantly fallen. But the following year there was a sudden increase: 3384 people had died in 2014. The delta between these two numbers was almost the number of deaths in the terror attack everyone was talking about. But how many people had found the accident statistics interesting? I judged the events like someone in power, solely wishing to reduce the number of innocent deaths. I was right, but, for obvious reasons, I was wrong too.

There is a relatively small number of radicalised Muslim petty criminals (French or Belgium) that are able and committed enough to produce hell on earth in Paris. To die from their hands remains by far less likely than to die from the manner of driving characteristic of young, male, drunken posers that get our laugh, when they brag about their feats. Don’t we reward the former by appreciating their murderous intentions?! Don’t we excuse the latter by appreciating their naivety?

It’s fairly obvious I’m relativising the monstrosity of the events here. As often I’m doing my best to distance myself from the mainstream. In fact when I started writing on violence, I probably chose the topic, because it enables me to astonish readers. There is hardly anything in our society that is supported by such a broad consensus as “non-violence” (with all its blind spots). This fact might be at the root of my interest in it. And it might be why it is such an effective tool in the hands of those that failed our society and look for means to pay back. These days nothing is as expressive as violence. If we want to establish a border between us and “the others” (respectively their society), disclosing one’s own inner entanglement is efficient.

There is a peculiar change going on with a place that is famous for some time: It becomes famous for being famous. On the internet, equipped with our digital cameras, our unambitious writing and fast publishing, we reproduce restlessly what others have (re)produced before. Apart from a “personal touch” (the circumstances of our visit, our limitations as authors etc.) everything we present is based on the sparse information we had in advance. One of the details we like to echo: stardom. Père Lachaise cemetery is famous for being famous, and it is famous for being famous for all the famous people interred in it.

Cemeteries stimulate the imagination. Of the buried, we know almost nobody. Of those we know, we know little. We remember a name as one of a famous writer or a composer of music we studied. During our visit their personality and past appear obscure compared to the reality and seriousness of the graves that we regard as their final destination. Now that we are here, we realize how much needs to be filled by our imagination.

The graves of the known can serve as amplifiers. They are real, present and significant. Everything else seems more significant thanks to them. If this is the grave of “him” or “her”, surely the other graves must have importance too – even if we don’t know their names. Anecdotes (as told by adepts) can be amplifiers too. Nowhere are they as welcome as in a cemetery. They multiply. If there is one story to tell, you bet the place is full of untold stories. We get just enough information to be assured of the ubiquitous enigma of the locality.

On the other hand, with so many names we know, we rush from one place to the next. We hardly devote time to follow our intuition. Living close to Père Lachaise and regularly walking its alleys, I was drawn to the graves of the famous too. If you enter with an interest in the cemetery itself, but are undisturbed by must-visit lists, maps and similar, you are wise and imaginative. It took me several visits to regain my independence.

Like other places of our societies Père Lachaise has a deplorable representation of the sexes. Men often have busts or portraits displayed. Women rarely. Personifying a state of sadness and a personality unrelated to the family, women appear to be mourning and weeping. Men never.

Symbolic representations of professions are to be found all over. To name just two: steel helmets and painter’s palettes. This symbolism is almost always referring to men. It’s meant to show off their importance. Traditionally women, with their primary role confined to a household, could best demonstrate this by being buried close to their “loved ones”, having acquired a new name in their lives and produced offspring. Even if they were brilliant wives and mothers – no saucepan, spoon or washing trough would escape ridicule when seen on a grave.

On display is our society hundred or two hundred years ago, and it has hopefully run dry by now. But are there no indications of women that mark them as having made a difference? Were women not sometimes strong and important?

Of particular interest must be those that were not buried next to husbands. This can, of course, have different reasons. But my ad hoc assumption has always leaned to the positive: whether due to tragic events, mistreatment, due to their own personality or their husband’s, these women are likely to have gained some sort of autonomy in their lives.

One of the gravesites that interested me early on is that of the American Clara Elizabeth Peabody, who died 1882 age 56. The monument is one of the very impressive and shows a beautiful, life-size sculpture of the deceased. I’m aware of only a handful of 19th century representations of women on Père Lachaise that intend to show the person in her lifetime – very few, when you compare this with men. Clara Peabody can be seen strewing roses. As she was a widow at the time of her death, one suspects she is shown in the process of paying homage to her husband. Women presenting flowers to the deceased are a recurring motif at the cemetery, but they usually appear as a symbol for the devotion or love of the descendants. Was this a woman who devoted her lifetime to the memories of her husband? Is it for this reason she earned her portrait? A realistic portrait fusing with a symbolic figure, finally, ironically, paying homage to herself? An engraving on the back of the monument adds more questions to the inquiry: “Ici repose Madame Clara Bancroft exhumée du cimetière de Passy le 28 mai 1884. Son gendre et ses petits enfants pour accomplir les dernières volontés de sa fille la comtesse Tyszkiewicz ont élevé ce monument témoignage d’un vieux souvenir.” So is this indeed an “old souvenir” from the funeral of the husband? A brief online research yielded little. The daughter of Clara Bancroft appears to have married into the best society – the Tyszkiewicz family was noble and extraordinarily wealthy. The comtesse Tyszkiewicz died only months after her mother, right after giving birth to her third child and first daughter. It was a year later the grave of Clara got moved from the top burial place of the Parisian nobility to Père Lachaise. Why? And why is she not buried with her daughter? Such is the quality of the questions I ponder in a cemetery: a chat with myself about the lives of people, based on near to zero information.

Whereas there are almost no representations of deceased women of the 19th century, several from the 20th can be spotted. A photo often taken by tourists is that of the Daumy family grave. The monument in white marble is an unusually elaborate work and purports to show a scene taken from life: A standing woman, looking curiously in our direction; her right hand thoughtfully extended to her head; her left hand (with her body slightly bowed forward) stroking a dog. The artwork might be from the middle of the last century. It is a remarkable indicator for the different times, when even in this conventional context a woman was able to assert to be the pivotal character of a family. Or is it the conventionality that makes the motif possible? Or the fact the woman is shown as a caring, loving person? The photographers love the prominent position of the pet animal. But doesn’t the drollness diminish the importance of the displayed person?

I’m still on the lookout for someone more emancipated.

Following the stories of interred women leads one to believe that the Paris of the beginning 20th century was teeming with homosexuals. Many of the notable personalities of the cemetery were lesbian or bisexual. Think of the dancer Isadora Duncan; the writer and part-time actor Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who caused a scandal in 1907 by kissing her girlfriend on stage. Or think of Gertrude Stein, who’s partner Alice Babette Toklas, after being the victim of a huge art theft on the part of Stein’s relatives, died in dire poverty. (It may be owing to this fact that her name is only written on the back of their headstone, missed by most uninformed passers-by.)

Yet with another notable lesbian personality, the DJ SexToy, we have arrived in a new era. Born Delphine Palatsi she was an important French techno DJ at the turn of the century. In 2002 her heart stopped beating at the age of 33. Not surprisingly, most material found online about her is on YouTube. She is said to have had a strong personality, a love for body art and a talent for music that brought her international recognition. Whereas the material and sombre, flat make of her grave is as conservative as any funeral art, its theme is refreshing: A turntable with a heart-fire-birds motif, a reproduction of a tattoo she wore prominently. A record player instead of a lyre, and no broken strings. Delphine Palatsi had success in a highly individualistic profession dominated by men. (It is said she gained her spot between the luminaries of the cemetery due to an intervention of the then mayor of Paris, himself homosexual.) The name of a relative is inconspicuously put on the side of her tombstone. Judged based on his name and lifetime this could be the father in the shadow of his daughter.

 


 

Below I suggest a tour for visitors with similar interests. The start is the Gambetta entrance, the end the main entrance. All afore mentioned graves are included: dancer Isadora Duncan (crematorium 6796 – outside); painter Marie Laurencin (division 88); Daumy family (division 93); writer Gertrude Stein and Alice Babette Toklas (division 94); singer Edith Piaf (division 97) could be skipped, the grave is of little interest; Clara Peabody (between division 41 and 35); painter Rosa Bonheur (division 74); DJ SexToy (at the centre of division 28 – a simple, lying headstone); Polish writer and educator Klementyna Hoffmanowa (division 26, northern side); actress Sarah Bernhardt (division 44); early feminist Hubertine Aucline (division 49); writer Colette (division 4). Note the number of immigrants – no surprise on this cemetery.

Organising visas from embassies is a valuable experience like so many others that are part of independent travelling. You learn that states expect and want you to lie. India’s mandatory visa form requires you to provide an airport as the entry point of your journey. But India has no problems with foreigners who cross their border overland. So you fill in the form with an arbitrary airport and the person in charge of your visa just smiles when you say you come overland and the provided airport is a dummy. The Russian visa form requires you to list each individual organisation you belonged to in your whole life, not excluding those that you were a member of as a child. The list of required lies on visa forms is endless. China wants you to provide hotel bookings. Backpackers going to China book some hotels, receive the reservations, cancel the hotels and then apply for the visa with the reservations – everyone does, according to what you can read online. The Chinese, who grant you the visas, must be well aware. Maybe states try to make you lie in order to have something against you later, in case they need to. More likely they fall victim to the complexities of bureaucracies – someone suggests a rule, the rule is too simple, but no one corrects or eliminates the rule when it becomes official. Or, in the worst case, a state is happy for you to lie, because when you lie, the state may lie too and the state wants you to know. The state says: “Feel free to lie when necessary, it’s just like me. I will lie when I want, too.” In any case the rule doesn’t harm anyone, so it might last a long time. At least the harm goes unnoticed. It changes the mentality of people, but this is either ignored or… well, it makes the visitor a little bit more like the people running the country.

When I started my trip to the Burmese-Myanmar border, I was looking forward to it. Usually the more complicated the journey is, the more entertaining it becomes. But what you learn is often not what you wanted to learn, and what you didn’t foresee is the development of your feelings. I came to a bus station in the morning, in a place that doesn’t see many foreigners, the central bus station of Kaleymyo in Myanmar. It is a bigger courtyard behind houses, a dusty opening with a couple of rusty, old buses that Westerners regard as vintage cars when they appear on their streets. Here they carry heaps of luggage and people and all sorts of items, farm products, cattle, spare parts, and these vehicles seem to have existed in this state of near-death for decades. All the people present looked up when I came: Someone so tall they had never seen before. As a rule about a third of the population starts laughing and pointing, and this third is not limited to the younger, male population. And here it happened again. The bigger theatre is of course not the one on the stage, but the crowd in the tiers: I’m two meters tall, that’s it; they display all their lack of education and respect. Most are under the spell of Buddha or Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t seem to help. Laughing at people is of course always disparaging, as a black woman visiting Laos (who experienced worse) once remarked to me, and the locals should know. They don’t. And they don’t learn it now. It is not only sad to be regarded as a freak (you automatically sympathize with all freaks and think how much they are like you). It is also sad, because I can’t prove them wrong now. Later I can earn respect, in a crammed situation on a minibus, when rain is coming from all sides, because the tarpaulin doesn’t hold anywhere. But waiting for the bus it was I against them. In their collective laugh I could easily see the group building. We don’t speak a common language. They learn from each other: it is okay to laugh at an outsider and actually fun. I really shouldn’t have come at all.

From Kaleymyo to Tamu, the Myanmar side of the border, it’s a slightly hilly trip with long alleys, bouncy metal bridges and countryside, smaller forests and villages of wooden or bamboo houses on stilts or not on stilts. That day it rained excessively, and we were about a dozen in a pick-up. The rear sides of taxi pick-ups have two benches, at the sides, for the passengers. In this case a pile of heavy iron rings or gear elements had taken about third of the space, all shoved to the front as much as possible. And as it started to rain there was no space on the roof – not even for luggage. We huddled under the cover of the metal roof, insufficiently shielded by the suspended tarpaulin on the side. My co-passengers were all young, I’d guess in their twenties. The women sat opposite the men; their faces had a wonderful inclination to smile; their hands had long, muscular fingers. The men on my side wore trousers, which is unusual for Myanmar. (Most of the time men wear the longyi, which is a sarong type of cylindrical fabric looking like a long skirt.) I’d guess longyis are no good for rain and these guys knew what weather we’d face.

As my backpack was huge and we had other smaller items, there was little space between the two rows of passengers facing each other. But early in the trip one of the young women put herself between our feet to sleep, and after a while, so it felt, merged with the environment. I could not stop thinking of the future pope in Thomas Mann’s “Der Erwaehlte” who is a rock in the beginning, completely moulded into its natural environment. This woman on the floor of the little lorry seemed to sleep in complete serenity while we others were constantly thrown from our wooden, rain drained benches by the pot holes and bridge edges that urgently needed repair. She didn’t seem to mind, nor seem to notice the rust and dirt of her bed. Like some of us she covered her head with a conical hat against the incoming water. But when she got up in Tamu and sat herself at the bench like the others, she seemed the warmest and cleanest of all. I still remember her long black hair that appeared like one of the items in front of me along with my rucksack, the conical hat, her shirt, some crates, a plastic bag. The others were only slightly less marvellous sleepers. Each one rested on the shoulders or laps of their neighbour and closed their eyes, despite the movement, the roaring of the car, the attacking rain. Later an older couple with a young daughter got on, and the man threw up, above the rear ramp of the pickup truck. But this just added to what was a theatre for me, from the very start, like so much else, when you’re strange and speechless and your presence is temporary.

young-crusaders

Which holy lands are these crusaders to conquer?

 

I didn’t have time to have a closer look at Tamu, a town said to have a huge market selling Chinese and Thai goods to Indians; also to be a hub for illegal trading of gold, medicine, drugs and other niceties. I only saw the street heading to the border, and this street is a unique experience. There are lots of Christian organisations and churches, e.g. the “Evangelical Baptist Church” and the “Naga Baptist Church”, all proudly drawing attention with painted names and addresses on wooden panels that could come directly out of a Western movie. The majority of the people here are Christians anyway. There is also a narrow path leading to a place behind everything else, with a wooden panel indicating the “Myanmar Young Crusaders”, which increases the impression of a Christian battleground. (I should mention that Christian Chins – which represent a significant portion of the population in Tamu – are often persecuted by the Buddhist political leadership for their believes. There is a much better documented battle between aggressively proselytising Protestants and a state that is wary of any dissent – and in particular along ethnic lines.) Many buildings along this road are wooden, like the “Ladies Underwear Store”: This otherworldly shop is in front of a bigger house made from stone. Both are on a compound surrounded by a wall and barbed wire. Last but not least there are residential houses, beer restaurants; an old compound that looks like a forlorn botanical garden and a new, walled compound that is to be the place of a hotel in the future, but has the appearance of a derelict cemetery, thanks to the high grass. I’m sure I’ve missed the key to understand this street. I want to come back. It reminded me of Transnistria in Moldova, where Putin was shown on one banner with his pal Che Guevara when I visited – so wrong, it’s almost surreal.

united-divided

UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL

 

The Myanmar border post is a collection of old, wooden dachas in the forest and kind Myanmar officers serving the rare foreigners that pass by, in rooms that haven’t changed much in the past fifty years, but might have seen better days. The only larger piece of text that is intelligible for foreigners is on the wall behind the officers in charge, in a room that looks much more like a meeting room for a bigger number of officials than an office. The text reads as follows:

MYANMA (sic) SPIRIT

THE SIMPLE-MINDED MYANMARS
HAVE NO ENVY AGAINST THOSE HAVING FAIR COMPLEXIONS;
NOR HATRED FOR THE BROWNISHS;
NOR DIFFERENTIATE WITH THE BLACKISHS;
NOR HOSTILE TO THOSE OF DIFFERENT FAITHS.
THEY HAVE BRETHREN LOVE & AFFECTION AND
RESPECT EQUALLY FOR ALL.
IRRESPECTIVE OF ABOVE ALL, IF THE AFFAIRS OF OUR COUNTRY, NATION, LAND, HISTORY, CULTURE, RELIGION & PREACHING ARE INTERFERED WITH A FOXY-TRICK TO IMPLICATE NATIONAL POLITICS, IT WOULD BE DEALT WITH SEVERELY HOWSOEVER GREAT OR SMALL,
BLACK OR WHITE AND SO ON WITH ALL THE MIGHT BUT WITHOUT A SINGLE WORD TO FINISH TO THE END EVEN IF WE ARE LEFT BY A SINGLE PERSON WITH FULL OF INJURIES LYING IN THE POOL OF BLOOD.

I asked the officer, if I can take a photo of the handwritten panel, and he happily granted it. He proudly pointed out that it is the translation of the text in Burmese on its left. From its make it would appear the text is older than any automatic translation machine online. Likely the first part, in its anti-racist spirit is meant to excuse the second part. At the time of writing the “blackishs” might refer to indigenous people with darker complexion; or to Tamils, who came in significant numbers, when both India and Burma were part of the British Empire. The second part wouldn’t be so surprising, were it not for the gory, fatalistic end. The speaker doesn’t think of a mighty nation fighting her enemies. He thinks of a battle that is lost and has to be fought by an individual nevertheless. If this is written by a border post, he must have felt alone and threatened. There is desperate defiance in the slack grammar of the long, last sentence. I’m disappointed not to have asked for the motive of these two panels. I only have the picture. We tourists come, take a photo and defer the thinking to later, when it is too late to ask.

A river represents the demarcation line between India and Myanmar. The foreigner has to cross a bridge and the first thing he spots on the Indian side of the border are sheds of women who split or gather stones. These sheds with their scant plastic covers and rickety condition look like the poorest places on earth, with the dusty hill as their backdrop, much poorer than any temporary shelter in Myanmar. A few steps further and behind a bend of the road is the Indian custom control in modest, new buildings. It is also the casual place of work of the Indian immigration officer. When I arrived, he was in Moreh, the next town on the Indian side. “There is not much to do. So he is bored.” is what I was told by his colleagues from customs control. There is about one foreigner per day. Customs control on the other hand are very busy, with all sorts of local trade going on. Isn’t this typical for Indian bureaucracy? The immigration officer can’t be the customs control officer. They represent two separate areas of work, so require two separate posts, however inefficient this is. I had to wait about one hour for the officer to be called to his work place. His salary is safe, but in his cap with the writing “FIGHTER” on it he didn’t seem to be particularly happy.

assam-rifles-integration

The military unit Assam Rifles is stationed in many of the North Eastern Indian states. By most Nagas India and Assam are regarded as foreign territory.

 

His way of processing my visa was amazingly relaxed. He asked me to sit on his right, which meant we were both sitting on what felt like garden chairs for teenagers, too small even for the shorter stature of Indian people. His mini plastic table was covered with an equally green table cloth, apparently striving for the complete garden experience. On top of it the passport scanner and the computer. Scanning the display for curiosities, I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary with the used software. The application had forms with big letters and simple dialogues, and after he entered my full name, it asked, if I’m identical to one of the following persons. Three names were there, all marked red, completely different from mine and very Muslim. It seems three Muslims are the primary concern to the whole of India – or expected to arrive from Myanmar. Later I was reminded of this sort of rather blunt intelligence at a checkpoint in Manipur, when an Assam Rifle suspected a Manipur student of being a member of a forbidden student organisation. He threatened her with “asking John, if your denying statements are true! Do you know John?” “Who is John?”, answered the student, and the Assam Rifle had as much an answer as her. Just that in the former case friendship building is already complete.

Many years ago I visited Kaliningrad for the first time as part of a day trip from Lithuania. I met two women and gave a promise, which I broke years after. I regret it till today and will most likely always feel the regret, though seemingly inane.

Kaliningrad had been suffering heavily at the hands of the Germans in the Second World War and it had in no way recovered. (The Germans were funding rennovations of the Königsberg Cathedral, which they were proud of as if it was their own. The neighbouring House of the Soviets felt appalling and unbearable.) After spending considerable time walking the desolate streets and squares of the city centre, I ended up in a dark cafe-restaurant. The dingy rooms lay half under floor level, and in addition to the sparse, electrical lighting spurious rustic plants cluttered all passages and windows.

I sat at a large, round table and spread paper, maps and postcards in front of me. I kept myself busy while eating, not only with the things I had brought, but also with the surroundings. At the table by my side sat a Russian woman, similarly eating and enjoying herself, obviously a regular. She had a tired and vacant face. She was of my age, and though there was nothing beautiful about her, there neither was anything forbidding. She didn’t seem aware of my presence. But, unanticipated, she turned her attention to me, when she noticed my curious glances.

I’m still marveling how she started to communicate, as she couldn’t speak a single word in English (or German) and I neither in Russian. Somehow I remembered a few Polish words, and this was our material – not only to get started, but for the following hours: She said something in Russian, I tried to understand it as Polish; I said a Polish word, and she tried to take it as Russian. Naturally the conversation remained a struggle, with every expression a fragmented product of considerable effort. I don’t remember much of what we were speaking about anyway.

My new Russian acquaintance was astonishingly quick in making decisions. Via mobile phone she informed a friend of hers. I didn’t understand her intentions at all at this moment. For me we were just talking and I didn’t feel it was worth contacting friends about. On the contrary I felt the pleasant uneasiness of a young man, who is intimately talking to a woman that he had met only minutes ago. I was romantic, even dreaming of liberating a poor woman from the harshness of the Russian course of life. I wanted to get to know to her and nobody else. But her female friend soon arrived. She was quite similar in character, it appeared to me, though of a calmer and slower character. And she too was incapable of any non-Russian word.

The other decision was to leave the place and to go to another one by taking a cab. I didn’t understand what my companions had in mind, but I felt alarmed. Kaliningrad wasn’t a safe city at the time. These two women could as well be criminals, I thought, with thugs waiting for me in an inconspicuous basement of a suburban concrete block. While we were driving, I tried to memorize the streets and crossings we passed.

But it wasn’t far. And the place we arrived at was a tiny, simple cafe, in every respect the reverse of the gloomy restaurant we came from. Its name was “Sunshine” (or something similar). Perched on a landing at a crossroad, it had windows on all sites and was indeed a bright place. The women greeted the waitress like an old friend. And then they ordered vodka.

The vodka was brought in carafes. I still see them standing in front of us, along with the tumblers: the transparent liquid. It soon struck me that my role was that of the host, who pays. I felt a bit disappointed, but after all they were not only drinking, but increasingly interested in me. And they told me about them. Although unable to form words in any common language, we managed to speak about many things.

I remember little of this conversation. I learned that both women were prostitutes. One had a husband and a child (who was seldom at home). The other was a former nurse. They were friends. And with every glass they drank, they wanted to learn more about my life. (I wasn’t drinking. I had never drunk much, and I was afraid of not finding my way back to Lithuania.) Their questions pleased me. And I felt pity for their lives.

Later in the afternoon the calmer woman stopped drinking, before becoming rather removed. We were increasingly planning the safe evacuation of her friend. We had to be wary of the traffic around the cafe. They wouldn’t take a cab, though she obviously couldn’t walk anymore, at least not by herself. And she kept on insisting: She wouldn’t let me go without the promise that I called her the next time I’d be in Kaliningrad. I promised her, shortly before we split up.

Years later I returned to Kaliningrad. I had a girlfriend in a small town in the Kaliningrad Oblast and was passing through. I was staring at the display of my mobile phone, the number was there, waiting for me. But I didn’t call.

Today I own another mobile phone, the number is invariably lost. Those mistakes!