House Call

I had spent the whole of the previous night sweating, shuddering, and throwing up. The stomach flu had stricken again. On one hand, I felt like crap. On the other, I remembered Emily Blunt remarking in The Devil Wears Prada: “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.” And upon thinking this, I immediately felt guilty. Sorry, confident women all over the world, for this moment of weakness.

In the morning, I tried getting out of bed. But my legs wouldn’t even take me to the bathroom across the hall to brush my teeth. I fainted before I got to the door. Unsurprisingly, my mother panicked and called the doctor.

 

My GP is a strange man. I remember my first visit and how he was being friendly and stern at the same time. His handshake was not just firm, it was relentless. Somehow, it made trusting him easier.

Upon every visit, he would have a long conversation with me about school, friends, my life decisions. Not as an impartial bystander because he would not just offer advice. He would make his advice sound as an order.

If I would come in only to get a note for school, he would get mad because I wasn’t ill enough to stay at home. He could be sympathetic, but he could also be disciplinary and tough. Sometimes I liked him, and sometimes he scared me.

 

At two PM I woke up because I heard his footsteps on the stairs. I wondered whether he’d get mad because I didn’t look sick enough for a house call, although I couldn’t even stand up. I tried making myself look more pathetic and wondered where that fear of not living up to someone’s expectations had come from. Especially a doctor’s.

“Hello! How are you?” he asked upon coming in. He wasn’t asking it in a patient-doctor way. It was as if he was just paying me a casual visit. He sat down next to me on my bed.

“Well…” I faltered, not knowing what to say. I wasn’t exactly fine, was I?

“Your mom told me you had the stomach flu. Tell me more.” I tried to explain what had happened the night before, how many times I had thrown up etc. and noticed that he had already stopped listening. “Is that your guitar?” he asked, pointing at the acoustic guitar in the corner of my room. I nodded. He didn’t even comment on the symptoms I had described. “That’s a Martin!” he exclaimed. It was an expensive guitar that my dad had bought me, saying that he would rather buy his daughter an expensive guitar than an iPad. I had never asked for an iPad and he was kind of proud of that.

“It is,” I agreed, not really in the mood. I was wishing he would leave because I wanted to go back to sleep.

He jumped up and made his way across the room to the instrument. He reached out to take it but halted. “May I?” I nodded, tired but astonished.

He sat down on my bed again, this time holding the Martin guitar. At that moment, my mom walked in, looking just as shocked as I was. The GP didn’t even look up. He just started playing the chords of what I recognized to be Blackbird by The Beatles. “You have to work this guitar. Your plectrum is too thin for these strings.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“I’m in a band,” he said. “What about you?”

“I’m a singer-songwriter,” I replied, to which my mom said: “Play something, Erika!”, as if I was bursting with energy, and not being nauseated and feverish. Nonetheless, when the GP handed me the guitar, I took it.

He liked the song, said that I had a strong voice. I was at the end of my abilities, hoping the visit would come to its end as soon as possible. Then the doctor finally remembered what he had come for in the first place and said: “About the flu: you should just fast for a couple of days. It will figure itself out,” and then stood up. “I really enjoyed this visit.”

I was left there with the guitar in my bed, while my mother accompanied the GP to the door. That’s when I realized that he was even stranger than I had initially thought him to be.

A Quiet Passion: The Hardships of Being an Extra

A Quiet Passion: The Hardships of Being an Extra

It was five in the morning and the sun hadn’t even risen yet. I already regretted everything. Not just my decision to be an extra in a movie about Emily Dickinson – oh no – at five in the morning I regretted life. Because that’s how existential I get when I don’t get my eight hours of sleep.

With my eyes still shut, I turned on the shower. The hot water streamed down my face and I nearly choked when I forgot to hold my breath and thus inhaled all the water.

When I got out of the shower, I quickly put together an outfit – sweater and jeans – not paying much attention to how I looked. Once I would get to the set, I would have to change anyway. Emily Dickinson lived in the nineteenth century, so without a corset and a dress, I would look a bit out of place.

I had a cup of coffee and hopped in the car. Well, I wasn’t driving. My dad was. And he was as much of a morning person as me. We were both in for one hell of a drive. And then there was my mother, who also decided to come along. God knows why. (After reading this story, she told me that it had been her birthday.)

 

After an hour and a half, we arrived at a castle near Brussels. It looked huge and kind of reminded me of the castle from Jane Eyre. I was half expecting to see Michael Fassbender walking through the gate. But the illusion was shattered when I noticed all the trailers, all the staff with their walkie-talkies and the tired extras standing in the garden in front of the building.

One of the staff members showed me the way, a woman in her twenties, obviously still not used to early mornings. “You have to get dressed and get your makeup done, but afterward, you can grab something to eat here,” she said, entering what looked like a GP’s waiting room. The girls that were already dressed, were sitting in unfolded, plastic chairs, not saying a word. They were all wearing bathrobes over their dresses, what added to my impression of them as patients. Hunger was an emotion that prevailed in everybody’s eyes. Yes, it is an emotion, when it’s six AM and you have only apples and stale chocolate cookies to choose from.

I dropped my bag under one of the chairs and followed the woman out. She led me to another room packed with tired girls and handed me over to another twentysomething. “Here’s your outfit,” the other woman said. “Go undress and then call me. I’ll help you with the corset.”

I nodded, dreading that fearful moment. I remembered the corset from the fitting day. It was so tight I could barely breathe. Wearing it was torture and I could not, for the love of God, figure out why women had ever bothered.

After half an hour of desperate clumsiness, I was dressed. Watching Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley running around in Jane Austen movies had not prepared me for this. I didn’t look like a gorgeous, fragile heroine. There was nothing dramatic about me. I was dressed as decorum, not meant to be noticed by the future audience. Although even decorum had to suffer the asphyxiation caused by the tight, Victorian clothes.

Another woman applied some makeup to try to conceal an enormous zit on my forehead. She failed. My hair got done too, put up with rubber bands and so much hair spray that it made my eyes tear. There I was, ready to step into the nineteenth century.

 

The same woman that had talked to me earlier, sent me back to the waiting room, while the rest of the girls got their breasts crushed by their bodices.

I walked in, expecting nothing but the deadly silence from minutes before. But now, the place was filled with laughter. The cause was the girl in the middle of the room. She was talking about Downton Abbey, laughing with the characters and making others laugh with her impressions. Her sarcasm was the cure for our sleep deprivation.

 

After two hours, maybe more, another woman came to get us. This was our moment. Unfortunately, the set looked even more unremarkable than the dresses we were wearing. The room we were standing in was empty. As I had mentioned earlier, we were the decorum. I just hadn’t expected that there would be nothing else.

I was the only one experiencing this disappointment. The other extras were too taken by Terence Davies sitting in the corner of the room. They were all whispering and pointing at him, not realizing how they were being everything but subtle. But he was just as excited to see us as we were to see him. He jumped up and started exclaiming things like ‘You look wonderful!’ and ‘I’m so glad I get to work with all of you!’ as if it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. It was probably just bullshit, but it made me like the guy anyway. He was old and short, and full of energy. He made me want to be good.

Emma Bell was there too, being all ginger and lovely. I was disappointed I didn’t get to see Cynthia Nixon or Jennifer Ehle, but I guess it was foolish to have hoped that I would anyway.

Davies told us to form a group around Emma, and we did. At first, I was standing in the front, but some actress-to-be pushed me away. I had overheard her talking about bleaching her teeth and doing commercials for H&M. She was ambitious about her career. However, her plan hadn’t worked. An assistant director came over and placed her at the back. Justice had been done. I was in the front again.

It took forty minutes to explain us in what way we had to walk back and forth during the scene. Somehow, it hadn’t been long enough because most figurants still walked in the wrong direction.

Suddenly, we heard a girl in the back gasp for breath. When I looked backward, she was already sitting down. The assistant director walked up to her and tried to get her to tell him what was wrong. All she could manage was one single word: “Corset.”

But all in all, we had done a fine job. If you ever see the movie, I’m in the scene where Emma Bell is being rebellious at school.

 

When the work was done, we could finally eat. In our bathrobes, we stalked off to the tables placed in front of one of the trailers in the garden. Big containers with rice and chicken curry were beckoning from afar. All the girls took huge heaps of food, all of them hungry because nobody had had a proper breakfast. All the girls had forgotten that they were still wearing corsets, not having been allowed to change yet.

The food was delicious, but we could not bring ourselves to eat the whole plate. Every bite got stuck somewhere between the gullet and the stomach and the more we ate, the more we realized that we shouldn’t. Somebody came to take the food away.

 

Finally, the woman that had welcomed us in the morning, came into the room to tell us we could get our makeup and our dresses off, followed by a sigh of relief from everybody. Nonetheless, we took a group picture first.

My parents picked me up, after having spent the day walking around the neighboring town. I fell asleep in the car, hungry, but too exhausted to pay attention to the sandwiches my mom had brought along. When I got home, I went straight to bed.

 

After more than a year, my mom went to the premiere of A Quiet Passion at our local movie theater. I was in school at the time of the screening, so I couldn’t join her. She said I looked pretty during the thirty seconds on screen. I’m sure I just looked tired.

Christmas

“How are you?” I asked my Polish coworker. It was the day after Christmas, so for some reason, I expected everyone to be happy and nice.

“I’m tired and sick of working here,” she answered annoyed.

“How come?” That was probably the stupidest question to ask ever, considering how she had worked in the hostel for fourteen years, doing the exact same thing. Who wouldn’t get sick of that?

“I had to work on Christmas Day, can you believe it?” she asked.

“That’s terrible!” Although I wasn’t religious and the birth of Christ wasn’t really that big a cause for celebration to me, I understood where she was coming from. After all, Christmas is the day you should spend with your family, and, most importantly, not have to go to work.

“Times have changed,” she continued. “People used to go to church on Christmas instead of going abroad. People got a day off work.” I nodded. I didn’t agree that going to church was much better than going to work. At least you got paid to go to work.

I’m not the kind of atheist who hates church. I’m not. But after having suffered through going to Orthodox masses with my mother, I had decided that I just lacked the commitment and most importantly, the faith to go through with it. But Izolda didn’t have to know that fact. It was difficult to get her to like you as it is and now that I had finally succeeded, I wasn’t going to lose that privilege because of a religious argument.

“Nobody has faith anymore.” She was right about that. Although Islam is still going strong, I don’t really know that many Christians. “That’s why people just go around killing each other. There’s no compassion anymore. We forget that we are all just the same.” I don’t know whether religion is the cause, but the world has indeed become pretty fucked up. But maybe it has always been twisted, only in a different way.

“That’s true.”

“And all these abortions! How can people kill their own children?” she asked me, hopefully not expecting an actual answer. She took me by surprise with that remark, so I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t seen our conversation – though I wasn’t really saying anything, so I guess it was more of a monologue – going that way.

“Well, euhm…”

“If abortion was prohibited, I wouldn’t have to work on Christmas Day!” I laughed. “I’m not joking,” she said.

Godmother

“Will you call me every day?” she asked, tugging at my sleeve.
“Of course, I will,” I said. Saying goodbye proved to be harder than I had thought. On my next visit to Russia, she might already be a teenager.
“Do you promise?” My 5-year-old cousin looked at me with more expectation in her eyes than I could ever live up to.
“I do.”
“Are you just saying this to make me feel better or do you mean it?” I was baffled. At such a young age, she could already detect the lies in my promises.
“Of course I do.” I made a mental note to myself to call her as much as I could. But I had broken so many promises before that I knew it would be difficult.

It was my mom who was supposed to be her godmother. Her parents asked her the day before the actual christening. I think she was very honored because she adores children.
But when we stepped into the church, she turned to me, and said: “You should be her godmother.”
I was taken aback by my mom’s suggestion. I wasn’t caring, or attentive, or very kind. She, of all people, should know that I’m not suited for this part. I swear and forget people’s birthdays. I’m not a good example for a young girl to follow.
“I’m not religious,” was the first argument that came to mind. And I thought it was a good one too since ‘god’ was in the word ‘godmother’. It kind of implied that you had to go to church and stuff.
“Who cares? We aren’t either,” the parents of my cousin replied. They seemed to think that my mother’s idea was absolutely genius. I was surprised by their statement since I thought that living in Russia instantly made you an Orthodox Christian.
“Well… Are you sure?” I asked. I looked calm on the outside, but there was this voice in my head shouting “What the hell are you doing? Stop this!” since my mom had first brought up the subject. Not that I didn’t want to be this girl’s godmother. I loved her. She was clever, kind, and witty. She was still jungle wild. Kids grow out of it eventually, but she hadn’t yet. So I wanted to be her godmother. I just knew that I shouldn’t. But her parents looked at me with hope in their eyes and I yielded. “Alright then,” I said, faking enthusiasm, and felt a heavy weight settle down in my stomach. I picked up the girl and carried her through the door, to the room where she would be baptized.

Now she was crying, knowing that it would probably be years until I came back to Russia. It wasn’t my favorite place to visit. I always felt out of place, despite my family still living there. I willed myself to smile and kissed her goodbye. My mom and I picked up our suitcases and got on the train.

My cousin picked us up in Moscow. He drove a black, expensive car and had a bourgeois accent. He had this way of knowing everything best and that’s why we didn’t get along. I also know everything best, so we never agree on anything. When he heard that I was somebody’s godmother, let alone a godmother of his cousin, he was appalled.
“You do realize it’s a great responsibility, right?” he asked. “Not only are you responsible for her general education, you are also responsible for her religious education. Although maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe you’ll start going to church now.”
“I sure will,” I answered and wondered whether he’d hear the sarcasm. He didn’t.
“When my sister had asked me to be the godfather of her daughter, I really took my time considering the offer. Because it’s a commitment that you make for the rest of your life!” I gravely nodded. I couldn’t wait for the car ride to be over. “When Judgement Day comes, you’ll have her soul to answer for. Don’t forget that.”

When we finally got to the apartment where he lived with his wife and children, it was already midnight. I liked his daughter. She wouldn’t let her demanding parents get her down. Despite their strict rules, she still had the eyes of a dreamer. I thought of how lucky I was, with parents who let me get away with nearly everything. Not that there was that much to get away with.
But sleep was wasted on me. I lay awake thinking of how the hell I was supposed to fulfill my responsibilities towards my goddaughter. Not when it came to her religious education. I would probably do more bad than good if I tried to help her with that. But when it came to advice and friendship. Because I would be miles away. And what advice could I even offer her? And would she want it? I was feeling a bit lost and very underqualified.

Months later, I am still her godmother. I am doing a very shitty job, just as expected. I don’t have time to call, and when I do, I plainly forget to. Sometimes I send her a picture of my dog or ask her how she’s doing. She texted me once to tell me she loves me and I forgot to reply. I think this makes me a horrible human being.
But I’m working on it. Because she’s still five and maybe she won’t remember these first years of me fucking it up. How does a child’s memory even work? Hopefully, she will only remember the good years that are to come. When I’ll be a good godmother.

Gingerbread Wisdom

Gingerbread Wisdom

What makes us want to get up in the morning? What keeps us up at night? Some people always want to know what makes others tick. I’m not one of those people. What keeps people from never wanting to get up in the morning again? What makes people fall asleep at night? That’s what I want to know. Because these questions are much easier to answer. It’s nearly impossible to find your calling in life. Most of us are just getting by. So better lower your standards when asking existential questions.

Yesterday I found my dad eating a thick slice of gingerbread an hour after lunch. “That slice is way too thick. You should cut thinner ones. That’s way better than eating half the cake in one sitting,” I said. My dad was always after losing weight, but he kept messing up his diet by binge-eating brownies and sweets.

“Better for whom?” he asked, clearly in a philosophical mood. “Is it better for me not to eat a thick slice of gingerbread?”

“It’s healthier, that’s for sure,” I said.

“But what about society?” He looked at me quizzically, waiting for an answer.

“What about it?”

“What if I had to eat that slice for society’s own good?”

“What does gingerbread have to do with society?” I inquired. “I just don’t see the connection.” My dad cut himself another slice.

“Well, maybe eating gingerbread keeps me from buying a gun and shooting people.”

Well, that escalated quickly, I thought. But what if peace really is in the small things like cake?

“Who can say what’s right and what’s wrong?” my dad continued. “Nobody knows what would have happened if something else hadn’t happened earlier. Maybe the things we consider wrong, aren’t that wrong at all. Everything has a purpose,” he said, finished his second slice, and left.

Maybe he’s right and pulling the trigger is not the difficult thing to do. Maybe not pulling the trigger is.

Phone Number

I always feel conflicted when men I don’t know ask me for my number. On one hand, I am offended. “Are you really only interested in my looks?” my inner self seems to ask the guy. But on the other hand, I feel flattered. “Why, thank you for asking for my number and not that of the girl walking in front of me.” And I do enjoy talking to strangers, despite my mother having warned me against it a tremendous amount of times. But sometimes there is no duality when it comes to those conversations. Sometimes the experience of getting asked for your number is downright negative.

I was walking home with my dog the other day. It was a usual December night, which means that although it was only six PM, it was already dark out. A passerby was walking next to me, wheeling his bike, and not mounting it. At first, I didn’t pay attention. Maybe the bike chain was off or he didn’t feel like riding his bike. But after a while, I noticed that he was staying in step with me. I tried walking faster, and he did too. I slowed down. He did too.

“Does your dog bite?” he asked. I had heard that question so often before. Somehow men seemed to think that it was the perfect conversation starter. I wasn’t scared when he started talking to me. In my neighborhood, you get used to it.

“I don’t think so. She hasn’t yet,” I answered. My dog Dandy looked absolutely terrified. She hated people she didn’t know, especially tall men.

“What’s your name?” the man continued. I never tell strangers my real name. I always have a standard answer ready for all the questions these men could possibly ask. Because somehow, their questions are always the same.

“Mary,” I said. I was always Mary from a catholic uniform school for rich, white girls. They always believed me. “Yours?” I always ask the same questions as they do, so that I would have at least some information to give to the police, just in case.

“Peter,” he replied. “Where do you live?” Somehow, that’s another question these men keep asking. What are they going to do with this information? Is it just a casual question to keep the conversation going or are they planning on stalking me forever and ever until I give them my number? I kept silent. “Somewhere around here?” he persevered.

“Yeah. There,” I said and pointed in a random direction. “You?”

“The street we come from. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you give me your number? I’ll call you up and we’ll get something to drink,” he suggested so confidently that the suggestion sounded more like an order. I laughed at the ridiculousness of it. Peter looked surprised. I wondered whether that trick had worked for him before. Probably not.

“No, thanks,” I replied.

“Oh, come on,” he pleaded. “Do you have a boyfriend or something?”

“I don’t. But I don’t have the time.” That’s when I started backing away. I didn’t like his tone.

“Just a cup of coffee? Everybody’s got time for that!”

“Sorry,” I said. I kept backing away, but he noticed and followed me.

“Please,” he said as if saying ‘please’ would magically make me change my mind.

“Give me your number instead then,” I offered. That tactic had never failed me before, although I preferred not to use it, to avoid spending extra time with these men.

“Why? I know you won’t call me.” Of course, I won’t.

“I will, I promise,” I lied.

“When? Tonight?”

“Sure. Or tomorrow.”

“Alright then.” I took out my phone and he dictated to me his number. We said our goodbyes and I started walking in the opposite direction.

“Call me!” he called.

“Maybe I will! But I can’t promise anything!” I called back at last. Somehow, I felt bad for not giving him my phone number. To be honest, that’s kind of fucked up. I blame society.

The Effort of Carelessness

The Effort of Carelessness

The first time I had experienced freedom was on my first night in Berlin. I was away from home, not troubled by my mom’s phone calls, my dad’s expectations and my friends’ judgment. For the first time in my life, I didn’t need to fit into the mold I had created for myself and I didn’t have to sustain the image that others had of me. This night offered me a clean slate.

I was not someone who went out a lot, who got drunk or made out with strangers. All my actions had been well thought through. They were not always right, but they were always calculated. And then suddenly the euphoria I was feeling in Berlin made room for carelessness.

That night my new Aussie friend suggested to get cocktails and I drank vodka for the first time. When later she proposed to go to a club, I willingly agreed. There, I ended up kissing the Australian guy I had met twenty minutes before.

“Have you ever seen a sunrise before?” my British roommate asked at five AM. I said I hadn’t.

“Well, tonight, you will,” the Australian guy sitting next to me said.

That night in Berlin set a change in motion that most teenagers go through at a much earlier age. It set in motion the wish not to conform to the image of a comfortable life. It set in motion the wish to live and to be wild and careless. It set in motion the wish to become a different person entirely. Because up until then, I had been someone with rules and boundaries. What I asked of myself now, was to let go of them and let myself be.

I remember a conversation I had with a boy in Prague. He was taking a gap year and ‘redefining himself’, learning how to demand less perfection and be happy with himself. Those were the things I was excruciatingly terrible at. I told him how I wanted to let go too and how hard it was for me. So in Prague, we let go together.

But when I got back home, it turned out that it wasn’t the letting go that was difficult. Disregarding the confines of your comfort zone is simple if you’re in the right environment and with the right person. Principles are much easier to abandon than we might seem to think. But it takes so much effort to maintain that state of mind when you get back to where you came from. Back to the place where you must face the consequences. Back to where every action you undertake, transforms into a statement about your identity.

A couple of years ago, I wore a plaid shirt to school. That was in the time I was considered a hippy. Immediately I heard how the plaid shirt looked OK, but just didn’t match my style. I feared that this time, the change in my way of thinking wouldn’t go unnoticed either. And I was right. After only one conversation with my best friend, she remarked that I sounded different. More optimistic somehow. Later, she added that I had become more adventurous.

Now that people were noticing the difference, I had to live up to it. I had to reshape myself into a spontaneous, careless, confident woman. I had to watch my actions to not contradict my newly constructed self.

It was only after a couple of months that I came to understand how ridiculous this behavior was. I had let go of my rules and my boundaries, only to set new ones. Are we ever truly free if all we ever do or think is based on the image we are trying to maintain? Why do people still take gap years to discover their true selves to come back and realize that they had only found a new fake identity?

I always thought that being careless was easy. Effortless. But now I realize how much effort it takes to sustain the appearance of a nonchalant, casual someone. So I decided that I wasn’t going to be careless. I wasn’t going to be anyone at all. And then, maybe, I would finally become myself.