The Power of Symbols

I found this sculpture of Maria & Jesus in the old town of Artà. The red colour on it made me hesitate and take this picture. Technically, it is nothing more than a sculpture of a woman with some red splashes on it. But cultural imprint left its marks on me, so I was wondering whether the red splashes were an act of vandalism or even religious heresy. Did somebody try to make a statement against the church? Was it a member of a different church who acted out of anger? It seemed brutal to me to splash colour on such a meaningful persona as Maria.

 

But isn't that exactly where so much trouble in our world comes from? We turn random items into "symbols" and give them heavy meanings. Splashing colour on a Maria becomes an act of religious hostility - no matter if the person who did it had this meaning in mind or not. 

 

It reminded me of a situation in which I was the organiser of an event called "Students for Europe". The attendees were - as the name suggests - students from different European countries. We had used flags to decorate some of the tables in the lounge area, which didn't land well on some of the participants. They said we're degrading their countries by misusing the flag as a tablecloth. Again, in the bottom line we were using an actual piece of cloth as a a tablecloth. In our own eyes, there was no deeper meaning or act of hostility involved. The meaning and all those heavy associations are just a societal construct. 

 

I wish more people were aware that all of these heavy meanings are totally made up in the end of the day and that churches, flags, crosses are not inherently what we associate with them. Maybe, if less people were so obsessed with religious and national symbols, we would all live a more relaxed life in this world.

 

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Reason, Season, Lifetime

"Friend" is a term that we use for vastly different people in our lives. Some friendships last a lifetime, other just for the time of a holiday. Some friends know all our secrets and others are fun to party with, but we would never open up about intimate topics to them.

 

Sometimes, I got the impression that only a long-term and intimate friendship is a “real” friendship. This led to me feeling obliged to stay in touch with everyone I had a close connection with for some time. It also made judge those friendships, which are heaps of fun, but rather superficial. I felt that these friendships don’t live up to my standards of deep discussions and soul bonding.

 

But then I read a quote, which changed everything:

 

There are friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for a lifetime.

(author unknown to me)

 

Basically, the quote takes a lot of pressure from those friendships, which are not “friends for a lifetime”. Let me explain this in more detail.

 

Friends for a reason are those friends that change your life in one way or the other. A friend for a reason might be a person who you meet at your first Salsa class and who teaches you the first moves of the dance. You click, you have fun together, you learn from your friend. But other than Salsa, you don’t share much. Once you are a good dancer yourself, your reason to meet up with your Salsa friend is gone and you move on.

 

Friends for a season are those friends, who are part of our daily lives. A friend for a season might be a classmate at high school. You sit next to each other in the classroom and you hang out in the breaks. You have fun discussing the latest gossips with the friend and you help each other with home works. Despite the comforting feeling the friendship gives you, the friendship is not based on common interests, but shared environment. Once the season (high school, your undergrad, the internship,…) is over, the friendship slowly fades away.

 

Friends for a lifetime, in the other hand, are not necessarily present in our daily lives. These are friends we have an intimate connection with. They know our secrets and no matter for how long we have not seen them, once we start talking to them, we feel like coming home and open up about secrets, plans and dreams.

 

For me, these categories helped me understand why certain friendships are fine and totally fulfil their purpose, even if they are not friendships for life.

 

 

(painting: Auguste Renoir)

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New to the System

 

It’s so easy to judge people, when you’re in your own environment and in your own comfort zone.

 

A short while ago, my friend Govoi moved from Kenya to Germany and I was his go-to person during the days when he was settling in. It was his first trip to a Western country. One day, he wanted to come back home by train from his university. I sent him the train connections including directions on how to change from train 7 to train 18 at a station called Neumarkt. At some point, Govi called me and said that there is no train with the number 18. I checked Google maps and another transport app and told him that it MUST be somewhere at Neumarkt and that he should just look on the other side of the road. 20 minutes later, he called me back and said that he tried everything, but he still can’t find his train. I asked him to approach other people around the station and ask where the train leaves. “I don’t even speak German and people stare at me, cause I’m a foreigner”, he replied. “Ok, let me come there to pick you up then”, I replied slightly annoyed. It turned out that train number 18 is a subway train and not an over ground train like the other ones that leave at the station – and Govoi simply didn’t know about subway trains.

 

Now, to be honest, my first thought was that it can’t be that hard to change trains and that Govoi is clearly a very confused and naive person.

 

But then I remembered our trips to rural areas of Kenya. I didn’t understand a word of the local languages and it was impossible for me to remember the difficult names of the different villages we were traveling to. What is more, I had no idea how to figure out where the Matatus (minibuses) are going or where to get off. It was a mystery to me how people find their way without bus schedules and roadmaps. I was lost – at least as much as Govoi was lost in Germany.

 

So, I thought to myself that we easily take the systems that we are used to for granted and we forget that in other parts of the world, things work in entirely different ways. We judge people, because they fail to understand our systems and we act arrogantly when they need our help.

 

Let’s keep in mind that all foreigners – immigrants, refugees, exchange students – might be helpless in some situations, but at the same time they are more knowledgeable than us in the systems where they originally come from.

 

 

(The photo shows Govoi sorting out our transport in Kitale, Kenya)

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Corporate Social Irresponsibility

In a previous life, when I was still doing my undergrad in International Management, I took a course in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). CSR is in the first place the compliance with any law and policy a company is operating in. But it has become fashionable for companies to claim that their CSR engagement goes beyond compliance and that they actually foster some social good such as improving workers’ rights or environmental concerns. But how much CSR is possible, if the companies goals are inherently bad for people? What if the product is harmful to consumers? Some experiences during my travels made me ask these questions.

 

When I traveled to places like India, Rwanda and Kenya, I understood what a global corporation is. I want to use Coke as an example, but there are a bunch of other companies that are comparable. Coke is ubiquitous. I mean, I have seen Coke simply in EVERY SINGLE PLACE that I have ever traveled to.

 

Even at the tiny island called Wasini in the Indian Ocean - where there’s no electricity and no running water – you will find Coke. Sure, you could say that the market regulates itself. There’s demand for the product and Coke has such a good supply chain that they can cater the demand for Coke better than electricity companies can cater the need for electricity. It’s an absurd setup, but fair enough. But there are three points that really bother me about the fact that people at Wasini island (and similar places) get to drink Coke.

 

Firstly, it’s the brainwash which is created through Coke advertising. Yes, also in Germany you can find Coke advertising and people here are also exposed to marketing brainwash. But whereas in Western countries the question is whether to buy Coke, Pepsi or maybe some local brand, people in places like Wasini face a different choice. In these communities, people have hardly enough money to survive and cover the basic needs such as doctors’ bills and school books. A Coke at Wasini island costs around 100 Kenyan shillings. If you earn 3,000 shillings a month, buying a Coke is an investment. You can either buy a Coke OR a school book for that money. Due to Coke’s crazy marketing activities in these regions, for many people the wish to consume Coke might be in fact as urgent as the need to cover other basic needs.

 

Secondly, we are talking about regions of the world where malnutrition is a real problem. In the West, we see Coke as an unhealthy sweet treat, which is an add-on to our (in most cases) sufficient diet. In many of the remote places where Coke is being sold, it is an unhealthy add-on to a totally insufficient diet. There are numerous studies on the negative effects of sugar on your body, so I don’t want to go into detail about this topic. What is more, caffeine is addictive, leading to symptoms such as headaches when you stop your usual caffeine intake.

 

But these financial and health concerns are not the only thing that puts me off about seeing Coke in rural areas of developing countries. The third and last point that I want to mention is garbage. Products such as Coke (and to be fair even more so products that are being sold in plastic packaging) create garbage. Again, the problem exists also in Western countries, but in most Western countries we have well established waste collection systems. These do not exist in places like Wasini island. Obviously, the lack of waste collection is not the fault of Coke and other corporations that operate in these countries. But at the same time, it is a known fact that waste collection and recycling is a serious topic there.

 

Going back to my initial point about corporate social responsibility, I just want to drop a few questions. Just ask yourself: is it ethical to sell an addictive, costly and unhealthy product to people who are poor and suffer from malnutrition? Should companies be allowed to sell their products in places where collection and recycling of the packaging is impossible? Personally, I don’t think so.

 

What can be done? According to my own observations and reports of local friends, governments in these places are often highly corrupt and change (such as the implementation of waste collection) is too slow to keep up with changes of purchasing behaviors. In addition, it’s pretty likely that governments have crude incentives to tolerate the market entry of Coke. CSR departments exist, but do they have the power to do anything? Or do they only exist to maintain the neat façade of corporations? The fact that garbage problems like the one I have described exist in most developing countries makes me doubt the effectiveness of CSR departments.

 

 

(Photo: Tanja Schomann, taken at Lamu Island, Kenya)

 

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Racism, Görlitzer Park and I

Racism is bad. Nobody can possibly deny this statement. But living right next to Berlin’s renowned Görlitzer Park has taught me a few lessons about people’s - and my own -  susceptibility to racism.

 

Let me first tell you a little about myself. I have lived for a while in Kenya and I have many Black friends. In fact, my only long-term boyfriend was a Black Kenyan. I’m not a person who would claim that “we’re all the same”. I do believe that cultural norms leave a stamp on us and make us perceive and act in the world in different ways. At the same time, my experiences abroad and friendships to people with different cultural backgrounds have taught me that there is no “right way” of living and that everybody lives in a way that makes sense to them personally.

 

I liked to believe that I am free from any racist sentiments.

 

Now I live in Berlin, right next to Görlitzer Park. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the park’s legacy: According to Yelp, the park is the top rated place to buy weed in Berlin or, as Deutsche Welle puts it, “Görlitzer Park is an open-air marijuana emporium”. But you won’t find a mixed crowd of dealers. Both news articles about the park and my own experience confirm that the vast majority are African immigrants. I can say that I have been approached easily 60-70 times within the one year that I have lived next to the park – and every single time it was a Black dealer.

 

And this is exactly what I want to speak about. About the experience of being approached countless times by African dealers and what it did to my emotions towards Black people around Görlitzer Park.

 

When I walk down Görlitzer Park, I feel uncomfortable. I would estimate that 80% of the times I enter the park, I will be approached by one of the Black guys. Sometimes they would openly ask me whether I want drugs. Most other times, they would just ask me how I am doing. Generally, there is nothing wrong with approaching another person in a park. But coming from Germany, the cultural norms that I have been conditioned with tell me to act with suspicion. German strangers just don’t randomly chat to each other whilst crossing a park. Do African strangers do so? Well, even my experiences in Kenya have shown me that they don’t. When strangers approach you, it is because they DO have some intention. Maybe not always selling drugs, maybe they are interested to hook up with me. Or they want to sell something else. God knows. But in the bottom line, my emotional reflex is to feel very uncomfortable, to look away and to keep on walking. Repeated experiences of that kind have led me to the point where I don’t even look towards Black guys when I am in reach of the park, but I stubbornly keep on walking with a fixed gaze.

 

And this is actually the crucial point. You can’t control your emotional reflexes. The human brain is conditioned to develop stereotypes and form groups (if you doubt it, read some scientific evidence). And my experiences have made me develop feelings that even I would describe as racist feelings: I feel uncomfortable about any Black guy who I meet around Görlitzer Park. But despite being unable to control these emotional reactions, people ARE able to rationally control their actions and further generalisations.

 

In my example, I reflect on my experiences and say: “Black guys who hang out in Görlitzer Park are NOT representative of Black people in general.” I have too many Black friends who prove the exact opposite. And I can make myself aware that not even all Black guys around Görlitzer Park fall into the category of annoying drug dealers. I just remind myself that my Kenyan boyfriend would have been judged the same way if he hung out in the park – and obviously I would find the judgment totally absurd and unfair.

 

Lastly, I remind myself of the viewpoint of the guys at Görlitzer Park. Selling drugs is a shitty job. It is dangerous. Chances are high that they would have chosen a different job if only they could. And the random approaches in the park are mainly a product of their pressure to make money.

 

So what is my main point? It’s basically, that on the emotional level, we can all become susceptible to racism. Experiences like mine in Görlitzer Park make it all to easy to develop negative sentiments towards ethnic groups or people of a certain nationality. But then, between the spontaneous emotion and our response, our intellect must serve as our emergency break. In my case, I easily get back to my senses when I recall all the positive experiences with Black people. But what about those people, who are only exposed to raging news articles about Black drug dealers? Or even those of my neighbours who never actually talked to a Black person apart from those drug dealers in their life? At least in Berlin, there are many initiatives that try to build bridges between immigrants and Berliners, such as welcome dinners and the huge Welcome Party at Tempelhofer Feld. It’s that kind of events that in my opinion have the potential to lead the change.

 

So instead of arrogantly judging those who hold racist ideas, we should understand that it stems from one-sided exposure and strong emotional reactions. In my opinion, we need even more positive exposure to break the vicious cycle of racism. Help those who experience negative emotions towards  foreigners by providing as many opportunities to interact with immigrants with all kinds of backgrounds and stories. 

 

 

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Just Walk that One Next Step

I am a fan of adventures. And I don’t just mean obvious adventures such as traveling to foreign countries, trying out new activities, meeting people from different cultural backgrounds… Adventures, in my opinion, can also be personal challenges such as writing a PhD or learning to design my own website.

 

But when I have to decide whether or not to embark on my next adventure, I often hit a point of doubt and fear. Most of the time, the new project seems a little too complex. Too many components are uncertain, new, daunting… Let me give you a few examples and share the one lesson that I’ve learned from all this.

 

There were two trips that were quite different, but that scared me in a similar way.

 

One trip was a road trip with my friend Tim through Israel and Jordan. The logical consequence of traveling through two countries is that you need to cross the border at some point – and as it was a road trip, we had to cross the border overland rather than flying in with a plane. I had never crossed a border overland up to that point (other than within Europe at least) and I could just not visualise what it would be like. Combine that with one country that has a lot of military-related media coverage (Israel) and another country which I literally didn’t know of until Tim recommended the trip (Jordan) and you might get why I was concerned. What is more, we had booked a rental car from a town close to the Jordanian border, but no other transport was pre-booked. A nightmare full of uncertainty. In the end, I decide to ignore the issue until the day of the border crossing was there. And guess what? It turned out to be the least complicated thing ever. We just had to take one step at a time. Take a bus from Jerusalem to the border town, take a taxi to the actual border, get a couple of stamps in our passport, walk across the border, get a few more stamps in the passport, take a taxi to the next town, pick up the rental car.

 

The other trip was initially planned as a city trip to Marrakesh. But as both my friend Lucas and I are easily bored of cities, we decided to do something else. “Let’s hike up Mount Toubkal!” was Lucas’ idea. I should add that he is probably the most adventurous person I know and keeps on rock climbing and trekking in all sorts of crazy weather conditions. So phrases such as “strenuous winter trek” and “This trip is designed for confident trekkers who have some experience of trekking on snow. Some sections can be steep and rough. It is expected that large parts of the mountainside will be covered in snow, therefore ice axe and crampons will normally be necessary on all departures” didn’t bother him too much. As I had never hiked in snow and never used crampons before, I was downright scared. But since I am quite bad at saying “no” once I get curious, we decided to go on the trip. And guess what? The same pattern as on the Israel trip applied. One step at a time. Get to the mountain, find the mountain refuge for the first night, get all those unfamiliar tools together (ice axe and crampons), start walking, put on the tools, reach the top. Whenever I needed help, there was somebody around to explain the next step to me. Even using crampons turned out to be really fun and not scary at all!

 

Lastly, let me tell you about my PhD. It’s a hell of a project and so many times I lose my nerves, because it looks all too complex and challenging and no end is in sight. But then I think of those travel experiences and I see the same pattern once again. One step at a time. What is the next thing that needs to be done? Break it down in chunks and just walk that one next step. And the next one. I’m still only halfway through, but whenever I feel scared, I remind myself of this simple approach.

 

One reason why I decided to write about this story is also, because I wanted to show how living an active life outside job / academia does help you in everyday life situations. Sure, you can say you really want to focus on your career. And I’m sure you can learn a lot of interesting facts and figures purely by sitting in the office. But a lot of life lessons can be learned so much easier and so much more obvious when you are faced with challenges and fears that have nothing to do with a computer screen. At least I am convinced that crossing the border between Israel and Jordan and ascending Mount Toubkal made me a better researcher. I have internalised my “one step at a time” approach and in my mind, it is illustrated with the most scenic pictures. That’s more than any office learning can offer ;-)

 

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50 Shades of Me

 

So some American pop songs do actually have kind of interesting lyrics. There is this song called “If you like Pina Coladas” which I had probably already heard a dozen times before I got the actual point of the song. It’s basically about a guy who is bored with his lady. He then finds a lonely heart advert saying:

 

'If you like Piña Coladas, getting caught in the rain

If you're not into yoga, if you have half a brain

If you like making love at midnight

in the dunes on the cape

I'm the love that you've looked for

write to me and escape'

 

He’s fascinated and decides to go on a blind date with the author of the ad. When he arrives at the agreed place, he realised that it’s his own lady who wrote the ad and they have all those cute things in common which they didn't even know about.

 

So in the bottom line the song talks about how we often fail to see all the different sides and interests of people – even people who are as close as friends or lovers. I have made quite similar experiences in my personal life. Let me give you an example: During my Masters studies in London, I used to go out quite a lot with friends who work in the financial sector. Usually we would go to nice cocktail bars or restaurants in the posher parts of town. At some point, I made a remark about backpacking, camping and trekking. One of my friends was extremely surprised and said something along the lines of “But you don’t actually travel that way, do you?”. He knew that I travel a lot, but just because he would generally see me in nice dresses and high heels, it never occurred to him that most of my trips are pretty basic backpacking trips - moving around by public transport and sleeping in hostels. He had pictured me in the pool of fancy hotels.

 

So where did this incomplete picture come from? Firstly, human beings tend to make a massive amount of inferences based on small pieces of information like clothes, age and ethnicity. In this example, going to nice bars in London directly translated into nice hotels on holiday. And it is at least a conclusion that is reasonable. Other stereotypes are much more extreme. When we see a football fan, we would never believe that he might be into Shakespeare, when we see a lawyer we wouldn't believe he is a DJ at nighttime, when we see an elderly lady, we wouldn't believe she's good at programming. The list goes on and on...

 

Secondly, the occasion determines what we share. In my case, those nights out in London were just not the place where it would have felt natural to talk about buying a new sleeping bag for my next trip for example. The discussions naturally focussed on other topics such as work, concerts, current affairs,… And that had nothing to do with hiding parts of my personality. It was just about acting out one aspect of my personality more than other aspects. A wine tasting creates a different environment for sharing as a mountain hike, a meeting with a professor creates a different environment than a Tinder date. All these situations shape what another person is able to learn about us.

  

But what can we do about these communication issues? How can we reveal more about ourselves without dropping a brick or being socially awkward? How can we truly get to know each other?

 

Maybe the answer lies not in telling more about oneself, but in making oneself aware of the fact that we probably know surprisingly little about friends, colleagues and even family members. I guess it’s worth asking people about their hobbies, dreams and attitudes as often as we find the opportunity! Every single person has such a unique personality and beautiful talents. Let's be more curious about each other :-)

 

Another interesting observation in relation to the same topic is this: Social media can help us to get to know each other better. Given that most of us share photos / links / comments with all of our social media friends or followers (instead of selected few), we often show our true colours to people who might not normally have seen them. I can remember many instances in which I had thoughts such as “wow, Kalifa is such a brilliant painter” or “I never knew that Kathleen is into yoga!”. There are obviously a lot of reasons why over-sharing can also go wrong, but at least in terms of getting to know more about others, open sharing on social media can be quite useful.

 

I’d be curious to hear your views on this topic! Any similar experiences? Which sides of yourself are often overlooked?

 

(Painting: Bauhaus Colour Circle)

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Intimacy

In German, the word genital area can be translated as “Intimbereich”, which basically means “intimate area”. Maybe that is the reason why I used to equate intimacy with being naked and making love. But is that the case? Can we only be intimate with a person when we take our clothes off? And does taking your clothes off automatically mean that we experience intimacy?

 

Frankly speaking, it was exactly in a moment when I had gotten off my clothes without feeling a great deal of intimacy that all those thoughts occurred to me. So the simple answer would be, “no, intimacy and nakedness or lovemaking do not always go hand in hand”. But then what is intimacy all about?

 

In my personal case, the moments when I feel most intimate with a person are often the moments when I behave really silly and childish. When I make funny faces and when I giggle until the muscles of cheeks start hurting. But then I thought about other people who I know. And I am sure that many people would disagree about this sentiment. I have often realised that for other people being childish is an easy thing to do. So probably my rather composed personality makes it an intimidating thing for me to be outright silly. Therefore, I concluded that intimacy might be connected to showing people sides of ourselves that we don’t usually show to others.

 

There is another observation that I have made that would confirm this idea. An observation about men. Often when I speak to men about emotions and they too open up about their emotions (not necessarily emotions that we have for each other), they would emphasise how much it means to them to open up about certain topics and that they would not speak to many people about these intimate topics. The interesting thing is that in most cases, I did not perceive those situations as particularly intimate, but these men seemed to do so. Again, probably they found the situation intimate, because they do not speak about emotions usually. It is a face of themselves which they usually hide. I, on the other hand, did perceive exactly the same situation as much less intimate. The reason may be that I am simply above average upfront about personal matters or that stereotypes hold true and women do speak about emotions more easily than men do.

 

Slightly contrary to what I just said, a friend of mine made a remark about intimacy and sharing of emotions that struck me. He said that sometimes we feel so much intimacy that we do not dare to share certain emotions. What he meant is that intimacy goes hand in hand with the fear of losing the person we have created that intimacy with. And that might be the reason why many people speak to a doctor rather than a friend / lover about topics like addictions or psychological problems. Accordingly, sharing secret sides of our personality might be an important aspect of intimacy, but the two are not the same.

 

Another related question is: Who do we feel intimate with? Although I do agree that getting to know a lover is often related to creating a zone of intimacy, I do not believe that intimacy can only exists between lovers. I gave the example of being childish earlier. I can definitely confirm that this type of intimate moments do exist between me and close friends as well. In my opinion, being in love simply speeds up the process of creating intimacy, but it is not a necessary component of intimacy. We often experience more intimacy with lovers who we have only known for a short time than with people who we have casually known for a longer period of time. But long-lasting friendships can result in equal amounts of intimacy as that between lovers.

 

Speaking about intimacy between lovers – there is one more interesting question. It is the question of causation. Does being naked and making love cause more intimacy? Or do we need to create intimacy first to then enjoy being naked in front of another person or sleeping with them? I think the answer lies in the extent to which we are influenced by societal norms. In most societies there is still a certain taboo around nudity and lovemaking. So the more a person is influenced by those norms, the more the person will feel that he or she is allowing intimacy when sleeping with somebody. What I mean is that because society makes us believe that lovemaking should be hidden from the public, we automatically connect it with feelings of intimacy.

 

And that brings me back to the term that I have introduced in the beginning of this post. Intimbereich. The term is an example of how society wants to make us believe that our body and sexual experiences are something that needs to be kept intimate or hidden from the eyes of other people. But whether being naked or making love is an intimate experience for one particular individual still depends on their personal attitude towards those experiences. In scientific terms you could say that there is a correlation between being naked and feeling intimacy, but it is not a perfect correlation.

 

What does intimacy mean for you? Do you agree with my ideas? I’d be interested to hear your views!

 

(Photo: Tanja Schomann)

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Sorry, I Don't Speak Your Language

A few months ago - I had just moved back to Berlin - I went to a coffeeshop in my neighbourhood. For those of you who aren't that good at geography: Berlin is in Germany and the only official language in Germany is German. Many people don't even speak any foreign language. So I was pretty surprised when the waitress couldn't understand my order and simply replied: "Sorry, I don't speak German. Could you repeat that in English?". After spending some time in Berlin, I realised that there are actually quite a few hip cafes that are run in English.

 

You might say "So what?". But to be honest, I think how you deal with languages has a profound political power. I'm not only talking about English-speaking cafes in Berlin, but about a variety of scenarios that I have experienced in different countries. Let's look at a few examples to illustrate what I mean.

 

My first example is Majorca, a Spanish island. There are heaps of German and British tourists there and the restaurants have adapted to them. The menus are in German / English and you would often hear tourist use their mother tongue straightaway without even attempting to order in Spanish. My second example are French restaurants in non-French speaking countries. It seems to be a default that they print their menus mainly in French, although it is obvious that Brits, Americans and Germans aren't particularly good at French. The third and last example are  Indians within India that don't use the local languages, but English for their personal conversations.

 

The common pattern that I see in all of those examples is that language is used to emphasise power relationships. In the case of the tourists, using their mother tongue instead of the local language is a sign that they don't even need to adapt. The tourists bring money and they want convenience. In this case, forcing the waitresses to speak German or English is part of the holiday convenience. The French restaurants use French to create in-groups and out-groups. You don't understand what artichauts à la barigoule or vol en vent means? Well, looks like you're not a true connoisseur of good food. And in the example of English-speaking Indians their use of English is a clear status symbol. Mainly private (boarding) schools teach their students in English. In order to feel comfortable enough to substitute their local language with English, they must have visited one of these upperclass schools or have spent some time abroad - which is also more an upperclass thing to do.

 

In the bottom line, I think the political power of language is often overlooked. I think the examples above show that languages can easily establish master-servant like relationships, discourage people from culinary experiences and reinforce social status. What is more, many people might not reflect about the impact of their choice of language. As long as you're not the disadvantaged party, you might not even realise that there is any harm going on.

 

And in the case of hipster cafes... Well, I think it is yet another example of the double standards in the German attitude towards expats versus immigrants. If you're an "expat" from the US or other English-speaking countries, you get a lot of freedom to do whatever you want to do. But would Germans accept if immigrants  from other countries (e.g. China or Turkey) decided to run their cafes in their own mother tongue? I doubt it. Probably there would be a major anti-immigrant outcry in BILD (a German tabloid) against those stubborn immigrants. And that's the injustice I realised when I thought about English-speaking cafes and that made me reflect on this topic.

 

(Photo: https://unsplash.com)

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No More Travelling - I've Seen Enough

A few years ago, my parents went on a trip to South America. They hiked around at Machu Picchu, visited the Iguazu waterfalls and chilled at the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. When they came back, I asked: “So, how was it?”. And my dad replied: “Oh, it was great. But I don’t think I need another trip like that. After all the traveling in my life, seeing new places just doesn’t excite me anymore. I’ve seen enough.” Traveling is one of my greatest pleasures, so this statement shook up my believes a bit. When you feel like you have seen enough, aren’t you giving up on life in a way? Isn’t it a total resignation from the world? Let me tell you some of the thoughts it provoked.

 

Basically, I started asking myself what exactly it is that makes traveling so appealing. First and foremost, there is this huge curiosity. The wish to see new landscapes and foreign architecture. In a way, traveling makes us feel like explorers. Traveling makes us feel like we are the ones who discover new species and lonely beaches. We forget that thousands of people have climbed the same hills and swum in the same rivers. What is more, traveling allows us to meet people with different cultural backgrounds and see the world through their eyes.

 

But then I tried to think about the limits of traveling - limits that I have experienced myself and limits that I observe with regards to other travellers. The biggest limit is probably our own comfort zone. Let me give you an examples. A bunch of my fellow students decided to spend a semester in “exotic countries” such as Thailand and China. But when they showed me pictures of their stays, it turned out that they spent their time with other international students, stayed in posh apartments and went to clubs where you find mainly expats. In other words, they got exactly what they have here in Germany just with some exotic plants in the background. Traveling didn't help them to broaden their horizon.

 

The next limit of traveling that I would like to talk about is what I call travel narcissism. I guess travel narcissism is on a new peak since the rise of Facebook, Foursquare and Instagram. People spend their entire holiday checking in at the coolest bars and posting selfies in front of the Taj Mahal. What is it all about? Your own experience? I doubt so. The more we post and share, the less we get to focus on the actual experience. Traveling becomes a mere gratification of the ego instead of a valuable personal experience.

 

The third and last limit of traveling is a little more philosophical. I like to think that I need traveling to develop empathy. The more I travel and the more people I meet, the more I understand their situation and rethink my own impact. And as much as this might be the case, I wonder if it is true that traveling is the most efficient way to work on ones empathy. The most empathetic people are simply the ones who manage to hold on for a second and take the perspective of somebody else. In a way, it is more about introspection than about exposure to many situations. It’s the ability to imagine “what if I was that other person”. My favourite example is that of a yogi who is sitting by himself in the Himalayas and developing profound understanding of the world. No traveling needed at all. Just a lot of work on your own attitude and imagination.

 

But let’s go back to the initial question. Is the feeling that you don’t want to travel anymore a resignation from life? Well, after thinking about it for some time, I concluded that it’s not. It might just mean that you don’t need the ego boost of posting travel photos anymore. Or it might mean that you realised that you can work on your empathy from home. Or it might mean that you realised that you never actually step outside your comfort zone, so there is no point of travelling at all.

 

But hey, maybe it’s not that complicated after all. Maybe traveling is just a fun way to waste some time. At least my dad stopped his philosophical thoughts and is back on the road – driving on his Harley Davisdon through the United States. Sure, he has seen enough... ;-)

 

(Photo: https://unsplash.com)

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I Need to Find Myself. Don't I?

People around me keep on saying the phrase "I want to take some time to find myself". And yes, admittedly I have said that phrase at some point myself. As a next step, people would go off on holiday, spend some time at a retreat or visit their families. But rarely have I heard anybody say "I just found myself when I was in China / at the retreat / at my parents' house!". At some point, when yet another of my friends was about to search herself, I couldn't help but wonder how the hell we have lost ourselves? And does this entire paper chase for ourselves make much sense at all?

 

To begin with, I would like to question whether anybody has lost himself or herself at all. Yes, that is the feeling that people have, so there must be something wrong. But what is it? Personally, I think the main reason is a lack of bottom-of-the-pyramid problems. I'm talking about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy says that humans have a tendency to focus mostly on the lowest need that has not yet been fulfilled. The most fundamental needs are physiological needs (water, food, sleep), then comes safety followed by love and belonging. The two least fundamental needs are esteem and self-actualisation.  

In my opinion, Maslow's hierarchy of needs is the ideal visualisation of a mindset that is constantly focused on new problems. We just don't function the way that we satisfy our basic needs and live happily ever after, but we move on to the next problem. So what am I aiming at? My view is basically that the reason why me and my peers are so obsessed with self-realisation is simply that most other problems are already solved. In a way, there is nothing left to worry about apart from self-search. My point is not that people should not strive for self-realisation, but that they should also appreciate what they have reached already. I'm sure this will bring about some peace of mind.

 

A second issue is the dilemma of choice that my generation is facing. And this holds true in many aspects of our lives. There are too many jobs to choose from, too many leisure activities and too many potential partners. On the one hand, it is certainly a nice thing to be able to choose what you like. But on the other hand, it increases our responsibility for our own happiness. As a result, we feel paralysed under the burden to make the right decisions. We start to hope that if we knew who we really are, all those choices would become easier. But is this the case? Wouldn't it be wiser to decrease the emphasis on individual choices instead? Maybe it doesn't actually matter that much which university or job we choose, but it is more about making the best of whatever decision we took?

 

Last but not least, I really wonder whether the search for ourselves is a reasonable pursuit at all. Let me explain. First of all, it presupposes that there is something like a real me. Something that is the essence of our being. Our real values, our real interest, our ideal role in this world. But what if that is simply not the case? I recently came across the quote "Life isn't about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself" (G.B. Shaw). What I like about the quote is that it shifts the attention away from something already existent to something in progress. It points out that the true self is emergent. It can't be found, because it is yet to be determined. In away you could say the attempt to find yourself is as absurd as the attempt to get hold of a photo of yourself taken in 2020.

 

In the bottom line, thinking about this topic left me with three things that seem to make more sense than self-search: 

1. Focus also on what you have reached (bottom-of-pyramid needs) and not only on things that are lacking (self-realisation)

2. Don't be paralysed by choices.

3. Be pro-active, create yourself.

 

(Photo: https://unsplash.com

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The Dark Side of Privilege

What is privilege? In the past, I used to see it as something beautiful. Privilege was a term that was related to moments in which I would think “oh, lucky me”. I suppose I’m more used to the bright side of privilege. My last few months have been centred around my boyfriend’s visit to Germany. He is Kenyan and his struggle to get a visa has been an eye-opener with regards to the dark side of privilege for me. I realised that the very concept of privilege is only possible as long as it stands for an exclusive right for a particular group of people

 

Let me start with the example of freedom of movement. I’m a citizen of Germany. Not only can I move around freely in Europe, but even most other countries of the world. I have never been denied a visa. All this just felt normal to me. I never really questioned the overall concept behind it. My boyfriend, on the other hand, has a Kenyan passport. Not only does he have to go through much more rigorous visa application requirements, but he has also been denied a visa simply for the reason that he can’t prove his intention to leave the EU within the visa period. In terms of freedom of movement, I’m privileged and he is not. I’m allowed to travel, because the Kenyan government sees me as a rich Western tourist. They want me to visit their country to earn money. Germany, on the contrary, is not really dependent on tourism. The German government rather sees African travellers as a threat. A threat, because they might stay illegally and benefit from welfare and infrastructure in our country.

 

Another example that came to my mind were gender-related privileges. In Kenya, I spent some time with friends from the Masai tribe. One day, we went to a restaurant in a local town. Apart from me, there were about 40 men, but only one other woman present. When I asked about the reason for this, my friend replied that it was too expensive for women. He said women don’t make money and hence they can’t afford to go to restaurants. I replied that I had seen women working all day at the villages: they had been cooking, washing clothes, collecting water and even building houses. Yes, my friend answered, but only selling cattle brings cash and us men sell the cattle. Therefore, only men enjoy the privilege of spending their afternoons at the restaurant.*

 

I have intentionally chosen two examples that are quite different. But they do have several aspects in common that I understand as the core of privilege.

 

Firstly, privilege is the pretty nickname for unfair distribution of resources. With regard to my first example, it is clear that Germany wants to prevent Kenyans to benefit from its wealth. But the economic situation of both countries is not a random coincidence. It is a result of exploitation. I think it is undisputed that Western countries have reached their prosperity partly because they have exploited the African continent for decades if not even centuries. In the Masai restaurant example, being able to go to restaurants is solely due to the distribution of money within families. Both Masai men and Masai women work hard, the only difference is that the tasks of men are the cash-earning tasks.

 

Secondly, privilege is systemic, but it is reflected in rights and resources of individuals. In the visa example, it is not a matter of individual differences that are the most decisive factor. Authorities would mainly base their judgements on nationality. The same holds true in the restaurant example. It doesn’t matter whether you are a hardworking man or woman, the privileges are distributed solely based on group membership. And I think this is exactly what makes the concept of privilege so unfair. You can neither choose the group you are in nor can you destroy it through hard work. Whether you are privileged or underprivileged is just a matter of luck.

 

What I found particularly shocking about my recent thoughts about privilege is how little understanding I used to have about this concept before. As I said in the beginning, I often found myself in privileged positions. What kept me from realising that there must be a downside of privilege? I think one of the reasons is the lack of public discourse - at least here in Germany. Whilst most Germans / Westerners are aware that our countries are much richer than most African countries, there is still too little understanding about the underlying causalities. It is always easier to blame others for their misery instead of seeing our own impact on their situation. What is more, humans tend to develop empathy for those who are similar to them. If a person has never been part of an underprivileged group, he might struggle to imagine the pain that people in the underprivileged group are going through.

 

So travel, meet people, listen to their stories and get out of your comfort zone. It will help you to understand your own role in society and impact that you have on the world around you.

 

 

*Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that gender differences amongst Masai are worse than in other culture. It was just the first simply example that came to my mind.

 

(Photo: https://unsplash.com)

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Shall I Stay or Shall I Go?

 

There are 2 types of people in this world: Type 1 finds it hard to let go of things and likes to stick to what they have. Type 2 easily throws old patterns, places and relationships over board to explore something new. I think that currently, at least in my social circles, type 2 is en vogue. It seems normal to date a lot of different people, change jobs every other year and move spontaneously to a different country. Everybody has this constant fear of missing out (FOMO), the fear of stagnancy. And yes, I'm totally a type 2 kind of person, too. But after living this lifestyle for quite some time, I started wondering if it really pays off to behave that way. Let me give you some examples.

 

After endless casual dating, I finally ended up in what one might call a first "serious" relationship. And I love it! But every now and then I miss being single and those exciting first dates a bit. Or I think of bygone crushes and wonder if it was the right decision to let them go. But then I realised that it's all an illusion. It's easy to focus on the pros of something that you don't have. These pros might be there, but you will only realise the cons until you are in that new situation. In other words: even if I decided to change boyfriends or be single again, life wouldn't be all rosy. My struggles would just be struggles of a different kind. The other aspect is that you trade intimacy for excitement. And it takes a lot of time to reach the level of intimacy that you had with your old partner. 

 

Another field in which I tend to be mercurial are my hobbies. As a teenager, I have probably tried any hobby that one can pursue in my hometown. I did everything from tennis to ballet, gym to jiu jitsu, from painting to pottery. I found it interesting to try out new stuff, but I guess I got tired of the effort that it takes to practice and become good at a hobby. And I assume my expectations were often so high, that it was impossible to satisfy me. Why play tennis, if I can't be the next Steffi Graf? Why go to the gym, if it's not super entertaining? The result is that I know the basics of a lot of sports and creative fields, but I'm not particularly good at any of all ex-hobbies. 

 

Lastly, I would like to talk a little about cities. I'm actually about to move houses later today. I've just counted: it will be apartment number 17 in 6 years. The number sounds quite intimidating now that I think about it. And it seems so obvious that you cannot possibly feel rooted anywhere when you move so many times. But whenever I took the decision to move again, there was something intriguing in the next place. A new country, a new culture, an exciting job, a fancy university. What I didn't realise at the time is that I miss out on depth. With all those moves, I never managed to be member of any club and I have 5 dentists. And just think of all the time I spent on the administrative side of moving houses... Insane. So right now I have a huge urge to stay in a place for some time ans finally feel part of my local community.

 

In the bottom line, I don't want to be dismissive about my type 2 personality. I'm glad that I had all those experiences and lived in all those different cities. But I do want to question the entire concept of FOMO. So what I'm trying to say is this: When ever you are about to start something new, hold on for a second. Maybe the thing that you are about to give up or leave behind has more pros than you think. Maybe you're not missing out when you are sticking with what you already have. Maybe you are missing out even more, when you're going for something new.

 

(Photo: https://unsplash.com)

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On Being Persistent

 

Let me tell you 2 stories that have happened to me lately.

 

The first story happened just before Christmas, when I was on my way from Kenya to my parents' house. I had just arrived in Frankfurt airport and had to catch a train for the last part of the journey. Because of the holidays, train tickets were entirely sold out - I was lucky enough and had bought one in advance. Unfortunately, the plane was late and I basically had zero time to get to the train station. But persistent as I am, I ran like a madman with my 35kg of luggage across the entire airport und caught my train in the very last second.

 

Ok, now listen to the second story. I have recently moved from Cambridge to Berlin. I was determined to take my bicycle with me on the plane. And then everything went wrong. My taxi to the train station was 30 minutes late, I missed my train and had to take a taxi for the entire way, the airline sent me to the wrong counter, the promised "bicycle-wrapping-service" didn't exist... So in the end of the day, I had to leave my bike at the airport -R.I.P. beloved bicycle.

 

So what's the common thing in both stories? Apart from me running around with a lot of luggage? In both cases I had the choice between taking it easy and being persistent. And in both cases I decided to be persistent. I ran after my train in Frankfurt and I did everything I can to take my bicycle with me to Berlin. The outcome was pretty different though. In one case, I was lucky enough to catch my train. In the other case, I did not only lose my bike at the airport, but I also spent more than100 pound for the bulk-luggage fee and for the taxi. 

 

The reason why I told these 2 stories is that they made me wonder about the consequences of being persistent. There is the saying "never give in". But in my case, I realised that being stubborn and sticking to your initially decision can also be pretty costly. And there are actually a lot of moments, in which you face that kind of decision.

 

Take relationships. When your partner has left you, you have the choice between accepting it and fighting for the partner. If you're lucky, you might get the partner back. But you might also look pretty desperate and clingy for running after him. It's similar with jobs. Pushing hard to get the job can look like real interest in the company and shed a positive light on you. But the company might also get the impression that you have no other options and you're a pretty bad catch.

 

In the bottom line, I learnt that my stubborn character helped me to achieve a lot of things, but it also made me look pretty unteachable and unreasonable in other moments. And basically I'm still trying to find the right balance between fighting and giving in...

 

What are your own experiences around being persistent?

 

(Photo: https://unsplash.com) 

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My Favourite Dinner Guest

I had a really interesting discussion about "my favourite dinner guest" with some friends the other day. Imagine you could choose any person and have a dinner with them. Who would you pick?

 

My first friend said the question is too obvious, because everybody would pick either a dear person (relative, friend) or a celebrity. He himself said that he would like to have dinner with his own father who died when my friend was 14 years old. So in his case, the choice was all about overcoming his fate and turning back the clock. 

 

He was right that one other option would be to meet a celebrity that would otherwise be out of your reach. Another friend said for example that he would like to meet his favourite rap musician Prinz Pi. He said that he feels so close to Prinz Pi, because he can relate a lot to his lyrics. Having listened to his music throughout many years, he feels almost like a friend to him. He said it is a weird to feel so close to somebody you have never met and who doesn't even know about your own existence. He would like to close that gap and get the chance to have some face-to-face interaction with Pi.

 

But relatives and celebrities did not turn out to be the only choices. My third friend immediately answered "I would invite a street kid for the dinner". He said that most other people get the chance to have nice dinners all of the time. Why not invite a person who normally won't have a nice dinner? What is more, he said that the stories you would hear from a street kid are usually not heard by anybody. He loved the idea of giving the kid the room to speak about dreams, ideas and worries.

 

Personally, I have often imagined what it would be like to meet a true guru, so I would invite that kind of person to my dinner. I don't have a particular person in mind, but it would be somebody who has reached a high level of personal growth and maturity. Maybe somebody like the Dalai Lama, but not necessarily a famous person. Just somebody who would tell me wise ideas and speak about philosophy with me. 

 

What I liked about this thought-experiment is how much it says about some of our inner longings. The longing to overcome fate, work against social injustice and the quest for deep wisdom. Who would be your own favourite dinner guest?

 

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Destination Addiction

The other day I stumbled upon a post by one of my favourite FB pages berlin-artparasites. It said "Beware of Destination Addiction - a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job, or with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are" (Lauren Britt). The statement reminded me very much of my own journey, so I decided to write a few words about it.

 

I think my greatest Destination Addiction happened when I was a teenager. I had constant quarrels with my mum, I was bored at school and I thought that there were too few inspiring people around me. I was sure that life would be much better as soon as I would be at university. Guess what? That never happened. I hated most of the courses of my undergraduate degree and studying was quite a pain. What is more, the ratio of "interesting" to "not-so-interesting" people around me was the same as before. And the quarrels with my mum? Instead of arguing face-to-face we were now arguing over the phone. 

 

Another case of Destination Addiction happened when I chose Cambridge as the university where I would do my PhD. Cambridge is known for its beauty, its famous researchers and its rich cultural life. Just what I was looking for. But again, the reality was disillusioning. I mean, I love Cambridge - but the day-to-day life of a PhD student is the same as everywhere else. After the first few weeks of excitement, you start thinking more about the weather and your laundry again. And you learn that even the most renowned researchers in the world put on their pants one leg at a time.

 

So I finally started to realise that happiness has very little to do with where you live and study. But I don't mean that we're not in charge of our happiness or that we have no choice. Quite the opposite actually. Instead of just moving somewhere new or hoping that a change in our environment will solve our problems, we need to be much more proactive. 

 

In my own case, I realised that my relationship to my mum will only change if both of us work on our attitude towards each other. With regard to exciting topics at work / school, I found that it's not the big changes that made a difference, but the small changes. At each of my universities, I had to put a lot of effort into the choice of my courses until I finally found topics that I love. It was not the university that mattered, but dealing with subjects and papers of my choice. In terms of friendships, I realised that it's normal that you cannot identify with a lot of people around you. But it pays off to invest in friendships and cherish the few that you really click with. I had to be proactive and understand what I really need to be happy - instead of focussing on labels and shallow ideas.

 

In the bottom line, Destination Addiction is the false belief that happiness comes from outside yourself. It's easy to blame your circumstances and say "oh, once my situation has changed I will be happy", because it means that you're not in charge yourself. In reality, however, being happy comes from taking responsibility and working on your attitude. Learn how to get the most out of what you already have and understand that even if you move to that better place (new job, new relationship, new city), your basic problems will still be the same. They will only change if you change from within.

 

(Photo: https://unsplash.com)

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I Didn't Have Time for It

To be honest - I got the idea for this blog post when I told my boyfriend: "Sorry that I didn't call you during the last days. I just didn't have time for it". In that very moment, I realised that it's actually not true. The last days have had the same amount of hours as any other day, it was just that I chose to spend them on other things than calling my boyfriend. In this particular example, I had visited a friend in Hamburg and spent some time at my parents house. Sure, I was busy and surrounded by people, but I could have taken time for the call. 

 

This is a pretty straightforward example, but I think that it holds true for much more profound situations. Did you ever feel envy when friends told you about their fancy hobbies? Things like weekend trips for rock-climbing or modern dance competitions? And your own reaction was "How cool, I wish I had time for something like that"? I would claim that what it actually takes is not more time, but more commitment. In the rock-climbing example, it means that you don't go out for drinks on the weekend, but you stay sober to get up in the early morning to drive to the mountain. In the modern dance example, it means fewer evenings in front of the TV / laptop and more evenings for practice. It might also mean that you have to defend your working hours. My friend Sarah is my role-model in that respect. In many cases, she had to tell her boss that she can't do over-hours on a particular day, because she needs to attend her vaulting class.

 

Another classic is that we tell people that we don't have time to catch up with them. Similar to my first example actually. If the person is a dear friend or even your partner, I guess we need to rethink our priorities. Are all the other tasks really worth losing touch? If it's your job, ask yourself if it's just a temporary problem or if it generally takes too much of your time. And if it is a general problem, is the job really that awesome that it justifies risking your relationships? If you simply have too many friends to devote enough time to them, rethink how much different people matter to you. If you spend more time socialising with acquaintances than with your best friends, ask yourself why. Just for the sake of being popular? For professional networking? Once again, be in charge of your time. Decide who is worth spending your time with and who isn't. 

 

In the sum, what I'm starting to realise is how much influence I have on my own time. I can be in charge. I don't have time for friends, family and hobbies. I take time. It's all about defining priorities and having the guts to stick to them.

 

How about yourself? What are your challenges about managing your time? How do you set your priorities?

 

(Photo: https://unsplash.com)

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Your Inner Child

Did you ever ask yourself what your inner child is longing for? Well, I just happened to discuss the topic with some friends at a dinner party the other day. And I found the different answers really interesting!

 

My first friend answered adventure. She remembered a day last year, when she and some other friends just jumped into a random river in the middle of the night. The feeling of doing something unexpected is something that she is missing in her daily life. My second friend answered carefreeness. In the sense that you don't have responsibilities like earning your income, dealing with appointments and chores. She loves the memory of a caring mum who cooks for her and guides her through the day. My own answer was warmth and a feeling of security. I felt that all the traveling and moving from one country to the next has made me lose my sense of grounding and the presence of family-like people who are around me, not just on Skype.

 

The most interesting part was that we didn't have the same longings. Which basically means, that even as an adult you can manage to integrate adventure, carefreeness and feelings of security in your life. 

 

Let me talk about adventure first. Personally, I feel that there is quite a lot of adventure in my life. Ok, I don't jump into random rivers very regularly, but I love to step outside my own comfort zone. I take singing classes for example. It's an adventure for me, because I am a terrible singer. Every single time I go to my class, I feel a little nervous and I have to jump over my shadow. I also like interpersonal adventures. A few weeks ago, I set myself the task to speak more to strangers when I'm at coffeeshops and libraries. Again, every time I have to overcome some social fears and embarrassment, but so far each encounter has been interesting. 

 

Regarding carefreeness, we came to the conclusion that it has a lot to do with trust and outsourcing. The reason why we feel that we're in charge of too much is often caused by our compulsion to control. Take teamwork for example. The reason why it feels stressful is because in many cases we don't fully trust our teammates and we feel like the entire responsibility lies on our shoulders. If we work on our own attitude and entrust more to others, we can get closer to this child-like carefreeness again.

 

Last but not least, let's have a look at warmth and feelings of security. My friend spontaneously said that she gets all that from her relationship. So this might be the most straightforward way to have this warm family-feel again. But we also came to the conclusion that a slightly more stable lifestyle (living in the same city for more than a year...) or the choice of habitat (living in a supportive flat-share, frequent visits to close friends) can make a huge difference.

 

In the bottom  line, the cravings of our in children might be easier to reach than we think!

 

What is your inner child longing for? And what do you do to satisfy these needs?

 

(Photo: https://unsplash.com)

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Selfish Volunteering

 

My ex-flatmate Kaylan is writing her PhD about a pretty interesting topic: the expectations and experiences of Western students who volunteer in developing countries. Since I have volunteered a couple of times myself, her PhD made me reflect about my own experiences. I have basically participated in 3 bigger projects. The first one was a trip with Habitat for Humanity and M.A.D. to Mississippi, USA, the second was a summer camp for kids South England (with Kids Company London), and the third one involved supporting blind students at Niwant in Pune, India. 

 

One of my main concerns, especially when I was supposed to "build houses" in Mississippi, was whether my volunteering work is the best use of money for the charity. Because despite working for free, a volunteer is expensive. I had to raise around 800 USD to pay for flight, accommodation and food for the 2 week trip. I guess Habitat for Humanity could have made much more progress on their houses if they had just hired a worker for that amount of money. But then, I understood that the impact might not come from the actual volunteering work, but from the change of my own mindset. Spending time in Mississippi has definitely raised my awareness of social injustice and my wish to continue volunteering work. And since this project was organised by my business school, chances are high that some future leaders will run their companies in a more sustainable way.

 

My voluntary work with Kids Company had a similar impact. The actual project was just one week long. One week of looking after some tough, but really cool kids. I can tell you, that was one of the most intense weeks of my life. But again, the main impact did not happen in that one week, but afterwards. I see the UK (and Europe) with different eyes now. Most of the kids had an immigration background, so I have learned a lot about the struggles of immigrants. What is more, many of the other volunteers decided to become buddy of a kid and to commit to meet them once a week, for at least one year. I also took the decision to spend more time with kids on a regular basis and I joined Wellcome in Berlin. Working with kids has taught me so much about myself. I'm more aware of how self-centred my normal life actually is and how detached I am from some very basic human needs like playing, giggling, hugging and sometimes just wailing in somebodies arms.

 

In India, I tutored blind students, printed their study materials in Braille and joined them for leisure activities like chocolate making. First of all, I developed a much greater understanding of disabilities and how they influence a person's life. Other than expected, these kids were super jolly and motivated. On my first day, I saw them in their dancing class and I would have never thought that blind people can move around with such a pace and ease. Same with computers - they are probably faster at using the PC than I am...! And I have definitely lost any fear of contact with disabled people in that time. 

 

In the sum, I can say that volunteering never felt like a selfless act to me. On the contrary, I benefited so much from my volunteering experiences that it felt more as if volunteering was a very selfish thing - spending time outside my own world to broaden my horizon, question my attitudes and develop understanding for others. However, I hope that I also inspired the other people on my volunteering projects. Because the actual impact had certainly little to do with the walls I painted, the vocabulary I taught or the game I played.

 

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What if Income Didn't Matter for Financial Independence?

I would say it is a relevant assumption that most of us want to be financially independent. But what exactly is financial independence? A common answer might be that it means you're able to cover your needs and afford most things you want to buy. So if you look at it carefully, there are actually 2 elements to it:

1. Financial means

2. Wants and needs 


In other words, you have also 2 ways to be financially independent. Either you try to make so much money that you cover all needs, no matter how excessive they are. Or you can work on your wants and needs and keep them so low, that you don't need to worry too much about the amount of money you're making. It sounds so obvious, but I believe that everyone from companies with their advertising to parents with their job recommendations make us focus on way number 1.

 

At first sight, it might seem easier to just try to earn amount XYZ in order to reach financial independence. But considering that even Rockefeller replied to the question "how much money is enough?", with the answer "just a little bit more", it seems difficult to ever reach an amount that does actually leave us satisfied. The reason is simple: the more we earn, the more we get used to conveniences, status and luxury. What is more, the more we buy, the more money we need to maintain our property. Cars need to be fixed, houses need to be painted and gym memberships need to be paid. 

 

So how to make way number 2 work for us? The first step is probably to reduce reoccurring cost like rent, loans and membership fees. "Own a small house" as Sukadev puts it nicely in one of the Yoga Vidya podcast episodes. This way, there will be less struggle to cover our daily treats (restaurant visits, cinema,...) or big adventures (traveling) - and those are things that do make us feel more independent, that's for sure. The other big aspect is the location where we live. Personally, I love London and after my M.Sc. studies there, I never wanted to live anywhere else again. But the cost of living there is just so high that I would need to take a job that I don't want to take. So I decided to leave.

 

In the bottom line, I started to understand that being financially independent doesn't necessarily mean to take a crazy banking job or anything like that. It's more about finding your right balance and rethinking your needs, so that they match the professional steps that you want to take. 


 

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The Spell of Everyday Addictions

I guess everybody would agree that "real" addictions are a serious issue and they often require professional help to get over them. I'm talking about drug addictions or gambling addictions for example. But what about all these "every day addictions"? Is it worth fighting against them? Or shall we just resign and accept them?

 

Let me give you an example. I'm a coffee addicted person. In the sense that I simply can't handle moderation with coffee. I go through phases of having 3-4 cups a day and phases of withdrawal when I try to avoid coffee at all. 1 cup a day? It just doesn't work! When I give up coffee, I go through 3 days of terrible detox. Headaches, dizziness, depressive feelings - almost like having a proper flu, really...! 

 

Once when I was in the middle of my coffee detox phase, my dad asked me: "So what's so bad about being addicted to coffee? I'm totally addicted, too. But as long as the world is not running low on coffee supply, why should I care?".  He has a point there. On the other hand - don't we claim to be self-determined beings? When I picture myself structuring my day around coffee breaks, I sometimes doubt that I can be addicted and self-determined at the same time...

 

The other thing is the YOLO argument. If you only live once, why deprive yourself of the pleasures of life? And I do enjoy my coffee..! But if you argue that way, you easily get into trouble drawing the line between small guilty pleasures and ruining your life by eating unhealthy stuff and being lazy. Because in the end of the day, a lot of these "every day addictions" are actually quite unhealthy. Too much caffein is bad for your blood pressure and fertility, too much chocolate is making you fat, too many cigarettes give you cancer.

 

The mindful answer to this dilemma is moderation. But isn't moderation the hardest part when it comes to addictions...?

 

What's your view? Are you happily addicted? Or do you live an abstentious life? Or are there people out there who just don't get addicted that easily?


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