How I Tried to Stop Overthinking and Just Live

I don’t remember exactly when I crashed. I was cruising, the road ahead looked clear enough. Everything was normal. Then something hit me, and when I woke up I was confused, disoriented, in pain. A deep sadness wrenched at my insides. I never even saw it coming.

Of course I didn’t. Like I said, everything was normal. Not perfect, just normal. I was used to the anxieties and pressures of work and university, accustomed to boredom. But overall I was fine. I had shelved my quest for eternal happiness for the time being, tending instead to the here and now. If someone had asked me, ‘are you happy?’, I’d have struggled to answer them in the general sense their question seemed to imply. But I could refer them to plenty of moments in the past week or so that I’d definitely felt happy. Sure, things could have been better, but they were okay as they were. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was always good.

Then, suddenly, it became harder to get out of bed. The morning sun brought none of its usual joy. Excitement for the day ahead became dread; the daily habits I’d grown fond of repulsed me. A gnawing anxiety gripped my stomach. I felt cold, sad, alone, and I had no idea why.

I never like to use the word ‘depression’ when talking about myself. Too many negative connotations, perhaps; fear of marginalisation; a desire not to be categorised; the worry that naming it was, in a way, granting it too much presence — admitting to it, succumbing to it. It felt almost presumptuous, as if I felt that the label ought to be reserved for those who I felt had suffered more than I.

Yet the symptoms were there. Just a phase, I told myself. I still went out. I enjoyed the sunshine, cooked healthy meals and chatted long into the night over beers with friends. I attended my classes, went running in the evenings and set aside time every day to read. I had a girlfriend since a couple of months earlier, a beautiful, compassionate soul who was the most effective and wonderful distraction from my troubles. When I needed to talk, she was honest, understanding and fair. A real partner. Our relationship did not stall because of my depression, and I’m thrilled (and fortunate) to say we are still together.

I tried to make a point of telling myself that, though I was battling, life was good. At times when the anxiety was unbearable I would stare myself down in the mirror and talk. “You’re okay. Everything’s fine. Nothing is wrong. Nothing is wrong. Nothing is wrong…” But all through each day I could not escape an incomprehensible feeling of futility. My mind was suddenly flooded with questions about where I was headed, what I had achieved, who I even was. I hadn’t notice the time slipping by, and now it was leaving me behind. All the missed opportunities of my past began to haunt me. The invitations turned down. Projects never finished — some never even started. Plans never followed up on. Substances never ingested. I couldn’t accept that my time at university was coming to an end. Was I really already twenty-three-and-a-half?

A cliché it may be, but it felt like I’d grown up before my time, painfully aware of the years that had already passed. I looked inwards and began to judge myself. I ought to have done more, been more, by now. I was torn between wanting to go at my own pace and striving to be worth something in the eyes of others. I felt too old for things, guilty for my lack of productivity. I was caught in an awkward, in-between period, pining for the carelessness of youth and hurtling, kicking and screaming, towards adulthood. Whatever that meant.

In these times of confusion I sought refuge and guidance. I was in need of perspective; I felt that life was spinning beyond my control and I needed to re-calibrate. Perhaps I should have seen someone. Not content to dull my senses with alcohol or drugs, I delved inwards for answers that I suspected were there already, and I needed only uncover them rather than learn fresh. Meditation was hit and miss — to silence my mind was at times too big a task. I kept up my reading, though, and while in my distracted state of mind I found it hard to settle into a book, I would read articles online, or whatever else caught my attention. Sometimes I didn’t care what I was reading; I just wanted to remind myself that there was a world outside my head.

On this went. On the surface I guess I appeared much the same as ever, and though I struggled, I’m grateful that this phase of my life didn’t prevent me from living normally. Depression, as I experienced it, was more a feeling of futility than anything else. I failed to see the point in a lot of things, and I tried my best to counter this by doing things without thinking about them. (This is not a strength of mine.)

There were, I should say, some good things to come out of my experience. I read intently across a wide range of subjects. Rather than sticking to reading things that would comfort me or reinforce my views, I made a point of reading to learn, both about the world and myself. The long periods of introspection led me to understand myself better, and I feel that I have grown wiser as a result. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, by forcing myself to carry on, to live each day as normally as possible, I was able to continue to learn and grow and make my way through life without stagnating. It wasn’t a breeze, and at times it felt near impossible, but I can look back on that period and say, with confidence, that I kept moving forward.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. This article began as a late-night exercise to get back into the habit of writing. The mental struggles I have endured have become a rich vein of inspiration, and the more I mined the deeper I found the vein to be, the more I felt I should have done this much sooner.

I’m afraid I have no advice to others suffering from depression or anxiety. Everybody is different and what works for me may be inadequate for somebody else, and vice versa. Like I said, I wrote this to explore and express my own experiences, not as a guide to others. That said, I’m aware that I could have opened up sooner, and if you’ve suffered too and this article helps you to make sense of your own experiences or encourages you to open up, I’ll be very glad. Drawing on my very basic psychological inclinations I would say that my problem was situational, a prolonged state of dissatisfaction that eventually lent itself to mental anguish. I felt that by removing myself from the environment in which I’d crashed I was able to leave a lot of my problems behind. You might see this as running away. I see it as getting the change of perspective I so badly needed.

Since this period of struggle I have thoroughly enjoyed myself. For the first time in over three years I have no immediate commitments. I’m on a break from university until February and worked to save up enough money to support myself until then. I feel rejuvenated. I recently turned twenty-four, yet in a way I feel younger than before. Since breaking away from the rut I was in I have a renewed enthusiasm for the things I previously enjoyed. I’m writing again, ideas are flowing, and my creative output has recently expanded into photography. I’ve been travelling again (I’m abroad as I write this), and am more driven than ever to seek out the novelties and simple pleasures of day-to-day life.

I’ve made new friends, and reconnected with old ones. My relationship is a constant source of excitement and happiness, and grows stronger by the day. And I’m eager, once again, to learn, to discover, to fill my mind with deep thoughts and new ideas and fresh perspectives. I still get anxious. Some days I feel bleak. Looking to the future worries me. But I accept these things and try to work with them as best I can. The future is uncertain, but every day is a chance for me to grow and be better, and to be good to those around me. I’m thankful for that.

-This post was originally published on Medium

Through the mist of tears she looked at me for the last time, and in her gaze I read the story of unbearable heartbreak. Laughter turned to melancholy right there and then with no words spoken. Her eyes overflowing, droplets fell down her cheeks like the setting sun over a dream, drawing a line between our worlds, plunging us into darkness. A face like porcelain, cracked, delicate.
It never gets easier.

Lac du Salagou, France

 

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As you exit the last village before Lac du Salagou, the first thing you notice is the rock. The change is immediate: all the multicoloured abundance of southern French vegetation gives way to a new landscape of monochrome red. In contrast to the vineyards very little grows here. Greenery is sporadic, pockets of life extracting what little sustenance they can from the inhospitable ground. Some plants appear to have given up, losing their colour and vitality to undernourishment. They protrude from the ground like the crooked hands of a witch, their stems as brittle as uncooked spaghetti.
The rock is known as la ruffe (or ruffian), and is as characteristic of Lac du Salagou as sand is of the Sahara. For this reason it is a welcoming sight. Formed of sediment clay and iron oxide, its name is derived from the Occitan word rufa, which filtered the word from Latin (rufus, meaning red) through to present day French. (Even rock of no visible use to anybody earns a place in the geological nomenclature.) When picked up it crumbles easily. Left alone, it seems neither to flourish nor suffer. It just sits. Rock older than any human ever lived to be, dominating a landscape where earth triumphs – barely – by default in the near-absence of the other elements.
The lake looks dead, too. Dead and cool, stagnant, placid. First you see it from above, as to drive there means coming over the hills which surround the lake on all sides. From here people are formless shapes, scuttling towards the lake with all the delirious intensity of desert wanderers to an oasis. Down at the shore the rock burns your feet, and those brave enough to go barefoot are soon compelled into a sprint. The water soothes their searing soles on impact. On all sides are steep hills, still and gentle like the heaving breasts of sleeping goddesses. Pushed up against a cloudless sky they protect you from the world. A sanctuary where you are free to bathe in the cool water, away from the trials of civilized life.
Though there are many people it is quiet. The lake is vast, and with no enclosed spaces to trap voices they simply escape, drifting over the water and around the rocks until they are reduced to murmurs on the breeze. There is movement all around. Healthy foliage grows wild on the hillsides. Tiny fish glide between your ankles. Birds fly high above, blotched partially out of sight by brilliant sunshine. The water is flowing, making ripples and waves. It is clear, drinkable, comforting against the skin. The lake is not dead at all. It is just as alive as any other place on Earth.

– Lorenzo Gaertner

Being famous does not make you talented.
Being talented does not make you famous.

You do not need approval from anyone.
You are nobody’s competitor.

Celebrity culture is a joke.
Fame is a trap.

Those who know how to handle the limelight
survive the limelight.

Those who don’t,
burn.

Take your time.
Do your thing.

Emerge when you are ready.

– Lorenzo Gaertner, November 2015

The Tooth Fairy’s Dark Secret

“Whoa!” shouted Donny when he realised what he had found. He and his best friends had finished school for the day and were roaming the neighbourhood in search of something interesting. Being young boys, they were easily amused, and they found interesting things all over. This time, they happened to find it under a tree.

Mac leaned forward to get a closer look. “Wait,” he began, “are those…”

“Ugh!” Yelled Dylan, seeing the open shoebox filled to the brim with human teeth.

“Are those teeth?” asked Fergal, the slowest-witted member of the group.

“Hey, Donny!” said Mac, “Dare you to stick your hand in there!”

“Eww, no way!” said Donny.

“How about you then, Fergal?”

“Don’t do it, Fergal,” said Dylan. He usually stuck up for Fergal in situations like this.

“Shut up, Dylan!” Yelled Mac.

“Well why don’t you do it, Mac?” asked Donny. “Since you obviously think it’s such a great idea.”

“No! I dared you guys first, so why would I do it?”

“No,” said Dylan, “You just wanted someone else to look stupid and do it.”

“All right!” Mac had had enough. “Fine! I’ll do it!” He plunged his hand into the box, deep enough that you could only see his wrist from outside, and let the teeth run between his fingers. “There, see? It’s totall–” but before he could finish he struck something else inside the box, something much larger than a tooth, and sharp, that scratched his hand. He got such a fright that his entire arm jolted backwards, as if of its own accord, and his body followed it, so that in half a second he was lying in a contorted mess on the floor, eyes wide with shock. In the process of falling over he had let out an embarrassingly effeminate squeal that he hoped the other boys hadn’t heard. They had.

“S-something’s in there!” yelled Mac, but the others were too busy doing their best impressions of his girlish scream that they barely heard him.

“What’s the matter, Mac?” teased Dylan, “didn’t think teeth would feel so…toothy?”

Fergal fell into fits of laughter at this joke. Donny enjoyed it too, and laughed, but a little less than Fergal did.

“No, no, you guys, there’s something else in there! Buried in the teeth! It scratched my hand like this,” and he made a quick cutting motion with his hand along the palm of the other.

“What? Come on, are you serious?” said Dylan. “Probably just an especially pointy tooth or something.”

“Yeah, maybe from a vampire!” added Fergal, eager to join in the fun which, for once, was not being made at his expense. Donny and Dylan laughed. For Fergal’s standards that was a funny remark.

“Seriously, you guys, stick your hands in there and see for yourselves!” But when the other boys registered the shock on Mac’s face and decided that he was not joking around, none of them felt like reaching into the box.

Fergal, who would often stay quiet in a situation like this so as not to say something silly, was feeling unusually buoyant after his joke had made Donny and Dylan laugh, and thought that this would be a good time to demonstrate his bravery to the others. “Let me have a look,” he said, confidently.

“Fergal, you don’t have to,” said Donny.

“Yeah Fergal, just leave it,” said Dylan.

“Let me see!” Fergal insisted.

Donny and Dylan exchanged a nervous glance and moved out of Fergal’s way. He rolled up his sleeve and took a deep breath, then sunk his hand into the box of teeth. Mac looked away, grimacing. Fergal seemed to move his hand back and forth forever, and the sound it made reminded the boys of rummaging through their boxes of Lego. Donny and Dylan watched Fergal intently, until at last his eyes grew wide and his hand stopped dead.

“What is it?” asked Donny and Dylan in unison. Mac looked at Fergal but said nothing, and Fergal shot back a piercing, narrow-eyed glance that took Mac by surprise. It was not a look of fear, or shock, or even surprise, but looked as if Fergal had stumbled upon some great secret, something powerful. Mac even thought he saw him crack the faintest smile, and in that brief moment Fergal looked as though he were on the verge of communicating all the secrets of the world.

“Fergal?” asked Dylan, putting a hand on Fergal’s shoulder, a gesture that seemed almost condescending in light of Fergal’s new found power. Doing so gave Fergal a fright, and his head jolted so that his eyes lined up with Dylan’s. Dylan, too, thought he saw something off in Fergal’s gaze.

“What’s in there, Fergal?” asked Donny, hoping that Fergal might meet his gaze as he did the others. But Fergal instead looked back down at the box, his hand still submerged in a sea of teeth.

“Oh, nothing much…” said Fergal, and as he did he began to raise his hand slowly out of the box, “I think…” and at this last word the teeth slid down his fingers to reveal, half concealed by a clenched fist, a long, black handle, followed by an even longer silver blade, caked in blood that was not entirely dry. The boys sat speechless, mouths wide open. They had seen plenty of knives in their parents’ kitchens before, but they had never had blood on them. Why had nobody cleaned this one? And what was it doing out here, in a shoebox full of teeth?

The boys went pale, even Fergal, who had lost his look of confidence as soon as he had seen what it was that had made him feel so strong just a moment ago.

“I don’t…think we should be touching that,” said Donny, after a long, breathless silence.

“Right!” said Mac. “Let’s just leave it in the box where we found it and go.”

“Come on, Fergal,” said Dylan, as he, Mac and Donny got up, dusted themselves off and began to walk home. But Fergal was staring fixedly at the knife in his hand. It had never occurred to him to find a knife outside of a kitchen. “Fergal?” called Dylan.

Fergal shook his head slightly, as if his eyes had got stuck in their position and he was trying to jolt them loose. “Mm…yeah, sorry…right behind you!” he called back. He slid the knife back into the box and watched the teeth swallow it up, then he replaced the lid and wiped his hands on the front of his t-shirt. At the base of the tree where they had found the box there was a large indent in the mud. He placed the box carefully in it and covered it with fallen leaves, twigs, and grass that he pulled out of the earth around him. Then he roughed over the cover with his hand so it looked haphazard enough to be mistaken for regular ground. The smile returned to his lips, a little wider this time.

“Fergal! Let’s go!” called Dylan, already several paces down the street.

Fergal threw his hand up high and gave a thumbs up to Dylan, who turned to resume his walk. Fergal turned back to the pile of earth that concealed his great discovery, still smiling. He paused for a moment, and then with a flash in his eyes he lurched his upper body forwards towards the pile and began scratching frantically at it, sweeping away the leaves and twigs and grass until he held, once again, the box of teeth in his hands. Peering over his shoulder to make sure nobody was watching him, he gingerly removed the lid, slid his hand back into the teeth and pulled out the knife. He reached quickly around his waist and tucked it into the back of his pants. He took a sharp intake of breath as he felt the cold blade against his bare skin, and hoped that the blood wouldn’t stain his underpants. Then he put the box of teeth back and covered it once more.

“Right behind you, buddy,” he muttered, and ran to catch up with the others. On the walk home, while the other boys talked about what they had seen, Fergal said nothing. He just smiled that powerful smile.

Dead Flies

The sky hangs a curtain of murky, grey cloud over a summer that never got going, let alone came to any kind of conclusion. The only vegetation in the garden at Hoc 9 is some ivy intertwined with the fence on the left side of the front door, as if pushed back as far as possible to create room for the concrete slab patio which reflects the sky in both colour and mood. A large, glass-surface table sits heavily anchored in the concrete, unfazed by the wind and grateful to the rain for cleaning its surface. Two overflowing ashtrays – one of which is a watering can by nature – bear evidence of amicable conversation between friends and moments of solitude after a trying shift, during which I can savour the tickle of cigarette smoke against my throat and blow out puffs, dancing, fluttering, into an endless, black-tar sky.

The barbecue sits in a corner, condemned to the rain for the most part except for one solitary occasion when a few days of dry heat had allowed for the igniting of coals in its rusted, sodden bowel. It had been good to use it at least once, if not for the way in which it gives the food a unique and irresistible taste then for the way the spirits of all around it rise up with the smoke at the first few whiffs of burning charcoal, that powerful scent that embodies the summer season in a way nothing else could.

These are just details. I’m looking at a glass on the table that is half full of sweet rum and cola, a brew rendered foul by several days’ exposure to oxygen and autumn weather. The drink is repulsive to humans now, and only under circumstances of madness and triple-dog-dares would it ever be likely to flow like sick, sticky honey down someone’s throat. In the absence of such things it is left to grow fouler still. But that doesn’t stop the flies.

It sits like a pot of gold glistening in the daylight, and flies cannot resist its sweet, beautiful scent. But this is a deadly nectar. One sip and the flies are hooked. They just want a little more, to get a little closer. It wraps around their legs, making them too heavy. It coats their wings so they can no longer fly. They become trapped in a pool of sweet nectar and die a slow death.

I peer into the glass. It resembles a battleground littered with corpses, with a few survivors struggling against the current and gasping for air. I reach into the glass and pull out two flies. They are unable to fly, and in their efforts to crawl they just move back towards the glass. They seem indignant at being deprived of their drug. Each day more flies fall victim to the honey pot, undeterred by the failures of bigger, stronger flies who came before them. In dead flies I see that greed was their downfall. Their inability to curb their appetite for material indulgence turned the sweetest reward into the deadliest poison.

Rome: Eternal…For Now

It is a writer’s job to translate experience into words, yet never have I encountered a subject so troublesome as Rome. Having felt previously that nothing was beyond written description, Rome leaves me breathless, wordless. It intimidates and emasculates me; my arsenal of adjectives seem barely able to chip Rome’s crumbled outer layers, let alone touch upon its essence, and so I feel compelled to mask my inadequacies behind loftier philosophical justifications. Perhaps the Eternal City is a name bestowed not in light of the strength of the once seemingly unstoppable Roman Empire, but rather due to the fact that, like the God in whose image it is built, our minds and our languages cannot comprehend what is eternal, only what is fleeting. Could it be that human hands alone did not build Rome, that they were divinely aided, and thus the city evades description by virtue of its immortality?

I visited Rome having just completed my second year at university, following a course rich in philosophy that led me to look behind the facades and the monuments to try to find common ground between the abstract principles of my education and a place rightly considered among the key starting points of western civilization. Very quickly I saw the irony in Rome’s nickname, for our modern mode of tourism has rendered the city unkind to those who stand still. On several occasions when attempting to escape into deeper contemplation, my reveries were quickly trampled on by the incessant din of my fellow tourists.

Perhaps it was naive of me to presume a right to mental solitude in such a crowded place, like the guy reading a book while walking down a busy street, unaware that his complacent wandering gets in everybody else’s way. Whatever guiding philosophical principles (if any) emanate from the city, surely they are intended for the benefit of all mankind and not just those who expect red carpet treatment for their intellectual walking tour.

All that said, escaping the crowds and retreating into one’s own thoughts is not impossible in Rome. And it is in these quiet, fleeting moments that the city really speaks to you. Standing before something as awe-inspiring as San Pietro or the Colosseum deserves a subsequent period of quiet remove during which one can finish absorbing the sight. For such marvellous constructions are too grand to be taken in fully then and there, and will still form impressions on the mind long after you have left. To complete the picture, the senses must remain unclogged for a while. Take time to meditate on what you have seen, if necessary. They say that Rome was not built in a single day, and so must you take your time in seeing it.

When in Rome, trust your senses. So many people forget to do this, investing too heavily in the limited power of phone cameras and selfie sticks to capture their experiences. Perhaps it is only when our minds become saturated by excessive noise, lights, chatter, imposing buildings and general chaos that we become more aware of our most basic sensory power. So much of an experience is lost through the lens of a camera that there is no need to fuss over the perfect snap of the Colosseum. It has been captured from every conceivable angle by dedicated photographers for our perusal on the internet at any time. For those truly interested in harnessing the magic of the city through personal reflection, though, the lack of one’s own space and time to think in Rome can be infuriating.

But whatever insights you extract from a visit to Rome, you are likely to touch upon a number of commonly occurring trains of thought which exist in the mind of scores of other visitors. For me, no worthwhile account of Rome could neglect to mention the city’s age-old marriage with Catholicism. Rome owes much of its grandeur to a dominant and prolonged religious influence, a foundation of superstition and dogma, of unashamed devotion to a higher order in whose image the city is built and still, to this day, heavily anchored. Rome, the nerve centre of the Catholic world, once a majestic vessel anchored in calm waters, now rocks in the pressing winds, holding fast to a bedrock of tradition that is no longer immovable but instead begins to shift and shake uncomfortably with each advancing wave of scepticism and social change. The ship itself rots on the inside, beset by sex scandals and corruption, yet on the outside appears to stand firm, a model of longevity and virtuousness, confident in its ability to weather the changing tides.

It is the atheist who would, I reckon, be among the first to notice the benefits of a consistent intertwining between the city and organised religion. And we non-believers ought to give thanks, if not to God then to the people who have sought to sustain his presence throughout the city. It does not take a Catholic to marvel at the mind-boggling intricacy of the decorations inside the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, none of which would have come into being without such strict religious observance but which can still be appreciated on aesthetic merit alone, without the viewer having to contemplate their more elevated raison d’être. But as impressive as such decorations are, they can seem ostentatious when examined through more critical eyes. At which point do the churches and cathedrals become sufficiently adequate reflections of faith as to make the people worthy in the eyes of God? (Assuming that’s what they’re driving at.) Or rather did nations suppose themselves locked in perpetual competition to erect the most sophisticated and detailed representations of their religiosity, a constant quest for one-upmanship? If this were the case then from experience to this point I would call a dead heat between Italy and Spain. But if judgement day came and we were all hauled before the Lord for reckoning, what redemption would the extravagant carvings and adornments of cathedrals offer against the hatred, discrimination and brutality that for millennia have been carried out in the name of faith?

Such vexing questions continue to visit me long after my having left the city. Indeed, taking in Rome’s many religious monuments brought up far more questions than answers. It seems that the people who made Rome what it is today had some pretty sound ideas of what would show their faith and please the Lord, and apparently they were determined to do it using as much money and gold and other precious materials as possible. Today the Catholic Church continues to rake in obscene sums in revenue, and while we can perhaps all agree that the maintenance of religious monuments is important, if not for religious purposes then for the sake of cultural heritage and tourism, there seems to be a misallocation of funds here, which becomes all the more evident when you divert your gaze from the historical and mythological figures gracing the cathedral walls to the living, breathing Romans of the 21st century. Because Italy is in some serious trouble right now. We are all at least vaguely aware of its economic maladies, and while they may not have the severity of those facing Greece, they are pressing nonetheless. A name like the Eternal City seems almost laughably absurd for the capital of a country that has spent much of the last decade dancing on the brink of financial ruin.

One ought to turn an especially critical gaze on a nation’s capital in a time like this. In Rome you are discouraged from giving money to hungry, ashen-faced beggars yet reminded to give generously to cathedrals whose ceilings are covered in gold. Under circumstances like this Rome takes on a different light, and cracks start to appear in the veil of faith that the city has plunged vast sums into maintaining against the societal shifts that could easily have brought about the downfall of the Church, or at least rocked its perch a little harder. Of course the economic and political woes extend far beyond the capital, but perhaps nowhere in the country – even the West in general – are the magnificent heights of Catholic devotion and the sickening, rock-bottom plight of the worst-off citizens as striking as in Rome.

A cynical yet common retort I hear on this matter is that one ought to take visible manifestations of poverty with a pinch of salt. The ‘beggars’, so the argument goes, are not poor at all, but are only appearing needy so as to fool you into giving them money. Or they’re operating under an authority figure who uses their begging as a means to channel money into his own pockets. Curious; it seems the Church and the street beggars have more in common than I thought. And herein lies another awkward question: is it morally better to give money to somebody on the street who might genuinely need it, or to an institution that certainly does not?

The late George Carlin joked that God was without flaw but for his apparently insatiable appetite for human money, and this for me remains the biggest stain on Catholicism’s record. It brings up a question of allegiance. Are we to keep looking upwards and throwing into the ‘offerta’ boxes in the hope that our donations will eventually coax God into delivering Italy from its troubles, or is it time we cast our heads down to the people around us to see how we can help each other? Maybe God already gave up on Rome, leaving behind empty cathedrals that still echo with the prayers of the faithful and the desperate. Maybe all we have now is each other.

(Originally published at http://www.WayfaringStudent.com)

The Magic in Porto’s Air

J.K. Rowling moved to Porto, married a Portuguese man and gave birth to a baby girl. When she wasn’t working her job as an English teacher, she liked to sit in the Majestic Café and write stories. After her marriage broke down, she packed up and returned to England with her child. Her stint in Porto was brief. She left with a failed marriage and a hungry young mouth to feed; joblessness and depression would soon follow. But Rowling also left with three chapters of a little something she had been working on in the cafés of Porto, the beginning of a series of books that would make her one of the wealthiest and most celebrated storytellers of our time. Porto cast its spell – the rest is history.

Walking around the city, one could imagine that the conception of the Harry Potter world owes as much to Porto as it does to such iconic settings as the Elephant House and Alnwick Castle. Students at Porto’s university wear long, black robes like those worn by the students of Hogwarts, and tourists can hitch a ride around town on a cutesy road train that is not entirely unlike the Hogwarts Express. Even still, you don’t have to be a Harry Potter fan for Porto to charm you; even the McDonald’s is fancy.

The city definitely seems to favour the artistic types, even if plenty of business is conducted here. There is a certain magic in Porto’s air that entraps you and urges you to create something, a poem, a painting, a song or a story, just as so many have done before. You will find your mojo in Porto’s energy while you lose yourself to its charm. It is a place of passion, of feeling, at once a haven for the lovestruck and refuge for the heartbroken, where Port emerged from a dimly lit cellar to grace dinner tables worldwide, and where the pages of its history lie beneath the weathered exteriors of buildings, some ornate, some nondescript, waiting to be unearthed and pored over by searching eyes.

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It is easy to imagine that soaking in the city’s energy would get Rowling’s creative juices bubbling. There is beauty aplenty in Porto and it resonates around the whole city, through its monuments, ornate buildings and even its ramshackle side streets. It is in poking around these lesser-known side streets – the ones the travel agencies neglect to mention – which wind their way in a tangled network through town, that you may unearth Porto’s real gems. It can’t be by chance that the Escadas das Verdades (the Steps of Truth, formerly known as the Steps of Lies) led me to a bakery where I had one of the most delicious chocolate cakes of my life.

The quality of the food extends far beyond chocolate cake, with the many eateries around town seemingly locked in a perpetual struggle to outdo one another. Porto is a great place to eat, and there are few streets in the city centre where you will not be enticed by teasing wisps of cooked meat or fresh pastry. Though there is plenty on offer by way of fine dining, there are also bargains to be had. Break from the crowds of tourists and ask around among the locals for insider tips on where to find quality, reasonably priced Portuguese cuisine. By all means swing by the McDonald’s to take a photograph, but in Porto you’d be a fool to waste your money and appetite on poor quality, overpriced food (insofar as it can be considered food at all). Instead, head to the Raiz, halfway between the São Bento train station and the Clerigos Tower, where you can enjoy fresh vegetable soup and succulent pasta carne with a large glass of port and round it off with an espresso, all for less than a Big Mac meal. If, however, you cannot resist indulging in a calorie overload, stop off at any one of Porto’s cafés and eateries and ask for a Francesinha, a sandwich comprising meat, egg, cheese, tomato, beer sauce and some more meat for a truly artery-clogging concoction that might leave you blowing smoke rings out of your backside but, as far as food goes, is as quintessentially Portuense as it gets.

Once your appetite is satisfied, there is plenty more to see. A city wall once constructed to keep out Spanish invaders who never showed up now serves as a superb vantage point to check out the riverside views. This and other curious leftovers from its history give Porto a distinct and peculiar image, like that of a city that was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but the architecture on show and the energetic vibe of the place suggest that the city has found the perfect balance between holding onto its past and embracing modernity. It is a city to be taken seriously even if it does not take itself too much so, and in addressing the past it comes across as both proud of its highlights and mindful of its darker episodes. A plaque on a wall by the waterfront commemorates the collapsing of the Ponte das Barcas which killed around 100 people fleeing from French invaders in 1809, and sits right near a spot where daring youngsters leap off the Ponte D. Luis I and into the river for fun.

Fun certainly seems to be the modus operandi here. A leisurely walk around the city gives you plenty to smile about, even if it is not as obviously alluring as Paris or Rome. While there’s no Eiffel Tower or Colosseum here, it’s a city of simple pleasures and good vibes. You can get drunk on port and romance at the riverside, or if you want to get high (that is, seek higher ground) then follow the sloping streets upwards and look back at how the land cascades downwards to the river and rises up again on the other side. It’s an attack on the eyes: where the terrain of flatter cities will stop the eye from drifting too far, Porto offers crowded, intoxicating vistas that are more than enough to tie up the afternoon for the street artists and the sightseers.

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But if you really want to feel the love, plan your trip around late June to take in the Festa de São João (Festival of St. John the Baptist). Taking place annually in Porto, this is a shindig that has long outgrown its pagan origins, and there seems no corner in the whole city which is not swept up in the party fever once midsummer rolls around. Officially a festival of love, it revolves mainly around identifying the object of your affections and clopping them on the head with a hollow plastic hammer, which is available for purchase at one of the myriad street stalls set up around Porto specifically for Festa de São João. But the passing of time and the increasingly relaxed attitudes towards religious observance seem to have weakened the love theme, even if the party spirit appears to have survived the centuries intact. This doesn’t dampen the festival, but means quite simply that hammer-wielding partygoers tend to be pretty undiscriminating in their choice of target, so watch out. But, as with everything else in Porto, just go with it. Bring your sweet tooth, lots of energy and a sense of humour and let Porto do the rest. And don’t worry, the hammer doesn’t hurt.

First published at http://www.WayfaringStudent.com

Images courtesy of Bastien Morel

Citizens Abroad

michael pakvis

Travelling, experiencing new countries, meeting different people and studying abroad are all amazing experiences. This is the reality for me and thousands of others who chose to leave their families and friends to explore the world. My journey started two years ago when I moved from my hometown in northern Italy to the most southern corner of the Netherlands. Since then I have met a lot of new people and seen a lot of new places. I also got a better understanding of the responsibility that adults have: paying tuition fees, rent, grocery shopping, cleaning and many other aspects of life that were much easier at home. I still go back home sometimes, stopping at my old high school to meet a couple of friends that are still there. Last time I went there my teacher asked me to talk about my experience of studying abroad in one of her…

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