Aix – Portrait 2 – Catarina

When I initially saw Catarina, she was talking and laughing in spanish with a group of three other latinas as they smoked together. It is true that one never finds a single latina. One finds a group of them. What caught my attention was the richness and sensuality of the Spanish R. It was pure effervescence. And the life with which these women spoke. There was an undeniable passion about them that came from deep within. In the blood, we might say. I imagine their blood to be the red of flamenco. Surging in a never ending sea of red waves.

Catarina’s gaze is disarming. Vulnerable and guileless as a child’s embrace, I melted into them helplessly. Her soft voice, tumbling locks, petite frame and devastatingly lovely heart-shaped face moved me, and I remember, when I decided to join into the conversation, how unfazed the group was. They continued the conversation as if I had never interrupted, making me feel instantaneously welcome. This barrier-less hospitality is something exclusive to the south americans. There was no hostility, no reserve.

They all were experiencing a series of administrative issues. We were all independent candidates to the university programme, so we all had dealt with our visa procedures, medical appointments, and everything ourselves. I will forever be thankful to this community, for if it be not for them, I would probably have never completed my visa validation, and wound up getting evicted from France. Neurotically thorough as I tried to be, I missed out that detail amongst the mountain of information that I read in the french official documents.

It was then that I also realised how differently the french administration treated citizens from various countries. Being Singaporean, my passport was a breeze to admit; I sent documents over once, to my bank, to the prefecture, to the medical insurance, and managed to settle my affairs within two weeks of being there. The mexicans and colombians, however, had to resend their documents twice, thrice, four times even, including translations of their birth certificates (never demanded from me). Basically, it was a nightmare for all of them.

My heart went out to them, especially Catarina, who seemed utterly lost and frustrated. I offered my help with the process, and that was when our friendship begun.

I saw the contradiction of Catarina. Guileless as she seemed, she certainly was not. She has an amazing history of social work in various NGOs. This woman is fearless. When she sees an issue, she dives in straight for it. Even if it meant displacing herself permanently and living in difficult conditions to do it, she would conquer the odds to do it. I saw a strength in her that I admired to the core of my soul. A generosity of spirit and genuine kindness and compassion for the unheard and trodden in society, that is so rare to find.

Her persistence ticks some people off as she asks questions about everything she was unclear about, questions that certain might not dare to ask, alway in her soft, but firm voice. In her quiet way, she was bold, beautiful and charismatic. I fell under her star qualities, and during the first semester, we were impossibly close, going out for drinks together, having picnics together, cook-outs together at Aby’s or my house.. a true latina, she was hilarious when drunk, and she knew how to rev up a house party.

I love how she is tone-deaf, yet sings her heart out when her favourite tunes come on. I love how self-deprecating, and bitingly honest she can be. I love her tiny hands and her guileless gaze, and I adore, above all, the goodness of her heart.


Aix – Portrait 1 – Crystal

Dark, enormous eyes. Framed with impossibly long lashes. You don’t miss eyes like these. They stare at you, and wonder why you lie, or put up walls. They also assure you that you don’t have to.

When I first saw Crystal, I wondered about those enormous eyes. I would steal glances at her across the classroom, where often, she would sit directly opposite from where I sat, in the funny, U-shaped desk formation which my professor preferred. She liked headbands; she used them a lot. And they looked very becoming on her.

One day, our professor asked us to answer a questionnaire, a mini for-fun personality quiz, on the type of traveller we were. One of the questions asked if we preferred going to the beach, hiking, or shopping. Hiking. A handful of hands shot up, hers and mine being two of them. My portrait of her sharpened a smidge. I saw, in one clear moment, strength and stamina, radiating around her. That strong, thick frame that can only spring from the earth. I’d found an earth beauty. Those broad shoulders. Those eyes. Other questions confirmed us both as adventurous travellers, preferring nature and physical activity. I told myself, I had to talk to this girl. And I did.

A mexican-american, at the young, tender age of 21. She gets up at 5 am every morning to run. 5 am? Yes, 5 am. Sheepish smile. I stared silently at her for a moment, instantly drawn. Without hesitation, I offered to run together, if she was keen. By that, I was extending my friendship. I don’t think she realised that. Large eyes grew larger, profuse nodding which signaled a sure eagerness. Straightforward. This girl has the word ‘uncomplicated’ written all over her face. I loved it. I also wished she talked more. She rarely spoke in class.

We didn’t do our first run till a good couple of months later. We never questioned why, but just went on with our own lives, and our own routines. When we finally organized our first run together, it was surprisingly comfortable. She spoke a lot more, and it was magic. From the moment that she made me laugh with her self-deprecating humour, I knew that I wanted more. More of this, more of her. Talks about cooking and having breakfast together surfaced.

The space that she had created for herself in the apartment (essentially a single open space attic divided into two levels in which her roommate took the second) was something of a gossamer dream. She was a romantic, true and true. Another layer peeled. She made a necklace board with a corkboard, and lined her cupboards with soft strings of precious photographs. Friends, family. She loved purple, and squirrels. She brought her two plushies, Brownie and Skippy, and she had the fluffiest blankets.

It was impossible not to smile. Nor fall in love with her whimsical soul.

She made me burnt, butter-less pancakes. Which had the rather unfortunate shape of lips. Burnt lips, then. I dumped a dollop of toppings on top of them and declared them delicious. She groaned. Next time, we agreed, I would play host. I had butter. They would turn out better.

It’s difficult to detail the snowballing effect that our friendship had. It’s a little like spring. One moment, you’re still bundled up in three layers of coats and shuffling down the streets, burying your nose into your thickest wool scarf. The next moment, a plethora of colours, scents, and chirping. It was beautiful, all the more because none of us had any conscient part to play in the whole thing. We were more swept up in the vortex of ridiculous happiness that was each other’s company, where we each had no choice but to go along with it.

I love the impossible way she scribbles with her left hand, and how she loves delicate, shiny semi-precious jewels and aromatic scents. I love her generosity, her consideration for others and how I see in her the beginnings of self-possession that is so rare in someone so young. I love how excited and enthusiastic she gets, and how she always struggles (mostly in vain) to be on time. I love her impossible baggage size and her incessant desire to capture every moment in a beautiful scrapbook, including her disquieting preoccupation with receipts and business cards (she got upset when I threw half of them out whilst helping her pack). I love that she writes hand-written letters to all her friends on haphazardly folded papers and how her attempt at a British accent sounds Jamaican. I love how she comes at midnight asking for crepes, wine and chocolate, and how she made sleepovers such joy. I love her cooking, and how she never measures when she bakes. I love how hard she makes me laugh.

I pray that she will never change.

As I said goodbye to her, the void that was her presence filled everything. I have her, us, and everything unsaid woven in between the divine silk scarves that we bought together. Luminous, beloved, and bloody fabulous.



Berlin – Portrait 1 – Maya

One apartment, a social worker, a psychiatrist, a physiotherapist, two cats, a broken sink, foodshare.

And bliss.

Maya was the last housemate that I met when I was surfing with Stefan. I had been having a blast in Berlin with Delia, making the best out of the brutal cold and trying to stay positive while my toes froze and killed me each step I took, beyond the 30th minute outdoors.

Tall, she was. Very tall, and stout (read: intimidating). Add the fact that she’s french, and I was nervous as hell in front of her. I wonder why I feel that way. I think I scare myself too much to impress people whom I find intimidating in a very attractive way.

I wish that I had sketched her eyes. They were beautiful. Brown, soft, strong, true, sharp. They cut to the chase. She studied something similar to physical therapy but much more specialised; they use a very specific method to heal bodily damage. It was fascinating and I wish that I remembered more.

And her hair reaffirmed my love affair with huge, wild ringlets. Too beautiful. She had picked up the pencil for the first time in 6 months, the night that we had a huge party (>20 people) and she spent most of the evening in a corner, silently, intensely, observing and sketching two friends who were laughing on the bed. She found more truth in her messy, 5-minute sketches of people, than her more intricate 2-hour portraits. There’s more life in them, she said.

What a party it was – Brenda had turned her bedroom into a dining room, with one of those formal long tables, and rested a side against her bed, plonking chairs along the other 3 sides. It was cramped, it was messy, it was vegan. It was perfect.

The basin was clogged the night after the feast. We had used up all the possible crockery, including all the pots and pans, in preparation for the feast, and there was the equivalent of a kitchen jam; nothing moved. Nothing could move, as Maya squatted, cursing, trying to unclog the sink. It didn’t work, even with the help of Brenda’s boyfriend. The clog was too major.

The next day, Maya did up her own room. This included a 10 foot bunk with a ladder that had rungs so far apart that i would have split my legs trying to clamber my way up. She drilled away the whole day, fixing her room. I think that was when I decided that I would give her anything she asked for.

She did tarot reading, but only for herself. She recommended me a ton of french books and series, as cultural points of references. I wanted to kiss her feet. She cooked a delicious pumpkin soup, and made me dinner.

We had conversations entirely in french. I was over the moon. She told me that perhaps my 4 years of studying economics wasn’t entirely for nothing, if it meant that it forced me to take this trip to France. For the first time, I was stunned into silence. No one had ever shed light on that decision to change it from anything other than regret.

She shifted something in me further.

I left her with a solid hug, knowing that she had stolen a piece of my heart and would never return it.

Munich – Portrait 2 – Emily

Emily wasn’t Emily. At least in my mind. I had this portrait of emily as this girl with two piggy ribbons (the blue of forget-me-nots of course) and a pinafore, knee-high white socks, and with a trunk in both hands, all ready to head to boarding school. This is why British children stories ruin me. Oh, yes, and also because of the other Emily I know. She is the most feminine girl ever. Pink, fairy lights, angel wings, a halo. Everything a girl should be, everything a mother, a father, a grandparent, wants their girl or grandchild to be like. Harmless, delicate and very pretty. I wonder how the other sweet Emily is doing.

Well this Emily burst into the living room with a massive backpack, a gleaming nose piercing and layers of winterwear. Her hair was short, punk haircut, obviously, with side undercuts. Very unlike the storybooks indeed (makes me wonder at what age, and how, do parents explain punks to children. Or gays. It must be more difficult than explaining ‘where do babies come from?’, because at least there, there’s a scientific explanation. And you can make up stories. But how do you explain a nose ring? “Oh darling, it’s a jewelery. Some people like to express themselves this way.” “Can I have one mummy?” “You most certainly cannot, my love.” “Why?” “You’re too young, darling. You have to think it over till you’re 16, and then, when you’re sure that that’s what you want, you go for it. But god throws people with nose rings into hell, darling. And tattoos, and fishnet stockings.”)

So, first thing I noticed. Emily speaks very softly. With the voice of a lark. Very pleasant, soothing, kind. Behind those glasses, the gaze was soft. Gentle. Vulnerable, even. That of waves. Emily’s vegan, but she’s been struggling with that ever since she’s arrived in Germany. Oh yes, she’s English. And she had been living in India for a year, at a charity. She spent the 12 hours of bus from Frankfurt to Munich on Duolingo trying to increase her level of proficiency in german, only to see it decrease from 4% to 3%. I didn’t see her pick up the app during the three days we were together in Munich.

We went to one of the more famous lakes near to Munich. A gorgeous place where we watched the sunset from a dock and ate hand-made cookies that one of Laury’s cousins had baked. They were delicious. And we had the company of a group of german boys who asked us for a joint. We didn’t have any.

Emily wanted to stay in germany for as long as it took to brush up her german and hopefully get a job there. She was my guide for the time that I was in Munich, and for the most part, I usually looked helplessly to her whenever the cashier or receptionist muttered something in german. She was my live google voice translate. I was very grateful. And she taught me to count from 0 to 5 in german.

She had broken up with her partner of 8 years (ouch) and was learning to find her own footsteps again. And she liked walking. We walked a lot. Munich was kind to walkers. We made hummus for dinner on Sunday evening; during the day we had gone to a café (in the middle of the abandoned city centre; apparently no germans go out on Sundays. It was mildly depressing to realise that we were amongst the handful of tourists who were wandering aimlessly around the streets) and I had seen hummus on the menu. Nika had quipped that she had everything we needed to make delicious hummus back at her place, so we didn’t order that, and decided to head home for home-made hummus, stopping for bread along the way. She was dying to get rid of expiring mozarella in her fridge (there were boxes of them) so making hummus just seemed like a natural thing to do).

Emily is the hummus master. I sliced bread and presented them with care on the plate. They were my finest work of art. I shed a tear as I sliced the final piece lovingly and arranged it with a 14 degree angle behind the slice before it. The household looked at the bread platter and declared that it was beautiful. I agreed.

Emily would laugh every time I tried to pronounce a german word, because she said I pronounced everything with a french accent. Maybe I did; I was trying to emulate the ‘r’ the french way, and ended up speaking german really softly. I needed more ompf. So I would stamp my foot every time I took a breath to say a german word, and it would come out better.

Whenever I saw a word more than 3 syllables long, I would give up. Fucking compounding flings all my pathetic attempts to sound german out the window. Emily knitted as well; she knitted her own hat, which had a really long kink in the end. She assured us that it was deliberate. We told her that it was beautiful and that she needed to patent it. She agreed.

She liked soft music as well, the kind of singer-songwriter, soulful songss with personal lyrics. She really threw me off. And yes, we had a bratwurst together. She also helped me pick out my winter blue scarf, so that I wouldn’t freeze to death. She chose a pair of gloves for herself; clever ones that had a removable flap so that she could use her mobile without removing her gloves. I should’ve bought those, but mine were good as well. Fleece lined; hard-core. She laughed at her ‘stubby fingers’, which were, accordingly to her, too short to fit into any respectable glove sizes. I suggested the children’s section as a future reference. She agreed. We left in a hurry, her, rushing off to catch a train to a tiny german village in which she was going to be based for the next couple of months working for another charity, me, for Stuttgart, where I was down to the wire for my bus.

Munich – Portrait 1 – Nika

This was my very first couchsurfing experience and I was completely terrified. Being someone who tends to be hopelessly uptight and wary towards first-time experiences, I was second guessing myself every step I took from the station. And stressed out. Not to mention it was the first time I was travelling in a country that I couldn’t speak the language.

After stumbling about in the metro (there was a bunch of german guys laughing together, and being the nervous, self-conscious person I was, I hid my insecurity by striding with confidence, looking proudly ahead of me, towards an escalator on standby mode, only to see it start up… in the wrong direction. There were two and naturally, being the seasoned, intelligent traveller that I am, I had picked the wrong one. I flushed in embarrassment, feeling like an imbecile with my 1 ton backpack behind me and equally boxy daypack in front.When my mobility is hindered and I feel less than elegant and at ease, I *always* have the sensitivity of a mole. And at that point in time, I would have gladly given my soul to be one and bury myself in dirt and grime for eternity. I hung my head in shame, and meekly retreated to the other escalator, where one of the guys gallantly gestured for me to go first, with a tiny smile. So handsome. Being very grateful, very embarrassed, and being the feminist that I was, I replied “merci beaucoup”. This is another thing – the first few days in Germany, I was to reply every single person who tried speaking to me in german, in french. My brain’s way of trying to prove that I’m not one of those just-speak english-and-nothing-else tourists. In the end, didn’t make a difference. I was one of them. Speaking french to germans equate to speaking chinese to them. They don’t register that as a language), getting my usual lost-time, then finally finding the doorbell, I rang it, heart pounding. Buzzer sounded. I pushed the door. Nothing happened. I rang the bell again. Buzzer sounded once again (a little more reluctantly this time). I pushed, little harder this time. Again, nothing. Cursing myself, I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell again.
“Um, I can’t open the door,” I said into the speakerphone, trying my best to sound confident and the know-it-all like I am.

“Just, push it,” accented voice. Couldn’t place it. Was that a hint of impatience? Sarcasm? He must think I’m stupid. Don’t even know how to push a door open. Damn it, girl, get it together. You just can’t not work yourself up into a frenzy every time you do something new. I pushed. Open sesame.

I climbed up the first floor (Tip: in west Europe, first floor starts from the second storey. Budding travellers beware) and was greeted by an open door and a gorgeous blond with glasses. It was Michael, Nika’s boyfriend. He gave a warm smile and disappeared behind the door. OK. So, I shuffled hesitantly inside, not quite knowing where to put my stuff, or my body parts, for that matter. Yes, I am *that* awkward, even at 26 years of age. I just have a gift for hiding it all from the world behind a mask of nonchalance. He informed me that Nika was in a phonecall and would come to me in a moment. I smiled back and dumped my backpack on the ground. The couch was huge. It was a proper bed. And the apartment was amazing. It was living room, dining room and kitchen all in one. Books everywhere. On the shelves next to the couch, on the dining table. I loved the magnets that were stuck all over one of the main pipes in the kitchen over the stove (as the fridge didn’t have a magnetic cover, they decided to stick all their magnets on that metallic pipe instead. It was adorable)

It was essentially a one-bedroom apartment, with Nika and Michael taking the main bedroom. I sank into the couch and felt like I was at an interview, waiting for my interviewer to come. Michael went straight to the couch in front of the television, where he had paused his video game, and continued playing.

Five minutes later, a blonde burst out of the bedroom. She had perfect skin, glowing, pale, and humungous glasses, with blue eyes that were so wide, so earnest, they almost looked startled. She had her hair up in a messy bun, and I noticed her loofah slippers immediately. That was when I knew that I made the right choice in choosing to surf with her, and, I think, that was also when I started to fall in love with her.

I realise that I fall in love with any kind of quirkiness or unorthodox thing. Punk, goth, whimsy. Any of those, really. Her slippers were magic. They looked like soft toys. I can no longer remember exactly what they were but they just looked like the softest, most comfortable bedroom slippers ever. And also the hugest. With little cotton balls swinging by the side. I loved everything about them, and therefore her, for choosing them. There was something so unapologetic about them, and, in the next few days, I was to discover, her too. Cut it short – they fit her perfectly.

She launched into an introduction about the house and its rules. Not complicated, very reasonable. This was someone who had a fair bit of experience hosting, and no doubt she’s had some unforgettable guests, on both fronts. I respectfully listened, nodded, smiled, laughed. I was still a little petrified. But immediately, I was taken by her warmth and openness. Upon learning that I left my scarf at my friend’s house in Zurich, she lent me hers, a beautiful, humungous, checkered scarf that kept me toasty during my rendezvous wandering outdoors.

We started talking. The other girl who was supposed to couchsurf with me had not yet turned up, so it was just the two of us for now (Michael was riveted by his very engaging RPG game). The layers started peeling. I learned that she was Russian, that she was a student of art history, recently graduated, that she, a month ago, had started her first full time job as a receptionist at a hotel. That she hated to talk about work, because she had no interest in various occupations and was more interested in learning about people and their lives rather than what they did for a living. She had lived in Munich for 5 years now, and Michael had moved to Munich with her. We went out to get pizzas and beer (I was to drink a oil ship worth of beer in the days following this) and sat around chatting and eating.

Nika puts makeup, always, before she heads out, even if it was a trip to the supermarket. I found that very charming. She didn’t put a lot on (she didn’t need to; she’s beautiful) but just looking at her slap on some eyeshadow and blusher was a pleasure. I always think that makeup is a ritual of sorts, back from the days when I used to watch my mother put on hers, till when I was staying with Kim in paris and saw that she dedicated a full hour to do her makeup entirely, with one of those professional-looking, swivel round mirrors that you set on the table.

Nika tends to put on shimmery eyeshadow, pale colours, winter colours, that complimented her pale skin perfectly. She kept her lips bare, and rightfully so – they were naturally rosy, and with a very attractive, arched shape, distinct cupid’s bow, and a lovely fullness to them.

It was this evening that she shared with me one of the books she was reading – The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer. I was to devour this book in the next few weeks, in buses, while travelling across germany. It is absolutely fascinating and I recommend it. Another thing about Nika – she goes through probably about 20 cigarettes a day. And she rolls them herself in this very sophisticated method which I would later see in the handbag of another very well put-together lady in a bus ride – she gets empty rolled up cigarettes, and tins of tobacco. She slots the cigarette ‘skin’ and tobacco into a stapler-like contraption, pushes down the clamp, and voila, its done. It’s genius. Cheap, and effective.

Emily arrived after a while. And we chatted some more, before popping into bed. Over the next few days, I was to spend a considerable amount of time with Nika, and I learned these couple of things about her –

  1. she has an impressive array of general knowledge that ranges from country flags to dead politicians. She’s very, very in the know, and so is Michael and their general social circle of friends (we went to a pub quiz monday night and I’ve never felt that my education had let me down more poignantly than during that night. Nevertheless, thanks to the prowess of Nika, Michael, their friend, and Emily, we finished fourth. Not too shabby)
  2. she’s very opinionated, and her tastes tend to run far from the mainstream.
  3. she has a heart with the warmth of texas – she really sees people. she cares about the social condition, and each individual. this openness can hurt her sometimes, but it’s beautiful.
  4. she can’t drink – after a couple of beers, she lapses into a comfortable silence and takes the backseat, letting me and emily banter back and forth, while being content with laughing and staring at us both having a good time. And she expresses her happiness very openly, just like this “I’m so happy.” There should be more of this in the world. Simple, direct, and pure.
  5. she is never late – when she says she’ll be there in 5 minutes, it’s 5 fucking minutes. She’s a swiss watch in real time.
  6. she’s very affectionate, and physical about it – she touches little parts of you; your hair etc. and makes little sounds when she greets you for the first time in the morning. Something between a squeak and a chirp.
  7. “If I’m being weird, it’s not because I’m crazy. It’s because I’m Russian.”