The Internet Personified: The Quarantine Weeks Dispatch
Myths, books and country houses
I am STILL in quarantine. It is never ending and somehow it is only two weeks. Those two things seem impossible to reconcile with each other—how can this thing that goes on and on and on be defined by such an earthbound concept as TIME? However, here we are, a mix of absolute indolence, go into the garden just to lie down on the garden sofa (as opposed to the inside sofa which also we spend a lot of time on) (separately, but since there is only ONE inside sofa, we have now started fighting over who gets to lie down on it), clothes without buttons that you just pull on to your body; but also completely “we want to go somewhere and do something” energy. How is it different from being cooped up in our Delhi flat for all this while? I’ll tell you: the outside is different. Germany’s doing pretty well, pandemic-wise, at the moment, I think the last numbers I checked were like 500 something daily cases? so they’re opening up like anything. I am skeptical because we’ve seen how this works, they’ll open up, everything will go bad, they’ll close up again, but unlike Delhi where everyone was sheltering in place, the Germans are out and about, and I have FOMO. (There’s a trend piece about that in The Cut because, of course there is.) (We are also getting our second dose of the vaccine in a few weeks, so we’ll be fully vaxxed very soon.)
(I wrote that paragraph yesterday and today, it turns out, is the last day of our quarantine. Time is so strange.)
Before I left Delhi, I got to thinking—because my mother mentioned it—about the opening pages of The Namesake (a beautiful book which you must read if you haven’t already) where pregnant Ashima, far away from home, is making her own version of jhal muri by putting mustard oil and chilli powder on Rice Krispies. I was really thinking of how far away from home Indians tend to go—whether it’s young people from a village going to a city to earn more money, or people going overseas for work, or people marrying people already overseas and flying to them, leaving their old families behind and starting an entirely new one. What courage it must have taken to do that then, before the internet and cheap flights and cell phones shrunk the world, to go off to a brave new world, not knowing when you would return and who you’d ever see again.
Yesterday, in a glum mood, I acknowledged I was homesick. I mean, not homesick for Delhi just now, of course. I’m homesick for Delhi then, Delhi as it could be, Delhi wrapped up in its Delhi shawl coughing its genteel little Delhi winter cough. (Here’s an essay I wrote a while ago about being nostalgic for a certain time and place.) My allergies, speaking of coughing, have cleared up in some respects and have reemerged in others. Turns out, I’m allergic to grass pollen. I never knew this before because I’ve never been around so much grass being cut. Back home, there’s this giant park next to our house which had gardeners cutting the grass all the time, so maybe I did sneeze and cough then too, but I put it all down to pollution, dust, cats, smoking.
Oh, smoking. K suggested I give it up for the two weeks we were in quarantine and with great reluctance I did, but it hasn’t been so bad. My biggest fear was how will I drink because I like the occasional glass of wine, the evening g&t, and I associate that with smoking, but I managed, managed to enjoy myself even. My self-imposed detox ends in two days and then I can go back to the occasional cigarette when I drink or something (I have to, don’t judge me) but it was good for me to have a reset. I would rather not be a regular smoker OR a non-smoker. There must be some happy balance in the middle.
I am not always glum, but it seems to me I have been exceedingly so these past two weeks. Like in the early days of Delhi’s (first) lockdown, I paced and thought thoughts. The garden in this house is lovely, the house itself is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever lived in, the trees outside are very nice, the birds are loud with strange exotic song and yet, and yet.
(Want to list some things I love over here in case you think I’m being too negative, but you already know, na, the things I love? Life is very easy in terms of STAYING ALIVE, tap water is drinkable, air is breathable. There’s SO MUCH CHEESE that I myself am starting to resemble a wheel of camembert. The weather dial is set at Perfectly Pleasant all day, slightly hot sometimes, slightly chilly in the evenings. If I could think of a Cool Band off the top of my head, they’ll probably play in Berlin. Smaller: K and I hang out a lot (we were getting into a bit of a rut in Delhi), and it is great, like a honeymoon. Even smaller: I’ve installed the GIANT ASS TV right in front of the bed so I stick in my Chromecast and watch television like a QUEEN.)
I think until we get out feet under us in some tiny little studio apartment in Berlin, where the whole house will probably be the size of the bathroom in this one, until we are walking down a city street and looking around, and breathing the city air, and figuring out where exactly we want to plant the flag of our new life, I’m going to be a little like this on the inside. This life is temporary, it doesn’t belong to me, I’m only visiting. It feels a bit like we’ve retired, living here. Long walks with dogs are on offer. Gardening is too. These are all GREAT, don’t get me wrong, if I was on holiday and wanted a break from my busy urban life. But I’m impatient now to move on, to start living. This is not a holiday. All the same, I keep reminding myself that I should enjoy myself, I’ll miss this. I’m living permanently in future tense, when I am in my big city apartment I will miss this large sprawling house and garden. Everything is so unsure—there are no flats or how will we fit our cats and us into this or I need a guest room for visitors or the neighbourhoods we like are too expensive so we have to start looking around for others.
One night I wake up, around 3 AM, and I do the thing I’m used to doing, lulling myself back to sleep by focusing on some sort of white noise, the AC, the fan, some cars outside, the air purifier, and I cock my ears here into ringing silence, silence so loud I can feel it in my eardrums.
But I’m getting a bit more settled in my mind if not my body. At the suggestion of an Instagram friend (thank you Malati!), I decided to start reading up on German mythology as a way to anchor myself here. It was an excellent idea.
Already I am fascinated by the idea of Rübezahl (I had to copy paste that ü, because there seems to be no easy way to get it on my keyboard, tips much appreciated for Windows. I don’t want to switch to a German keyboard also because that’s too confusing.) who is a trickster, my favourite sort of god, usually a giant or a gnome or a spirit. He gets his name from the fact that he kidnapped a princess and then turned some turnips into people who then wilted when the turnips would have. Rübezahl is a pejorative, you call him that and he’ll be pissed, and he’s also god of the weather, so you’ve got to be nice. Had to, I mean. Now Germany is primarily Christian, but these are all the old pagan myths, some dating back from pre-Norse time. This whole area shared a bunch of gods, so Odin is Wuotan, for instance. (Wagner turned him into Wotan for easy pronounciation) or Thor is Donar (which is also K’s favourite food here in Germany) (fun fact: “Thursday” in German is “Donnerstag” for “THOR’S DAY” get it get it? And “donner” also means “thunder” so it’s all connected once you know what to look for.)
There’s also the original Lorelei which all my fellow Gilmore Girls fangirls will appreciate. She’s a siren who lives in the river Rhine.
The boatman aboard his small skiff, -
Enraptured with a wild ache,
Has no eye for the jagged cliff, -
His thoughts on the heights fear forsake.
I think that the waves will devour
Both boat and man, by and by,
And that, with her dulcet-voiced power
Was done by the Loreley.
There’s a small statue of Lorelei there now so you can go admire it if you’re ever in the area.
But the one god who really resonated with me was Frau Holle. Most people just know her from the Grimm’s fairy tale which goes like this:
There was this widow with a step daughter and a bio daughter and she hated the step, even though she was beautiful and hard working and spoiled her bio daughter. The step falls into a well and meets an old woman for whom she starts working, including shaking out her feather bed so that it snows in the world.
Eventually though—even though her new life is better in every respect—the girl starts to miss home and asks to go back. The woman (Frau Holle) sends her off but not without first showering her with gold. When she gets home, her stepmother and sister are like, “we want gold too” so the other daughter (the lazy bad one who always gets punished in stories like this) sets off but she’s very lazy, so Frau Holle covers her face with unwashable pitch and sends her back. The end.
I think this story does a disservice to the idea of the real Frau Holle, who was actually this really amazing mother goddess figure, pre-dating most of the pantheon. She was the goddess of children who died in infancy and also of witches and women. Before there was Christmas, winter was associated with death, and Zwölften (the original name for the Twelve Nights) was the time the spirits were said to roam the earth. This was Frau Holle’s domain, she sat with her spinning wheel and spun spirits to life or let them walk again or something. The children sometimes called her the Dunkel Großmutter (Dark Grandmother) which I think is also so cool. There’s also this thing in Teutonic mythology called The Wild Hunt, which is a hunt filled with supernatural beings (CREEPTASTIC!) and even though it’s usually Odin/Wotan who leads it, sometimes Frau Holle does too.
So you see, she’s extremely interesting. And also the perfect deity to welcome me into Germany. I’ve noticed that all the German stuff I know, the pop culture, the books etc etc had to do either with the Nazis or with the Wall and East and West and all that, which is fine, those are Very Dramatic Times in this country’s history but I also wanted more. I wanted to know what happened before, in the 1800s say (I need to get my hands on a copy of Buddenbrooks) or after 2001 or something. I’ve read and watched so much about WWII, I could probably give you a mini-lecture on the subject but I know nothing about Friedrich the Great, for example. (I did buy this terrific book called Berlin: The Story Of A City for my birthday last year and have carried it along here, which covers a lot of the royal dynasties.) (Also currently reading March Violets by Phillip Kerr, which is, you guessed it, a story about Nazis. But like a murder mystery in Berlin, so that’s okay.) (Up next, Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck.)
I like knowing things, I realise. There’s some fun into flailing out into the unknown with no map or things to guide you, but I enjoy being anchored by information. Right before I left Delhi, I had two Google alerts set up for “Berlin” and “Germany,” English-language news, so I could stay abreast of what was going on. That’s helping too. I don’t have all the context, but I’m getting there. It’s no longer this large land mass full of foreign people and their foreign ways, bit by bit, things are coming into focus.
I recently *ahem* set up an online tip jar? Over here at Buy Me A Coffee. So I’m going to slip that link into this newsletter from here on out. It’s a nice way to support my writing (yay!) and also let me keep this newsletter free and regular. Here’s the link again.
Links links links from two weeks of quarantine!
Pandemic puppies will soon be alone for the first time in their lives.
The absurdity of the tandoori momo (which ok, I really like.)
Cooking old family recipes. (LOVED.)
The age of reopening anxiety.
An oral history of Dil Chahta Hai.
If you watched Mare of Easttown, you might enjoy this essay. (SPOILER FILLED.)
And finally: I’m 72, so what? (which also made me tweet the following tweet.)
Have a great week!
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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