Welcome to Brrrlin: (baby, it’s cold as scheisse outside)

Dear long lost readers, 

So, you’ve probably been wondering where your favorite blogger disappeared to after a year of silence. If you must know, she was plotting and scheming her next big move in the heavenly oasis of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Working a semi stimulating cafe job, attempting to save up the pennies, breathing in the sweet valley air and simultaneously cherishing and resisting the warmth and comfort of being close to the womb, surrounded by the support of family and friends. This year has reset me, charged up my batteries and reinforced my intuition that I’m not done learning lessons from uprooting and transplanting myself around the world. After India, the spark had been lit and there was no snuffing it out. The rush of endorphins I’d felt bouncing up and down in a tuk tuk in the Himalayas overlooking dizzying cliffs, cradled in the arms of the deepest presence and peace I’d ever felt, this sensation haunted my cute yet sheltered life at home. I couldn’t shake the restlessness I felt to go get lost in the world again.

And so on November 11th at 11:30am I found myself squeezing the armrests of an Air Portugal aircraft as I hurtled upwards into a clear blue sky in the direction of Berlin, Germany; this time with a one way ticket and the determination to not come back until I had found the sense of direction I’d been falsely promised I’d find in college.  

So why Germany? Why was I going to a notoriously cold and sunless place on the cusp of their dreaded winter, a place known for it’s dark history and white supremacism? I’ll tell you why. Because Berlin is a hidden gem; a city crawling with young creatives and fetish freaks unafraid of exploring their deepest kinks. It’s a city that refuses to hide in the shadows of their grandparents and great-grandparents mistakes. It’s a buzzing international hub of tech workers, desperate students drowning in debt and seeking low tuition grad schools, European sightseers and the rowdy and the restless seeking what is known around the world as Europe’s party capital.  

After doing my research and hearing from those who had been, I couldn’t get the city off my mind. I swore I could sniff out the freedom of Berlin all the way from North Carolina, kind of like the way one can smell the salt from the ocean when they get close to the coast. A place where I could step outside my door and go a whole day without running into anyone I recognized or knew from a childhood play group. A place for reinvention and a fresh start. 

Yet another reason Berlin appealed to me, only three months prior to my own migration two dear friends of mine, Tessa and Helena, moved to the city for their own self exploration. In the three months of them being here I’d received strings of pictures, videos, texts and long calls about how badly I needed Berlin, and in turn, how badly it needed me.

So here I am, one month after a 15 hour flight looking like the walking dead and with the biggest birds nest in the back of my head due to leaving my hairbrush in my checked bags. I was met by Tessa, obediently awaiting my long last arrival with a bouquet of flowers and a home-made sign with “G-Swizz” inscribed with colorful duct tape followed by the hashtags #welcomehome and my personal favorite, #keepessastogether.

Reunited with my home girl T-skillet

In the month I have been here, and after enduring my share of sleepless hostels and overpriced week long sublets, I have found myself a cute sublet through February, which in this housing economy is something to be celebrated. And in the new year I am starting work as an au pair that will just barely cover my rent and groceries ( a win in this economy) and will also get me a longer term visa. I have done my share of braving the bitter weather to enjoy a Christmas market with my hands wrapped around a steaming mug of gluvine (hot, sweet red wine). I have delighted in currywurst and doner kebabs and schnitzel. I have skimmed the surface of the rich nightlife, although I haven’t quite worked up the courage to pull an all nighter and get lost in a nightclub experience yet. But for now my priority lies not in being a busy bee tourist. I crave days spent huddled up inside on my big, beige sofa with ginger tea and a book while the smoke from a Nag Champa incense stick curls bountifully from where it has been stuck into the potted soil of an aloe plant. I crave collage get togethers and jam sessions in the glowing warmth of someone’s living room. I crave movie nights and potlucks and long candle lit baths. 

One of many collage nights
Me posing with curry wurst

I’m here to get to know Berlin on a personal level. To prove to myself that no matter where I am in the world I am capable of turning a foreign city into a trusted home. And I’m writing this blog to share with you all who care to follow my unfiltered experience of moving to this extraordinary place and all the obstacles and treasures I will find along the way. Welcome back to my world. 🙂

All the best and happiest of holidays, 

Gressa

 

 

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The Holy Man and a Lesson in Flying

When the Holy man reached his throne on the 3rd day of his teachings, he stood and saluted the giant golden statue of the Buddha. A hush fell around the 2nd floor of the temple and spilled down the stairs to the first.
Silence; besides the gentle whirring of prayer wheels.
Silence; besides the ancient humming of Om beneath devotional breath.
After the 83 year old had been helped into seated position, he leaned forward and beamed down at us all from behind his black rimmed spectacles, high rosy cheek bones glowing. A hush filled every corner of the place that day.

That day was October 5th, the 3rd day of His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama’s 4 day teaching on Chandrakirtis’ Entering into the Middle Way. On the early morning of the 1st day I overheard two nuns talking about the complexity of this text. I heard them joke that they themselves most likely wouldn’t understand much of the teachings, but even still it was important to be there so that the teachings may leave an imprint to be understood later on, perhaps in another life. On the morning of the 1st day the air was biting and harsh. Steaming porridge was served to those who woke up before 6; I was not one of them. The taxis had been arranged the night before and at 6:15 sharp we all piled in; the nun’s in their ruby red robes, overlapping each other, and me, along with the other five volunteers, wearing the cleanest, crispest clothing we could find at the bottom of our backpacks. On that 1st day, Shannon and I found a seat on the brick floor outside the temple. There was not much need to get closer as two theater sized screens were positioned outside the temple walls in front of us, live streaming a better view of the Lama than if we’d been in the room with him. The volunteer coordinator had handed out radios upon leaving the monastery. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the teachings would be in any language besides English, and as I was handed my radio I tried to suppress the dumb look of surprise on my face while feeling like the biggest American idiot. The Dalai Lama, naturally, gave his teaching in Tibetan, his native tongue as was the tongue of most monks and nuns in attendance. There were many language channels you could tune to as well, in an effort to make the teachings as inclusive and available as possible. There was Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, German, English, and probably one or two more I’m forgetting. The translation from Tibetan to English on that 1st day was, to put it gently, kind of like the little brother nagging around his older brother and his friends, always getting left behind and having to sprint to catch up. And so I hope that no one will be offended when I admit that on that first day, in the late morning, I drifted in and out of consciousness in a rare subtle spot beneath a sleepy blanket of sun. The second day I woke up feeling ill and chose to stay in bed. And on the third day, well, let’s just say I stayed awake long enough to have something to write about.

This time I wiggled my way into the most devoted of crowds. I stood in the second row by the stairs, waiting for the Lama and his royal succession to parade by with the hope that he might glance at me, or that I may have a good glance at him. I wanted so badly to know what all this ruckus was about. Why, glancing around, did I notice some people with tears in their eyes? Why is he pretty agreeably the most popular and likeable of all the world leaders? And what’s all this talk about his smile? I stood there feeling like a corn stalk in a row of coriander. Or, more accurately, a tall blonde American in a row of shorter-than-me Asians. I wondered if it was taboo of me to be there, but I relaxed when I saw some other westerners in the row in front of me. (Not that this should validate my being there, but group mentality what can I say). When the Dalai Lama entered the room, I did feel a shift in energy, and I did feel a river of peace flood my whole body. Looking into his face, and a face might I add that is hard to believe belongs to an 83 year old man, I couldn’t help but smile and feel tears well up of my own. The Dalai Lama is to the Tibetans what Jesus Christ is to Christians; what Muhammad is to Muslims, what Moses is to Jews and so on you get the point. Imagine what it might be like if your savior was reincarnated over and over to be here with you, leading you in flesh and blood (although it’s rumored that the Dalai Lama may not be reincarnated again). Perhaps this, along with other notable and admirable attributes of their faith, is how the Tibetans have been able to endure, since the Chinese invasion of 1959, unspeakable violence and torture and yet continue to hold fiercely to their traditions and religious beliefs.

The Dalai Lama did look at me, by the way; with those narrow, liquid eyes, and when they fell on mine I did nothing short of melt. I got it. I hate putting people on pedestals, and I actively try not to worship certain human beings over others. This aligns even with Tibetan Buddhism, which is largely based on the concept of selflessness; the idea that we are not separate entities with separate selves, and in fact the term “self” is just this big illusion that leads us down the path of suffering. The sooner we recognize this, the closer we are to becoming enlightened. Therefore, worshiping one person over another, in theory, is really no different than worshiping yourself projected in a different form. However, in my personal experience, being in the presence of the legend that is His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, was not quite the same as being in the presence of the white picket fence-suburban-Pabst Blue Ribbon bellied-White Soxs fan-dad from Illinois (if this is you my bad). This is a man who has devoted his entire life since the age of two when he was recognized as the Dalai Lama, to becoming a powerful force of peace in order to serve, touch, and lead, not only Tibet, but a great portion of the world outside. This is a world leader who believes consistently in non-violence despite Tibet’s ongoing struggle towards liberation, and despite the magnitude of brutality Tibet has endured under Chinese regime in attempted genocide that is comparable to the Holocaust. For this, and for his undying optimism that peaceful days lie ahead, The Dalai Lama gained world recognition and popularity when he accepted on behalf of the Tibetan people, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. But enough about the Dalai Lama already, as I’m sure you’re just dying to know more about little old me. 🙂


My days at Thosamling Nunnery have been quiet and introspective. I have a room to myself that I keep tidy, and I leave my shoes in a neat row beside my door. It is so silent here that the loudest sound is the non-stop trill of the crickets, and I often find myself hushing my own thoughts out of fear that even they will disturb the peace of the residents. At 8:30pm I burn a stick of Tibetan herbal incense and then climb into my twin bed with a metal cup of tulsi ginger turmeric tea and my westerner’s guide to Buddhism book or sometimes short stories from Kathmandu by the genius Samra Upadhyay (highly recommend). I wake up at 5:45 to a gong that alerts the nuns that it is time for their morning meditation. Breakfast is served promptly at 7:00, lunch at 11:30, and supper at 5:00. In-between meals, unless I am the one cooking them, I spend my volunteer hours cleaning and changing rooms, bathrooms, and gazing in romantic disbelief at the Himalayas while pinning wet sheets to dry on the roof. Spending this much time alone, yet surrounded by others who have quite mastered their own peace of mind, has allowed me the space to reflect deeply on myself and my thought processes. There was a moment there when I found myself daydreaming about becoming a nun; shaving my hair, giving away my clothes, giving up long Epsom salt and essential oil baths and a comfortable degree of vanity, giving up whiskey gingers over ice and Netflix and chill…and then I quickly shook myself out of it. I do have a huge amount of respect for those people who choose to live the life of a nun. Monks as well, but I recently learned about how the inequality between sexes prevail in Monasteries and Nunneries and I’m trying not to feel let down. For instance, Monks get 7 chances to come back to their monastery if they decide to leave, while Nun’s only have 1. (Perhaps this will be a future blog topic when I’ve done more research).
Everyday I catch golden hour on the rooftop of the nun’s building, lay out an old yoga mat I found in the linen closet, and attempt to whip my body and mind into enough shape to not get completely slaughtered during next month’s yoga teacher training. In front of me loom the mammoth Himalayan mountains wrapped tightly in stratus clouds, and to them I wholeheartedly devote my practice. Watching this whole scene the other day it occurred to me that I am the mountains, and the clouds are my thoughts. In the moment I felt really proud of myself for making that connection but writing it down now it’s dawning on me how cliche that sounds. But if that gives you any idea of the la-la land state of my mind lately. I think after a chaotic almost 2 weeks of traveling and having to be mentally prepared for anything to go wrong at any moment, hitting the pause button for these last 2 weeks has felt necessary. Also, I brushed up a little more closely than I would have liked with human impermanence when I witnessed a new friend plummet off a Himalayan cliff in a paraglide that didn’t catch the air. Before you spit your coffee out at your computer screen, both her and her tandem guide are alive and well if not a little traumatized and scratched up. I won’t get much further into this story as it’s not mine to tell, but I will say that it has nudged me into more of a hermity state than I otherwise would have been, and also that I listened a little more closely and intently when the Lama started giving his lesson on impermanence. The few times that I’ve since poked my head out of my hermit shell, I’ve ended up getting wrapped up in innocent, but slightly draining and unnecessary mini adventures. For example, the other day I casually walked into a jewelry shop and before I knew it I found myself on the back of a motorbike to see the upscale jewelry factory all the way across town. If I made that sound sketchy just relax and trust me when I say it wasn’t. I got a thorough 2 hour long tour of the entire place while trying to act like I was interested in buying something and also trying not to cringe every time prices were mentioned. Fascinating place as it was, for my last 2 days off the furthest I’ve ventured from my room has been the rooftop of my building. Despite the exclusively solitary picture I’ve been painting of this place, I have in fact made friends with the few other volunteers here. My social purge of the day has often been our after dinner ritual of sitting around the table playing poker with dried beans. I love that. Now I can say that I learned how to play poker at a Buddhist nunnery.


It is 8:00pm here now and I am exhausted and ready to pass out. (Go ahead call me a baby). I sincerely hope that all of you readers are safe from all the hurricanes, and not too downtrodden by the daily blasts of disheartening news. It is difficult for me, as far away from the political world as I thought I could get, to allow myself this time for self-growth and healing without feeling guilty that I’m not doing more to show up and speak out. Although I do wonder if that sometimes being away from it all (and I acknowledge that this is a privilege of mine), to mature mentally and foster peace within myself, is for now at least the most beneficial work that I can and should be doing for the political world. Curious to hear thoughts if you have any. But more importantly, thank you for getting this far, thank you for being interested in my journey, and thank you for supporting me. Until next time, and next time I plan to dedicate a portion of my blog to describing how exactly this place pulls off being completely zero-waste, so if you care about the earth you will stay tuned. (Not to use the manipulation of our guilty human consciences regarding our poor dying planet as a tactic to gain a loyal audience or anything).
Okay, ta ta for now. Lots of love no matter who you are cause that’s just where I’m at right now (but don’t get used to it).
Gressa
P.S. If you’re wondering what happened to my travel companion, Shannon, she has left to work on Vandana Shiva’s farm in Dehradun for a couple of months. If you’re interested in finding out more about who this bad-ass Indian woman is who started a solar-powered, eco-friendly, feminist-af farm in India I highly recommend looking her up. Also I’m sure Shannon would be happy to tell you all about it.
P.P.S. An excerpt from the 3rd day of HH Dalai Lama’s teaching on “Entering into the Middle Way”:
Like animals we human beings have sensory consciousnesses, but we also have a marvellous intelligence on the basis of which we can achieve happiness. Most people, however, underestimate their mental potential and instead seek pleasure in sensory gratification. When the mind is disturbed, sensory pleasures will not set it at ease, but if you have peace of mind, whatever goes on outside you will be much less upsetting. We have to use our intelligence to the full.
P.P.P.S. If anyone was paying close attention and is wondering what happened on the 4th day of the Lama’s teaching, I slept in that day.

“My Sister, My Heart”: Finding Humanity in Rajasthan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(All of the good photos are taken by Shannon Herlihy)

10 days into my India travels, I’m sitting in an Alice in Wonderland themed cafe called Morgan’s Place in Dharamkot; a small hippie town near Dharamshala with a gorgeous view of the Kangra Valley and the snow capped Dhauladhar mountains. Monkeys teeter on the skimpiest of branches, and just when I’m sure they’re going to fall they gracefully swoop to another. Yellow-billed Blue Magpie’s soar across the mountain ranges displaying their freakishly long tails that flutter and flap behind them like blue splattered wedding gown trails. I’m watching all of this through a large window, huddled on a cushion on the floor with a steaming cup of chai and a whole pizza on the table in front of me. (Not very Indian of me but I finally got my appetite back after an episode of Delhi belly). The power keeps going on and off and so does the space heater, which is a shame because it’s cold up here in the mountains and I’m having all of my jackets washed by a local Indian woman who offered to do it for only 50 rupees. The ceiling here is a painted universe with splattered white stars and multicolored planets. The signs that led me to the cafe were cute wooden boards painted with sentences like “follow this sign if you’re mad” and “go on til the end: then stop,” which is also an accurate example of Indian directions I’ve come to find the hard way. It’s actually quite appropriate that I’m sitting in an Alice in Wonderland themed cafe because a relevant sequel could be called Gressa in India. Although I do wish I could shrink a little more to better cram myself into the shrunken streets and also as to not tower over most of the locals.


Dharamshala is an entirely different planet from Rajasthan, which is where I’ve been traveling for the past week with my good friend Shannon. Rajasthan is hot, bustling, and exhausting. It is a region rich with royalty and romantic history. In Jodhpur we spent a day at the Mehrangarh Fort, one of the largest forts in India, with unashamedly touristy big black headphones listening to a cheaper version of a tour guide and dodging families wanting selfies (a selfie with each member of the family and then one all together). At first I felt tickled but after the 30th request I started to understand how it feels like to be a famous person always running from the paparazzi. (Side note, Nick Jonas and his Fiance Priyanka Chopra were apparently there a week after we were and I’m sure they had a hell of a time). In the short and rare moments I had to myself in the fort I would stand in the six hundred year old rooms imagining the royal men and women lounging in their brightly colored flowing clothing; chatting, arguing, laughing, feasting, loving, and fighting. Rudyard Kipling, poet and author of The Jungle Book, upon visiting the fort poetically described it as “(a) Palace that might have been built by Titans and colored by the morning sun.” Needless to say, there is magic built into the bricks and the stones that make up the fort as well as the small blue city that surrounds its walls.

On our last day in Jodhpur we ventured out into the market. I was sucked over to the first woman who started shouting at me about her dupatta’s (traditional Indian shawls), and like the amatuer I am I bought 3 before I knew what was happening for a price I didn’t even try to bargain for. Afterwards, we walked around with dupatta’s wrapped around our heads, shoulders and mouths, mostly to keep the dust out and attempt to lessen the stares, but also because, well, they’re pretty. While Shannon and I were walking around the market we started noticing stares from locals, and a few even blatantly laughed in our direction, so we wandered over to a lassi stand to avoid the spotlight and to sip mango lassi’s. We started talking with an Indian man working at the market who has never been to a day of school in his life but seemed to have attained the wisdom of the whole universe. He said that he learned his impressive English from the tourists among a handful of other languages. While it was pressing on our minds, we decided to ask him what he thought about us, as westerners, wearing traditional clothing. His response was similar to the responses that we would get from more locals in the days that followed; and that response was generally that as long as we were in India, wearing traditional clothing was appropriate for not only showing interest in and respect for the culture, but also for lessening the stares from men and for accommodating to the weather (wearing the dupattas to cover our mouths to avoid dust and shield our head and shoulders from the hot, Rajasthani sun). However, wearing traditional clothing back in the states could be seen as potentially problematic, and, depending on what is worn and in what context, does teeter the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation. For myself, as a privileged westerner who’s heritage is responsible for colonialism, cultural appropriation lies heavily in my heart and mind and is something I’ve been keenly aware of and have been doing my best to avoid. It has so far become clear to me that the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation is between being consensually given a cultural gift from a local, and non-consensually taking something from a culture because we think it looks pretty, we like it, and because we’ve been socialized to believe we have the right to take whatever we want (free country amirite boys?). Moving forward, I believe that this next section of my blog describes a good example of cultural appreciation; however, I am more than open to feedback if anyone thinks otherwise.


On the morning of our first full day in Jaisalmer, (we’d arrived late the previous night) we met a woman on our way to find an ATM who invited us into her home for lunch. I am embarrassed to say that at first I was suspicious and wary of her intentions, but something about her found us strolling over to where she’d said her house was after our ATM run. This woman, who’s name I’m probably not spelling correctly but sounds like “Banasi” ushered us into her small brick and clay two room home, cooled by a small overhead fan and warmed by the charming smiles of her four children. Upon our arrival all of the residents got to work on making sure our visit was five stars. Her oldest daughter made us papad’s with hot curry stuffed peppers and her younger daughters got to work on decorating out forearms and palms with henna. Her son and his friend sat in a corner watching television, requesting from time to time to have their picture taken as they posed in various cool poses. Although financially this family seemed to be hurting by western standards, they showered us in gifts, entertainment, laughter, and, for me at least and I think I can say this for Shannon as well, restoration of faith in humanity. Among gifts varying from small handmade cloth animals and marionette dolls they sold at the market, my favorite was a ring that I complimented on one of the daughters’ hands and before I knew what was happening was being lovingly escorted onto my finger. In return I gave her a ring of my own and I found myself wanting nothing more than to give them everything I had with me that day and more. Shannon gifted them with some of her ointments and creams that she’d made, which was received with humble surprise and appreciation especially from one of the boys who had a small rash on his chest. Although we could have stayed there all day, we said our goodbyes in the early afternoon as we had booked a camel safari at 3pm. Banasi insisted on walking us most of the way to our hostel, switching from smiling up at us sweetly to turning around and clucking at her children who were mischievously trailing behind us, not wanting to see us leave. Before she left us she looked back between both of us, placed a hand over her chest and touched the other to our shoulders and repeated, “My sister my heart, my sister my heart.”


That evening we rode camels into the desert and drank large Kingfisher beers from a mysterious beer man: a villager who rode his motorcycle through the desert to our camp like a godsend carrying the large box of goods on the back of his bike. We sat on a sand dune watching the sunset and the almost full moon rise, sharing travel stories between our small group of adventurers; all wild spirits bursting from Ireland, Israel, Germany, and South Africa. We were the only Americans, which has not been an uncommon theme, (so far I believe we’ve met one other fellow American traveler). That night I drifted to sleep on a cot beneath the dazzling desert stars, waking up only once to watch in disorienting dream state as a Bengal fox tried to sneak into our camp and a guide shot up to promptly chase him away.

The next day after a quick Indian breakfast cooked for us over the fire by our guides, we rode our camel’s back through the desert and returned to our hostel to prepare ourselves for a 14 hour train ride to Jaipur.
Jaipur was nice but we only had a day and a half there, which we spent mostly between our Zostel and the rooftop restaurant of a hotel that allowed for a wide view of Rajasthan’s capital. The next morning we flew into Delhi, and in the chaotic Delhi airport barely made our flight to Dharamshala thanks to Indian directions and a language barrier. Flying into Dharamshala is how I’d like to imagine it might be like soaring into heaven; with a birds eye view of the Himalayan mountain range and a physically felt change of energy from bustling and stressful to peaceful and serene; home to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, countless beautiful and bizarre species of Himalayan wildlife, and now, for this next month, me :). More to come on what life is like at a zero-waste, all women’s Buddhist nunnery in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life (sorry Blue Ridge Mountains, love you).
Yours truly, (unless you don’t deserve me),
Gressa

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