Travelling soul – Remember Maggie

maggieI lost a traveller-friend whom I had recently met, Maggie – an exceptional woman who inspired me. She left this world. But I shall remember her.

We met in India in December 2015. You were one of the liveliest people in the group, the kind of restless creatures that catch the eye immediately. I remember your words in the coffee place in Varanasi where you told me we must always reinvent ourselves for the ones we love. I remember you starting to dance with your husband, Kerry, on New Year’s Eve and setting the example for those of us who were too shy to stand up and hit the dance floor. I remember you celebrating your 39th marriage anniversary, so discreetly and it was wonderful. I remember your complicity, it was an amazing thing to witness and I think that secretly, we were all watching you.

I remember you sleeping underneath my “bed” on the night train journey, always poking fun, always chatting. And who doesn’t remember you sitting on the floor in the lady’s section at the train station in Agra, teaching us yoga movements to the cheeky smiles of the locals who thought that us whiteys were a bit mad in the head?

I remember you convincing me to buy my scarves (not one as I intended to) and those wonderful oils that I didn’t really need either, telling me that us, women, we have to treat ourselves to life’s simple pleasures. The green scarf, by far my favourite, I have thanks to you. And I remember I dragged you 2 times out and into the Red Fort and through the security checks  so that you can get the money from Kerry and buy that “ruby” ring you negotiated for so much, because I knew you would have regretted otherwise. It was impossible to do shopping with you as you always found the words to convince me to spend my money! Such a nightmare, much worse than the Indian shop sellers themselves. Also, I don’t think anyone could say “no” to you.

Graceful Maggie! Your gestures, your attitude towards us all, such elegance in your choice of words and clothing items. Refinement, simplicity and taste have always sprung to mind when I looked at you, and I admired you for all this. I shall always remember your rapid, sudden head movement, springing like a little bird, always alert, always curious, so alive. I don’t think I remember you ever showing sadness or tiredness, but maybe these were carefully locked somewhere behind that generous smile.

Your face is engraved in my memories of an extraordinary far-away place. One brimming with never-ending energy and colour, the perfect backdrop for your sparkling personality. I was privileged to spend a full day in your company when everyone else had gone. We had a laugh somewhere in a park in Delhi when Kerry was taking pictures of a massive pile of garbage on top of which a dog had found comfort. And later, when we were having what became probably the most expensive coffee and cake during the whole journey, which outraged me – India does teach you the value of money so well. It’s also the place where you are sure to get comfort out of your system, at least temporarily. Because I couldn’t disconnect from the sadness and the reality of the streets of India and found it hard to be in a luxury hotel, you calmed me down gently and reminded me that everything is to be enjoyed and taken on board as experience. And that we were lucky to see both sides. How was it possible to always be so positive and wise? I looked at you like one the world’s mysteries.

Lakshmi! Here is a name I remember, because it came from you. I bought that little wooden souvenir and you explained to me who the gods and goddesses in the carvings were – you knew a lot about them and talked with passion. I can only imagine that Kerry and your daughters never really got bored around you. You were fun, Maggie, such a blast of optimism and an example to us all. Of how to treat and live life. How to take things as they come. How to enjoy while you can. How to be unique and happy with it. How to hold the head up high and laugh. How to be yourself.

I don’t intend to forget you or the things that our short encounter have brought to me. India wouldn’t be such a great story without you in it. You’re travelling again. Where to, no one knows. But I’m sure you’ll find someone to teach yoga to again. I’m glad we met.

Belgium – no safe haven

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It’s a particularly grey day in Belgium. It makes for the ideal background of a funeral. The country mourns its victims today, the ones it couldn’t save from yesterday’s terror attacks. But mourning, a sky that seems to be crying in unison with us, the one minute of silence and the countless hours of anger are not enough. Something has failed again in Europe. Something important. The protection of civilians has taken three blows. There will be long-lasting scars.

While the whole world stands united in anger, stupefaction and frustration facing terrifying events that have come to be recurrent for reasons we cannot truly comprehend, our peace of mind and freedom fade away. Slowly, but surely, we find ourselves in circumstances that many other countries outside Europe have got used to, but that we wouldn’t have expected here a while back.

On the world map, Belgium is not a big country. That’s easy to see. It also shouldn’t lack the necessary resources to invest in the protection of its people, considering that it hosts some of the most important international institutions. Yet culprits slip through irresponsible fingers. Clearly, there are weaknesses.

How is it possible that neighbourhoods such as Molenbeek-Saint-Jean or again Schaerbeek breed their terrorists unhindered? It’s not like the Belgian authorities didn’t have a clue of what was going on there. After all, it is not yesterday that these districts started to make such a bad reputation for themselves. While Belgium is doing pretty well at exporting small arms and light military weapons (with the Middle East as prime market), it also seems to rank as a top exporter of Jihad, with the highest number of foreign fighters recruited by Syria and Iraq. How can these details be missed out systematically (or deliberately disregarded?) in a country of only 30,528 km²? Something is wrong in the picture.

Also, why would any country put the European Headquarters –presumably a main target for terrorists- right in the middle of the city and have a metro run just underneath? I’m sure one day I will get the point of this, but until then, all I see is EU employees being exposed to risk every day along with people who simply live in the area. How is that safe?

Last but not least, how can an international airport become so unsafe few days after a most-wanted terrorist is captured? Wasn’t it potentially the very first building that needed reinforced security, with the knowledge at hand that Salah Abdeslam had friends out there? Had this occurred months later, I would have understood that the Belgian intelligence and Police could have been caught off guard. As such, I struggle.  But it’s always a good thing to put the whole country back in lockdown after people died and many were injured. It gives a strong sense of reassurance. It is an attempt to show that the situation is under control. It isn’t.

I think someone needs a shake. I get red spots when I hear passive, resigned, powerless remarks such as Prime Minister Charles Michel’s: “We feared an attack and it happened”. It sounds as if “oups, we feared a tsunami would strike and so it happened”. This lax attitude is sadly pretty representative of how things “happen” at many levels in Belgium: slowly, painfully slowly. But while I can wait forever for a document to be sent to me by the Commune because they cannot decide whether to mail it in Flemish or in French, other things require immediate action. And now, getting the bad guys is one. No, this is no time to accept things as they come and pat security services on the back telling them they did all they could. Of all evidence, they could and should have done better. This cannot “happen” again. Because some things can be (here it is) prevented.

Luckily, there are services to be grateful for. Less referred to in the press but nonetheless pivotal, the hospitals doubled their staff and deployed all possible efforts in Brussels and throughout Belgium to receive and treat the wounded. Ambulance drivers, medical staff, firemen, Red-Cross and volunteers, donors, the whole country was mobilized to offer help to the attack victims or simply to one another. Solidarity was truly the watchword in the chaos that was 22nd March 2016. Taxis were free of charge in Brussels for the day to help commuters go back home and many people offered car sharing and accommodation when transport means were at a standstill. There is so much potential for good in us, humans.

The reactions extended beyond the Belgian borders. I haven’t yet counted the number of people who made my phone buzz the whole day and flooded my social media pages with their concern for me and their comforting messages. France, Germany, UK, The Netherlands, Romania, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Sumatra, India, United States, Canada – a whole universe of people was there for me offering priceless support. No doubt, multi-cultural, borderless friendship is a true blessing to be grateful for.

I get it: there is nothing more frightening or dangerous or hard to grasp than a human bomb, a being who only lives for the sole purpose to detonate himself/herself in a public place, making sure he/she never quits this world alone. There is nothing more evil and pathetic at the same time. Possibly, there is also hardly anything less foreseeable than the nature and behaviour of such individuals. But I refuse to think that we allow them to outnumber or outsmart professional intelligence and security services.

Today, the sun will not shine over Belgium or in my heart. But after we all bend our heads to keep a minute of silence, we have to stand up again and face tomorrow. And hopefully, we will wake up to more responsible leaders who take better actions and make faster decisions. Belgium, cry, wipe you tears and go back to business. There’s work to do.

Giving Love a Chance

IMG_4142My brain is an awfully selective instrument – breaking news and here here. Somewhere along the way of establishing my reading criteria it decided that books written by female authors displaying the word “Love” in the title were not of a burning interest to me. This is one of the reasons I have been postponing reading “Eat, pray, love” indefinitely, for instance , in spite of some passionate recommendations. Maybe because the storyline is all too familiar to me. Just by looking at the title, I feel that I already know what’s inside the book, and so the time manager side of my brains whispers: why would I invest time into reading something that is not new to me? The “L” word signals that there will be something cheesy, flowery and very girly that I am widely not interested in investing time into. Clearly, I had mentally labelled this type of books and carefully stored them in my own personal category of “Not my thing”. And I was very much convinced that that’s where they would stay.

Luckily, Waterstones (bless them for being open on Sundays) put “Love with a chance of drowning” into the “travel writing” section – my favourite part of their building. Headed for holidays, I decided I could do with a no-brainer, a type of read that wasn’t going to ask much of me. “Funny” – one of the reviews said. In an act of rebellion against my ready-made ideas, I become spontaneous, buy the book and give my too-serious self a kick in the “give me a break” pit. “I want to be girly. It’s my holiday”.

“Love with a chance of drowning”, as it turns out, is an exceptionally well-written book. It is so exciting, fun and vibrant that it drags you into the author’s world of exceptional adventures completely and that is precisely what I appreciate about a good book: the gripping effect. I enjoyed getting lost in those pages so much that the book became my mornings’ delight, a great companion to join me for my 6 a.m. coffee during my time in Ifaty, Madagascar. Caught in the flawless post-card picture that reunites coconut tree with the deep blue of the sky and ocean, the sun dancing gently in my hair, I sipped freshly brewed liquid at Chez Cécile and turned one page after the other. And even though my reality was simply perfect then and there, the book managed to snatch me away.

Click to order

For this is a book one cannot put down. One that will make you frown at a friend who wants to join you for coffee (and I think I must apologize here if such thing happened) and deter your attention away from the wonderful adventure that Torre and boyfriend are living on the Pacific ocean that makes the pages so alive. One that you will remember, because of the unique, honest and thrilling writing style. This is a true story, a love story, yes, one that is skillfully rendered through a personal mix of words. Torre DeRoche is inspired enough not to exaggerate on the romantic side of the story, but focuses more on the funny and adventurous journey of a girl who is afraid of the Ocean yet ventures into the Pacific to follow her significant other, discover the world and ultimately herself.

A very charming account of a trip of a lifetime experienced first-hand and narrated by a seriously talented writer. Love…all the way and a great travel read.

Check also Torre DeRoche’s blog Fearful Adventurer.

Travel solo, but take a book

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Few days back I found myself walking again under –this time – the lighter weight of a familiar load: my blue backpack. Slightly absent minded yet ready to get carried away towards my destination by a habitual combination of metro, bus and plane, something occurred to me for the too many-eth time: I literally started to walk into life with a book in hand. My father insists that this is how I fancied taking my very first steps as a toddler: by furtively grabbing a book and starting off with it in that funny walking fashion that reminds of a rough night at the pub. To give me better balance, dad caught me and put a second book under my other arm. And that was it: walking happened.

Wherever I travel to, trust me to always have a good book for company. I’m one of those people who actually enjoy silence and the possibility of introspection on the road. I like to listen to my thoughts and feed them, cultivate them, let them wander and come back to me deeper than before. During the camping evenings on the Inca Trail in Peru, wrapped up in a sleeping bag, I read “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer in my tiny tent, lighting the pages with a head torch. It felt greatly adventurous under the circumstances if slightly unsettling since it develops on the true story of a young man who discovers the freedom of ultimate solo travel but dies because of it. It is, no doubt here, an amazing read and a ravaging insight into a traveller’s soul that any person who is a wander at heart should dive into, I believe.

In preparation for a travel to Sumatra, Indonesia I started reading “Krakatoa – the Day the World Exploded” by Simon Winchester. Now that enhanced the thrill of the experience I was about to live and gave me a sense of where I was going, if ever my booking left me with any doubts: the Pacific Ring of Fire. The book is a complex account of one of the largest catastrophe’s the world has faced so far – the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, of course – and is sprinkled with a fair amount of local history as well as highlights of the glorious days of the first explorers and colonisers. It is interesting and documented, though rather charmless from a literary point of view. But if you’re headed to Indonesia, you might as well give it a chance.

And ah, South Africa! I first travelled in mind there thanks to the stimulating, romantic and absolutely mind racing stories of one of the best adventure writers alive, Wilbur Smith, and his Courtney series. The man had me dream of this country before I could actually see it. He clearly inspired me to travel there. Or was it Sean Courtney?

Travel mates can be buggers. Sometimes the landscape may not be particularly gratifying and for having counted a long series of leafless trees on a recent trip through the States and Canada I can confirm that watching out the window for long hours will not always leave you breathless. Maybe you’re bored and possibly can’t sleep. In those moments, what you really, really want is to open a book. My personal recommendation is to travel with Bill Bryson.

The first book I read by him was “Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe” and I found myself in the embarrassing circumstance of bursting into laughter in the public transport. So the danger is real and it’s reassuring to know that I was not an isolated case of this new (to me) kind of public embarrassment. As it turns out, there are more of us out there taking the metro with a Bill Bryson book, laughing their heads off and embracing the risk of being mentally labelled as poor innocents: http://bit.ly/1C5P0qL.

Bryson has become a sort of best friend and as it so happens with some best friends who do not live close by, I miss his humour, the enlightened, jovial tone of his stories and his personal travel undertakings which sometimes end in such a wonderfully comic catastrophe. His books are guaranteed to have a gripping, long-lasting effect on me.

I later went on with “Notes from a Small Island” which tells about his discovery and first-hand observations of  Britain and Britishness and continued with “Notes from a Big Country” where he wrestles with aspects of American life. Finally, I have just finished “A Walk in the Woods” and found it exceptional and as close to perfection as a book can get. Bryson is unbelievably gifted when it comes to decorticating details and explaining otherwise unfathomable and hard to describe feelings, thoughts and behaviours. How he puts that into such unique and mesmerising English is a source of wonder and makes me read his sentences again and again. Bill is magic. I can’t imagine anyone reading one of his books and not be immediately turned into a fan.

“A walk in the Woods” is about encounters:

I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the
Appalachian woods I would not be spared. It became evident from the first moment that she was a rarity.

But most of all, it is an invigorating encouragement to go hiking and lose yourself to the nature:

We took off our shoes and socks, rolled up our trousers, and stepped gingerly into the frigid water. The stones on the bottom were all shapes and sizes – flat, egg-shaped, domed – very hard on the feet, and covered with a filmy green slime that was ludicrously slippery. I hadn’t gone three steps when my feet skated and I fell painfully on my ass. I struggled halfway to my feet, but slipped and fell again; struggled up, staggered sideways a yard or two and pitched helplessly forward, breaking my fall with my hands and ending up in the water doggie-style. As I landed, my pack slid forward and my boots, tied to its frame by their laces, were hurled into a kind of contained orbit; they flew round the side of the pack in a long, rather pretty trajectory, and came to a halt against my head, then plunked into the water where they dangled in the current.

Moral of the story: read Bryson and/or travel with a book – it is bound to give you balance.

P.S. Though I firmly believe a book will always fit into a backpack, I might give Kindle a go one of these days to see how quickly I can adjust to modern day travelling. But I do love books in their printed version and what would make me at least as happy as great content is more use of recycled paper in the publishing industry. So that “A Walk in the Woods” can still be possible in years to come.

The right to remain silent

Source: the world wide web

Source: the world wide web

The world stood in shock this 7th January, 2015. Just another working day at a controversial satirical magazine in France, since long under the threat of terrorist attack for its provocative publishing of religious caricatures. Jihadists seeking revenge step into the editorial office and unload their Kalashnikovs all around, killing in cold blood. They will take other souls as well by the end of a mad man hunt that kept us all breathless for hours. Whether at work or in my car, I kept following the live broadcast of the developing events, chewing nervously one M&M after the other. The reporters shout whenever they receive ground-breaking information on the background of ambulance sirens or the sounds of hovering helicopters. Tension at its highest. We’re living exceptional times in terms of media coverage.

The tragedy triggered immediate international reaction and naturally united people in support of the victims and against all forms of terrorism. To which I wholeheartedly adhere. There have been a lot of talks including religious and immigration problems and the inherent responsibility of the States towards their minorities, lack of integration, etc. – in the heat of the moment, sensitive issues come to light. In this need for people to stick together, an idea worth militating for becomes the symbol people rush to hang on to: freedom of speech.

What happened is indescribably unjust, and there’s no discussion about that. But I watched the crowd campaigning for this emerging “Je suis Charlie” ideology and I grew worried. I’m sorry, but I cannot partake in a tendency in which freedom of speech is promoted as the liberty to say whatever, even when it offends and gravely disrespects others. While I express solidarity with all victims and their families and I am as outraged as any that such cruelty should take place, it would be hypocritical of me to pretend that now, all of a sudden, I defend what Charlie Hebdo was publishing under the label of freedom of speech.

Since when is freedom of speech an excuse for insulting people, cultures, religions that are clearly largely misunderstood and disrespected? Since when does the press, a major influencer on people’s minds and reactions nowadays (and by God, not everyone is an intellectual) has the right to provoke gratuitously when it comes to such sensitive topics as religion on the grounds that it is funny? Who of you who were out on the streets defending this kind of freedom of speech has truly laughed at the magazine’s caricatures back in the days? And should the press not better use its overwhelming power by being informative, instructive, meaningful, and let me push it a bit further, naively, maybe even play a role in appeasing racial/religious climate in a country where it is already tensed instead of literally opening a gate towards more conflicts and hatred and add fuel to the fire? Is that what freedom of speech has come down to and is that what people feel the need to defend nowadays?

Sad, if so. I am all for the freedom of speech, but there are also limits that should be self-imposed and that belong to common-sense and sensitivity towards those around us. If we decide to act selfishly and disregard issues that other cultures have deeply at heart by openly holding them up to ridicule, doesn’t it mean that we abuse our access to freedom of speech? Why not harm others with words and images just because we can? I was first taught “relevancy” when I started to write. If there’s a message, make sure it comes across. But what is the underlying purpose of saying that “Le Coran c’est de la merde?” I fear the freedoms that have been passed on to us are being largely misused and misunderstood nowadays and that everyone cries “freedom of speech” far too easily. Offending the other on the grounds of being funny is not something I can be supportive of.

I stand up for free press. The press that understands its power and stops feeding your kids with information they don’t need to see or hear. The press that knows it is strong enough to influence politics and decision-makers. That fights for the right cause not that keeps itself busy spreading fear, chaos, that brainwashes the audience and shows disrespect for the others simply because provocation sells well.

Forgive me, but I do happen to believe that press has a responsibility towards readers, citizens. Hence what you say demands a fair balance of information and reason. Press should not become just another example of cultural ignorance. Freedom of speech should be taken with moderation and respect. Otherwise, paradoxically, the freedoms we have come to acquire will only enhance chaos. I have a friend in China who could tell me a word or two about how precious the right to freedom of speech is. Use it well. Ultimately, maybe an inherent part of the freedom of speech is also the freedom to realize when it’s a good moment to remain silent.

P.S. I’m sure that if we all were to take the streets and march against every single bomb that blows up in other corners of the world as well and against the fact that to date roughly 805 million people struggle with hunger, we would have a much better world.

I’m wrong therefore I am

Learning to tame windmills rather than tilting at them

Learning to tame windmills rather than tilting at them

The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. (Philip RothAmerican Pastoral)

Whenever I feel lost with regard to human nature and behaviour, whenever I feel that I’m missing a piece of the puzzle, when I start wondering if getting people wrong is some special sort of gift that only I of all people must have inherited, I turn to Roth. I spent some time with him and his long sentences during my years as a student, wrote half of my dissertation on one of his books and read 9 others. I never ceased to have anything but an escalating admiration for this grumpy man’s lucidity and gripping writing style.

Roth “talks” as if he knew life itself. As if he’d understood the mystery of it. He takes life and moulds it into words – that’s his power. He translates life for us. He chooses human tragedy because it’s endlessly rich: no need to get optimistic with Roth, life is a game at which we all lose; we are doomed to fail from the start and he’s there to remind us, in captivating ways, that we cannot fight conditions and truths that are beyond us. Downfall is his favourite character.

American Pastoral is about the struggle to make sense of people, which inevitable ends in failure even when it comes to the closest ones. About how little we can do to change them or help them or make them see life in the same colours as we do. About how powerless one always is when it comes to someone else. How love, the strongest of feelings is an insufficient ingredient when it comes to “saving” people from themselves and bringing them on the “right” path. How life can and sometimes does go wrong. It is about watching one’s own incapacity to change the course of the game. Helplessness is a crushing feeling. The understanding and acceptance of it are killers, too.

Getting someone wrong takes time and patience. We get people wrong because we have expectations, we make assumptions and we filter the others through our own intimate system of values, secretly wanting them to be the same as us. More often than not, we imagine people to be someone they’re not, we create a hologram, a projection. It comforts us to pretend we understand them while most of the times we do not truly understand ourselves.

We spend time studying someone, thinking we might capture fragments of the soul beneath the skin, that in time and by paying the utmost attention we will finally get to the bottom of the obsession and end up understanding that someone. Isn’t this what we all want, to figure someone inside out, no more questions, no more doubts? To solve the equation taking place somewhere among the brain, personality, reactions, and emotions and finally have a break from this exhausting study and say: “Now I know who you really are!” It would be such a relief, such an amazing solution to save energy, time, ourselves. One look into someone’s eyes to get all the certainty and comfort we’ve been looking for to reach perfect equilibrium. How precious would that be?

Roth sets the record straight mercilessly, like it or not. There is no understanding people. We’re chasing an illusion. It would seem indeed much more reasonable to start from the conviction that eyes cannot be read, that gestures can only be interpreted and that the complex human in front of us is too multifaceted, too intricate a mechanism to decipher in a lifetime. Still, each with our own tactics, we all try to break the code. We are a fascinating species.

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion.

I often sin by allowing myself to get caught in this natural, primal instinct of wanting to understand people, to have an explanation for everything. Roth punches me in the nose and gives me back my clear vision. And therein lays the Roth supremacy: he knocks one to the ground with one crude food-for-thought observation that puts things into perspective. Why walk the painful road to understanding?

I intend to keep observing people (after all, being insightful is part of my quest as a writer) but, like a harmful vice, I will try to give up the need to understand them. Let us be a bit more wrong about one another every day and deal with it, accept it as part of life’s mischievous games! Maybe even enjoy it.

Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.

Florence, the Machine and Almost Us

Florence concert

When I fell in love with Florence + the Machine, they were scheduled for a concert in Antwerp, Belgium, but it was already sold out. Surfing the World Wide Web, my eyes roll in my head like a casino slot machine when I find out that there are tickets on sale for their concert in Luxembourg, just around the corner. Crazed with enthusiasm, I contact my other band freak, Roxana. Two email exchanges and we have a deal. The group was performing on Wednesday, November 28th, and she was joining me from Romania for a Jason Mraz concert the day after anyway. It was in the cards.

But God works in mysterious ways. And probably that day when we went to Luxembourg He just wanted to be entertained and picked us for the job. For me, he booked one hell of a week. On Monday I took off at 6 a.m. with my team to Sweden for an intensive two-day team building, at the end of which I was just dreaming to get some sleep. And while I was making myself ridiculous doing traditional Swedish dances triggered by good wine, Roxana was quietly waiting for me in my apartment in Brussels. Having failed to synchronise due to my departure, I hadn’t seen her before I left but managed to pass her the keys to my apartment via a common friend.

I landed back in Brussels on Wednesday morning, after a short night’s sleep brutally interrupted by my 4 a.m. phone alarm clock. At eightyish we were back in the office. The concert is in Luxembourg at 8 p.m. and there’s no snow in view. It should take us 3, max 3.30 hours to get to the hotel which Rox kindly booked five minutes away on foot from the concert place, I say to myself. So I go home to collect my friend and hit the road. I’m a bit delayed on my way, however, because as soon as I take the main road I am stopped by the Police for having a dead headlight. I know, that’s one of the reasons my car failed the technical inspection, officer!

I am released and I finally get to my place. Rox is there, and she came with plenty of goodies from my other country. Happy times. We fuel up and start the journey.

Apart from having a dysfunctional left headlight, my car also has a faulty heating system, in that it does not work. At all. So that by the time we reached Luxembourg, we were barely able to articulate, we lost contact with our toes, and my hand was somehow glued on the gear stick. But hey, we could have run out of gas somewhere on the highway between two gas stations! So we see the positive sight of being only five minutes away from the concert hall, we park, get the room and get some booze to warm up. After all, we are on holiday.

Two bottles of whatever alcoholic beverage later, we dress up for the concert. We walk at a slow pace; we’re not too far, anyway. Ten minutes to 8 p.m. we’re in front of den Atelier, the music club hosting Flo and her machine. But surprise, shock, bewilderment: the courtyard is empty and all the lights in and outside the building are off. We check the street and the number; it still looks like we are in the right place. “They cancelled,” screams Rox, “they must have cancelled!” But when we examine the black-and-white printed tickets, we see the very small, barely legible letters of a second address taking shape in the upper corner of the paper. We started to doubt that we were in the right place.

We then take to plan B. Which is: get to this presumably correct address as soon as possible. Rox is a freaking walking and talking satellite, and is armed day and night with a fully working GPS, so she immediately checks the location. CIA would be jealous. “The good news”, says the intelligence agent undercover “is that we are not too far: 20 minutes by car.” The bad news, I think, is that I had a drink. If I am as lucky as in the morning and am halted by the Police again, this might become an extra problem, considering that my car did not succeed the technical inspection. But, anyway, we were so close and Rox and I are not exactly the type of persons who are easily discouraged. So we take the car, I stop on the bus lane because it just happens to be in front of our hotel and because Rox needs to pick up my driver licence to give us a sense that we were somehow behaving responsibly.

So I speed up to this new place, hoping to catch at least a small part of this concert that we made a long way to see. Rox is directing me, iPhone in hand. We arrive in a place where cars are parked on the sidewalk. This must be the concert hall. Rox is so high-spirited she could actually jump out of the car as I drive at full speed. “We can leave it here,“ she voices her enthusiasm, showing me a side of the road that could have been a good parking place, had it not been blocked by a big monolith. “We can move the stone,” she goes on, now clearly eager to jump. Looking at the size of that stone, I decided to drive around some more. Rox did her best to persuade me to park in some other illegal places, too, but I remained resolute: after all, we could use the car as a means of transport to go back as well. We finally found a real three-store parking, but since there were only 20 empty spaces left, it took us a while before we finally found one.

We run out of there looking backwards, trying to memorise our geographical position. We follow the crowd into a big building and when we ask about the concert, we are amazed to find out that Florence + the Machine will only start their show in one hour. What the hell was on our tickets?

We split to queue up for beers and pizzas. We now finally relax and look around: we are at Rockhal in Esch-sur-Alzette, in southern Luxembourg, a nice place looking like a hangar that could hold an impressive number of people. We head towards the stage, ready for the concert, and the lights go dim. The crowd starts to cheer, possessed by the excitement that precedes a major concert. We are left in complete darkness, colourful lights start to play around us, and then the intro…Florence and the Machine take the stage in a storm of applause and shouts. “She is not from this planet,” says Rox. Indeed, Florence Welch is not an earthly creature, at least she does not sound like one. It was a great night. Mission accomplished!

Later on we were to realize that the accurate address was highlighted in red letters on the original tickets. Having printed them in black and white only, this turned out slightly difficult for us to detect.

What’s in a box?

Tiny, big, carton, coloured boxes…they wrap up a piece of our existence. Indispensable when we move from one place to another, they keep our belongings locked-up, a small universe that we hide from the rest of the world.

Part of the “putting in the box” process is also choosing what to leave aside. Throwing away things that are not worth keeping anywhere near anymore. Things that do not make sense to the present and that certainly do not belong to the future. The decision making…Packing the obsolete or not. The hesitation…how valuable is the past? Do I need? Do I want? This one goes in, this one goes out. The boxes say something about the way in which we organise our lives.

Boxes work on a “close” and “open” principle. If Pandora (the equivalent of Eve in the Greek mythology and as disobedient as her) had not opened (suspense!) that bloody box, how much trouble would we have been spared? That woman left us with a box full of hope only. And it was actually a jar.

Miroslaw Balka, a Polish sculptor and a man who obviously thinks out of the box, gave some careful consideration to this object and literally built an extra size one for us to hop in. I was lucky enough to try his “Black Box” sensory experience four years ago at the TATE Modern and the piece of art made quite an impression on me. It is haunting to get a perspective from the “inside”, to walk in complete darkness, not knowing where the void will end and to hear the sound of emptiness with every step. Balka’s box contains us and causes us to confront with our capacity to “feel” around. It is so scary that I was grateful he did not block the way out. Sometimes we need to be confined to better understand freedom.

Today, I felt like praising the Box, its limitations and its possibilities.