35-50 year olds occupy a profound place in history. Young enough to fully integrate and adapt to the internet, old enough to have lived important parts of our lives before it arrived. It’s a privileged position, but one that leaves us permanently dislocated & unsettled.
No one else can see what we see, or feel so clearly what has happened. No one has really described it properly yet, but it’s our generation’s task to do it. We’re the only ones in a position to tell the story of one of humanity’s great transformations in true first-person
This quote sets the stage of the story I am about to tell. I really feel these words, and couldn’t have articulated them better. I think people belonging to this generation have a very unique bond.
I will start with some contextual background.
Twenty years ago. We are in early 2001 in Provence, in the South of France. I am a French-Russian teenager and my German teacher, Ulf Sahlmann, takes me aside and tells me I really needed to catch up. At the time, I was in a special class, called « Abi-Bac ». The academic expectations were higher and I was dealing with incredible heartache as I experienced my first break-up, as well as a traumatic loss to suicide of someone I looked up to. Early adulthood sucked so far. On top of that, the usual intense teen angst. Pondering what was the meaning of all of this.
During these years I wrote constantly, drew, listened to music (CDs and MiniDiscs), and read several books at the same time; activities that helped forge the person I am today: curious, creative, and thirsty for adventure. As of today, I don’t draw or listen to music as much anymore and read way less now. My attention has been sucked in by the mass information out there as well as those digital devices notifying you of « nothing ». All of which is doing more harm than good it seems.
So what’s the deal about talking about the past?
For some people, it may sound like nostalgia, like it’s a bad thing, and looking at the present or the future is the way to go. As I approach my forties, it just feels like I have to record this historical era because we have switched to something else, I have no words to describe, it’s like a « digitalized and synthetic world » you know. The matrix turned real?
Currently, my approach is to try understanding and decrypting patterns. It’s also a therapeutic process for me, and diving into things that happened in the past helps me understand some of these personal patterns that shed a light on why I react how I do today. It also helps me find a certain sense of peace and acceptance of the world I am living in. In a nutshell: my intention is archiving and self-reflection; and writing about it, is part of it.
So let’s get back to the story and the context of today.
Five months ago, during the summer of 2021. All the personal belongings I stored in an Alpine city in Austria which included countless letters, artwork, and more, were washed away by torrential floods.
A few weeks later, I flew there to clean up my stuff and save what I could save. Including a family heirloom: an Orthodox icon that was passed down from mother to daughter.
It was during the process of sorting, cleaning, and throwing away, that I rediscovered what I wrote in various journals as a teenager. I also found countless letters I received, old photographs I took, old negatives, drawings, even a posthumous letter to myself I couldn’t read any longer.
I realized that I had a bit of a precognitive mindset at the time, I deeply felt that everything was temporary and I wanted to keep a trace of the time that was slipping away so quickly. I always dated what I drew and wrote. At that age you want to be « free », become an adult, live on your own, basically, you want your independence, but somehow I knew it all came with a price, or rather, if you gain one thing, you lose another. It was as if I was disillusioned already but ready to play my “character” anyway.
During those years I took self-portraits with a polaroid because I knew my youth will fade away. I also tried to take self-portraits with my analog camera on black and white film, because I would choose the ones that turned out ok myself. Was a bit of a process of figuring out what connects appearances with our inside world.
At that time I also realized that men outside my circle were looking at me because of my youthful appearance as if I could read their minds. It’s also why I dressed the way I dressed, which wasn’t that feminine. I didn’t want to catch weird eyes or annoying catcalling. They were a lot of creepy guys staring at you in the South of France. I realized that it was not normal when I moved to Berlin Germany many years later, because men behaved in a more civilized way in Northern Europe. In the South, it’s macho land, creepy old men lurking on girls wearing light clothes because it’s warm most of the year. Anyway, I digress.
People who visit as tourists think it’s so historical, beautiful, the lavender fields, etc. but when you live there year-round, as a girl, your experiences differ a bit. It was partially why I ended up moving to Normandy and loved being in Brittany. No place is perfect, but you tend to have certain priorities at different times of your life.
I remember that a friend from boarding school gave me as a gift her dad’s pants he didn’t wear anymore because I thought they were original. The truth is, I just wanted to « filter » the creeps out, the first step is appearance. What an interesting limbo to be in, you’re torn between wanting to attract the ones you want to connect with intellectually, etc., and wanting to effectively filter out the abundance of creeps and predators. Anyway, fast forward to today, my strategy worked quite well.
Back to my memorabilia or mementos.
Of course, everything that was ink on paper was barely readable. Here are some of the images of the floods. My belongings were stored at the ground level, so imagine, how it felt like a miracle I could recover anything.
This is how I traveled back in time, circa 1999-2002.
In France, students with good enough results, are following an upper-secondary academic track, leading to the baccalauréat examinations after three years of study. In my case, I attended an international school that offered boarding for all the students following the language specialty track, but for the most part, it was a regular day school. All of us, in either the German or English section, would stay overnight and live together during the week.
My schedule differed from a regular High-School student in France. My weeks were heavily German-focused with something like 6 hours of German literature in German, and 4 hours of History and Geography in German per week. The rest of my subjects such as Philosophy, French Literature, Sciences were taught in French. My High-School was a bit different because it was specializing in language programs, in both English and German at the time. Before you could get admitted, you had to pass a language test in either English or German, then you’d follow an intensive program to earn a bilingual High-School diploma in the last year of « terminale » (senior year).
In the early 2000s, it was not that common but they were several schools offering these programs. They required better teachers, often native speakers themselves. In 1999, I passed the entrance exam and enrolled in the German section, from 1999 until 2002, the year I earned that degree.
I am writing in English now, but quite frankly, I never liked English, I wasn’t great at it and I studied it quite late (it’s my fourth language) and I am still not realizing that 20 years later, it’s my daily language of communication. What are the odds, right?
Back to my German teacher. So he told me that my grades in German literature were going downhill and the expectations were getting higher and higher and I really needed to pick myself up if I wanted to succeed. With everything that was going on, I realized I had to suck it up and get it together. So in spring 2002, a few months before the final exams I got the opportunity to visit family friends in Bavaria, Germany, and spend time going to school there for a week. I attended their final year, equivalent to the senior year, but compared to France, they were one year older. In Germany, you are 18 to 19, when you sit for the Allgemeine Hochschulereife (Abitur or Abi) examination, in France, it’s usually 17-18.
I attended classes along with my childhood friend who was also preparing for his final exam in 2002. It was in Bavaria, in the city of Ingolstadt, at the Apian Gymnasium. I knew this school quite well, I have been there several times when summer break started in France, as an exchange student if you will except that no one was coming to France in return.
This is when I sat next to this guy at bottom of the class. It was for the course of “Ethics”, a bit like the equivalent of our French senior year class of “Philosophy”. In Germany, you could choose “Religion” or “Ethics”. I was trying to follow but my attention wasn’t quite there. I really wanted to communicate and make friends but, without falling into clichés, it was not that easy with Germans. These students were older too and my childhood friend and I, grew quite apart with years. My explanation of this growing apart was accentuated by the different societies we evolved in, me in France and him in Germany.
So I sit next to this guy, he seemed a bit introverted but somehow friendly. We got along and I later followed him to his car to go for a ride. He took me to this nice area, with some kind of lake or body of water. We talked for a while and I got unwell and he brought me back to the train station.
Once I got home, I realized it was the last opportunity for me to see him, as I was to return to France. My memory is a bit cloudy, I believe I stayed a week, or more, or maybe it was less… so what I did is take the yearbook of my friend and take a picture on black and white film so that eventually I can have some information to reconnect in the future. Freaky right?
Well, it took 20 years for me to finally find him. I couldn’t remember his last name and the email addresses we kept at that time were not really emails we still use nowadays. I don’t even know if I tried emailing. Also, I am not in touch with the family that hosted me at the time, which is unfortunate because I grew up with them. So I had no leads. Somehow it stayed in the back of my mind. Hard to explain why you don’t forget certain encounters.
So a few days ago, I scrolled through all the photos I took of my sorted items in Austria this summer, this is how I came across this picture of a yearbook. I had to really squint my eyes hard and figure out his last name. In the middle, you see the list of names, and it’s barely legible. I tried zooming in on my phone, tried different versions, and just tried my luck on a search engine, and bingo! We all change but there is something in the eyes of a person that doesn’t. During a time when we’re supposed to connect via zoom, teams, and whatnot, we can’t help but know it in our guts that nothing replaces face-to-face interactions with real human beings. It’s not always about the words, and language, it’s about experiences and body language that doesn’t translate on digital at all. This entire story reminded me how valuable it is to meet in person, spend time with one another physically especially now that we’re not able to do it as freely as before. It also reminded me to experience things together, ideally positive and uplifting experiences. No Instagram, Reels, or selfies will ever compare to face-to-face human bonding. I truly cherish and remember everyone I met “off the digital grid”.
Below is a self-portrait, I took in Münchsmünster, Bavaria, Germany, circa Spring 2002 on the day or the next day of hanging out with Lorenz. I think I closed my eyes because I was imagining. I just didn’t know where to look, as I was alone in this room with no idea what this photo was good for. I just thought to convey something peaceful was enough to be captured. I spent some of the most amazing summer days in that town, and in a way, it symbolized the end of childhood.
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