Mary Mann

a woman in a city


The summer has gone and people are slowly withdrawing back in their flats. The truths about summerdreams start to float at the surface of autumnlife. The blond, cute guy I kinda fell in love with is now married. He travelled with his new love to Istanbul and married there, this Sunday they will get their rings tattood and they give a party in his flat here in the city. The other guy I liked also found his true love near the end of august. He met her at a festival on an island. And as for me, well, it turned out very well with this Iranian guy. We kissed, made love, we saw ‘Layla o Majnun’,

and ‘Romeo and Julliet’.

We talked about true love till death will part us. But then I bumped into a culture gap too wide too cross for the moment. Every time I saw him, he said:

‘I hate all black people.’

‘You’re a racist.’

‘No, it’s not their skin colour. It’s the way they act and talk. Their voices are too loud, their gestures too dynamic.’

One time he said this when I had just returned from a week together with four Congolese people. All week long I had danced, shaking my ass as if my life depended on it. I had discussed Congolese versus Western life with them. It had not been easy, it’s hard to overcome prejudices, from both sides. After that week, I could not kiss with my Arab love, saying he hated black people. So I decided to break up the dream we had shared for a couple of weeks. Now the leaves are turning yellow and red, and I am left alone in my flat.



I am visiting Documenta – Kassel. I am staying in the house of a painter. She used to live in Switzerland. Everything was higher there: the standard of living, respect for one another, the mountains. But when she turned pregnant, she didn’t want to stay abroad and raise her children in a land where she was a foreigner. Maybe now she would make a different decision. Also about the order: first came family, then a carreer. Now, when her hairs are turning grey, she’s got time for painting.

For me a family is not yet one of my concerns. I’d like it to be so, though. This summer I have been meeting men, each week another one. As if I am organising job interviews. The last one that came for the application, was an Afghan refugee. He had three jobs overthere: (cultural) interpreter at an American camp, professor English at the university, politician. He tried to participate in the democratic elections, but democracy is still a utopia in Afghanistan. He got 1500 votes, according to the computer, and he got two bombs in his car and twenty bullets in his car door. He decided to flee.

He wants eleven children, I want two. That’s gonna be difficult. He believes in Allah, I don’t, that’s gonna be difficult. He comes from a country where women need to be good in cooking and cleaning, I want a carreer. Still I like him and I can even imagine falling in love with him. He’s smart, his views are intelligent, he’s broad-minded.

In Kassel, there’s a lot of Afghan artist. For example Lida Abdul, who made a beautiful filmic poem about planting a flag in a lake.

Maybe it is possible to meet and talk, even if people come from lands far, far away. Maybe, once upon a time, there was an Afghan knight wandering the fields and a European princess locked up in an ivory tower. He slaught the dragon of distance and she saw it, hung her long hairs out of her window and he climbed into the tower.


Tonight I’m leaving the city to visit my niece in the countryside. She’s living in a renovated farm twice as big as the house I am sharing with four more people. She’s living their with her husband, no kids yet, but to come, I guess, if I see the slide and the swings in their garden. She had cooked lasagne with fresh vegetables of her garden. We sit outside and I enjoy the fresh air and the silence. My longues can take a break of their daily fight with the polluted city air. It’s been a while since I’ve seen my niece. It’s always a while since I’ve seen her. Our lives are very different. She’s working for a company, a global one, transferring goods from one side of the world to the other. She’s living the nine to five structure while I am a freewheeler. She’s got a car, I use public transport. She goes to Paris on a city-trip, I go to Paris to meet friends. She speaks different languages at her office desk, I speak different languages with my friends. And so on. The same blood runs through our veins though, and I’m touched when she tells me the story of her father, my uncle, visiting Bangladesh, for business. His first trip ever to a different continent. His first trip ever without his wife, even the first fortnight without his wife. He got terribly homesick, called my aunt every day, telling how much he missed her. He saw third world poverty for the first time and when he came back home, he told his children they should never ever complain anymore. And he also told them a funny anecdote about miscommunication. One evening, he ordered breakfast for the next morning:

“An English breakfast please with coffee, I’ve got to be up at seven.”

Five minutes later he got his English breakfast, with seven-up.

He got totally lost in translation…

My niece tells this story of a Moroccan colleague of her: the company wanted to open an office in Cassablanca. They ask this young Moroccan lad to go their, together with his female colleague Lindsay, to negotiate the conditions with the local Moroccan staff. Because, so the company thinks, Souffian speaks the language of the country. It’s an amazing interesting carreer move for the freshly graduated businessman. Souffian takes off, together with Lindsay, to Cassablanca. When they meet up with the Moroccan partners, Souffian starts talking in his mothertongue. The Moroccan party feels insulted, because Souffian turns out to be a Berber. Berbers were the original habitants of the region, but they were conquered by the Arabs. Their status nowadays in Morocco is low on the social scale. They are looked upon as backward farmers of the mountains. So the Moroccan/Arab traders turn to Lindsay to settle the deal in French. Souffian feels insulted, gets terribly mad, looses his temper. On top of that, on their way back home, it turns out that he had lost his ID during their stay. He can’t leave the country (the customs think he’s a refugee) and he is locked up in prison for three days. Upon his arrival back here, he was fired. Misconduct. I discuss the case with my niece. I say I understand that Souffian got so mad. Because here, in the country where he lives, he is also dangling at the bottom end of the social ladder. My niece understands that, but, she sais, how he behaved could not be tolerated. You should always be in control of your temper, she sais.

At the end of the evening, my niece gives me a ride back to the station. While we’re waiting for the train (it’s the first time that she comes in this station), she gives me a compliment. I think this is the first time in my life she actually directs a positive note towards me:

‘I think it’s brave of you to live in the city.’ Instead of shedding it off as a typical opinion from a narrow-minded villager, I accept the compliment and I think: ‘Yes, maybe it is brave.’

When I arrive home there’s a party going on in the house next to us. It’s a very good DJ and I dance in my garden, bare feet on the terrace, looking up at the few stars you can still see in the city, and I wonder how much bravery is needed to enjoy wild summer city eves.

the end of the self

The city is cooling down and so am I. The philosopher once again invited me at his place. My eyes take snapshots of pages in the books that are spread out on the table. Koolhaas: the generic city – cities loose their history and their identity – like hotel chains new cities are built, old cities rebuilt – disneyfication of history. I try to construct thoughts that make sense, like: does that mean the end of individualism? All these ‘I’’s become a ‘We’ that is manipulated by capitalist forces: the generic I. People lose their identity – their history. Freud made every father and mother into parents of an Electra or an Oedipus. The generic I falls in love with a young boy resembling his father, or a young girl resembling his mother. The generic I is looking for love and happiness in the fruit and vegetable department of the supermarket. A Thai pineapple a day keeps the American doctor away. The generic I buys generic music in generic music stores. I think of this documentary, the century of the self.

The philosopher interrupts my thoughts. I type out his ideas in the computer. He tells about mythology, its origins, and if I start interrupting him, the topic changes into erotica. A professor and his assistant. Bettina and Goethe. It’s a cliché, and we’re both annoyed by it. We are two generic I’s behaving according to the laws shaped by centuries of male dominated universities. We go swimming in his swimming pool, drink wine, smoke, and we end up in a soap: he is married and has got four happy children. I’m a young woman at the verge of everything, not enough a virgin anymore to sit innocently on a terrace with a smart, older man. I enjoy the warmth of safety that comes with age. He makes fantasies of going to a sexclub together. I wonder whether these clubs succeed in making even sex generic. My body is less philosophic than my mind is, so at the end of the evening all I long for is a kiss. That’s forbidden. We bought accept the limits of our love for eachother. I hope I’ll find my way in history without him. I go to sleep with stomach ache.

Lost track of the numbers

The city is hot and burning and thousands of people escape by trains to the seaside. So do I. Or, so I did. Last weekend I enjoyed the cool waves and the refreshing sea breeze. Now I’ve got to work and I am locked again between city walls. This morning I had to give advise to a lad who wants to make a theatre play out of ‘O brother where art thou.’ I never saw this movie, I think, so I watch the trailer.

The lad gets instantly happy if he sees the movie clip. It’s a young handsome fellow, talking openly about the shit he went through. About his mother who only stopped drinking the moment everybody had given up on her. I trap myself that I don’t dare to speak that open about the shit in my family. About the bankruptcy of the family business. The drugs and the alcohol circulating between nephews and uncles. The poverty and the social houses. My parents hiding all this for me. With all their optimistic and good intentions. Something is bothering me the last days, something that stops me from instant happiness. I can not put my finger on it. Maybe it’s the jealousy I noticed when I saw all these young couples with their children at the beach. Maybe it’s an impatience for my next project to begin. Maybe it’s my slinking bank account. Maybe it’s the realisation that some problems in life and in the world will never be solved. The tiredness of fighting. And hoping. Maybe I don’t make enough love. Maybe it’s just the heat, pushing all movements down, suffocating each drop of bustling energy. Maybe it’s a kind of boredom that slipped into my dailylife. Or the rebounce of moving to the city: wandering alienated through the streets, not knowing many people, not even trying to say hello, make contact. Maybe it’s the horrible, cracked up voice of my neighbour, yelling at her children all day long. Maybe it’s this book I’m reading, the map of love, about the difficulty of intercultural contact and the sharp aches of love. Maybe I need a beer….


Five tips for ‘maeutic flirting’. This would mean something like: flirting without focussing on each others body. Full concentration on interesting topics and challenging debates. Here we go:

1. Give a newspaper article to the person you want to flirt with (further on referred to as X), handling a topic you two recently discussed. Eg ‘Lying damages your health’. This article, if possible, gives scientific evidence for an opinion X stands for. X will laugh out loud and say: ‘See, it’s true, if people tell less lies, they have less stomach aches and head aches.’

2. Propose to go on a photo shoot. Say you’ve found a nice costume and you need a random person to wear it and take certain poses. You can make jokes about bad directors and the kick they get out of their dominant position (‘to the left, a little bit more, no, go back!’), thus hiding your own kick you get out of being in control.

3. Bring food. Preferably a dish you cooked yourself. Even more preferably a recipe you invented yourself, eg. lentils with tomato sauce and a banana yoghurt dressing. Make sure the banana tastes well with the tomato.

4. Not to do: propose that X can come over to sleep on your coach. Especially when you have already shared a bed with X before and did some expeditions on each other that were not maeutical/dialectic at all! X will feel insulted that X is put away on your coach and, although maybe you are proposing this because you are ashamed of your bed or bedroom, X will feel rejected.

5. Not to do: if X is saying how happy X is feeling tonight, how beautiful the stars, how marvellous this evening, warn X for her euphoric state. Remind her of all the troubles in life and make sure X stops smiling.

–> It might be that X ends up in this euphoric state thanks to you! Please, do enjoy the results of your maieutic flirting efforts and don’t go into questioning the bigger issues of life.

Despite my intention to try out maieutic flirting myself, I found myself in the position of X. The handsome DJ really did a good job, but then screwed it up by acting out points 4 and 5. I cycled away at midnight to go and sleep on the coach of a befriended couple of mine.


The city is hot and lazy and I’m sitting languidly on a bank. Pain. As if my uterus punishes me every month more severely for the unborn children I spit into this world. If chickens suffer as much I do each time they are laying an unfertilized egg, battery cages are even worse torturing machines than I already thought. At 2 p.m. the pharmacist opens. I’m going to treat myself to a painkiller. A black tramp comes and goes sitting next to me on the bank. He’s rattling about ‘destination’ (tell me all about it) and ‘diamonds’ (where?) and ‘white bitches’ (glance at me) and ‘other worlds’ (wish I was there) and ‘prenatalaty’ (killing me for the moment). The concept ‘maieutics’ crosses my mind, but I don’t think Socrates ever really gave birth. So typical for men to do, comparing philosophical chitchatting with anatomical kid squatting. If I ever give birth (shall it be the same pain I’m feeling now?), I hope there will be a real midwife, and not a black tramp exercising his dialectical method. Forgive me my bitterness, but once in a month, it’s all sickness and tears and heavy legs and lower back aching and a cramped uterus. And blood stains everywhere. The pharmacist gives me a painkiller especially developed for women.

I was going for a swim, but I don’t think my uterus will be fond of the cold water today. So I lay down at the beach next to the swimming pool. Some brave fathers take a dip into the river with their sons. They scream out loud. I wonder what is more difficult to bear: the cold temperature of the water, or the pollution. At this riverside there’s still an old windmill. The swimming pool annex restaurant are lying under its wings. At the other shore the harbour stretches out. A church has disappeared under the sand that has been sprayed on it. Only the tower is still visible, a lonely landmark of humanity between the petroleum refineries and cooling towers. I think of a Finnish documentary I once saw, ‘Paimen’ (‘Shepherd’) about a Belgian shepherd in the harbour of Antwerp, leading his flock through the industrial badlands.

The painkiller is getting active. I get a refill of energy. Tonight there’s a music festival. I’ll be able to go there. I will meet up with that handsome DJ again. Not feeling sexy though. Not at all. But maybe flirting has more components than only physical ones? Maybe I must invent ‘maieutic flirting’ tonight. For tips and tricks, please check in tomorrow again.


In the morning I get a call from the philosopher. He’s in trouble, so he sais. I take my bike and cycle through the city. My ears still used to the calm canal get over tensed by the alarms and sirens and horns. After conquering the city noise, I end up in the oasis where he lives.  Whether I can help him out with the editing of his new book? The deadline is tomorrow. For the next three hours, I put references in footnotes. Meanwhile, he is writing a new article about the Urban Empire. He looks like Gandalph the Grey, but with sex-appeal.

He sais: “Your hair is beautiful, but you’ve got dandruff. You should use nizoral shampoo.”

He sais: “Please take a chair if you come watch my screen. You look like this kind of person that easily gets a backache.”

I don’t show I’m insulted.

After three hours, my hands feel lame, my wrists ache, my eyes have a double vision and my head zooms, but all the references to Foucault and Agamben and Aristotle are down at the pages.

He sais: “Let’s go for a walk in the cemetery.”

I ask: “Do you know someone there?”

He sais: “That is a good question.”

I guess this is one of the biggest compliments one might get from a philosopher.

We walk through the ruined graves. The trees have grown through the gravestones. The bushes are overwhelming the crosses. Some graves have lost their sidewalls so you could easily hide a new body in it. Here and there a family tomb with recent additions. And also an underground corridor with lots of plaques. A pain in the ass of the city government who would have liked to put a subway here. Hundred meter further the highway is snoring. The basilica is located next to the busiest crossing in the city.

He sais: “Ain’t it beautiful? The obelisks. The monuments. The statues. All these lamenting women, petrified on the graves. And look here, the thinker of Rodin.”

We look at the bronze mass of muscles, pretending he’s having a hard time carrying his head. He’s looking down on a magnificent tomb.







I say: “This girl was 18 years old when she died. Maybe she commited suicide.”

He sais: “Or she died of TBC.”

His daughter entered the office this morning. In pajamas. She’s got re-sits. She’s studying psychology. She didn’t seem very fond of me being there. She reminded me of myself as a teenager, coming down for breakfast on Sunday morning, finding the table full of friends of my brother, me feeling ashamed because he hadn’t warned me and I didn’t wash my hair.

The philosopher sais: “It’s a pity the weather is that bad. I had imagined we would sit together at the swimming pond, talking, discussing, drinking. Maybe smoking the plants I’ve got in my garden. Honouring Dionysus.”

And he sais: “I’ve got so many notes, scribbled down on loose ends. About the origin of erotica. Maybe we can write something about that together?”

I ask: “How was your time in Turkey? Is she released, your friend?”

He sais: “No. I wouldn’t have thought so anyway.”

She’s in prison for a year now. She is a human right’s activist. The Turkish government didn’t like that. He went to the trial in Istanbul.

I wonder whether I’m scared, and if so, why. He’s teaching at three universities. His wife’s got the same name as I have. His daughters grew up in the same safe harbour as I did.

“Writing together. Yes, I’d love to.” I say.

On my way home, my bike falls down to pieces. Because of the bad roads in this city, the screws thrilled out. I have to walk all the way home, on high heals, wearing my heavy laptop, up the mountain.



The sun is rising. We are waiting to pass the lock. The last one of this journey. The lockkeeper is a slow Latin guy. A young handsome lad. Lazy maybe, that’s what my brother told me, that the lockjobs are taken by lame students that wanna have a nice tan at the end of summer. The friend of my father, tanned but wrinkled, is muttering. That lad is too slow, he sais, and too pretty and flourishing for your jealous eyes, I think. I ignore his grumbles and think of the party yesterday. I was not there, but I guess this lockkeeper was. We passed the city yesterday evening. We sailed through the basses of a hiphop festival. My body trembled and I remembered Dionysus. But the old men jumped over this wave of bustling sizzling youth energy and moored the boat in the quietness of the fields and forests. They kidnapped their lady in red.

Barbecuing at the deck under the stars, I tried not to fall in love with them. I could be their daughter. It could have been me, jumping of that shopping mall, crawling back to her father, begging for forgiveness and understanding, hungering for wisdom and some solutions and a key for life. We ate lamb chops and made jokes about perishing beauty.

I throw out the ropes, the Latin guy catches them, a smile, a wink. The water is slowly lowering. My red dress flaps in the wind, gets wet by the splashing drops. My sunglassgaze meets the smiling white teeth of the lockkeeper. The grins of the old men at the deck. The thundering sound of gushing water falling into the canal. Posseidon is saying goodbye.

We decide to drive straight back home. I’m feeling sick in the car. The speed is too high. We stop for a picnick. The earth is too stable for my waterfeet. The last ten days my body has absorbed the heave of the canal. I want to splash on the ground. I go to the toilet, it’s a Southern one. I squat over the pit and try to masturbate. It’s not easy in that position, I have to lean against the wall to relax certain muscles. I’m feeling a little bit better.

The two next days back home in the city, I’m landsick. I trap myself staring outside my window, checking if the next lock ain’t coming yet. My eyes are confused by the high buildings and towers surrounding my garden. My small butterfly bushes only vaguely resemble the big platans next to the canal that had sheltered me for ten days.


We are stuck again in a port. The motor is overheated and the little closet above the motor melted down. Four books are damaged because of the moisture. We take the bikes to go for a ride. We cycle through the industrial area: a water cleaning station (we spot an otter! It looks in fact like a rat, but cuter. It is swimming through the reed.) and vineyards. On a dusty road between the blue grapes we are caught up by a few toddlers on motorbikes. They are racing like pro’s. They’ve even got several gears. Us, the big ones, on bicycles, slowly and civilised, them, the kids, on motorbikes, rough and violently humming. I feel caught on the island dominated by the lord of the flies.

A bit further on we meet the youngest, nearly five years old. He is sitting in a red sports car. Its motor is in the trunk. His fathers, or brothers?, are repairing it. Gypsies? Roma?

“The cars in your country are very cheap.” They say to us and I think of my city and its harbour and the markets where they sell everything that fell of the boat.

We say: “Your kids have a marvellous youth, here in the countryside.”

While I am saying this, the little ones have surrounded us, roaring motors. We take our leave.