Illustration: Isobel Joy Te Aho-White for the Spinoff
Illustration: Isobel Joy Te Aho-White for the Spinoff

The Sunday EssayAugust 1, 2021

The Sunday Essay: Letter from Aurelia

Illustration: Isobel Joy Te Aho-White for the Spinoff
Illustration: Isobel Joy Te Aho-White for the Spinoff

Hinemoana Baker writes from a boat on a river a long way away.  

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White.

Not everything needs to be forced through the mind

I don’t know who said this first. Was it Derrida? The Buddha? Perhaps Yoda? I do know my beloved flatmate and friend Hans said it to me in our East Berlin kitchen a few weeks ago and it’s stayed with me. 

In a land famous for its philosophers and infamous for its horror history, it’s a controversial stance. Yet currently, it’s a statement I can really get behind. Since March 2020 I’ve done my best not only not to think, but not to feel. It’s more difficult than you might imagine, especially as thinking is my job (I’m currently employed as a researcher at Potsdam University) and feeling is my sun sign. (Actually it’s my entire chart. I’m a Pisces with a Scorpio moon, and four other planets in water signs. Do I still have any readers after that last sentence? Haha, that’s what I thought.) 

Those aren’t the only things standing in the way of this not-thinking thing. Two of my most trusted anaesthetics – endless social media scrolling and reckless online dating – are of course no longer the escapist pursuits they used to be. Many other places you might think someone like me would go for refuge – the written word, the support of my family, my friendships, and of course Aotearoa itself – have become unapproachable, inaccessible, even dangerous. Some in real life and some in my head, which is often more frightening. Writing is terrifying because for me it’s the same thing as thinking and feeling. With a few incredible exceptions (you know who you are and I am so grateful for you) my family and friends back home have become gradually more distant. 

I get it – their reality is so different from mine and to be honest, the complexities of my current situation are rigidly boring even for me. Their lives do not revolve around daily updates about the percentage increases in Covid cases filling the intensive care wards, or the latest proclamations about what kind of medical mask it is legal to wear on the subway. They don’t tune in to daily briefings explaining which of the massive vaccination centres in Berlin is delivering Moderna and which AstraZeneca, or spend ages searching Twitter hashtags in German for hints about which ones have the shortest queues that day. No one wants to hear what visa appointments I have coming up and how my bowels turn to water thinking about what happens these days if the extension I’m hoping for doesn’t get approved. God knows, on one level I am delighted that none of them have these fucking dreadful preoccupations. I celebrate it. I’m indescribably relieved that my loved ones there are safer from Covid than my loved ones here, or anyone in Fiji or in the UK or pretty much anywhere else.

I feel them letting go and I kind of just release them. Many of the close mates I had living over here have relocated back to Aotearoa. My Dad doesn’t get many calls from me nowadays because I just end up crying when he asks when I am coming home, and I am not sure this is good for either of us. He has Alzheimer’s and he is 83. I have missed two of his birthdays now and even though we Skype on those occasions, I can tell from the tension in his face and voice that he finds video calls hard. Frankly so do I and after the last year I want Zoom to never be a thing again. Dad and I have a complicated relationship and there has been a lot of pain, but I love him and I want to see him while he is still alive and still remembers me. Other family members and some very old friends are now on the other side of my online aukati, after a few vicious interactions earlier on when I was vocal about my (continued, staunch, everlasting) opposition to the MIQ charges. (Not MIQ itself, mind you – on the contrary, I would happily submit to any number of weeks, as I am horrified to think I might pass Covid to someone, even now I am vaccinated.)

All of these things, plus the firehose of online abuse that gets aimed at those who share their stories in the media, and even at those who write them, has been very painful to witness. I have slowly been shutting down from contacts back home and even abroad. I’m failing to respond to emails and messages, feeling appallingly bad about it and at the same time unable to do anything different. Until now – that is, until I accepted The Spinoff’s invitation to write this piece – I have been allowing myself to slowly slip out of sight, further and further under the radar, below the parapet. Frankly, it has been a relief in many ways. Connection is scary at the moment.

Physically the pandemic has taken its toll, too. The two autoimmune conditions I live with have flared up hardcore, so my chest is covered in red lesions and a lot of my body hurts like a mofo. My fingertips are bitten raw and I can’t sleep. I get debilitating headaches once a week. 

But before I go on, and before you start to feel too sorry for me, full disclosure: I am writing this while on a 10-day holiday on a 13-metre launch, cruising the waterways in and around Berlin, with the family of my partner, Claude. 2020 and 2021 have sucked more than anything I and millions of others have ever experienced, but yes indeed, I am currently that luxury-loving arsehole lounging on a huge white boat in an even whiter robe, sipping an Instagram-worthy steaming cup of coffee. The kind of arsehole that I myself would probably cast a major side-eye at if I saw me from a bridge while biking to the supermarket with a headwind and a dicky right knee. 

I don’t come from a family where holidays were a thing, really. I have had to learn as an adult how to take breaks in my year, especially as a self-employed artist in Aotearoa, juggling several contracts at once while trying to keep creating etc. Growing up, most holidays I remember were massive car trips to stay with cousins in Taranaki, which was awesome, but very different to what middle-class Europeans do with themselves when the temperatures here reach the late 20s and everyone wants to make the most of their enviable leave allowances from work. Honestly, don’t even ask, it’ll fill you with rage lol.

My partner’s family do this boat trip every year for their summer holiday. It’s cheaper, less carbon hungry and way nicer than flying or training anywhere with six or more people. They rent one of the same two or three boats each year, and they’re all very adept at skippering and the various other necessary tasks involved in onboard life. I’m used to my dad’s scuba diving boat, but this one is big enough to sleep up to 10 people and has a full galley, two refrigerators, two toilets and a shower. I think by now I am mentioning these details purely as a kind of twisted revenge on all my Facebook mates who were constantly posting pictures of themselves at concerts, in bars and on beaches, gathering in vast numbers in close quarters indoors and out, while we were enduring a punishing German winter and month X of what I came to call “The Long Lockdown Lite of the Soul”. (Sips from tall glass of Champagne, sighs deeply, looks out over glistening water.)

Jokes aside, all of this is to say that currently I am being extremely well looked after and, thanks to Claude’s whānau and the beautiful awa and moana around us, replenishing at least some of the energy and joy that have been so depleted during the last year and a half. Despite feeling at this moment like the luckiest person in the known world, Germany’s circumstances, like those of many other countries and like mine as an individual, are far from idyllic. Thank heaven for generous loved ones. And thank everything holy for large bodies of water, anywhere they lie.

I go to water for healing. I go to water for solace and comfort and for reconnecting with what I am made of. Of course in Aotearoa it’s always been the sea. The dog beach in Lyall Bay where you can combine your pet’s exercise with a fairly robust sand-and-wind exfoliation for any skin that happens to be out in the open. The steep slopes of bright white streaked with grey at Matata beach, five minutes walk from my dad’s home, where you can mihi to Whakaari and Moutohorā with hardly a turn of your head. Back Beach in Nelson with its hurt-your-eyes blue skies. It’s always been the sea — to practise karanga, to bless pounamu, to throw six hundred and thirty seven sticks for my dog to fetch and watch him come out sneezing seawater and panting with joy.

I knew I would miss the ocean while living here, but it was a lovely surprise to find that Berlin is surrounded by hundreds of seriously beautiful lakes and waterways. The water quality is monitored ruthlessly and is impressively high, except perhaps for right in the middle of town. The city is built on the river Spree, main tributary of the Havel, which originates in the Lusatian Mountains in Czech Republic, and flows north towards Brandenburg and eventually Berlin. It’s a big draw for visitors and locals alike. It winds its way past the Reichstag building, the Berlin Cathedral and Charlottenburg Castle. You can walk a few minutes from Brandenburg Gate and sit with your feet in the river. Bike 10 minutes north-ish from where John F Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner!” speech and again, the river meets you. You can ice skate on it in winter. You can swim in a decent portion of it. On any given day you’ll see everything from paddle boats to stand-up boards and dragon boats, as well as the long tourist barges and white and blue Polizei boats. In parts, during the Cold War, the river stood in for the Berlin Wall. Instead of shooting every refugee who chose to try and swim from East to West, soldiers could simply fail to rescue them, stand and watch as they drowned. The majority who died this way, I’m told, were children. 

I got more closely acquainted with the river during Berlin’s first lockdown in March 2020. On the days I could, Claude and I would walk a path along the water that took us an hour or two. We would pause on bridges or park benches, letting the river help us breathe. Some months later in Autumn, when it was getting colder but was safer to meet other people outside our household, a university friend and I hired a double kayak and paddled the canals of Kreuzberg and Mitte. Like me this friend is a water sprite, and the two of us were almost in tears to be able to be on the water, not just walking or sitting beside it. We even made it out from the canals to the Spree proper one time. It was choppy and wider than I could have imagined from the shore. It felt like the sea. Both my friend and I are non-native speakers of German, and there was a fairly hairy encounter with the disembodied voice coming through an intercom, trying to direct us in heavily accented German about how to behave when using a lock to get from one part of the canal to the other. There was also an amusing occasion when an extremely grumpy local who’d cast his fishing line into the canal had to remove it as we kayaked slightly chaotically past. We later made a U-turn only to find he had moved to the other side of the canal in the hopes of avoiding us, but instead had to go through the whole bad-tempered pantomime again. Oh how we laughed!

Due to a loophole in local housing laws, you can live on the river Spree. As an outside observer it seems  you can take up residence in whatever kind of structure keeps a roof over your head and the water from your ankles. On an average summer day you could see a dozen small, motorised, wooden shacks on pontoons slow-cruising the waterways, flying various non-national flags, with blissed out Berliners in plastic deck chairs on their surprisingly roomy verandahs. Beers in hand, sunburns well underway. I am not sure whether it is poverty or lifestyle that drives these choices. I know  a couple of friends back home have tried solving their accommodation difficulties this way but it’s a lot harder there, way more obstacles.

Weird thing – I’m not sure why, but I have a really hard time imagining a river flowing north. I just feel like all water must flow south because south is down, right? Because I’ve been brainwashed with the “down under” trope, probably. Of course mātauranga Māori would say different, as would many other epistemologies. But there I go, getting into that thinking thing again. 

It’s a trauma response, I guess – the third F in Fight, Flight or Freeze. The long standing depression and anxiety disorder I live with and the executive dysfunction that comes with ADHD had each prepared me for the shape of my response during this pandemic, but not for the severity of it. At its worst, “the Freeze” extends not only to my mind and my habits, but most profoundly to my body. I fear sitting or lying down because I won’t be able to get up for hours. Something like yoga, for example, becomes impossible, being precisely designed to open you up in every way, and therefore to be avoided at all costs. At a time when many people have opted for online exercise classes due to the closure of gyms, pools and sports venues, I have been in semi-permanent Shavasana, aka Corpse Pose. Even the daily walk we were allowed during the early months of lockdown was regularly too much for me. I should not make any movement, my brain and body would tell me, because movement of any kind will stir things up. A deep need for stability and certainty somehow manifests as a paralysis, a system-wide dysfunction. I come to a complete halt. I hunker down. I am ashamed of this, so I hide.

Tohunga rongoā and natural health practitioners might talk about this as blocked energy, or neglected connections with my ancestors or guides. Psychologists would most likely call it another episode of major depressive disorder. Psychiatrists may explain it as being due to a rapid drop in already low levels of serotonin and dopamine. Counsellors might say it’s a PTSD response to stress and grief, which have undeniably accumulated for me in the last five years. My lovely mum died in 2018, along with two of her sisters. I lost two very close relationships – a best friend and a partner – one shortly before Mum’s death and one shortly after. Near the end of that same year I lost my job, the one I was depending on for my right to live in Germany (despite having German ancestors I don’t qualify for a passport, and I am way too old for any working holiday type arrangement). In fact 350 of us lost our jobs in that process – a restructure, a year before the pandemic, at the world’s biggest online accommodation-booking company, where I was working as a trainer and quality control agent. One very mean-spirited solace I’ve taken from this time has been the near certainty that the people who restructured us out of our jobs then are almost certainly now out of theirs.

My partner’s mother was told her cancer was back at the beginning of 2020, and she spent that year in and out of hospital for chemotherapy and surgeries. Consequently, all of those who had contact with her had to live in a much more strict version of quarantine than even the local health ministry was recommending. We were essentially isolated for most of the year from almost anyone else we knew in order to be safe contacts for her. She got better, then worse, then better, and then on January 1, the first day of 2021, we got the call from Claude’s sister that she had been admitted to hospital again and the prognosis was bad. Two months later she died. We were incredibly lucky to be able to be with her, both for the few weeks leading up to her death, as well as during her final breaths. Michaela Kempen was 58 when she died. A vivacious and passionate visual artist and therapist, a force of nature whose presence and style prompted the priest at her funeral – to which only 25 people could be invited – to comment, “If I may be allowed to say this as a priest, Michaela was a very beautiful woman.” She is buried now in a beautiful cemetery close to their family home, under a rough-cut, apricot and pearl coloured piece of marble, with an image of her beloved Cologne Cathedral carved on it, all perfect and utterly, totally wrong. This boat trip is the first the family has taken without her.

Immediately after Michaela died, Claude got very sick – so sick we all thought it was Covid. Turns out it was just an absolutely excoriating case of glandular fever. Five weeks or so. This meant that an operation they had been waiting years for – gender affirming top surgery (Claude is trans) – had to be cancelled. The Masters degree they were trying to complete had to be delayed by almost a year. The lupus that I’d had for ages on my skin was diagnosed as being maybe possibly now a systemic thing, which is a way more serious condition (thank goodness, that diagnosis was wrong but, you know, it was stressful). Then around May I decided everything was far too cheerful and had a bike accident, fracturing my collarbone just a tiny bit ow ow ow and injuring my right rotator cuff and general all round shoulder type area. Spectacular bruise on my right hip, too. Pics on application.

Amongst all this were a few other flashes of adrenaline and sickening fear. The worst was the tsunami scare back home, during which neither me nor either of my sisters could contact my coastal dwelling father or his partner. This happened the day before Michaela died and to be honest no-one in the household could really comprehend what I was trying to tell them. Obviously huge relief when the warnings were lifted and people could go back home. Turns out Dad had been shepherded up the hill by a neighbour. I mean, you know. THANK GOD.

The most extraordinary and sustaining thing that has happened since this whole thing began – and perhaps one of the most important things in my life to date – has been my involvement with the repatriation of two toi moko from German institutions late last autumn. The usual Te Papa team of experts and elders were obviously unable to travel at that time, but these two handovers were quite a long way down the track, at least in terms of preparation and paperwork. The inimitable Te Arikirangi Mamaku, who facilitates the repatriation programme in the northern hemisphere from his home in Copenhagen, invited me to be the other half of a two person repatriation team, a couple of stand-in Covid Kaumātua if you will, and get these ancestors back home. With the help of the New Zealand Embassy in Berlin, the understanding and cooperation of the two museums involved, a truckload of hand sanitiser and a thousand medical masks, we made it happen. Seeing those crates leaving the building for the last time, knowing they were going back to Aotearoa, was the strangest combination of joy, grief and, yes, envy. I was jealous these 250-year-old tūpuna were going home and I wasn’t. 

What a time to be alive, eh?

If you are anything like the vast majority of Germans who I tell any of this story to, you may be asking why I wouldn’t want to immediately fly back to the best little country in the world the minute this Covid danger presented itself. Most of them can’t believe I would have left in the first place, to be fair, as so many of them are busy trying to work out how to live there themselves. But especially given this pandemic development, why the hell wouldn’t I elbow my way onto the first plane and reunite with my whenua, my whānau? 

The answer is complicated, a mix of push and pull factors. I wanted to stay for the same reasons I wanted to come here in the first place. I had spent nearly six years trying to have kids with my ex-partner in Aotearoa. It didn’t work, our relationship ended and then so did the next one I dived into to try and forget it all. I felt like I might die of a sappy old broken heart if I didn’t do something big, make a massive change of some kind. I chose to apply for the writer’s residency that Creative New Zealand has run here in Berlin for something like 20 years. Like a goddamn miracle I got it. 

I had no intention of staying in Berlin once the residency was over. A year of writing-while-being-paid and then I would be home to my dog and my dad and my mates, to Wellington’s achingly beautiful coastline and completely unhinged weather. 

But stuff happened. As stuff does. I was quite seriously ill for most of the first year I was here and couldn’t face a long haul flight at the end of it. I met someone. As my health improved a bit I realised that as an artist, Berlin was a lot more affordable and humane than even my beloved Wellington. Germany’s a wealthier country by several orders of magnitude, and things like the health and welfare systems outstrip Aotearoa by a Country Calendar mile. It’s not a competition, let me be clear. It’s me as a human being trying to work out where I might best and most safely be able to do what I allegedly have been put on earth to do, which is to write and do music while at the same time not having to drive myself and my dodgy mental and physical health into the absolute ground. And now I am among the fortunate few who not only get to do a PhD but get paid for it – that’s how Germany rolls. I am enormously grateful that I happened to be here at this time, with secure work and relatively secure housing. The fact that I had choices at all reflects an astounding amount of personal privilege, the many layers of which this pandemic has slowly been burning through. I am, again, hugely grateful that unlike many other migrants or refugees, I didn’t grow up with this, living and breathing it my entire life. How fortunate am I that the bare facts of this pandemic still shock me. That I’m still able to summon outrage and that my day trips to Catatonia are not a permanent way of life. And how fortunate that unlike many who are trying to get home I still have a legal visa and am not being hunted by Germany’s immigration department as an overstaying criminal on top of everything else. That I have a roof and food and way more besides. That no-one is imminently dying at home, or trying to bring their kids back to be with them while they go through their final weeks with pancreatic cancer, or lying in state without me by their side. There are many, many stories very much sadder than mine.

I made the call not to jump on a flight like so many people were, but to sit tight, stay safe, keep my job (something which so many others could not do) and wait for a vaccine. I made this decision both for all the reasons above and also because, to be honest, I really did not want to risk catching Covid in transit or in MIQ. I knew the odds were (and they still are) against both of these things but I know people it has happened to, and with the particular physical and mental health profile I have I,like so many others, am wise to avoid this virus at all costs. The fear of catching it, however, has always been less than the fear of transmitting it, for me. Especially in my home country, which has done so extraordinarily well with keeping it out. I could not live with myself if I inadvertently passed it to someone, anyone, not just my loved ones. This is in no way meant as a judgment of anyone else who has taken a different path. We all do what we have to do in these circumstances. We do what we can cope with. We avoid what we think we can’t.

So I waited, until two weeks after my second jab of the Moderna vaccine. I waited until I was sure I was as immunised as I could be, as safe as I could be for myself and others, and then I started to sneak up on the idea of coming home. To see my dad. To show him my moko kāuae for the first time (the amazing Julie Paama-Pengally did it for me here on her way through Europe back home in September 2019). I opened the MIQ booking site and registered. And hahahahaa, well, certainly timing is not my strong suite, let’s just say that. It is, for a number of complex reasons, essentially no longer possible to book space in any facility without spending weeks or months online or spending lots of money paying someone else to. Tomorrow I’ll jump on the website again for another few hours, refreshing every seven seconds, ticking endless squares featuring stairs, traffic lights and mountains, and spectacularly missing out on any actual dates that Twitter tells me were available nine seconds ago. But for tonight, I think I’ll just go to sleep and dream of something simple and functional, like say a waiting list, and something I truly long for, like my dad living for at least another year. And I’ll be saying a few karakia that the white-hot centre of my One Ring of privilege, my New Zealand passport, will actually get me back into the country, perhaps even ahead of a group of rugby players from Australia, some fucking day. 

Oh, did I say that out loud?

Boat names are as weirdly corny here as they are in Aotearoa. A bit like hair salons called ‘Hair to Pleez’ and butchers’ called ‘Bare Bones’. Most of the boats we are seeing on this trip aren’t named in German. We just passed a smart, black-and-white launch called ‘Viva la Vida’, and a small yellow rowboat called ‘Silly’. A very long party-boat-for-hire called ‘Paco Calito’ just droned past playing techno, a limp pirate flag hanging off the back just above the water. 

The boat we are on is called ‘Aurelia’. From where we are anchored tonight, we can see Berlin’s iconic TV tower (reminiscent of Auckland’s Sky Tower) and the huge steel river installation ‘Molecule Man’, which my uni friend and I kayaked bravely around the feet of, on the orange horizon. A swimmer is breast-stroking peacefully past us as we sit up on the bow, wearing a cap resembling the helmet of Hermes, with a chin strap and side wings and everything. The cap seems to be made of black leather. Judging by their shoulders, which we can sometimes glimpse just above the water, this person is also wearing a silver mesh shirt, perhaps even leopard print, it’s hard to tell in the dwindling light. We agree it’s perhaps not the wisest thing to be doing, swimming slowly in a black cap across one of the widest parts of a river that itself is almost black under the twilight clouds, while a dozen vessels of imposing proportions navigate past. We speculate about the lower half of the outfit: either something in gold, very short denim cut-offs, or a leather jockstrap. 

While we watch and wonder, and ask ourselves if the clubs truly have been closed for too long, a rented party boat pulls up next to us playing Crowded House’s ‘Weather With You’ on an impressive sound system. I use the word “boat” loosely. Like many others ploughing Berlin’s canals, rivers and lakes, this vessel looks like someone took a prefab from the science block of a generic New Zealand 1980s high school, painted it grey, cut a quarter of it away and stuck it on top of the remaining bit, then slapped the whole affair on a couple of long fibreglass floats someone found in someone else’s grandad’s old boatshed. 

But holy hedonism, is it doing its job. A handful of over-refreshed young folk are jumping clothes-free from the top deck. Germans really do love a naked swim, bless them. Those who aren’t jumping are using the blue plastic kids’ slide fastened to the back with cable-ties to make a whooping big splash into the Spree. I made up the bit about the cable-ties but you get the picture. Ahhhh, and now it’s ‘Rhiannon’, swirling out over the water like Stevie Nicks’ uncountable skirts. The surface of the river flashes with a dozen iridescent blue dragonflies. Claude’s sister is making their mum’s legendary potato salad and she’s about 10 minutes away from spooning it onto big red plates. So if you’ll excuse me all you Covid-free bastards, I think it’s time to quit this thinkpiece, peel off the sundress, mihi to the local taniwha and dive in.

Loud, satisfying splash.

Keep going!