Danube

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Sometimes I wonder what It would be like for us to exchange each other’s eyes for a couple of moments and see what the other is up to. How life is going from within. How happy, sad, anxious or relaxed we are and what troubles us the most as well as what gives us the most joy.

Social media luckily bridge the gap of the reporting: they help us keep track of what’s happening in the life of our distant friends and they hinder that we put away their memory as an idol of the past, now dead. Still, friendship is not only about the reporting. Friendship is about living together, however that life might be “gappy” and be frozen for a while in the wait for a reunion.

Social media can’t overcome this obstacle and they can’t replace a friendship. In a certain sense, our past is an idol to me and, perhaps, you feel the same. But you see, if ever we got the chance to see with each other’s eyes, maybe that gap could be reduced a little. Maybe I could feel comforted by your sight of a beautiful landscape, or by the warmth of your house or that of friends of yours and you with mine.

If last night, as I was walking home from the club, the sharp raindrops cutting through my skin as if they wanted to undress my conscience, I had seen the scattered clouds at the horizon of a far away ocean, catching fire as the sun sets, and felt your awe, and breathed your same air, I would have perhaps felt less lonely and less vulnerable. If your mountains had been my mountains for a second, and your laughter and your selflessness mine, the rain would have not felt so cruel and so desolate.

I want to learn from this experience, and attempt to make you see with my own eyes something beautiful, so that if ever the time comes for you to find yourself under an adverse rain, you can imagine another landscape and hopefully feel relieved for a while. I’ll tell you about the beauty of the Danube in summer, which I’ve discovered just recently, and thanks to a couple of friends of mine.

In the past, I was used to think about it as the unconventional beach of a big city like Vienna. But the Danube is not just an object or a touristic attraction. The Viennese Danube is a lifestyle. You start by feeling the heat, the frenzy and stress in your town and a craving grows in you.

You get on your bike and you ride steep lanes, attracted by the reigning gravity of the Danube, shaping all its surroundings. You cross the Channel and you are in Prater, the biggest Viennese park, where the Habsburgs once went hunting. You continue along the shady Hauptallee, guarded on both sides by secular chestnuts, until a couple of turns lead you to the Prater bridge, over the Danube. The sight is breathtaking. You are literally riding 20 feet over the water. The Donaustadt bridge is on your left, a majestic piece of architecture, with a huge pillar in the middle, radiating from its top a spiderweb of ropes to bear the weight of the trains running back and forth at its feet.

A wild herd of winds hits you and the message is loud and clear: from now on, you leave the city behind and you can immerse yourself in nature. You go down a spiral ramp and faster you pedal in the direction of the “FKK Gebiet”, the nudist area, which is also one of the most gorgeous traits of the Danube Island. You go past some lazy fishermen and a familiar group of cheerful, allegedly gay nudists, enjoying life both in the sun and in the neighboring woods.

One last floating bridge and you arrive. You leave your bike in a clearing next to the water. Chaining it down feels stupid, for you see only sporadic and peaceful old Viennese couples. You undress but nudism might be uncomfortable for you, as it is for me. So you approach the water in your speedo. Streaked fishes, up to 10 inches, wait unmoved, with their enigmatic glances.

You jump and the freshness of the water suddenly welcomes you, regenerating your mind. I do believe that water has such a regenerative power: when you accept its embrace, you leave the dry world behind and you enter a new dimension. You abandon your old skin and water provides you with a new one.

The Danube flows calmly. It cradles you if you want to rest, or it can assist you for a swim. The sun slowly descends and puffy clouds toddle around. When the time comes for you to leave, a playful otter says you goodbye in her own special way as the spiders hurry to repair their webs for night’s hunting.

The Danube is not the most beautiful or extravagant place on Earth, true. But it is magical to me: everytime, on the way back, I am filled with an awe and a joy for life which feels almost spiritual. And take a look at the sunset. Isn’t it an amazing life, the life through these momentary eyes of mine?

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Pride

Dear princess ‘Ishka,

Yesterday I went to the disco with some friends of mine. We had our pre-drinking at Museumsquartier and had time to chill and relax before the crazy dancing. Being relaxed means to me also to let my “gayness” flow freely and abandon myself to somewhat theatrical manners.

M, a friend of mine, asked why I “try” to be gay. Well, that’s not much of a claim, since I am gay indeed and I don’t have to try. But obviously he meant why I “struggle” to appear gay. I found the question puzzling but interesting at the same time. Indeed, how can I be myself if my behavior is “theatrical”, which sounds dangerously related to “forcefully contrived” if not “fake”?

“I behave like that, because I am like this” was my first thought. But that answer is wrong, for one thing is to be “born this way”; another thing is to give a very strong impression of what one is.

We could make use of the insightful concept of “naturalistic fallacy” to understand better this dilemma: what is natural entails no “normative force”. To put it simply, if you ARE something, it doesn’t follow that you OUGHT to be (or do) anything as a consequence (especially in moral terms). If you hold this principle to be true (as I do), then you can see how inadequate my answer to M was: from my being gay it simply doesn’t follow that I ought to act as a gay person.

M spotted some sort of endeavor in me to appear gay. And I admit that sometimes I am not “gay simpliciter”, but I also feel like I ought to be gay. How to make sense of this in front of the naturalistic fallacy?

At a first glance, I could answer “because that makes me feel alright”. But what if I am self-deceived in believing I feel alright? Why isn’t the normative expression of “gayness” a mark of  insecurity and need of attention, rather than of independence?

We need to do better than that. M himself suggested that, perhaps, it helps to strengthen my personal identity. However appealing this answer may sound, we have not made much progress since the strength of my identity could always be an outcome of self-deception. Think for instance at an overweight person who starts believing that all people thinner than him are sick and therefore he accepts his physical appearance. He is self-deceived, but the outcome would still be an authentic reinforcement of personal identity.

These two answers show that normativity could be nothing more than a psychological trick and that I don’t really “ought to be gay”. Either I am self-deceived in believing that the endeavor in being gay makes me feel better or in believing that my identity depends on showing it off as lively, colorful and stereotypical as possible.

I am not convinced by such conclusions. Instead, I do believe that there is something truly normative entailed by “being gay”. But what is it?

Even if I am too ignorant with respect to the academic literature on the topic and I have not yet thought about it more than a couple of hours this morning as my hangover was slowly fading away, I suspect that we can derive from the natural struggle of existing as a gay person the normative force we need.

If your own existence is endangered by the social environment around you, you may develop resilience as a natural response. That is, you learn how to adapt to an hostile environment while staying true to yourself. However, you don’t “naturally” stay true to yourself. You ought to be yourself against social pressure. You ought to take pride in who you are, because otherwise you succumb.

If my intuition is correct, the very concept of “pride” becomes an essential part of yourself, the part enabling your survival and flourishing. And if this is so, the distinction between what is natural and what is normative in “being gay” becomes a strict connection. The naturalistic fallacy stays unchallenged for most of the cases. It simply doesn’t apply in the special case in which it is not possible to naturally be oneself without normatively being oneself.

It’s not possible for me to distinguish an underlying self from my acting under norms regulating who I take myself to be. The fact that I feel alright and that I am randomly cultivating my personal identity are not enough. In order to be authentic, I ought to be proud and that also means that I ought to behave in a way which conforms to my inclinations. Hence, “being gay” doesn’t mean “fake”, but rather “proud” and “auto-nomous”, in the literal sense of “self-regulating”.

This has been only a brief reflection on one of the many meanings of pride, even if not the easiest one. To thank you for your patience in reading it through, I wish you a joyful, extravagant and (why not) theatrical season of pride!

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Niqab

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Frau Geist is a real person. I don’t know her personally, but a friend of mine (D) told me about her. I met D on the oriental pillows of the Weltcafe near the University. We had not seen each other for a while. Now he works for a cooperative with the purpose of integrating people with “particular” behaviors into a non-medicalized social context. Some of them need also psychiatric support, whereas others are more independent and join the cooperative for having a good time and good conversations with the friendly staff.

Frau Geist could be considered a case in-between. She is not a strongly impaired “patient”, but she couldn’t be considered very independent either. Frau Geist thinks that there are hidden cameras in her bathroom, ready to spy her whenever she walks in. No matter how many times D and his co-workers have showed her that there is nothing to fear. They simply haven’t checked enough. Mechanical eyes are always there, waiting for no one but her to take her clothes off in the bathroom.

This “cameras conspiracy” leads to the unpleasant consequence that poor Frau Geist has not been taking a shower for a while. But hygiene is not the only issue here at stake. As a matter of fact, Frau Geist is so scared of espionage, that she hardly walks outside her apartment. For this reason, she wraps herself in a bed sheet with two holes in correspondence of the eyes to get to the cooperative’s place, which is situated in the same building downstairs. A wandering ghost, occasionally fleeing from her demimonde. Unsurprisingly, D has started calling her “Frau Geist” (literally, from German, “Madame Spirit”).

As you can imagine, it is not easy for the cooperative to figure out a way to help her enjoy life outside the building. D told me that they even thought of giving her a Niqab as a present. Even so, she is definitely not going unnoticed, and suspicious glances could give her the final proof that indeed she is being spied. Let alone that, as things stand now, people are going to notice her with their eyes only after having noticed her with their noses.

At any rate, I told D that the Niqab sounds like a wonderful idea. I tried to imagine Frau Geist wrapped in a colorful fabric, taking the subway with the excitement of an unexperienced 007. Then having a walk in a city park, now that summer has started blooming. She inhales slowly, watching the sunrays being fractured by the dark leaves of the imposing chestnuts. She is safe: the Niqab protects her from the indiscreet cameras.

Would you call it freedom? Why not? After all, you can imagine her relaxed joy, when breathing in the open air. She can be like ourselves, and do the things we all do. Someone could claim that she is just crazy. But would it be worth it to lock her up in a hospital room, wasting the precious time of a walk in the park? Doesn’t she deserve to be happy, in her own way, because of her own story?

Next time I am encountering a woman in a Niqab, before thinking about any symbolism or general social phenomenon, I will ask myself if that woman has no better reasons for dressing like that than Frau Geist. For sure, my imagination, however fervid, won’t help me understand the complexity of the life of that person, and of the difficulty of making certain choices.

I think it is out of question that oppression of women can very well be established by means of cultural and religious symbolism. But sometimes, we just think in too general terms to criticize the individual case. And the next woman we see in Niqab could be just like Frau Geist. Free to be outdoor, and happy.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha