The art of being happy

I was happy today because my wallet that was stolen this morning only contained €50, a bank card and a health insurance card. Yesterday I’d taken my credit card, my drivers licence, my Dutch museum card and my train card out.

I was happy to discover that on weekends the atmospheric Chatelet bar where on rare occasions I drink cheap cocktails serve a brunch buffet with yummie things the whole afternoon for only € 10,- and I could sit there and read and write and listen to music and eat and see the people walk through the Gracia streets.

I was happy to find the fruit trees in Park Güell blooming and the rocky part at the far end of the park, where there is a beautiful view of the city, almost completely empty.

I was happy to find a pile of books next to a garbage container. I wasn’t sure if I needed Schopenhauer’s “El arte de ser feliz”, The art of being happy (with the original German version published in the end of the book) but I took it anyway.

Back in the gallery, while eating some of the desert I had smuggled out of Chatelet and cooking artichokes, I read the first pages anyway.
We live, thought Schopenhauer, in the worst of all possible worlds, constantly on the brink of destruction. Our will, or our desires, are continually demanding things from the world that cannot always be satisfied. And so we are continually frustrated.
Even when our desires are satisfied it will only be brief. This satisfaction will then lead to an increase in our desires and, ultimately, to boredom when our desires are finally exhausted.
Life, then, is suffering (an idea well-known to Buddhists). The answer for Schopenhauer was not to seek happiness, but to try and get through life with the minimum of suffering. His goal was for a bearable life.
The text is divided in two parts, rules for our relationship with ourselves and rules for our relationships with others

He sees human happiness as being present or presented in four ways:
1. a happy temperament or spirit
2. a healthy body
3. a calm mind
4. external things (of little importance compared to the other 3)

He quotes Sophocles: “wisdom is the most important part of happiness” and ““the happiest life is to be without thought”.

I eat my artichokes with a garlic dressing and make myself some green tea in the green cup I use every day and never really look at. I do now. It has words on it. In the center there’s the word Sophocles values highly. He writes this in “Oedipus at Colonus”, the play describing the end of Oedipus’ tragic life:

“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.”

I drink my tea and rethink the day. It wasn’t a happy one. It was a tough one. I was struggling to reach Schopenhauer’s number three, a calm mind. But there were islands of happiness. And there was love. It was everywhere. I knew. And even though I didn’t see it and I didn’t feel it in every step I took, knowing it made me happy.


Islands in a sea of ordinariness

The Passeig de Sant Joan runs like a vein through the city. It is the shortest way to the sea from where I live. It is a big busy street but the middle of the street, the center, is reserved for walkers. When you turn around, when you look towards Grácia, you see the hills on the edge of the city. Somewhere towards the other end there are some old olive trees in the middle of the pavement.

Barcelona is a good city for walkers. Maybe that is why I feel at home here. That and the sea and the mountains being near.

The other day I sat at the shoreline while the sun was setting and I was surprised it didn’t sink in the sea, where it is supposed to disappear from my point of view. Wherever I am, there will always be a Dutch girl somewhere inside of me, born in a country partially below sea level, a country where uncountable times I saw the sun being swallowed by the waves.

Hidden in corners are old matresses and blankets, stuffed inbetween pieces of cartboard. Public bedrooms, neatly ordered after having been used during the night. It isn’t as cold as it was in the last weeks but it must still be uncomfortable to sleep outside in these conditions. 
 Men roam the streets with shopping carts, picking up items other people threw away. Cloth items are hanging from garbage containers so they can be collected and reused.

I pass Parking Manhattan in the middle of shabby housing blocks. Behind them the four majestic towers rise into the air. The front towers of the unfinished Sagrada Familia. I hope it will stay unfinished forever. As a tribute to imperfection.

In the middle of a large piece of wasteland next to the bare wall of a building block a small garden has emerged. Neat rows of conifers and stones. It looks like a protest of plants. The bright pink flowers of the plant I can’t remember the name of have the exact same colour as the grafitti on the wall. (Later on, back home, I try to think of a way to find the plant species online. I remember seeing tiny versions of it growing in the wild in the woods in austria, I remember being surprised to see them there, never having seen them in the wild. I google “pink wild plant woods austria” and when I don’t find it I add “small” and replace “pink” with “purple”. A picture of the cyclamen appears, the plant with the heart-shaped flowers, it is placed on a site about Ancient Symbolism and I read : “The Cyclamen is a plant of the Primrose family. The name derives from Greek kyklaminos ; Latin name Cyclamen purpurascens ; English name Sow-bread. The naming of this plant deriving from Greek  kvyklos, circle, ring + minos, from 'Minos' a mythological King of Crete. In Greek mythology Minos was the son of Europa and Zeus who at his death was consigned to judge human souls. “)

I walk a half circle and pass the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia. A police car is parked in front of it. Two police men sit inside their car, eating their lunch. The door to the back seat is open. On the seat lies what looks like confiscated items. A big pile of small cheerfull helium foil balloons, the ones I often see street vendors carry around. I am puzzled.

It starts to rain softly. Old women quickly pull out their umbrellas. A lovely smell fills the air. Spring rain in a dry city. I wonder if I smell the rain, if I smell nature or if it aren’t the raindrops I am smelling, if it is the street, the houses, the stones giving of their scent. In the sixties a pair of Australian scientist began the study of rain’s aroma and they coined the beautiful term “petrichor”, after petra (Greek: stone) and ichor (the blood of gods in ancient myths). I have to reread what they wrote.

Back in the gallery I make coffee. I spill some of it while pouring. I drink it standing in my small courtyard. My courtyard. It makes me realise again I feel at home here. And also that nothing is really mine. Not even the things I officially own.

There are two small leaves lying on the floor. I pick them up and smell them but they don’t smell of anything. The lines on the floor make a small map.

A map of what? I wonder and decide to copy it and see what happens when I walk the route in the city.

The coffee stain draws my attention. I’ve always had a soft spot for stains. Tiny worlds. Islands in a sea of ordinariness, messing things up. Traces of past events, happy reminders.


The sea

And now I will walk to the sea and when I am there I will hear the waves and it isn’t because I now live in a city where you can walk to the sea that I bought and brought Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” and it isn’t because I will see the waves that I will be reminded of the beautifully made video I saw recently, the cruelest video I ever saw, cruel not only because of its content but more so because of the attention and love that was put in shooting it and editing it. A video in which waves feature, one in which 21 people die in a horrible way. 

I don’t have to see the waves to remember. I can already hear the waves now, sitting behind my desk, writing this. I heard them the last couple of days, ever since I saw the video. I heard them in Amsterdam, I heard them in the airplane, I hear them now. The sound of the waves in the video carved itself into my memory and I know that for a long time, whenever I hear waves, I will be reminded of those 42 men. Of the vulnerability of men. Of the extreme cruelty of men.

Before I saw the video, looking at the waves in this new city made me happy. Now it will make me sad. But the waves aren’t to blame. They are what they are. It is being one of them that makes me happy and sad. Being a human being. Being capable of anything.

“But our hatred is almost indistinguishable from our love.”

― Virginia Woolf, The Waves


Fantastic World

A new neighbourhood. I moved into a friend's place for a week to change scenery, to find new favorite places to drink coffee and just sit and write. New hidden corners around my new corner.

I went out. No suit today. I wore cloths I had found on the street. Black jeans, a grey t-shirt with a text in a Romanic language I cant read. Printed on top of the mystery words are two big ones in English, FANTASTIC WORLDS and next to it an image of a small person with wings looking down on what is written there. A warm green sweater, a knee long black winter coat with a furry hood and a big scarve with a panther print. There was underwear out there but thats about the only found item I wouldnt wear. Underwear and socks. No shoes in my size yet. I could do with a pair of dancing shoes, but I know that if you long for something you dont find it. Things come up unexpectedly always. Only when you see it you realize you needed it. I didnt wear jeans for maybe 20 years but I love these. Even the white stains that are probably the reason the former owner threw them out.
I took the woven shopping basket with leather straps I found to carry groceries in. I hesitated about the black hat but it doesnt really suit me. I might hand it over to somebody else.

I drank coffee in a small bio cafe, serving organic food. I ordered a café con leche. Soy milk or normal milk? the waiter asked. Of course he would ask that, I hadnt thought about it when I entered. Actually I don't like soy milk. And I know drinking milk isn't the best thing to do if you care about the environment and try to live a somewhat sustainable life. If you just care for your own body even. Milk is meant for small children, there is a reason why a lot of people develop a lactose intollerance, a milk allergy, when they get older. It just isn't good for the body. And on top of that a cow needs a calf to be able to produce milk. In the milk industry they don't care about the calves. They get killed so they don't drink the milk, so we can drink the milk. Or maybe not you. But I do. And I know. But a café con leche is good for my happiness. And happiness is good for the mind and the body. And there are already many things I do try to be strict about. But some things not. Like milk. Like coffee. I know  coffee here, in this country, means waisting oil to get it over here. It isn't sustainable.

I remember being at the Permaculture Design Course in the mountains last October. I stayed away from the coffee, we only ate locally grown food, there was no chocolate (in the beginning at least, at some point people started to get a bit cranky and good organic chocolate and more coffee was bought to keep people happy at their own costs). I told Kate, who was one of the organisers, that I often felt guilty when I bought a pineapple in the supermarket in Holland. She told me I shouldn't. Buy it and enjoy it or not buy it. She is right.

So I ordered a coffee with normal milk. And I tried to explain, asked the bio-waiter what he thought about drinking milk. He didn't understand me, my Spanish and his English being on the same level.

He brought me a big cup. It was plastic. I was amazed. My first thought was to protest, to not come back to drink coffee here. It is so easy to be hypocritical. Order coffee with milk and then complain when it comes in a plastic cup. I looked around me, saw the man cautiously move around in his tiny kitchen, sharing the space with the woman who was standing behind the counter, moving alongside each other almost as if they were dancing. The food looked great, prepared with love and nice ingredients. It took up most of the space. No room to do the dishes. Not a lot of customers, I wouldnt be surprised if they just managed to survive. And I thought about all those places where I drink my coffee from a proper cup but where Ive got no clue how they make the food, where often I dont even ask.

We all do our best. We do what we can do. We try to save the world and be happy at the same time. Both are equally important.

Before I left I asked, just to make sure. Sometimes things seem to be environmental unfriendly but not more than other options. Like milk bottles arent necessarily better than disposable packages because of the water and soap or chemicals being used for cleaning the glass. Maybe the plastic cups were made out of some not so environmental unfriendly substance.

Spanish isnt so difficult when you use your hands and feet well. The man understood my question and confirmed my first thoughts. No space. I said You use plastic cups, I drink milk. We laughed, shook hands and I told him Id be back to try some of the food.

I bought fruit in a fruit shop. The abnormally small kiwis, abnormally big pears and strangely shaped apples were on sale.

I passed my house door to explore the part of the street I hadnt seen yet. In the far end, next to a small tree, I found a nice sturdy PVC shoulder bag in good shape, blue and white. You see them a lot in hip shops, simple and practical, in bright colours. This one had a small pocket for a phone on the shoulder strap and specially designed spaces for pens and some other items on the inside.

I thought about doing the opening of my show in the gallery in the first week of March in an empty space, naked, and then slowly fill it with the things I would find on my walks through the city in the weeks after. But I wonder if it works like that. Ive got everything I need right now, not a lot of things, but they would do if I wouldnt find all these treasures. If you dont have anything, you dont always get what you need. Many people here roam the streets because they dont have a choice. Im not sure if it would be fair if I would take what they need more. Unless I find a way to return to them what I gained by it.

I will have to do some more thinking about this subject. In the meantime I am grateful to this city and its people for all they share with me, intentionally and unintentionally.