We all make mistakes, and I suspect one of the biggest we make is to believe that the internet will relieve all of our worries, cleanse our souls, and provide the answer to the meaning of life through a dating service or, better yet, the promise of ten million dollars and a new BMW SUV if we just click on this link and sign on the (virtual) dotted line. We had dating services before the internet, hard to believe, but people were more than capable, back in the day of getting in touch with one another without an electronic keyboard, broadband and a hastily Photoshopped photograph. I remember my very first letter writing contacts came though a British music magazine, designed and aimed at people who were even younger than I was, and it had a phenomenal level of success. One of my colleagues had his name inserted in this one magazine, once, and received over four hundred replies. I don’t want to imagine how desperate some of these people might have been, but our modern technology does not seem to have the same draw-in, at least, not from people who man what they write and are honest with whoever they are trying to gain a sign of interest from. That said, you are not on the list of those who are receiving no mail, so I suspect this particular service has worked for you, even if not all of the replies you have received, or will receive, are quite what a decent person might desire. I know, I’ve had them too.

And yet, it is a risk we are still prepared to take. There is always the chance that the right person will appear in your post box one morning, that a letter will be there packed with exciting news, with exhilarating ideas, with a plan for the future or, at least, a small ray of hope. I am probably not that person; I am the one who enjoys writing and receiving letters, has a wide range of interests, often quotes from books no one else has ever heard of, and drags the willing reader into a complete different world through exploration, thought, learning and challenges to the world of their mind. And those interests, aside from letter writing, are literature, photography, philosophy, history, discussion and debate, travel, good food and the occasional glass of whisky. The latter two, of course, are real world things which cannot be done through our virtual world, through pen and paper, but have to be experienced in person. They are, though, two of the most challenging, since there are so few people out there today who are prepared to be dragged out of their comfort zone and into a different type of world.

My prime example of this is taken from an event I experienced many years ago, whilst out and about in northern Germany. I decided to eat Indian, something which the British have no problem with since it is practically their national cuisine, and there are Indian restaurants on almost every street corner. I have a thing for Lamb Biryani, and no problem going out to find it whenever the mood takes me. But this was a mixed restaurant, in a smaller town, and served a good selection of Indian food, with the staples of German diet for those who were a little more timid. Timidity is what I saw, as each table around me gradually filled up during the evening with couples and groups, and the menus were handed out. I was the only one who ordered Indian food. I heard people reading out the foreign-sounding names, like Chicken Korma and Tikka Masala, and then moving on to those names they already knew. One even commented that, while the meal offered sounded wonderful from the description, they’d go for a standard German menu, since they’d never tried Indian food before.

I think that was about fifteen years ago or so, and today: today the supermarkets have small sections dedicated to foreign foods. I can pick up Mexican sauces, Indian curries, Arabic sweets and Polish soup in all but the cheapest stores, and am surrounded with restaurants who do not hold back with their national dishes, and rarely have German food on the menu. They seem to thrive, perhaps because there are small enclaves of nationals in the area, but also because other people – integration and multi-culture being a big thing here – have begun to come out of the protective shells, their tightly woven cocoons, and explore the rest of the world. Which means it is sometimes hard to get a seat in the local Greek and Italian restaurants, unless you book in advance. On Saturday I was in Oldenburg, for the annual Christopher Street Day parade, and had problems finding a seat for breakfast – my favourite meal of the day when there is a buffet breakfast on offer – having to squeeze myself between a shopping trolley badly parked and an inquisitive dog on a long leash. Perhaps this is more a sign that fewer people wish to cook, even breakfast, and the restaurant industry – I cannot see it as anything else with all these franchises and international names – is filling the space once taken by families sitting around the dining room table with toast and scrambled eggs. And buffet breakfast, because there are no limits. I can come down from my hotel room in the morning, and fill myself to the brim, with no need to worry about another meal until late evening.

Today, though, I am at home, having checked the bird-feeder, eaten two boiled eggs and two slices of toast, and making plans for the day. There is not much on offer in Germany on a Monday, it’s very much a case of looking after yourself and seeing what is open. The museums, having been open through the weekend, take Monday as their day to rest. Most people are back at work after a weekend, and not interested in finding something to fill the evening hours, or don’t have those through the afternoon available. The weather promised for today is something of a mixed bag, with rain and sunshine in the forecast; although the rain which should be falling right now is rather lacking, and I am wondering whether I ought to take a chance and get out into the city earlier than planned. At the same time I know, as soon as I make up my mind and get dressed up for the outside world, the dark rain clouds will gather. I have a desire at the moment to be outside and use a few of my cameras, to capture something of what I can see. But also the desire to just lay back with my book, and lose myself in a very strange world created by someone else.

In this case, the strange world is that created by Jon Fosse, a Norwegian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2023. He wrote, back in 2019, a three volume, seven part fictional work called Det andre namnet – although the other two volumes have their own names – or The Other Name, in English. It is a rabbit hole of a novel in that, once you start reading, it is almost impossible to stop. Not so much because the storyline is enthralling and will not let you go, which it is if you’re into experimental fiction of a deep and dark kind, but because it has been written as one long sentence. There is not a single full stop in the whole work, and the reader is taken on a continuous journey through, and with, the thoughts of the prime character. Most of us, being fairly civilised, take a break from reading at the end of a chapter, or a paragraph break, something which is impossible with this work, as they simply do not exist. And the whole thing, the whole concept, is fascinating, as well as being that rabbit hole you go into and cannot find your way out of, there are so many paths leading off and back to the main themes. Far more fun for me is that I am reading it in German, although it has been translated into English too; my knowledge of the Norwegian language is pretty much non-existent, except when raising a glass and toasting with a loud Skål.

Normally I would be engrossed in a work on history, regardless of the period, or philosophy. Literature tends to leave me cold much of the time, although I do take up a crime thriller now and then, just to clear my mind from deeper thoughts and facts, since crime thrillers rarely cause any form of thinking. I don’t imagine most are designed that way any more, where the reader has to try and work out who the criminal is, with most just concentrating around the Big Chase and a lot of shooting or fighting; gratuitous violence. And then there are those who simply take the same template for each and everyone of their books, add a few new names and places, and produce the same work each and every time. Travel or train books. Ones where you can pick them up before a three hour long train journey, and dump them, read from start to finish, in a wastepaper bin at your destination. I’m more into Cicero, or Diogenes, works of the ancients, as well as works about the ancients, their times and thoughts. Something challenging which, I am glad to say, this work by Fosse has managed to achieve.

Something about myself, perhaps, rather than meandering through thoughts on literature and books – although I am bound to come back to this subject, as it is a theme close to my heart. I have been living here, in the Big City, for just over a year, and am still exploring it during the hours when most others are working. Up until my move I had been living in a Small City, close by, and had to travel in at the weekends, in the evenings, if I wished to do anything of interest. My entire social circle, it is fair to say, is here, and has been for about ten years or more. Some would say that it was an act of god that I decided to move, after over twenty years in my own house, and take an apartment of a considerably smaller size. A weekend trip out of town, in December of that year, saw my heating break down, which caused a water pipe to burst, and flooded much of the living area where my books were kept. The hand-workers who came to inspect and suggest a price for repair did just that: they came, they saw, they named a price, and they didn’t come back after that. So, rather than living in a house with no heating, no running water much of the time, I decided to up sticks and seek my fortune elsewhere. To the great surprise of my friends, and the annoyance of many others on waiting lists, I had a new apartment three weeks after starting my search, and moved here officially in April last year.

My life is now well settled, but still surrounded by packing cases filled with books and pictures. Moving from a large house into a small apartment, as I am sure you can well appreciate, means taking stock of what you have, what you need, and what will fit. I decided to keep the pictures, and most of the books, and dump furniture, clothing, a few other things of lesser importance, and begin anew. It is something that I do not regret, although parting with books is never an easy thing; parting from anything you have collected is like bleeding your heart out for a while. Soon I will have bought enough bookcases to stack the rest of my volumes across the walls, and the remaining space will be for the photographs, and other works of art, I’ve collected. I suspect that the end result will be like a Victorian museum; all the available space taken up with something, and no need to change the wallpaper ever again. At the moment, though, I am still planning, and that over a year after moving in. One thing which has increased, and my friends are slightly surprised, is my cooking. With a considerably smaller kitchen, and electric rings instead of gas, I have discovered the pleasures of cooking a meal for myself and my partner; although more for myself, as we do not live together. I now have kitchen utensils others only dream off, and am not adverse to quickly rustling up a quiche, or a pasta dish, or even a fairly spicy curry now and then. Ready-made meals are banned in this apartment.

There is something relaxing about standing in the kitchen cooking, when there is absolutely no need to be standing in the kitchen cooking. I can well understand the fatigue of those who are forced by circumstance, or their own decisions, to cook three square meals a day, for people who do not appreciate it, but cooking for yourself three to five times a week, and for a special partner the rest of the time, is special. I have compiled my own small recipe book, which is more a file with pages slipped in than anything else, and the shelves are packed with spices, pasta, bags and tins of weird and wonderful things, as well as the usual suspects like beans and tomatoes. The best part of the whole, something I tried to explain to my partner: I only need two sets of cutlery and crockery. Less to wash, less to store, less worries.

There are two things that I tend to avoid, both in writing letters and in debate: religion and politics. Admittedly, we cannot escape either in our lives, wherever we turn there is something from either, or both, right in front of us, and civilisation has been built on the ideals, if not the true actions, of each. But they are such divisive topics, it is almost impossible to have a calm debate about either. Fine that everyone has their own opinion, but that they tell me their opinion must be mine too is a step too far. I’ve been watching the downfall of the United States for much of the past decade, and know what it looks like; know, from the history of Germany and Europe, where it will lead. It is not a pretty picture. So better, I believe, to avoid as much as possible, unless absolutely necessary. I am politically involved, have always been, but that doesn’t mean I need to justify myself to someone who demands answers, but will never listen, and that is the way it is going at the moment. I saw it in Oldenburg on Saturday again, a small group trying to sell their image of Jesus to people who have a far better understanding of the world than their limited vision allows, and it is not a pleasant sight.

For the rest, and there is plenty more in our wonderful world, it is open season. Letter writing is a challenge, as we try to describe what we see in our daily world, from our routines and interests, to those who cannot see through the same eyes. Europe is completely different to the United States, from appearance and custom as much as anything else, and I think it would be fun for both of us to live through others’ lives, learn through their thoughts, and share. And, who knows, perhaps we’ll build something special on paper that most people can only dream of. All the ingredients are there, it just needs the right people to mix them and serve it all up.