27 things I learned about hiring in tech from looking for a new engineering management role

This spring, I spent some time looking for a new professional challenge. This search turned out to be much more interesting and intense than I’d expected. Along the way, I learned quite a lot about myself, the broader industry, and how to do hiring well, and wanted to share those learnings with you. —

Getting started

I’d been hoping to find a new role without doing public outreach, mostly because I hadn’t done that before and had no idea of what was going to happen (and didn’t think it’d result in much). Unfortunately, my search behind the scenes and applications for jobs hit a limit very soon. As I told a good friend about all of this, she convinced me with one thing she said that stuck with me since:

“Do not deprive yourself of opportunities.”

(And she was right.) So I pulled myself together, took a little time to update my “work with me” website (it’s been online for almost three years now, thanks to an idea that Jessica once shared with me), worked on a draft for a tweet, and after feedback from another manager friend, I changed the tweet to focus on areas of work I was interested in, instead of listing titles (short reasoning to summarise the whole rant that would be appropriate there: titles in the tech industry are not used consistently, are rarely comparable, and rarely mean much without context).

Slept over it for a night, changed my Twitter settings to “receive direct messages from anyone”, took a couple heavy breaths, and hit the “tweet” button for this:

Then I turned off my phone for an appointment. As I turned it on again the morning after, there were a bunch of former colleagues and fellow community members that had tweeted incredibly kind and wonderful things about me, which almost made my heart explode. And I had a couple more Twitter DMs, emails, replies, mentions, and, overall, more communication than I could handle. So I decided to start how I start best: with…

The spreadsheet of doom

I created a spreadsheet that would soon become the one thing that kept me from completely losing it. I started a bit more low-key, but expanded it over time, until it contained the following columns:

  • Company name
  • Contact name
  • Contact role
  • Application status
  • Berlin / remote
  • Details (company, role, inquiry)
  • Last interaction (date and kind)

Plus a few extra columns for tracking and decision making purposes:

  • Interview number
  • Time spent on interviews
  • Notes
  • Interview process notes (more on this later) 
  • My interest level (high / medium / low)
  • Ranking

One by one, I responded to messages and reached out to other people who’d been mentioned to me. Row by row, I filled the spreadsheet. And soon, I went into the first conversation. — Fast forward many weeks, here we are: at

27 things I learned from looking for a new engineering management job

7 things that may be useful for you if you’re looking for a job in tech

  1. Know what you want and need: Before starting your job search, write up your thoughts about the organisation, role, work areas, impact areas that you’re interested in, and details that matter to you, which you want to watch out for during your search. Keep updating this document throughout the interview process.
  2. Focus on areas of work: When you do (public or private) outreach, focus on the areas of work you’re interested in (instead of titles). Also publish further information about the areas of work you’re looking for and what matters to you.
  3. Figure out how to organise your search: Start your job search with a spreadsheet or another tool that helps you stay on top of things (including timelines, deadlines, when to follow up with whom,…). Keep updating this document over time.
  4. Make notes: Keep a separate document for each company you’re interviewing with. Take notes during interviews. (I sometimes had up to 6 interviews in one day, but even with only two interviews with different companies, this was really useful to help me focus and do my interview preparation and post-interview summary.)
  5. Help future you: Write up a short note of your thoughts and impressions after each interview.
  6. Make note of a company’s interview process. I deeply care about hiring and know how much very hard work and dedication it takes to do well, and that the way they approach hiring says something about an organisation.
  7. Go into first-round interviews with a default set of questions. I was most interested in the organisation (structure, status, plans,…), culture (diversity, inclusion, hierarchy, learning and development, Code of Conduct,…), Engineering (department details, work organisation, learning, tech stack, plans,…). Based on my pre-interview research results, I’d sometimes be able to skip a few of those. This was really useful as in many first-round interviews, there wasn’t much time for my questions, plus it helped me establish a baseline for comparison.

13 things to keep in mind when you’re hiring engineering managers (or any other role in tech)

  1. Know that people talk to each other: People in the tech community will reach out and tell others which companies not to talk to. Knowing people who will do this is a great privilege, and, unfortunately, this still a time when it’s needed to have these contacts. If you’re hiring people, assume that people talk to each other.
  2. Don’t look for unicorns. — Most engineering management roles have far too many and too broad requirements and overload the people who take them on. A combination of people management for 6-8 (or more) direct reports, plus technical leadership, plus hands-on work, will inevitably stretch people thin, and be harmful to this person, as well as their team. There’s still broad lack of understanding that engineering management is needed, and, even more so, what it should entail. Oftentimes, the much healthier setup would be to have an experienced engineer take on the role of technical lead, plus a good people manager who works with them. If you’re hiring engineering managers, ensure the roles are actually realistic.
  3. Talking with men: Most people who are in a position to (make a decision to) hire someone are white men. Most people who are in a position to (make a decision to) hire someone into an engineering department are white men. This is how the people who are representative of the homogenous status of the industry (especially within engineering departments) become gatekeepers for change, and are likely to perpetuate the status quo. Seriously, I talked to so many white men. Make sure that this doesn’t happen when people interview at your company – have people interview with a diverse group of people, and promote members of underrepresented groups into roles where they make hiring decisions. Give management roles to members of underrepresented groups (and remember that diversity goes far beyond white women).
  4. Be respectful of your and the applicant’s time: No matter what job postings or role descriptions say, many companies still don’t know exactly who and what they’re looking for. “Having a coffee”, “just chatting to see what happens” costs you and the candidate time and energy, and, even though they may be fine with it, it requires a certain amount of privilege from a candidate where they are even in a position where they can afford having such open-ended conversations – which means that it’s an exclusive approach. (And please don’t even think of asking someone to “pick their brain”.)
  5. Know your applicants: When you’re an interviewer, do your research on the person you’re talking to: read their CV, be up-to-date on what they spoke about with your colleagues. Or at least ensure you know what their name is, who they are, and which role they’re applying for.
  6. Making space for people: Give applicants time to ask you questions in each interview round (including round one), and ensure you make time for this within the initially scheduled meeting duration. Ensure this is also the case when your internal or external recruiters are screening candidates.
  7. Ensure privacy: If you use video calls for interviews, ensure to send each applicant an individual video call link, to avoid that candidates accidentally show up during another candidate’s interview.
  8. Remote engineering management roles are very rare, even with companies whose engineers are partially distributed, which is problematic for a variety of reasons (it’s exclusive, and means you’re lacking remote representation, which by itself results in a bunch of issues).
  9. Employer branding: Companies still use ping pong tables, kicker, and alcohol based events (like the infamous Friday beers) for employer branding and promotion. If your company is still doing this: stop it, it’s exclusive. And consider how the perks you offer exclude people.
  10. Diversity matters… or does it? —It’s still rare to find companies that have any numbers on the diversity in their teams. (Any numbers, let alone numbers that are up-to-date, or that go beyond binary gender or countries of origin.) It’s rarer to find companies whose management is not completely homogenous. It’s even rarer to find companies that are actively working on inclusion beyond using it as a buzzword.
  11. Know your culture smells if you talk about how great your company culture is, and the only people who weigh in on the greatness of this culture are white men.
  12. See the signs that you should rethink your hiring process if it takes you more than two months between someone submitting an application and your first time getting back to them (or your first interview with them). I learned much about this from my former teammates as well: lengthy hiring processes are incredibly exclusive, as they assume your applicants can afford it (because they’re able to stay in their current role, or that they have the time, savings, and lack of (care) obligations that allow them to take time off between jobs), which, in many cases, is just not given. — If you’re involved in hiring, remember that your hiring process says a lot about you, and how much you care about people within and outside of your organisation. And remember that this reflects back on you (see #1).
  13. Communicate, communicate, communicate. This is crucial to the experience you create and the message you send (especially as you’re interacting with people who may be at a very stressful point in their lives), so this should be a given. — Unsurprisingly, it’s not. Here’s how you can communicate better:
    1. Let people know that you’ve received their application (not just on a confirmation screen, but via email, so they have it on record).
    2. Communicate timelines (“you’ll hear from us by $date”).
    3. Stick to the timelines you communicated (or let people know if and why you can’t).
    4. Get back to them after every interview round within a couple of days.

7 things I learned about myself

  1. What do I even want? — Before even considering looking for a new role, and over the whole course of my job search, I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of life I want to live (yes, one of those easy questions). — I love my work, and it’s an important part of this life. I wanted to understand what really mattered to me, not only in my work, but also beyond. After the different roles I’ve had in the past (after all, I’m now in the 14th year of my career (yes it feels strange writing this down)), I’ve gotten a much better understanding of what I want to do, and where – as well as a clearer idea of the direction I want to take my life in. These thoughts became the foundation of my search.
  2. Never really stop interviewing — I spent a lot of time over the last years hiring people and working on hiring processes. On the one hand, it was equally strange and fascinating sitting on the other side of the table again, while, at the same time, I also noticed early on that I couldn’t really not interview – and ended up using this understanding to change my idea of job interviews a little to interviewing organisations (because, after all, that’s what it’s about).
  3. Using experiences to learn from them is great. — I’ve become a person who writes down her experiences learnings as she does things, because it will always be useful at some point (like, say, for a blog post like this one). Using this approach also helped at times when the whole endeavour became exhausting and frustrating, as I always knew that, in addition to the main purpose, it was also a learning experience for me.
  4. Privilege is a privilege. — I’ve always been really bad at actually building professional networks. At the same time, what I’d completely underestimated was the impact of the community work and public speaking I’ve done in the past, in terms of access it gave me now. (Again, a privilege, my friend.) 
  5. Statistics may bite you. — Even though I know how job postings work, and I know that women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified. I still don’t apply for jobs unless I’m 100% qualified.
  6. I have questions about how to engineering management, even. — A ~topic~ in this job search was, again and unsurprisingly, my not having an engineering background. This could be worth another post, another time, and was sometimes very frustrating, especially in those times when I had to even justify my career choices. And yet, it made me realise I want to join an organisation where I can support people through the experience and skills I bring, and that wants me on board because of those.
  7. Learning, pt 2. — This whole process, intense and, at times, exhausting as it was, gave me great insight into how different organisations work, their culture and values (in theory and practice), into how they work, how they hire, and how they approach management – and I learned a bunch of things that got me thinking and researching and changing some approaches to my work, which I’m looking forward to trying out in my new role.

And now, for some numbers!

I love numbers, here are some for you, just in case you like them too. (Accidental rhyme.)

Location

I’d been looking for a role that would have me work in Berlin or remotely. Of the 37 companies I was in touch with, here’s the breakdown of the locations I’d be working from:

  • Berlin: 26 (70%)
  • Remote: 4 (11%)
  • Other (roles in other locations or in Berlin with more than 60% time spent travelling): 7 (19%)

Having worked with semi- or fully distributed teams for a while now and knowing the benefits of this setup for individuals, teams, organisations and, after all, myself, I was very keen on keeping on working in such setup. Even before my public outreach, I had known that finding such a role would be hard to impossible.

Interviews, commute, communication, and other numbers

  • Interviews:
    • Number of interviews: 57 (fun fact: more than halfway into my search, I realised that the spreadsheet I was using to keep this number up-to-date had a formula error, and that I’d had 41 interviews instead of 20 already. Not my proudest moment.)
    • Time spent in interviews: 68 hours
    • Average interview duration: 1:12 hours
  • Companies
    • that I was in touch with initially: 37
      • that I had applied with: 6
      • that I had been referred to: 31
    • that I interviewed with: 16 (of 37)
    • that I had more than one interview with: 8
    • that I had more than two interviews with: 5
  • Time spent on communication, interview preparation, and commute (if necessary): 75 hours
  • Average number of interviews with one company to job offer: 10

In total, I spent 143 hours over the course of 6 weeks on this process, and this whole endeavour was quite something. I was really lucky to have the support of great colleagues and, most of all, a bunch of wonderful friends, and be lucky enough to have a chance to meet so many people and companies throughout this process.

Now I’m looking forward to a little more processing-/downtime, before I’ll soon start interviewing again – this time from the other side of the table, in a new role that I’m very much looking forward to taking on.

Berlin, Winter (October 2017-February 2018)

There’s always this one day in the year when it shifts, the day when all of a sudden, the subway station is warmer than the outdoors again. That’s when you know.

This is the fifth month of winter. There’s not enough sun for all the sad people here anymore.

We try to stay close to keep each other warm. The wind is too harsh and we keep drifting apart, except for the times when the storm hits harder than usual and the rain is so strong that we have to stand closely under the supermarket roof, looking out to water smashing down from the sky, feeling each other’s elbows in our sides and smelling each other’s scents, waiting for the rain to stop, while the slushy machine that’s on all year keeps slushing ice to the sound of Radical Face: Welcome Home.

Oh, the rain. It’s always the rain. It makes the bushes in the back yard below my apartment look like palm trees, it makes my hands cold and my body shiver and the water run through my hair and drip onto my face and first it wets my glasses, then it makes them foggy every time I enter a warmer place. Clear vision is a rarity these days. I have to remind myself to blink from time to time, as a means to make sense of the world right now. As a means to remember the world as it is right now. Because what the world is, is something that makes me want to run, and not run in the good ways like I did in early autumn, when I’d sprint to catch the traffic lights and go for park runs and play catch with the tiniest dog in the world. This is a time when I want to run and hide, or, better, sit on a train and ride it until Endstation, last stop, and stay there forever.

Recently, I read a story of a microwave and two people who are forever stuck in almost kissing, and it reminds me of you. I walk around the corners, blocks, I leave my thoughts in the streets. I spend an entire walk thinking about the cultural implications of house shoes. Little children mostly treat me as a roadblock, and I appreciate the grand gesture in their pure avoidance. I’m counting my steps. I like counting things: steps, stairs, doors, corners, windows, holes in ceilings, books in shelves, pictures on walls, tiles in bathrooms. Most of the time, I’ll only notice that I’m counting again when my head is already beyond ten. A bunch of dried flowers lie on the step in front of the antique book shop. And as, for once, the sun comes out, the day goes by and it’s about to set again, I just stop and stare, stare at the sunset as if it was holding any answers. Outside of a shop, big wreaths are standing outside, and flower arrangements of red roses, the kinds that come with their own stands and backdrops of evergreen and bows to hold them together. CONGRATULATIONS, one says. A big sign above the door reads NOW OPEN. A man walks out of the shop, he has a beard and a melancholic look on his face and as I look at it all, I want to cry over the beauty of life.

I stand on a platform, waiting for a train to the airport, and someone is wearing your perfume (I can smell it over the crowd). As I get on the packed train, I sit across from someone, and without any conversation, we arrange for each other to have as much room as we possibly can, to ensure we’re both comfortable in between it all. After the arrangements are done, for the first time, we briefly look each other in the eyes and nod in respectful acknowledgement, and for the fraction of a second, I feel genuine human connection.

The train stops, I see a woman on the opposite platform. She’s wearing a green coat and bites into a peach, leaning forward. The peach juice drops on the ground. A plane from Munich arrives and nobody is waiting for anyone on it. At a different gate, a woman is waiting. She’s tall, with curly brown hair, and bursting with joy. In one hand, she’s holding a long red rose wrapped in foil; in the other, she has a huge white poster, WELCOME HOME written on it with permanent marker, in giant letters full of impatience and anticipation. She has the excitement of the world written onto her face, and as I look at her, my heart feels like it will just burst with love. The plane I’m on is packed, and the person next to me has broad shoulders. I spend the flight thinking about the radiation of the warmth of the almost-touch of another person.

Sometimes I look at fellow passengers on the subway and imagine what their lives will look like in fifty years. On a Friday morning and another train, I look down on my phone to adjust the music, as I hear someone say my name, question mark. I look up and it’s G., we haven’t met in years, again, and how come it never feels like years, but always is years, and how come that G. is one of these people with whom you just know, know that together, you could’ve been something, but you never were and never will be, and there’s the biggest sadness and sweetness in it. It’s the brutal beauty of subjunctive.

It’s a Sunday morning, and as I walk home at 5am, the snow is falling on my face and rests on my hair. The night is sweet and fading away like the taste of vanilla ice cream and I stay in the street, watching the snow flakes hit the ground and slowly melt away.

Hold on, love. It’s too soon to wake up.

A brightness, a view, a poem: Porto in Winter 2017

Musings, thoughts, music, notes. Written down over the course of a few days in December 2016 and January 2017, while meandering through Porto, Portugal.


Prologue

I get home to a freezing cold flat at 9pm. Two hours, some laundry, dinner, a phone call, one unpacked and another packed bag later, I go to bed.
Six hours later, I am standing in a queue at the airport.
Eight hours later, I see Paris at night from a window seat on a plane.
Nine hours after going to bed, I see fog crawling through light green Portuguese valleys like spilled milk.
Ten hours later, I see a blue sky and the sun shining a golden light onto the ocean.
Leave my world just black and white, snatch the sun out of the sky. For the only colour in my life is the memory of you and I.

And this is how it all begins again.


Day 1: The picture

If you knew what to look for when you look at me, you’d know exactly what is actually happening. I fool myself into believing that this is just a passing feeling.

I have coffee and Pastéis de Nata, and believe me when I say that everything I said about pastry another time was a blatant lie. I take a train and think of the last time I took a train on a holiday. It was in another life, at the time I was backpacking in SardiniaAnd when we kissed I felt the deep blue sky.

As I’m heading to a supermarket to get some groceries, I feel the tiredness crawling up my bones. It’s 2pm local time, and by now, I’ve been up for 11 hours. I pass a busker who has a voice like Tom Waits. The supermarket smells like chlorine and dried fish. As per my failure to learn Portuguese, I try to combine some Spanish and French and pronounce it in such way that I feel like it might pass as Portuguese. – It doesn’t.

As I stand in front of the cheese shelf, a very (really very) short elderly lady approaches me and asks me something. At first, I don’t understand what she wants from me – but then she points up the shelf and says something about A vaca que ri, and then I understand – A vaca que ri is La vache qui rit, which is The laughing cow, which can be found on the top shelf and which she wants. Two, actually. I get it for her, and she’s so happy about, and I get so angry at myself for not being able to say more than you’re welcome to her, and try and make sure she understands when I attempt gestures that mean to say my pleasure.

I can at least in some way make my lack of language skills up to her later when she loses 20€ at checkout, and I find them under her shoe and get them back to her. But, once more, she’s so excited, and I don’t even understand it, nor can I say anything nice back.

I go into a bakery and buy random pastry items; later on, half of them will turn out to be sweet, and I’ll find out that the rest is filled with either ham, or cheese, or both. As I go back to my place, I walk past a wall on which someone has sprayed E urgente pensar o amor, It is urgent to think of love. Over the next days, I will walk past many, many more of these.

A vida e super.

Right before sunset, seagulls circulate above my rooftop terrace. Oranges on a tree across the yard are glowing in the low light. A dog watches a seagull fly by, a not even remotely interested look on his face.

The photographer is not in the picture. That’s one of the things I most love and despise about photography, and about being a photographer (when travelling alone, I sometimes rather despise it).

We tend to forget that the photographer even exists, because all we see is what they saw, and the parts of it which they want us to see.

The photographer is never in the picture, but always is.

All alone, all alone, in the darkness of the night.


Day 2: The fire

While, over the last days in another country, I saw several Santas running across (a different) town, now I see Santas climbing up walls. Today only, I saw six of them. I’m fueled up and high, a man among guys.

A vida e dura para quem e mole. — Life is hard for who is soft.

At the farmers’ market, I walk past piles of fruit, buckets full of olives in many shades of green and black; past flowers, honey, all things made of cork, vegetables. I buy some bread and water at a very sweet elderly woman’s place. After she gives me my change, she smiles at me and tells me that I’m very beautiful. I tell her that she’s very beautiful (she is). I may not speak much Portuguese, but that much I understand (and can say).

The January cherries bloom / burn not in you, yet not in you.

I walk past fish, past meat, and past a guy making obscene gestures at me. The sun is setting.

I sit down on a square, where a bunch of teenagers with string instruments are sitting on the floor.

I have some pastry, watch the sunset, walk up to a church and walk on.

Down a different road, I pass a bunch of men hanging out on the sidewalk in front of a garage. As I look inside, I see, in the following order:

  • a crowd control barrier,
  • straw on th floor,
  • a small shack,
  • Joseph, Maria, Baby Jesus, a goat, donkey, some more animal figures,
  • a Christmas tree –
  • and two fire engines.

The men on the sidewalk were firemen, the garage is the fire department, and they haven’t yet gotten rid of the nativity scene they set up.


Day 3: The view

For someone who’s afraid of birds, this is not an ideal place to be.

I cross the bridge, walk up a small hill, and sit down on a bench to enjoy the view.

One minute later, a man approaches me, tells me how pretty I was in three languages, and after I tell him in two languages that I’m not interested in a conversation, he goes on harassing me. I get up and walk away from him and the fucking view. These are the times when one can’t even enjoy a fucking view for fucking five minutes without someone feeling entitled to one’s attention. Among many other things, cis male entitlement can also fuck right off in 2017.

In the middle of a square, there’s a giant Christmas tree ball which looks like a meteor that crashed down from space right into this square (and left a giant crater). The body as a subconscious, and desire takes place somewhere, everywhere.

Later this day, I will accidentally buy a ticket for a concert that starts 45 minutes later, get locked inside (!) my apartment and not manage to get out for 20 minutes, almost give up just before I get help, run through the night like I never ran before, out-run what a map app estimated as my time of arrival by 50%, get there just when the concert starts, walk past 500 people because my seat is in the middle of the front row, sit down, and only then realise I ended up at the local music school’s annual end-of-year concert.

Three hours and a much more relaxed way home later, I will be very happy I went there.

Shouldn’t I be okay out here on my own?


Day 4: The signal

I remember how good it is for me to do some exercises in the morning before I start my day. How my body feels more set, and how I feel more together; more prepared to take on what the day will bring. As I have my morning coffee on the square by the fountain, I just sit there and wonder if I’ve finally achieved some inner calm, or if that’s just another level of tiredness (again). You let your feet run wild. Time has come as we all oh, go down.

While I was chasing the sun in Helsinki, now I’m looking for shade. Aside from that, what I’m looking for hasn’t changed.

I accidentally run into a herd of peacocks, which, of course, reminds me of the conversation I had with a couple of friends a few weeks back, and reminds me that it’s not called a herd in English, but a muster, ostentation, or pride of peacocks. Really, English? — Really.

In the park, I walk between trees, stand on the tips of my toes to see the river behind a wall. There are so many rose bushes, and a perfect rose lying on the floor; I wonder why it dropped. I have so much to say, but much more that’s not for everyone. Remember the heart, the one that beats beneath you.

All my plans, like ice cream vans in the summer, they go by with hope still in my eyes.

I remember a question I saw a long, long time ago on a dating platform about which way one prefers to show affection: Touch, actions, gifts, or words; pick one. All the air is glitter. In a pastry shop by a graveyard, I get into a conversation with an old man who works there. He says you’re one of the nicest Germans I’ve ever met, and I’m not sure what to make of that, and then he teaches me how to say Happy New Year in Portuguese.

There are so many more things that I would have wanted to know; so much from your past that would help me understand so much of my today (and possibly future). But we never got to talk. Midnight where we used to dance underneath the ugly halogen lamps. Oh, it all went away so fast.

After almost seven years in Berlin, I have mastered the art of eating Döner. But will eight days in Portugal be enough for me to master the art of eating Pastéis de Nata without looking like I just got into a puff pastry storm? — Stay tuned.

One of my all-time favourite lines from a book is from one of my favourite authors who once wrote Ich bin beschädigt, ich habe Zeit — I am damaged, I have time. I read this line for the first time many, many years ago, and it has come back to me many times ever since.

It all breaks at the moment you float down the stream and if I won’t be by the shore, I’ll wait for you inside the sea.

A butcher is standing in the door to his shop talking to a woman. Her dog is a little bit too excited to see the butcher. This is the day of very random songs being stuck in my head with no reason. In order of appearance: Rocking around the Christmas Tree, Only You, Walking on Sunshine, Last Christmas, Bang a Gong (Get it on), Are you gonna be my girl. Com a insistencia, vem o triunfo. — With insistence comes the triumph.

Two dogs in the middle of a barking battle. More street harassment along all ways (and I only won’t mention it further over the notes for the next days because why even). Excuse me Mr I’ve got other things to do than to stand here listening to you.

Sometimes I try to parse the signals that my body is sending me like they were a foreign language.

Nobody here that keeps you in the shade and ever owned you.


Day 5: The music

I find Paredes que falam – walls that speak. It took me a long time to understand that it’s possible to trust myself, while still staying able to question my own work, beliefs, and view of the world. All our running is a crawl, and burns for us right through the fall.

A busker sitting on the street side that I walk past is singing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A few minutes later, I return. He has stopped singing, stood up, and is tracing a sign at a storefront. The sign says últimos dias – last days.

A tag on a wall says I bleed.

I look at your silhouette in the mirror and I wonder about your dreams last night.

I get this feeling like it all could happen, that’s why I’m leaving you for the moment.

Sonho que um verso meu tem claridade
Para encher todo o mundo! E que deleita
Mesmo aqueles que morrem de saudade!
Mesmo os de alma profunda e insatisfeita!

I dream that in just one of my lines is a brightness
enough to fill the whole world! Delighting,
even those whose hearts are sore and broken!
Even those with profound and yearning souls!

(Florbela Espanca, excerpt from “Vanity”)

No matter where I go, there is one thing that is already there, even before I arrive. I have reached a point now where I can laugh about it and almost mean it.


Day 6: The dance

On another day, in another time, there’s a van driving a giant pink heart around town, and it makes me equally happy and sad. The noctuous heart beats loudest, the old and steady and content.

I rarely find comfort in the company of strangers. There is a dividing line cutting through the will and the design.

The thing with scenic outposts is that people easily forget that there’s often so much more beauty of a different kind in the opposite direction. – And forget to even take one look that way.

A woman passes me. She’s walking a black dog and asking a seagull what’s going on. The air in the tunnel smells of fried fish and piss. A couple of pigeons are feasting on a can of pringles that someone tossed near a garbage can. A tiny puppy, only a few months old: runs across a square, stops, looks at me, and starts following me.

Everything that you’re going down, you will go back up eventually. You will have to go back up again eventually.

An old man feeding birds. I wonder if, when I’m old, I’ll become an old lady who feeds birds (despite my current fear of them). And how much shorter I’ll be by then. In a museum, I find a portrait of a woman that has the same facial expression like me when looking at my unfiltered mentions on the website www dot twitter dot com. I get ice cream.

In another museum, I look at photos of a woman and a man, trying to hold each other, but also not. The last piece in the exhibition is a film of a printer that prints photos of the couple, which are transported on a conveyor belt, and shred to pieces at the end of it. The hurricanes, they always come. We won’t stay here too long.

And then there’s always the question if we’re dancing or just walking around each other. And the question who follows whom. And then, how do two people even find balance, when they’re each only tiptoeing on one foot? And when you hit the pause button, does anything really pause, or don’t we at least have to keep breathing?

How I wish you there running to me silently.

Back outside, I take my camera out of my backpack again, and accidentally drop the backpack. It lands in spit. I don’t have anything on me to clean it. Now I’m carrying someone’s spit around town. The rotten air is stuck in the narrow streets today. I have menstrual cramps from hell.

Much of my last year has been about getting used to silence in a very, very different way; it went much better than I had feared. You will stay with us.

If I’m honest, all I want to do is become stronger. I’m moving on. I find a lamppost that has two stickers on it: one saying j’existe, another one with je suis partout written on it. If you show willingness to get out of people’s way, they sometimes misunderstand that as an invitation to get into your way.

Even if some things go as good as they possibly can, it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be tough as fuck anyway. Let me just tell you this one thing.

Even when you’re very certain, be careful when you tell yourself that a certain time in your life is over and never coming back. Among all life events, such times are the shoulder patches, and they’re going to get another revival within the next decade.

I feel sad about the many books I can’t read in their original language they were written in. I know how carefully I choose each word I use, how often I compare or weigh options from my vocabulary against each other. I’d like to be able to see the options a writer originally chose.

(But then, I don’t see many new languages in my near future, since I already know I’ll have too much to do this year; and it’s only January 02. Thinking of this date makes me think of someone’s birthday. It’s a thought without emotion, except for traces of a feeling of tragedy.)

I go out on the balcony and look at the streets at night.

As I return to my room, what I see is a bed that’s covered in several books spread across it, a laptop quietly playing some calm music, a phone, a water bottle (no, autocorrect, it’s not a water buffalo; although a water buffalo in my bed sounds cool, but may also be frightening), half a dozen pillows, a few pens, and some notebooks. And somewhere in the middle, there’s still a tiny crater with the shape of my body. I look at it and think to myself that this is, unintentionally, probably a very accurate picture; though not a picture of what it seems to be.

I get along swell by my goddamn self.

I count and I guess I said about 70 words today; it might have been less.


Day 7: The art

A tourist guide approaches me and asks need a boat?, and I want to say yes. The sky is cloudy, but the sun is shining, and every once in a while, it comes out for a bit. I sit down by the water and look at the waves, the sparkles of light on the water. Em qué esás a pensar? The light has lost its warmth, and its ability to warm. A black pigeon crosses the street.

I think back to last year and some things I did, other things I had to do, some of which I was anxious about for weeks. I need more islands. I need less extremes, and more islands.

Over the past year, I’ve noticed how some things start at different levels nowadays. Less casual, more serious.

There’s one piece of street art that I keep walking past, and that always fascinates me. On the side, it says:

Minh’alma de sonhar-te anda perdida meus olhos andam cegos de te ver não és sequer razão do meu viver pois que tu és já toda a minha vida! – My soul is dreaming you are lost, my eyes are blind to see you, you are not even the reason for my living, because you are already my whole life.  — Florbela Espanca

I take a photo it on my first night.

It is only a few days after my return home that I find the picture and translate the words on the side. That’s when I realise I read these words somewhere else – the poem they’re from is in one of the anthologies I bought during my stay.

I go out onto the terrace and look onto the streets. An almost romantic scene: down the street to my left, a group of young people is laughing and the LEDs in front of the stores are blinking like it’s a competition. A few people with pizza boxes are crossing the square to my right, lightened by the remaining Christmas decorations. Straight ahead, the big spotlight on the crane is producing light like daylight, and my uterus is cramping like there’s no tomorrow.

An almost romantic moment. And the question is, what am I getting myself into? And how about you?

I realise that, if there’s anything that happened in these past weeks, it’s that I’m suddenly very comfortable with having nothing to keep my hands busy, and nothing in front of my face – neither camera nor book nor notebook nor display (except for the glasses, these I’ll keep on).

It doesn’t matter so much where we’re going, as long as we’re enjoying the journey. (But then, how much and how far can you travel, do you want to travel.)

No matter how many streets I wander, I keep seeing you; you’re in the way this one person holds their coffee, in someone else’s hair, or the way their shirt is lightly blowing in the wind around their body. No matter where I go, I keep seeing you. There’s no way to tell you that, and there never will be, because things are what they are now, and they will stay like this forever. (I don’t believe in forever; but there’s only so much one person’s beliefs can do.)

It’s time to take my own / take my own advice.

I’m very happy I got to make my first mobile typing experiences on a phone with keys the size of my fingernails and T9. I would like proper keys and T9 back. Kids, those were days.

Not all the things that you gain can be, can be possessed.


Day 8: The ride

When memories fade, it’s funny to see which bits stick in the end. And the remaining pieces that remind me of you, where they are, what they look like, and why, are for another story and another time.

I love when the music I’m listening to functions as an actual soundtrack: when the music gets to the most epic point exactly when a plane takes off; when people around me unknowingly walk exactly to the beat; when the song gets faster as the train speeds up, and suddenly, the sea is right there.

I finish up some writing, then look out of the train — on villages, small houses, olive trees, lakes. Mini forests, citrus trees, gardens; beach houses, wide gardens full of fruit trees; pines; reed.

I fall in love so easily: with one line in a song, even if just a few seconds long; with a few words in a poem, a sentence in a book, a line in a piece, a detail in a painting. Every one of them I want to hold so close and store deep inside of me, and never let them go. Falling in love with art is easy, it’s unconditional, it’s fast, it doesn’t require lots of work (except for finding what to fall in love with; but that’s usually the bigger problem anyway). Falling in love with art is amazing.

Villages composed of a few houses between forests. Industrial complexes, steam rising from chimneys. Orange trees, orange trees everywhere. Flooded acres. Tiny rivers. Maybe, one day, I’ll be a person who wants a garden with an orange tree. A ceramics factory in a red brick building. A graveyard. Lemon trees. Dried, brown corn plants on a field. Dark grey sheep.

No matter how hard we try, there’s always so much that gets lost along the way – words that drop in calls, gestures that are too fast for cameras to pick up, facial expressions that get lost when the video call connection slows down; meaning that doesn’t come across in written form, intentions that remain unclear, feelings that are never expressed, thoughts that aren’t understood, ideas that remain unspoken, thoughts that are forgotten.

I sometimes wonder if there’s a place where all of these lost pieces are collected, stored, waiting for someone to pick them up – waiting for someone to collect all these lost details, nuances, meanings, and give them a new place to live elsewhere. I write an incomplete list of items that belonged to me and someone else, and that I’d like to pick up again, just in case such a place exists.

I don’t know yet what I’d do once I’d picked them up. The least I’d try would be to re-deliver them. But with some of them, that won’t work, since the pieces are the same, but the space in which they were transmitted in the first place doesn’t exist anymore. I might put them into tiny frames and put them up on my walls. Collages of what we never knew we lost, but are lucky to have found again

Slim white birch trees. Dark green bushes close to the ground, lit by bits of sunlight. Light travels fast, sound travels fast (though slower) and brains process fast. Still, all we see, hear, notice is past. Like all on this train ride, and like I didn’t know how much I wanted you until I looked back.

White, brown, black horses. Sheep. I’m not a fan of demands to “live in the present”, because they ignore so much, and often come from such a privileged position. But I wonder what it takes to notice more, see more, appreciate more.

White and dark brown sheep in a field of dried corn. Red soil. A white goat under an orange tree in a back yard.

Over the past weeks, I slowly decreased my walking pace. I stopped walking in a way that would almost qualify as running, and started actually walking. Meandering.

The train goes from blue skies and sun to fog and sun to blue skies to fog… for the next hour.

We approach a hill full of dark trees above a valley in which the air is still clear, and fog is rolling down the hill like it was poured onto it from the sky – while the sun is still lighting the whole scenery.

One of the things I admired most in Porto where the colours and shapes of things. The vibrance.

As the airplane takes off, as we get past the dense fog and clouds, the lights of the cities under us are orange and white dots on a black rug of clouds. Night has fallen and all the stars are coming out. A few minutes later, I see my favourite constellation. It’s the same constellation which I saw for the last time many, many hours further south, under a very different sky.

And this is how it ends.


All photos are also on Flickr.

Having no more dreams, but trash fires, bagels, and questions about dogs and morals: January 2017

Found

  • The BEST dog:

Wrote

  • “I’m not sure if it’s a good sign that I recognised this place just from the furniture.”
  • “I know this dog.”

Watched (or saw)

  • Two performances I’ll never forget (and both for their very own reasons)
  • A tiny mountain range in ice on a table
  • Rogue One, twice
  • Someone with a smiley balloon
  • Beer forming small streams on the subway floor
  • The sunrise above the sea
  • A skyline at night

Said

  • “Happy New Goat!”
  • “Are we a classic case of customer loyalty gone a little bit too far?”
  • “I’m carving out my own self-confidence like it was a pumpkin and I was making a Halloween lantern.”
  • “I had a safety pin and vodka. What else should I have done?”
  • “He needs someone for the long run and I need… curtains!”
  • “It’s with nitro, it’s awesome!”
  • “It had philosophy, vampires, Buffy references, stuff about smashing the patriarchy, and a feminist agenda. That’s all I need!”
  • “You should really lower your expectations towards me.”

  • “Make sure I can finally forget.”
  • “I would like to assure you that, yes, I do have the look and feel of a giant pixel.”
  • “I have a pizza reflux.”
  • “Unfortunately, as we already know, calendars.”
  • “I rarely say that these days, but this gives me a tiny bit of hope.”
  • “I kind of want to get married now just to test how ‘quick and easy’ a divorce here actually is.”
  • “I think my brain has given up on trying to understand where I am.”

Was

  • In the theatre
  • By the fireplace
  • In Portugal
  • In the cinema
  • Desperate
  • Asked to pick the music in the café
  • In full-on panic mode
  • In the US
  • Jetlagged, maybe
  • Overcaffeinated, likely

Did

  • Have the last Pastéis de Nata
  • Buy more books (in case you want to send me a present someday: I really like books)
  • Return home to find flowers on the floor and get scared af
  • Make birthday plans (already)
  • Wear six plus one shades of eyeshadow for reasons. And mean it.
  • Show up when it mattered
  • Pet many great dogs
  • Find the best place in New York (seriously)
  • Wear a party hat

Did…, although it was a bad idea

  • Count.
  • Not recharge my camera battery in time.

Had

  • Persimmon
  • Pizza
  • Bagels
  • Donuts
  • Pizza on my coat
  • Coffee on my nose
  • Coffee all over my face (only because of the rain)

Read the internet

Read Books


E se um dia hei-de serpó, cinza e nada,
Que seja a minha noite uma alvorada,
Que me saiba perder… pra me encontrar…

And if one day I’ll be dust, ash, and nothingness,
then may my nighttime be a dawn,
may I learn to be lost… so I can find myself…

– Florbela Espanca, excerpt from Amar!


Heard

  • “Soooo… what’s the latest Lena-gossip?”
  • “What are you doing?” – “Having coffee, sitting around, not thinking about the end of the world. The usual.”
  • “I am just a creature of cheap snacks and air conditioning.” – “Add some gaffer tape to hold it together, and you get me.”
  • “Today is the day of nothing.”
  • “Vampire times time equals long-term decision making strategy.”
  • “This drink tastes like pizza.”
  • “You should wear a beard.” (We’ve been to this point before. This time though, it was repeated by several people independently (one of them weighing in from 10 time zones east); so it looks like this is getting serious.)

  • “‘You should be cast as Ryan Gosling’, thats what I keep telling myself.”
  • “Do you like Ryan Gosling?” – “No.” — “But what if he were pizza?!”
  • “This is the first time I’ve seen you in jeans. Usually, you’re much more presentable.”
  • “Are there Drop Bears in Spreewald?”
  • “You’re likely not expecting that, but what if the date goes well?”
  • “We have a problem.” — “No, we have a challenge!”
  • “Blankets, coffee, pizza. Your place. Now.”
  • “I look like I have serious problems.” — “You do, but I still hope they’re not as big as they look right now.”
  • “The future has a dog sitting in a window.”
  • “The best advice I can give you is: don’t follow your dreams.”

Listened to

Thought about

  • Versioning.
  • Change.
  • Conference speaking.
  • Trash fires, the world and activism in the year 2017.
  • Finality and how you can never be fully prepared for how sad it’s going to be when it’s actually over.
  • All the things that still must end.
  • On a scale from 1 to LOL, how likely is it to get someone’s consent for starting a relationship with them, only because one wants to hang out with their dog on a regular basis?
  • And if it’s really the cutest, fluffiest, and overall best dog ever (and the person inquiring is at least trying to be a half-decent human being)?