Jetsetting: Germany, Belgium, and England

German adventures 2.0

On 10 October, I left sunny Barcelona and returned to Germany, this time to Hamburg. There, I spent a week crashing with Svenya, one of the co-founders of Girl Skate Hamburg.

I reached out to Girl Skate Hamburg via their social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram at the suggestion of Jane Wonder of Berlin. Daniela Conrad, one of the co-founders and organizers of Girl Skate Hamburg, responded to my inquiry excited at the prospect of a girl from the Bronx coming out to Hamburg to skate. She added me to the 70-member Girl Skate Hamburg WhatsApp group chat where, with the help of Google translate, I introduced myself to the group and asked if someone could host me for a week. Within a few hours, Svenya, one of the co-founders of Girl Skate Hamburg, offered me a spot on her couch. From the moment I reached out to them through my week in Hamburg, Daniela, Svenya, Nasti, and all of the other amazing people I met in that lovely city were incredibly welcoming to me despite my being a stranger.

Moments like these fill me with deep gratitude for skateboarding and for the connection I feel with other women who skateboard.

I did not journal much in Hamburg because I was so present in my life there. Svenya is an incredible host and kept me busy with trips to local skate shops, brought me to some of Hamburg’s most iconic skate spots (the Wilhelmsburg Red Banks are my personal favorite), and even invited me to join her birthday celebration at an outdoor skate park in Glücksburg near the Danish border.

One of the most important moments of my trip to Hamburg took place during breakfast one morning with Svenya and her roommates Tim and Sven. We were talking about the work Svenya’s put in to promote women’s skateboarding in Hamburg and discussed other women in the skateboarding world who use skateboarding as a tool for community organizing and youth work. After sharing with her my desire to go to India and Cambodia later in my Watson year, Svenya informed me that there was a Girl Skate India trip being planned.

Svenya introduced a new country to my Watson itinerary by inviting me to join Atita Verghese, India’s first pro female skateboarder, for a Girls Skate India trip with fellow femme skaters from across the globe, during which we will skate together, build parks, and encourage Indian youth to skateboard. I’ve been following Atita’s work since hearing about the first Girl Skate India tour at the end of 2015/early 2016. After watching the video of the Girl Skate India Tour and hearing her Ted Talk “When Girls Skateboard in India” in 2016, I fell in love with Verghese’s vision and resolved to be more intentional about the way I integrate my personal passion for skateboarding with my work and politics.

In all, Hamburg unlocked a lot of my potential as a skater, individual, and Watson fellow because it showed me just how connected the small but mighty women’s skate community can be. I felt touched by how quickly the Hamburg’s ladies of shred took me under their wing and offered me food, housing, and the gift of their time and company. Hamburg and the people I met there left a deep impression on my spirit; it remains my favourite city in Germany and one of the most rewarding parts of my Watson year so far.

Embracing the unexpected

After Hamburg, I spent the following two weeks reconnecting with my passion for skateboarding and began truly embracing the serendipity of my Watson project by allowing my project to take me to cities I didn’t expect it to. My first stop after Hamburg was Münster, where I spent three days at Skate-aid, a German non-profit organization that sponsored my Davis Peace Prize project in Mozambique. Torben, one of the co-founders of Skate-aid and my primary contact at the organization, hosted me at Skate-aid’s in-house hostel, Skaters Palace. Torben and I spoke about my – our – project in Mozambique and he extended an invitation for me to join Skate-aid and work with them on future projects in Mozambique and South Africa. Münster was a valuable experience because it enabled me to connect my work in Mozambique to my present Watson project while also encouraging me to consider possible future(s) in which I could combine my passion for skateboarding with my love for youth work and interests in international and urban development.

After Münster, I travelled to Bochum to visit a German friend I’d met in Mozambique. It was nice to see a familiar face and spend a day in the life of a German university student. As I wandered around this campus of over 40,000 students while waiting for my friend to get out of class, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of nostalgia for Macalester College, my alma mater. Ruhr-Universitat Bochum’s sprawling industrial campus was a far cry from the red brick buildings and tranquil, tree-lined paths that characterize Macalester’s small campus of 2,000 students. The liberal arts education I received at Macalester is unusual even for universities in the United States; many friends from home and abroad still can’t wrap their heads around the fact that I was able to take courses like “The Heart and Soul of Biology” and “A Kafkaesque Century” as an International Studies major. Though my time at Macalester was not without struggle and I complained a lot about its elitism, I am deeply grateful to my Macalester family for believing and investing in me.

After an unexpected change of plans in Bochum, I found myself scrambling to find a place to stay that night. I contacted Svenya and asked if she knew any skaters in Bochum or in the surrounding cities of Koln, Dusseldorf, and Dortmund. Svenya told me to contact her friend Jana, a femme skater from Aachen who organizes girls skate sessions in Dortmund. Jana is also an architecture student who enjoys building DIY skateparks. She also happens to be a close friend of my (our) friend Marie, who I met in Sweden! Small world ❤  

The morning after arriving at her flat, Jana and I took the train to Aachen, her adopted hometown, to meet with some friends of hers from Liège, Belgium, to skate at a DIY park they’d built together. I had a blast with Jana and her friends at this park! Everyone had such positive vibes, the weather was sunny and fresh, and everyone learned something new.

Together with her friends Roxy and Joran, we drove from Aachen to Liège, Belgium, where I spent the weekend staying at Roxy and Joran’s flat near the city center. Our weekend was full of long, enriching conversations and epic skate sessions. Rain or shine, Jana, Roxy, Joran, and their friends Florence and Natalie were all motivated, easy going people with whom I learned and laughed a lot. I tried all of the Liège specialties – boulet sauce lapin, Belgian fries, gaufre de Liège (better than the classic Belgian waffle if you ask me), mussels, you name it. I also enjoyed learning about the small but blossoming Belgian skate scene, which includes skaters such as Mattéo Matriche, a 15-year-old Belgian skater who created Liège-based up-and-coming skate mag Tweak Magazine.

On my last day in Liège, I skated with Roxy and her friend Ana. Roxy is proactive in her local skate scene and organizes Elles Roulent skate sessions for girls and women in Liège as well as Brussels. It was just three of us on this pretty empty plaza on a Monday morning and afternoon, but I left that session feeling really relaxed and accomplished. When I told Roxy and Ana that my next stop after Belgium was the U.K., Ana gave me the contact info for her friend Neila, who could host me in London. Small world. Trust in the kindness of strangers. Gratitude.

Later that afternoon, I hopped on a train from Liège to Amsterdam, where I would spend the night before catching a flight to London the following afternoon. In just one week, I found myself in three countries I never expected to travel to during my Watson year: Belgium, the Netherlands, and the U.K. I was buzzing with excitement on my train to Maastricht, caught my connecting train from Maastricht to Amsterdam with seconds to spare, and found my way to my hostel without a phone, relying on maps and directions from helpful strangers. I spent the night exploring local coffee shops, walking around and admiring the way the canals, streetlights, and architecture were all illuminated by the light dancing in the mist.

The Netherlands marks the 14th country I have been to and the 8th country I’ve been to since departing for my Watson year in July. However, the feeling of leaving one new place for another new place is starting to feel the same. The buzz of excitement over new! Then comes the slow realization that I am leaving behind smells, tastes, smiles, sounds that I may never see again. Back to joy over opportunity, mobility, freedom. Balancing my wanderlust, openness, wonder, magic with mindfulness, presence, reflection, patience…The Netherlands was a nice place to pause for reflection, a place where I got to step out of my project for a fleeting moment and just enjoy the gift of travel before arriving to my ‘final’ destination: Nottingham, England.

(Mis)adventures in England

I was invited to England by my friend Simon Devenport, a skateboarder from Nottingham who I hosted via couchsurfing at my flat in Berlin. Active in the local skateboarding and art communities, Simon got together with a group of fellow local skaters and artists to throw an art exhibition at Flo Skatepark in Nottingham on the 26th of October. I accepted the invitation back when I was in Spain, but did book any trains or flights until life brought me to Belgium.

I arrived at the U.K.’s border unprepared and a bit bewildered. “Why are you here?” the border officer demanded. I informed her that I was a Watson Fellow, but realized that the necessary documents, such as my official Watson visa letter, copies of my bank statements, and proof of a flight out of the U.K. were in my checked bag or unprinted. The border officer scrutinized me for over 10 minutes (it felt like way more), criticized me for not having everything printed and prepared, and casting doubt on my project (“you mean to tell me an organization gave you $30,000 to learn about women’s skateboarding? And you don’t have a bank statement or a letter in your legal name to prove it? Your story is simply unbelievable; you’re going to have to come up with a better one. What good does skateboarding do for anyone, anyway?” etc). It hurt to have someone undermine my project and almost be rejected from entering the U.K. for being unprepared, but in this moment I decided to accept the critique and take this as a lesson moving forward to, in legal situations, leave nothing up to chance.

On a more positive note, the exhibition was incredible! There were so many incredible prints, sculptures, photographs, and paintings that reflected some aspect of skateboarding and/or street culture. Most of the art employed recycled skateboards and other materials to create instruments, beer holders, trees, and even a guitar amp (it doesn’t work but it looks pretty cool). I wasn’t on the original roster of artists (since the exposé was intended to showcase local artists and I’m definitely not from Nottingham), but Simon and his friends encouraged me to display a misprinted skate deck I’d bought in Hamburg that I’d begun designing with grip tape. I placed my grip art piece next to the art of a painter and mixed-media artist who goes by Scarce. I admired the sinewy lines of his colorful yet eerie skulls, complimented him on his talents, and invited him to paint a piece on my deck. He graciously accepted and freeform designed a gorgeous black-and-white design that featured the words “love from across the pond”. As we stood and admired the fruit of our artistic collaboration, we discussed the futility of trying to protect the image with lacquer. It is important to see and value the beauty in that which is fleeting.

Later that night, I dropped into and skated a bowl without pads, helmets, or fear; it was the first time I dropped in where I fully trusted my ability not only to drop in, but to pump correctly and actually skate the bowl. In my six years of skating, I’ve always surrendered to vertigo, to self-doubt, to fear. This time, I realized: “wait, Kava. You know how to do this. You’ve been doin it. You’ve done it in your mind, in your body, your spirit already trusts your body so why does your mind hesitate? Just do it.” Though England wasn’t on my original country list and it is unlikely that I will visit it again anytime soon, I am grateful for the opportunity to have gone there and learned all that I did. I am especially grateful for the hospitality of Neila and Ymed, who hosted me at their flat in London, and Simon and his housemates, who were all so welcoming and kind to me.

Goodbye, Germany

After an eventful four weeks of travel around Europe, I finally returned to Berlin this last weekend – just in time for Halloween! Although the fast-paced life I’d been living for the past two weeks was exhilarating and important, I was so, so, SO happy to come home to my modest, unremarkable, yet homey flat in Wedding. My room smelled like me, I knew where everything was, I was HOME! For me, there are few better feelings than the feeling of laying in your own bed and walking around in your underwear after a long journey away.

Moving out of my flat in Berlin was one of the most difficult parts of my Watson year. I didn’t realize how attached I’d feel to this apartment that I treated more like a storage unit than a home. There was so much about Berlin that I would miss: the eclectic energy, the pace of life, the night scene, the intellectual and political atmosphere… The home-cooked meals and the many days spent in solitude skating around the city, reading, writing, and cultivating a stronger friendship with myself… The opportunity to share Berlin with old friends from my time at Macalester… Germany was a site of much growth and reflection; I am honestly surprised by deeply I connected with the women’s skating scene in Germany. 

In all, Germany has been a site of much growth and reflection. Though I am excited for my next adventure, I am sad to close this chapter of my Watson. I appreciate having been blessed with the opportunity to travel to Germany and learn as much as I did with such amazing people by my side.

Here’s to leaving while the going’s good.
Here’s to bittersweet good-byes.
Here’s to giving in and letting go.

 Thank you for offering me so many opportunities to open myself up to magic.

Thank you.

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