Julia’s story starts in Berlin. There she was born and raised. A city as big and diverse as its inhabitants. A city full of history. A city full of contrasts.
Near the Botanical Garden, in a street bearing the name of a flower, is the house of her parents. The house will play a big role in Julia's life. An old officer's villa from the beginning of the 20th century, the ivy entwines on the outside façade, an enchanted garden with a small veranda at the back. Julia is born in the eighties, surprisingly for her parents who thought they could not have children and also three months too early. She grows up in an idyllic home. Her parents, so grateful for the unpredictable gift, give her all their love. Her mother, an art historian, stays home and takes care of the daughter; her father, professor of art history, teaches at the university close by. In the afternoon she plays with her friends on the street, they camp in the garden, in the evenings the father's students often come to visit and everyone sits together at the big table and they laugh and talk until late night.
Julia knows how to take care of herself from early on. When she is tired, she goes to bed alone. She learns, without prompting, for school. Nevertheless, in her freshman year at highschool, she dreads the new week every Sunday night and the pressure she feels at school. But she is not one who is not willing to take the challenge.
At sixteen she wants to fulfill her dream and once live abroad. Inspired by her aunt, uncles and friends who live or have lived in Italy, Japan, England and the USA, she also wants to get away from home and get to know the world. She decides to go to Ireland for half a year.
When she leaves the house, she is full of anticipation, but also a little anxious about what will coming next. Her parents accompany her. She will visit a boarding school and live with a host family every two weekends. It is difficult for her to get used to the new environment. Life in Ireland is different than at home. Her Irish host mother and her Turkish husband have very different habits to what she is used to. Home contact is limited, as there are no smartphones in 2003 and the calls with her parents over the phone, that is attached to the wall in the lounge, must be planned carefully.
Julia is happy when the farewell approaches. She looks forward to her family, her school her friends and of course - the house.
When her father arrives at Ireland to pick her up, he has got a big message she didn’t expect: The parents have separated.
Julia can’t believe it at first and does not know how to react. Her father is more concerned with his own grief over the failed marriage than with perceiving her pain.
Changes and coming of age
When Julia comes home, nothing is as it was. The mother has a new partner and has more or less moved out. The big old house, with the creaking parquet floor, the old stove armchair and the many books seems empty without her cheerful nature. It quickly turns out that her father also has a new relationship. His girlfriend lives in France. Often he is only a few days a week at home and stays for a long weekend in Paris. The parents' attempts to get closer to Julia fail.
She distances herself more and more from her parents, two of her best school friends are abroad at the same time, others have to learn or doing party all the time. Julia feels alone.
The separation of her parents also confronts her with her own future. Julia sees her parents building a new life. She knows her father's students, who are always in a good mood but rarely have a job that pays for their rent. The money is always short.
She decides to study law. "With law, I can do anything I want," she thinks. Maybe she could work in a publishing house or become a journalist? In any case, she wants a life quite unlike the life of her parents, regular working hours and stability.
Everyone she tells about her plan is horrified. “You, Julia, a law degree and nothing creative?” The father is skeptical. But she has decided and enrolls immediately after graduating from high school at the university.
Julia studies and lives alone in the big house. She has had a boyfriend for a few years now and spends a lot of time with him. When he gets a job in Switzerland, the two move to Freiburg together. He commutes to Basel, she continues her studies in the university over there, that is famous for law. Julia focuses fully on her studies, she has good grades and works at the law faculty. Her life seems perfect, but she is exhausted from the constant pressure at the university. At some point it's time and she has to do her first state exam. On the second day, she suddenly gets tachycardia during the exam. She becomes dizzy, she is pale in the face, the supervisor hands her water and peppermint and offers her to stop the exam. Julia continues.
A month later, she makes a second attempt - to overcome her fear. She passes boths. But she feels powerless and haggard. Nevertheless, she follows her doctor father's advice and starts her PHD. As before the exam, her life is mainly about paragraphs and law books. She sees her boyfriend less and less, because he is working a lot. Their lives have not much in common anymore. When he doesn't come to Freiburg on her birthday, she knows that something is wrong. Shortly after, he breaks up with her. After almost nine years of relationship, he leaves without even packing a small bag and disappears from her life. What remains are his already very sick and old cat, the shared apartment and a life in which Julia is no longer happy.
Julia lovingly cares for the cat. When she dies and Julia does not know how to proceed, her father comes and spends one week in Switzerland with her. They are spending good moments together for the first time in a long time. They talk a lot. He suggests that she returns to Berlin again. Home, away from a life that is not really hers anymore. She could continue her PHD over there, he says. Back in Freiburg, Julia orders a moving van, packs her and her ex-boyfriend's belongings in separate boxes and moves back to Berlin.
She is alone in the house again. The father occasionally comes to Berlin with his new wife. It's more about work than a visit to spend time together. Getting to know each other is difficult for both sides. Julia does not get along well with her father's wife, she prefers to spend her days in the library writing.
Even with her school friends it is not the same as it used to be. They have different lives, the friends are making careers and also work at the weekend or celebrate. Julia, on the other hand, works the whole day on the doctoral thesis. She wants to complete this chapter of her life.
One day, when she comes home from the library, the door to the garden is open, the window is broken. The shock after the burglary is deep. It leaves his mark on Julia. The burglars went throughout the whole house. But they only went through her belongings, through every drawer, the underwear is dirty from the dirty fingerprints. After the burglary, she startles with every noise, every time she comes home, she checks the house, keeping the front door open. She tries to keep everything neat like crazy. She remembers the location of each item before she leaves the house. She wants to keep control and feels it slipping away from her more and more. Only a few of her friends can understand her fear. The parents think she is exaggerating. That's why there's always a fight with the father. Finally, she decides to go to England for a research trip, away from the house, away from her everyday life.
She tries to rent a room in the apartment to a female, reliable student for a while. But she doesn’t find a girl who wants to live alone in the big house. But then Diego shows up.
Diego is Colombian, wanting to go to Berlin for three months to do research at the university and get to know the city. He just got his PHD in France. He seems reliable to her and she agrees to let him live there. When Julia leaves for England, she hands over the keys to him. When she returns a few weeks later, they spend each day with each other. The house becomes the "Auberge Espagnole", as Julia baptizes it. Sometimes Julia and Diego have a Russian, an Ukrainian or an American living in the house. There is finally life back in the house, like back to the days when the students of her father came and hang out with them. They are discussing, drinking and laughing. The common language is English. Diego and Julia get closer. At first, she is hesitant, because she know, that he will leave eventually, but after a while of holding back, they let themselves go. It's summer in Berlin, they cook together, go to the theater, to museums and to the opera.
With Diego everything suddenly seems easy again, he is interested in Berlin, culture, good food, music and in Julia. As if the world had been gray before, it is now colorful. Diego decides that he will stay in Berlin beyond his three-month-research stay. But in December, he has to go back to Colombia. He flies back when his visa expires. Back to his homeland, to a new job that is waiting form him at the local university.
Both knew that this moment would come, but when it’s there, it is so hard. Julia doesn’t want to keep in touch, too difficult and pointless. But on the Christmas morning, Diego texts her after three weeks of silence and asks for a Skype conversation. He says he couldn’t forget Julia. He asks her to be his girlfriend.
Three months later, in early 2014, Julia is flying to Bucaramanga, a town north of Bogotá with half a million inhabitants. She wants to get to know the life of Diego in Colombia and his family. She wants to be with him. Julia has never been so far away. Actually, she is afraid of flying. But surprisingly she likes Colombia. It's nice to be finally together and she likes Diego's family. Back in Berlin, she decides to learn Spanish.
During the next two years Julia and Diego take turns visiting each other, Julia continues to write her PHD thesis in Berlin, Diego works at the University of Bucaramanga. In fall 2016, Diego stays in Berlin for a week and they go for a walk to the botanical garden. Suddenly, she finds a small box under the "cake tree", the tree that she liked very much since she has been a child. Inside is a gold ring with a green emerald - the jewel of Colombia and the color of Julia's eyes. Julia is speechless, Diego can’t say word either. They hug each other.
Both have not talked much about marrying before. Julia thought Diego does not want to marry. She herself has not given it a thought much either. With the divorce of her parents, her perfect world has been torn up and down. The mother keeps saying that marrying is not important. Nevertheless, the decision to marry is significant for Diego and Julia. It is important for them to confess to each other, to make their love, which is repeatedly tested by the distance between Europe and South America, official.
One year later, in August 2017, the time has come. When Julia returns to Colombia, everything suddenly goes very fast. One day, when they are at the notary's office to inquire about the procedure of getting married in general, the notary offers them an appointment in two weeks. They agree. It is a, for Colombian standards, very small wedding. The notary allows only nine people to attend. Forty people come to celebrate and wait outside, including Diego's family and a few friends. Although everything went so fast, a German friend came all the way from Berlin to celebrate with them. Julia's parents couldn’t show up though. The obligations of the father do not allow the long journey. In addition, the situation of the divorced parents and their new partners is tense. But Julia's mother is still there somehow- via Skype. Diego's brother holds up the smartphone and translates for the mother during the ceremony. As Diego and Julia give their vows, it quietly sobs from the phone.
It's a nice wedding ceremony. Each of the guests gives the bride and groom a wish along the way. As the little wedding party steps out of the notary's office, an employee begins to dance salsa. The mood is exuberant and happy.
In the evening, everyone meets at a street food market and celebrates. The following day, lunch is served in a restaurant in the mountains. The wedding planner decorates the restaurant with hydrangeas and Julia is reminded of her home in Berlin.
One month later, Julia is back in Germany, the defense of her thesis is due. She will remember the days in Freiburg as beautiful ones. Her stepfather is at her side, when she prepares for the exams, her mother supports her wherever she can, her father accompanies her during the exam days and is always there for her. Her friends are happy for her. The last day of the exam, everyone celebrates together in a restaurant. However, the defense of her thesis doesn’t feel like a cut. She still has her everyday life and her life in Berlin. But when she got her PHD, the time has come and in March 2018 Julia is flying to Colombia. A new life starts.
Life in Colombia
In Colombia, Julia has always liked the landscape, the endless nature. She, as the only child in her family, enjoys the close family community at Diego’s. It seems to her, that people here are more there for each other. The Colombians are affectionate and she likes the positive attitude of the people. When Julia used to spend time in Colombia with Diego, they would travel and get to know different areas. They would also spend some kind of everyday life together - quiet evenings at home, cooking together, meeting friends. With Diego at her side, she would feel secure. She would feel accepted and good in the foreign environment. Diego makes her laugh and she feels free after the exhausting period of doing her PHD.
While Julia talks about her first months of living in Colombia, she sits on the sofa of her new apartment in Bucaramanga. The balcony opens to the back of the apartment. You can see the mountains outside the window. Colorful-feathered hummingbirds pass by and dip their beak in the small water container that Julia has put for them. Julia, with red-blond hair and glasses, laughs a lot while she talks.
But the beginning was not easy for her. Until the wedding, Diego lived with his brother in an apartment. After the wedding, the brother moved out temporarily to give them some privacy. Now, they have to find their own place.
They are looking for an apartment and are lucky. Quickly, they achieve to find an apartment in a quiet area close to the nature. In less than ten days, they set up the apartment completely. Posters and souvenirs from their lives in Germany and France find a special place. It all goes very fast. But it’s a different life in Colombia. They spend time with family and friends, but haven’t much time as a couple. Diego’s job at the university is demanding and time consuming. He travels a lot. Julia tries to keep up the pace, spending time with the family, doing all the organizational stuff, finding friends and finding a job. Even in the new apartment Julia finds no peace, she has no daily routine yet, ever day is different, she never knows who’s visiting next. The spontaneity of the country that inspired her so much, now, overwhelms her.
Julia tries to build her own life, to find a job. During her numerous visits she has established contacts and got to know interesting organizations. When she still lived in Berlin, the future in Colombia seemed uncomplicated and simple. People are open, the possibilities seemed numerous. Now, Julia realizes how different everything is in everyday life. The application processes are intransparent. It's easy to find acquaintances, but here, too, the friends have evolved from before or no longer live in the city. Julia, who loves to get things done, is suddenly paralyzed. When she gets problems with her German university degree that is rejected, which prevent her getting hired, she panics. She suddenly feels small, worthless and dependent of Diego. He instead is overwhelmed with the situation. Julia is no longer the self-confident Berliner, but gets more and more panic attacks.
She decides to seek help and visits a psychologist. She tries to take her time, to be patient, to find her own rhythm. But she feels like she's in between chairs. She doesn’t want to be a housewife, she is impatient. She doesn’t understand the ambiguous application processes, that persist on the recognition of her university degree, but do not even know what is required for it. At some point, it is all too much for Diego. The pressure is enormous, the fear that both will not succeed in Colombia. One night, it bursts out of him. Were the expectations too big, were they too naive to think they would make it work in Colombia and start a new life there? As they hold each other in their arms, Julia suddenly feels her strength coming up, her old optimism. When her husband is able to show some weakness too, it is also possible for her to be stronger. Afterwards, Julia feels closer to Diego again. For the first time since her arrival, she feels that they are a team again and have the same pace. Julia asks in her network, who can get her contacts to the universities, because the applications are only possible through contacts.
She is invited to job interviews - things are going well, but there is a lack of experience in hiring foreigners. She decides to attend a summer course at a prestigious university in Bogotá to learn more about the Colombian peace process, to get in touch, to gain new self-esteem. There, she collapses completely. The height bothers her. She misses her family, her friends, especially her mother. The reality of the country is harsh and its belief in positive development is shaken by the facts of political science. Julia is completely unsettled and loses all self-competence. Diego is involved in the work and she feels that he can’t understand what's going on. Luckily, a Colombian friend is there for her. She drives for a long time after work through the city to meet Julia. She holds her hand, listens, breathes with her, allows her to cry. And reminds her: we are here and now.
All the people she has met over the years in Bucaramanga, live also their own lives. Making friends is much harder than she imagined. She tells a few friends about her panic attacks. They advise her to trust in god. For Julia, who is an atheist, this helps little. She entrusts herself to a new Italian friend, who has been living in Colombia for some time. She feels understood by her. She tells her closest friends in Germany how she is doing. Many German friends were skeptical anyway that she went to Colombia as a doctorate lawyer and that she, in their opinion, risked her future career. Panic attacks during free time and continuous summer - this is difficult for them to accept.
Julia's life has turned a hundred and eighty degrees. Just a few months ago, her life was a single routine, paragraph, library, writing, every day. In Colombia, there is no everyday life, every day looks different. You never know who's ringing at the door, what needs to be done. The family life is also different than she is used from her family home. Julia still has to find her role.
Since she's in Colombia, Julia is confronted with herself on a different level. "I was always raised by my parents and especially my mother to be a woman on equal footing and that I can do anything I want. Sometimes I think that's why I put so much pressure on me and success and good grades were so important to me. I often did not ask myself what I really enjoy doing. Instead, I've tried to function and have always been pressured to succeed. "Now that success is letting her wait, Julia has to struggle with herself.
Diego lets her be what she is, but the Colombian society is macho. From an early age, the girls are made pretty and judged by their appearance, the question of children is one of the first that Julia daily gets asked by strangers. She wonders if child or career are the only two components of success in life. Julia tries to free herself from the expectations of society - and her own.
"When someone asked me as a child who my role model is and what I want to become, I said:" I want to be a toilet diver, "she laughs. She did not want to have role models. Maybe just to be yourself and not have to compete with someone else's life. Now she tries again to tie it to it. "For me, a strong woman is someone who is at rest. This has nothing to do with status, career or children. It has nothing to do with what it does for choices. For me, a strong woman, someone who does not extend his elbows, is not isolated, but respects himself and others and does not lose himself. "
Whether Julia and Diego will stay in Colombia or not, they don’t know yet. But for now, she wants to build a life in Colombia. And at some point, she dreams, maybe they'll have a house at the lake. Whether in Colombia, Germany or somewhere else in the world. A house at the lake, maybe with ivy on the wall, like home in Berlin and a porch always full of people - almost like back then - at the "Auberge Espagnole".
*Julia and Diego are called different in real life. Their names have been changed due to respect for Diegos privacy. Julia enrolled for a class at the local University to get her law degree accredited in Colombia. She hopes, that by beginning of 2019 her degree will be accepted.
Photo © K. König