Between two sips of my drink and before I could muster a protest, the Tall Doctor snatched my camera and went round the bar taking pictures. I followed her with my eyes, appreciating how effortless it was for her to engage and assemble people around a photograph. The same quirky empathy I had seen at the office was also rather useful here.
This is the second act of a trilogy about the three months I spent in Texas. Read the first act here.
It took us a few weeks to get away from work and explore Texas beyond Houston. Our poll around the coffee machine was unanimous: Austin was the place to start. “The star of the star state”, someone told us while pouring copious amounts of sugar onto an equally large serving of coffee. The city officials call it the “live music capital of the world” while Austinites prefer to “keep it weird” (a slogan first coined to promote local small businesses over large corporations). Named after Stephen Austin (the “Father of Texas”), the city started as a tiny settlement but in 1839 replaced the much larger Houston as the capital of the newly founded Republic of Texas (after the state claimed independence from Mexico).
The Tall Doctor is also a product of change. Born in Bulgaria when the Iron Curtain was still in place, her path was curbed by the fact that her family had been blacklisted by the communist dictatorship for voicing dissonant opinions. Sensing that things would one day change, her parents made sure she learned German in parallel with her native Bulgarian. By the time the Berlin Wall fell, she was a bilingual kid staring at the West with bright and curious eyes.
Austin too initially greeted us with heavy rain and a threat of flash floods but, as we walked through the gardens of the State Capitol, the dark clouds gave way to specks of sunshine. The current Capitol building, Austin’s third, is an imposing structure from the 1880’s built in the style of the Italian Renaissance. The original Capitol was a wooden cottage of more modest origin but no lesser significance, as it hosted the very first classes of the University of Texas. The influence of academia only increased with time, and today Austin reminds me of a modern Louvain. Sure, the campus is not 600 years old, but the frenzy of enthusiastic students is the same.
When she turned eighteen the Tall Doctor swapped Bulgaria for Munich, herself headed to one of the world’s oldest universities. The reconstruction of the campus, heavily damaged by World War II bombings, purposely left behind bullet holes and bomb scabs, as to remind students of the horrors of war. The long corridors, both the old and the new, still reverbed with the echoes of the professors and students that opposed and resisted the Nazi regime.
As with any college city, Austin has two poles: one hosts the college campus, the other one provides liquid encouragement. Sixth Street stacks Irish pubs with artisan beers, Mexican breakfasts with paleo take-aways, Dutch parties with chill-out rooftop bars. Flowing down the street and darting in and out of places, there was a stream of students from all over the world, merging with with long-time Austinites and short-term visitors.
The Tall Doctor jumped right into the stream, embracing Austin’s weirdness. She is no stranger to quirkiness herself. During college her painted fiery red hair was mostly for show, a Bulgarian ember amidst German soberness. For her first job the long red hair had to go, but the inner fire that had kindled it was still there, growing stronger and stronger. Eventually she traded the seriousness of the German corporate world for a PhD, and took off to Japan to study human behaviour. A woman, a Gaijin one at that, meddling into Japanese society, asking questions, offering opinions.
From the East to the West to the Far East to the Far West. From Bulgaria to Germany to Japan to Texas. Our paths crossed at the latter, as she wrapped up her PhD and had those bright and curious eyes searching for the next challenge. Keep it weird, Tall Doctor.
The third and final act is out, read it here.