Filiz Eda Burhan taught modern art at the American University of Paris. Before I met her, I had heard a lot about her. Brilliant was a word often used to describe her, often accompanied by terrifying. She had done her PhD at Princeton and worked for NASA (yes, N A S A as in the space program).
Even though I was a terrible art history student, generally a terrible student, I signed up to her class. I went into the dark room (art history classrooms are almost always dark because you spend most of your time looking at slides) and approached the small blond woman asking where I could find Professor Burhan.
“You’re looking at her.” the woman replied.
“You are Professor Burhan? You look like a Spanish teacher, you aren’t scary at all!” I blurted out.
And you know what she did?
She didn’t hound me for the rest of the semester like some teachers had been known to do when they caught on to my slothful academic behaviour. Even though I was entirely superficial in my approach to everything and she, well she was a cerebral titan, I felt she “got” me. And besides being in awe of her, I really liked her and I adored her sense of humor: often so subtle, that it would take me a couple of seconds to understand she was making a joke.
It’s rare to connect with someone fundamentally, from the inside to the inside in spite of a gap in years and brain capacity.When I found out she had passed away my heart ached that I hadn’t tried to get in contact with her on my brief trip to Paris. I looked at the date of her passing and realized, when I had visited Paris, it was already too late.
And suddenly I missed her, terribly. I went online to see if she had written anything I could buy. I found some old papers and at place number 4 on the google list: her review of the red kindle case for Amazon. I read and reread it like it might have an answer. Then I went to her Amazon wish list and my eyes filled with tears, it seemed tragicomic that this great woman was gone but her wish list was still up.For a moment our collective mortality knocked my breath out. Then Layla startled me out of it, asking me where her Tinkerbell toy was. Thank god for the banal right?
There are two ways to look at mortality. Either you mourn and despair at the injustice of it all. Or you look at life as a temporary gift that you do not own but have to use and appreciate to its full capacity. For some people it means jumping out of planes or checking off as many places around the globe as possible. But for me, it means the present moment. Taking it in, marveling at it and always, always: laughing.
In the present moment it’s summer, we are in the gorgeous city of Berlin where there are plenty of beer gardens.
Zollpackhof is close to our flat so we go often. We sit under the chestnut trees. Layla has a Hello Kitty ice cream the colour of Pepto-Bismol, she manages to eat only one ear before the whole thing slides off the stick and on to the gravel. I fix that perfect moment in my mind, along with the many many others I have had and say a quiet thanks.Despite the restaurant service upstairs, Zollpackhof is a place I reserve for the summer. We go there to eat outside. A grilled sausage with potato salad or chopped cabbage salad. The simple food is flavoured by the setting. Happy tourists in boats, tipsy from the sun wave at us and we, high on life, wave back.
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