On occasion, when riding the U or S Bahn on the commute, something takes me back to my state of mind that I occupied when I first came to the city, both those two holiday weekends and in those first few weeks living in hostels and searching for work. It might be when I struggle with the handle bars that open the doors or the old fashioned carriages or when I go to a station that I have rarely been to since those early days. But more often than not, it comes upon me for no discernible reason: it is like my mind has just slipped for a second, forgotten where we are, and defaulted back to life before in Great Britain. Back to a time when I lived in my own country and Berlin was utterly strange to me.
Ich bin Fremd hier.
A year on from writing those words, I sometimes wonder now how much of a stranger I still am in Berlin. How strange is Berlin to me now, now that I call it home, and have done for the last year? This question often proves too tricky, and so I instead consider how much I dislike the title. I wince when anyone reads it in my presence, or worse yet, repeats it back to me. I was drawn to the word ‘Fremd’, as much I am to the French one ‘etranger’, although not because of the English translation of either, but because what other connotations arise in the mind of an English speaker upon hearing them. I like the title Ich bin Fremd hier for that intentional effect. I like it also for the one I brought about unintentionally. The words that refer to me in that phrase are capitalised, while Berlin isn’t mentioned at all. The idea of ‘me in Berlin’ was – and most likely still is – more interesting to me than Berlin itself. I likewise cringe when I think of my ideas of sending it to ExBerliner, thinking they would think themselves in need of the chronicles of a young expat who thinks he can write and believes himself to be as intriguing as the city he has ended up in.
I find it hard to put a value on these words. Do any readers care about the little experiences of one First World immigrant?
The first four months of my time in Berlin expand upon reflection whereas the following nine seem to stretch thin over the streets of Marzahn, warm walks along Hermannstraße and slow hours at the office. This should not be put down to me acclimatizing to a city that drinks beer like coffee and smokes pot like Marlboro Lights. Instead, as often is the way, I was thrown against – and throwing myself against – foreign, bold characters and unknown, vibrant places on a daily basis. I didn’t have the choice off where I wanted to go and who I wanted to spend time with. I didn’t have the choice to be comfortable. And uncomfortable always makes better stories; and better stories loom larger in the memory than pleasant hours.
This is not to say that oscillation and variety isn’t still part of my life in Berlin. I am spending time with new people, in new places, and the next few months contain as much potential for surprise as those first four. But I am also spending many more hours on the same street corners, drinking the same beers and opting for conversation with friends above dancing with strangers. There are more pleasant hours, and less great stories.
I am glad to say that life still is exciting however, and fears that I might as well be in Birmingham as Berlin - those fears that swept on me when riding the S7 late in the evening last winter - have dissipated for the most part. The twists and turns of my life I see in terms of a Bildungsroman strung out over 600 pages, as opposed to a Dan Brown thriller. The peaks, troughs and vacillation will take form upon reflection, and often may go unnoticed in the present. It is from the vantage point of the future, where compression and consolidation is possible, that the changing shape of days can become defined, and meaning can be placed upon them. (I mean, how long was David Copperfield at Salem House with Mr Creakle, and how many pages does that period of his life occupy in the novel?)
Looking at my own life in this way may seem largely egotistical. It mostly likely is - not much has changed since I came up with the title for this series of posts. And yet it also helps to view one’s life not as the preliminary to something - not ‘pre-drinks’, as I once sagely described the university years to a friend - but as the thing itself, as the adventure proper. It is just as likely that you have already past the greatest thing in your life, as it is that it is waiting for you around the corner. Indeed, it is possible that you are currently going through it. Nostalgia, triumphant hopes, daily routine … in these terms we see our life, mostly. The golden days and the realisation of triumphant dreams settle into mundane necessities and frustrations.
I have come to Berlin. That was my dream.
But I grumble that Lidl is closed and that I have to work tomorrow.
I have come to Berlin.
Vodafone are still being a pain, as well.
But I came to Berlin … I recently passed the one year mark, and I am not going anywhere. This isn’t a thing now. This is life.
Yet only on occasion am I buoyed up by the wonder of that fact. The wonder of my situation. This is just life now.
But there is no ‘just’ about it. I live in Berlin! This is it. This is as real as life is ever going to get. There is nothing else. And it is pretty cool here.
But, the louder voice says, the necessities and frustrations are little different from those I would have had in London. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps they are little different from those I would have had in Buenos Aries, or Johannesburg, or Yangon. And perhaps most of us are doomed not to be able to see beyond these for the most part. There are a lot of people who come to Berlin who are unsatisfied. They expected to find what they were searching for here, be smacked around the head with it, and live with the euphoria of having found it every day. But what they are seeking here is more elusive than it was at home. At least at home it had a name and they could see a fuzzy picture of it. Here it hides around every corner, ducking every swoop of the torch. All the drugs, sex and art can’t quite make up for its absence. All of that and more cannot fill the hole.
‘We are all slaves, all we can decide is what we are enslaved by,’ someone once said. ‘We are all prisoners, but some of us have a window,’ another has said. How unfulfilled are half the people that smile? How disappointed? How underwhelmed? How large would it be, if you collected together all those holes inside one carriage on the U1?
In the early days, I felt my own hole most keenly when on the train passing the phallic tower at Ostkreuz, and at Schlesisches Tor when looking at the mural of the man with a suit but no face. But I was given guidance on how to fill it. One morning on the train, taking my nose out of my book of German poetry I was struggling with, I looked up and saw further down the carriage a child kneeling on the seats that lines the sides, looking out of the window, nose almost touching the glass, little hands gripping the sill. Pointing and staring and grabbing its mother to make sure she saw it before the train passed on.
This is it. This is what life is. And it is awaiting our engagement, now. We need to write our lives with the same vim as we read them. And we need to remember that writing them is more important than reading them. We need to keep our focus upon the page we stand on, however heavy our eyes are.
It is not terminal to be a faceless suit commuting to work. But neglecting to look out the window is criminal.
Bertie Digby Alexander