Over the course of my life, I’ve moved countries more times than seems sane. It’s gotten to the point now, that if I’m at a party and I start to list the places I’ve lived, people move beyond interested to slightly confused and into well-meaning concern. ‘What exactly is wrong with this girl,’ they seem to think, ‘that she can’t just choose a country and stay there?’
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the commonalities and differences between these experiences. Despite the places involved, a lot of the feelings are the same. Before you move there’s the jittery excitement, which occasionally intensifies into tiny moments of absolute terror.
Once you arrive, for a little while, everything seems wonderful. Everything is beautiful because everything is new, and everything is charming because everything is different. This could last several weeks. There are moments of terror, still, when things go wrong and you’ll be made aware of how completely alone and helpless you actually are. Or feel that you are. You don’t know where to go to for help, or who to go to for help, you don’t know how much money help could cost, you don’t know what the consequences might be. Usually these terrors come from bureaucratic nonsense, but it could also be something as simple as getting on the wrong bus, or getting on the right bus going in the wrong direction, or simply not writing out detailed enough directions that could leave you lost in the dark and dry-heaving by the side of the road in an unknown neighbourhood.
Still, though, it’s several weeks of rose-tinted glasses shook up by occasional moments of terror. So, everything is still exciting. Your adventure feels like a genuine adventure. You might not even be homesick yet (though jet lag can play havoc with emotions). You’ll feel completely justified in moving so far away for such a long time. This is a ‘Big Thing’ you are doing and it is ‘Important’ and it will ‘Teach You Things’. But this perceived ‘Significance’ will blind you to what is coming next: the weeks, or months, of abject boredom and loneliness. Where things cease to be lovely and charming and new, or even terrifying and confusing and new, and gradually become ordinary and dull and expected. You won’t remember why you came. You won’t remember why you want to stay. You’ll become hyper-aware of every moment of every day, feel them slipping through your fingers, aware that they will never come back, and what good have they done you? You’ll watch a lot of TV.
The way to avoid this feeling, of course, is to go out and make friends. Join activity groups, develop a meaningful routine, or at least a routine, which through its repetition somehow becomes meaningful. I know this. I know this from countless moves. I knew it, in theory, even before the first time I left.
And yet, and yet, and yet. I’ve lived here in Berlin continuously for 5 months, and for 7 months in total, but the number of friends I have in this city can be counted on one hand. Since finishing my German course in December and failing to sign up for the next one (I’m too lazy. German is so hard. It’s dark and cold at night now and I just want to be in bed), I only have one regular fortnightly activity.
I blame A. Well, no, I blame myself, but I blame myself for relying on A. so much. The fact is I’ve never moved to another country with someone else before, and it’s made me a little bit lazy this time around. It makes the beginning easier, for certain. The terrors are not quite so terrifying, or, at least, you can dump your terrors on someone else, which somehow makes them seem less horrible, if not less terrifying. When I thought I wasn’t going to be able to get a visa before I was kicked out of Germany, A. gamely agreed to get up at 3:30am take the train to way-out West Berlin, line up until 7am and help me with my application. I might still been terrified, but it was impossible to feel alone when A. was buying me fizzy water because I felt nauseous.
As nice as it is, the absence of this feeling of loneliness has been detrimental in becoming settled in Berlin. If I’ve wanted to see something, or do something, or go somewhere, I’ve just dragged A. along. Yeah, yeah, it’s really sweet (I’m sure you’re throwing up in your teas by now) and it certainly put off the boredom and loneliness and existential worries for a few months, but I’ve now been here for half a year and I still feel like I’m living lightly on this place. Being here, but not actually being here. It became all the more obvious this past weekend, when A. returned to the UK without me and I had to fill 4 entire days (a weekend, no less), with… I don’t know… stuff. I saw a couple of people, which was lovely, but the rest of the time I just watched Miss Marple on youtube and bought a lot of second-hand clothes. It appears that, outside of A, all that is left of my life is old lady crime fighters and shopping. Sigh
It doesn’t help that I’m quite picky about the people I hang out with. Or that I can be quite awkward in new social situations. At a picnic in October, I asked a girl here, ‘so what do you do?’ and the look of confusion on her face spoke such volumes to me: this is not what you ask of people in Berlin. Berlin ex-pats are temporary people. They live here temporarily, they do jobs temporarily. The experience of being in Berlin is what you do in Berlin, and it is Great and Important. But it also made me so aware of what a terribly boring, horrible question that it is to ask anyone, anywhere – and yet I always ask it. I always, always ask it. I can’t help it. My mind goes blank. I either completely clam up, revert to clichéd questions and trot out dull stock phrases like, ‘how interesting’ and ‘I know what you mean,’ or I completely lose my head and confess all my deepest darkest secrets immediately and scare them away.
You’ll be pleased to know, however, that I am attempting to do better. I’ve even tried leaving A. at home on his own once and a while. I’ve been joining a few social groups through Meet-Up.com, like writing groups (hence a new blog post), painting groups, book clubs, walking groups, social groups etc. etc. etc. I’ve joined a few on Facebook as well. Finding social interaction via the internet does sometimes feel like standing in the middle of a crowded square and screaming desperately, ‘DOES ANYBODY WANT TO BE MY FRIEND??’ at strangers, but, hey ho, you do what you have to do, I suppose, to keep the existential paranoia at bay.
Last week was my first attempt at a social week. I attempted to go to a writing group and ended up on a street with the right name on the wrong side of Berlin (ALWAYS put the postcode into Google maps, ALWAYS, ALWAYS). I then attempted to go to a painting group and, due to my old granny ways of not checking Facebook during the day, ended up waiting outside someone’s apartment block for 15 minutes not able to get in because I didn’t know which apartment she was in.
But I will not be beaten! This week I have gotten to the writing group, and this week I will get into the apartment and paint. I don’t know if I’ll make any firm friends in any of these places, as that would require me to invite people out to drinks/dinner/my house/a museum/Potsdam and I’ve never been good at asking people out, even in the non-romantic sense.
(I used to go to the movies on my own as a teenager because 1) I didn’t think films were a social activity and I disliked anybody who thought they were – DON’T TALK THROUGH MY MOVIE 2) the anxiety of someone possibly saying no for some reason 3) the MAJOR RESPONSIBILITY of choosing a film and convincing someone to go with you and then WHAT IF THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT?? That would be ALL MY FAULT and who knows what dreadful things would be in store for a person who wasted $8-10 of their friend’s money. You would probably at least be expected to pay the $8-10 back and the friendship would be put on hold, if not ended entirely. You might also be put on some kind of friendship blacklist so everyone would know you were the kind of person who would waste $8-10 of a friend’s money. I’m not saying I still think this way entirely… but, well, old habits die hard.)
Nevertheless, getting out of the house this evening has already been remarkably refreshing. Even if I’m just sitting here, tapping away, in silence, surrounded by new people. Even this is enough to restore my enthusiasm for Berlin, at this point. As much as I love the apartment (and Miss Marple. Oh, and A., of course), seeing the same 50sq metres of Schöneberg and the same 100 sq metres of Steglitz every single day is enough to drive anyone bonkers. So, onwards, to the next 7 social months!