Monthly Archives: January 2015

“Alone” in Berlin

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!

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10 Things Miss Marple Has Taught Me

1. Just because you didn’t get married or have children doesn’t mean you have to have a boring spinsterhood. Miss Marple is a bad-ass feminist and also, she is alive. See, falling in love usually ends in murder. DON’T GET MARRIED OR HAVE CHILDREN, ONE OF THEM WILL END UP MURDERING YOU.

2. If someone mysteriously invites you to a retreat in a mansion with a bunch of other people you don’t know, don’t go. This also goes for package tours. Inevitably, you’ll all end up being strangely and dramatically connected and one of you will end up dead or accused of murder, or both. It’s not worth it. Buy your own holidays and sleep soundly at night.

3. Don’t trust the nanny. Or the charming man. Or the prettiest woman. Definitely don’t trust the nun. DON’T TRUST THE PEOPLE YOU WANT TO TRUST, THEY’RE ALWAYS THE MURDERER.

4. Knitting is an excellent activity that stimulates ideas. It’s not boring women’s work, it’s CRIME-SOLVING work.

5. There’s nothing stopping a poor orphaned girl from becoming a success in life. All the girl need do is to spend some time as a maid in Miss Marple’s household and learn that it isn’t done to read other people’s letters or to break the china whilst dusting. Also, she must learn that one shouldn’t gossip too loudly in public about THINGS ONE KNOWS in case a murderer is listening and gets anxious. An anxious murderer is an active murderer. The girl who gossips too loudly is the one who gets her neck snapped. DON’T GOSSIP, IT WILL KILL YOU.

Miss Marple. The awesomest old lady in the whole wide world.

Miss Marple. The awesomest old lady in the whole wide world.

6. On the other hand, gossip is, confusingly, essential to solving all murder cases. As is eavesdropping. As is forcing yourself on to people that don’t really want to hang out with you.

7. Circumstantial evidence is pretty much always faked. The only satisfying ending is one that involves a full and emotional confession from the murderer in the company of everyone still lucky enough to be alive.

8. Policemen are universally doofuses. It’s because they’re men and they don’t knit. One must help them through their inconvenient idiocy, and only listen to them when they are saying the same thing as you.

9. Things might seem supernatural to begin with, but that’s just because you’re an emotional hysteric and not a clear-eyed, steady-handed logic like Miss Marple. Alive humans are ALWAYS the murderer. (Unless they’ve been killed since they committed the murder, which is usually not the case, because it would interfere with the full & emotional confession demanded by No. 7)

10. If someone’s reading/listening/watching ‘Macbeth’, someone connected to them is going to be murdered. Or, maybe has already been murdered. Also applies to other classic tragedies, such as ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. DON’T WATCH TRAGIC VERSE DRAMAS, IT LEADS TO MURDER.

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Incurring the Wrath of the Gods (or a Visit to Potsdam)

We’ve been pretty dreadful at getting out of Berlin since moving here. There are many reasons for this. Money. Time. Weather. The land outside of Berlin is pretty assuredly German, and whilst we are getting better (no-one switches to English in restaurants anymore! I don’t flap my arms quite so much when attempting to construct a sentence!), it is certainly comforting to know that, whilst in Berlin, at least, most people, could, if necessary, switch to English if things got too complicated.

But the fact is, we’ve gotten a little bored of Berlin. Well, not bored exactly, there’s obviously still plenty to see, but, bored of ourselves in Berlin, maybe? Bored of our routines? Waking up late on a Saturday for a big breakfast, some BBC radio online and then a potter around the immediate area, usually involving some kind of delicious German cake. Last weekend we decided it was time to shake things and we were finally going to go to… Potsdam.

Whilst technically it’s own city and capital of the state of Brandenburg no less (Berlin is it’s own city-state), Potsdam sits on the very end of the Berlin Metro transport zone. It takes an hour on public transport maximum to get there. Despite this, and despite the fact that it is the home to an entire PARK of palaces (not just one, not just two, a whole PARK of them), and despite the fact that most of our weeks since arriving had started with a discussion of the fact that maybe we should visit Potsdam this weekend; we still, 4 and a half months later, had not visited the place. It had gotten to the point of being a joke between us. Maybe we would never visit Potsdam. Maybe we would leave in two years time having never gotten to the end of the Metro line. Maybe we weren’t MEANT to visit Potsdam. Maybe it was, for us, verboten. It had been written, in the times before, that we should never see Potsdam together in this life.

Saturday morning wasn’t the most inviting. The skies were grey and my trusty kindle weather app predicted rain, rain and more rain. But we were determined. If not now, when? We told ourselves that it was at least a warmer day: a whole 11 degrees maximum predicted. We rugged ourselves up and headed out. Sure it was raining, but, we could buy an umbrella, we said. Sure, it was blowing a gale-force wind and an umbrella wouldn’t last the day, but we could wrap our heads in our scarves and wear our hats and we would hardly notice the difference.

Potsdam is an odd town. Yes, it has a park of pretty palaces, but it also spent 40 years in East Germany, so it inevitably got lumped with some fairly standard Communist ‘pretty-architecture-is-for-capitalist-pigs’ box buildings (side note: there are some excellent Communist buildings out there that I like very much. But if they exist in Potsdam I did not see them). It’s remarkable the palaces survived communism at all, really, as they were just left there rotting in their pretty park for 40 years. It wasn’t until the glorious return of glorious capitalism in the ’90s that we were allowed to gloriously worship their gloriousness once more. We wandered around the pretty Dutch quarter, managed to order some German cheesecake (and eat it too) at the oddly named ‘Cafe Guam’ and then headed off to find the palaces.

The real headliner of the park is the palace Sanssouci (it is, after all, called Park Sanssouci). Sanssouci was a summer palace built by Frederick the Great, that was meant to ‘die with him’ (so he probably wouldn’t have minded the fact that the the Communists abandoned it and would have resented the glorious capitalists coming back and minutely repairing it so that people could walk around it reverentially in soft shoes and talking in hushed voices). ‘Sanssouci’ translates to ‘No Regrets’, which I think makes Frederick the Great the originator of the ‘sorrynotsorry’ hashtag.

Sanssouci #sorrynotsorry

Sanssouci #sorrynotsorry

In the summer time, Sanssouci is all luscious greenery and overflowing fountains of abundance with fireworks displays and orchestras and everything else the glorious capitalists can think of. But when we went on Saturday, everything was discreetly tucked away. There were hardly any people about. I kept thinking the park had a distinctly seaside feel, which I couldn’t quite figure out until I acknowledged all the small, grey wooden houses, standing about, looking like drab versions of the charming changing rooms on some British beaches. A. thought they were guards houses but we couldn’t figure out why the palace needed *quite* so many guards, and in particular, a whole circle of guards facing into a pond. That’s when we figured out that they were protective huts for all the statues, that had been shut up for the winter months. Because, if you visit Potsdam when you’re not supposed to you do not get to see statues.

When we got up to the palace, we discovered it all shut up. We hadn’t really thought we’d go in, but I was disappointed not to get a chance to look in the palace shop (it’s the glorious capitalist in me). That’s when we noticed the sign on the window. I started struggling bravely along with the German, translating painfully slowly, word by word, when A. blurts out, ‘it’s closed because of the bad weather.’ Of course. This is a tourist place and everything has an English translation printed underneath. However, checking the German against the English we noticed that whilst the English were being told of ‘adverse weather conditions’, the Germans were being advised of the ‘STURMWARNUNG’, which even with my limited German seemed not to be the same thing. Sure, maybe in overly polite England, ‘adverse weather conditions’ means ‘MASSIVE HORRIBLE STORM COMING FOR YOU’, but I felt it was still an inappropriate cultural translation in this particular incidence. Suddenly, the amusingly empty palace of parks, where none of the gates seemed to be open anymore, where the trees were really very tall and being whipped about in a most alarming way, didn’t seem quite so fun. And it also seemed to be getting quite dark, quite quickly.

Quite dark, quite quickly.  Ok, so maybe I cheated a little.

Quite dark, quite quickly.
(0k, so maybe I cheated a little)

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So, we high-tailed it out of the park, past the mini Brandenburg Gate and into a bar, just before the heavens opened and spewed forth their rage on Potsdam and all that dared to visit it. A glass of red and a beer later, it had calmed down enough for us to continue back to the train station, ready for home and planning our dinner. It had been an excellent day, we thought, and we had been lucky. We missed all the bad weather and still got to see the sights. Perhaps not the inside-of-the-palace sights, but at the very least, the outside-of-the-palace sights, which was definitely worth the 4 euro or so our train tickets cost us.

We bought our tickets and went to our platform, not really paying attention to the long lines of people in front of the transport information desk, the large crowds staring despondently at the information screens. We had planned to get an express train back into Berlin, but it was then that we noticed the train we were planning to take, was running at least 20 minutes late. It was, in fact, just sitting on the platform. We changed out plans and decided to get the metro line. An S-bahn was sitting at the platform, apparently just waiting for us and we jumped in gratefully, trying to ignore the people looking concerned milling about on the platform and the fact that the information screen on our platform showed no departure information, but just a lot of intimidating and capitalised German. However, once on board the train, we couldn’t ignore the insistent, and slightly too soft message being played over and over. Our German’s not great, as I’ve mentioned before, so the most we could get out was ‘train not travelling to Berlin’. Over and over and over again: train not travelling to Berlin. A. checked his phone and tried to get information from the German transport’s website, where it became clear that the Gods had taken their revenge: the ‘adverse weather conditions’ (read: F***ING MASSIVE STORM) had knocked over numerous trees onto the train lines and there were little to no trains returning to Berlin from the Potsdam area anytime soon. This resulted in a 3 hour long journey via many buses and bus stops S-bahns and S-bahn stations, and all the wonderful places in between before we finally got home and had dinner around 10:30pm.

So, finally, the lesson is, when it’s taken you 4 and a half months to get to a place, maybe there’s a REASON you’re not getting there and maybe you should just STAY THE FUCK AWAY.

NB. The Gods are still not finished wreaking their terrible revenge: I got a terrible stomach bug on Thursday, which resulted in me throwing up 9 times in one night. NINE TIMES. This obviously has nothing to do with the walking, talking petri dishes I look after every day and everything to do with the fact that A. and I visited Potsdam against the wishes of the Gods.

NINE TIMES, people.

Stay out of Potsdam. You have been warned.

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London Lover

We’ve just returned from 2 weeks back in the UK and, as dorky as it is and I was unnerved by how much I had missed London; and furthermore, how much I was still hopelessly and foolishly in love with it.

Oh, sure, attempting to drag my heavy sports bag through Trafalgar Square on the Saturday before Christmas was hideous; and, oh, yes, drunk Chelsea fans screaming at each other across the carriage of an otherwise peaceful afternoon Victoria line tube was beyond parody; and, oh, yes, I pretty much hemorrhaged money every time I turned around; but, oh, still, isn’t London just wonderful?

There’s really nothing specific in London that explains such strong feelings. A few years ago I might have blamed it on London’s ‘theatre scene’. Certainly I still have lots of friends in London.

But, it’s something more than that. Despite all the terrible things you can say about London (and there are some terrible things you can say about London. See this video and article for further evidence of London’s terrible modern character: http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/this-advert-for-luxury-london-flats-is-bordering-on-the-apocalyptic–e11dUJmBqe), I can’t help but constantly glimpse of the London I fell in love with in the first place. The watery mirror image of St. Paul’s and London Bridge in the old Thames TV logo. Long rows of grey-brown terraced houses that shared one long roof like in C. S. Lewis’ ‘The Magician’s Nephew’. 50 pence pieces that may just turn out to be magic and grant me 7 wishes just like Melody in ‘The Queen’s Nose’.

There is the reality of London; and then there is my imaginary London, crafted out of books and TV shows and movies and photos and paintings and scraps of anecdotes and biographies and histories that I have collected over the years, and rather than the former superseding and destroying the latter, they exist side by side and feed off each other and make each other more wonderful. A skeleton of Chaucer’s House sits in a modern roundabout. Old tube lines are now overgrown, green pathways, leading you through abandoned tube stations, not on the platform like a person, but on the tracks like a train. You go for a drink at the backstage NT bar and who is drinking with you, but Dr. Who, of course, and as long as you don’t talk to him and force yourself to ruin the illusion and realise that it’s only an actor, it’s only Peter Capaldi, you can pretend the Tardis is probably parked just around the corner and you’ll see it on your way out.

My brain is not entirely comfortable with this level of rose-tinted whimsy, but apparently my emotions are in no way interested in being reigned in. I love London, hopelessly, irrationally, irrevocably

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