Okay okay okay – this one’s on a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for ages, but have always felt a little bit wary of. Here we go.
I’ve always associated Berlin with excess. That’s not exactly a radical opinion – most people associate it with excess in some shape or form. Drinking, drugging, kebabs, knobbing: pick a vice and run yourself ragged. Too much of anything is very easy to come by, and there’s nobody around to tell you to take a breather, either. I discovered all of this in my first stint here, so there’s nothing revelatory there. However, I’m now discovering a new city, floating unseen above the one I came to love and fear in 2017.
And what is this new, mysterious metropolis in the sky, minarets and spires tunnelling up through cumulonimbus golden clouds?
It’s Sober Berlin.
After Bordeaux I decided to take steps to kick the booze. I’d been toying with the idea for a while, but a night in Bilbao helped make up my mind: having met a few English people in the hostel, I went out for beers. I had six drinks – an amount which would usually have rendered me merely tipsy, but due to dehydration or lack of eating, I got smashed and the evening is a blur. What I do remember is dropping a burger on the floor in Burger King at the end of the night, and one of the English guys photographing me in my moment of anguish. The next morning, when I looked at this already-mortifying photo – me, standing over my splattered burger, face flushed, mouth somewhere between a laugh and a grimace – I noticed something: a tennis-ball sized stain on the front of my salmon-pink shorts.
I groaned in disappointment at myself. I remembered desperately needing the loo while walking home from Bilbao’s old town – a thirty-minute trek – but I’d thought I’d done a good job of keeping my bladder in check. Evidently fucking not, Danny Piss Britches. Foul. Foul and dumb and deeply, wildly uncool.
I thought about this unfortunate incident for days after, yet continued to drink on an almost nightly basis. Same pattern each day: wake up face down on my bunk bed in a dehydrated, stinky-mouthed fog, stumble around packing my shit, clatter into the bathroom and brush my teeth, teeter downstairs to reception, check out, travel to the next hostel, check in, drop bags, drink one hundred pints of beer and make friends with whoever was around, fade to black. Repeat. Notice anything missing in this schedule? If you said ‘any semblance of culture or adventure’, give yourself a gold star. Altogether now: twat!
I missed so much of Portugal and Spain because I was just wasted all the time. I had a nice time regardless, sure, but I feel as though I just skimmed across the surface of what many of the cities I visited had to offer. Take Porto, for example: I didn’t even cross the bridge, man! I got nowhere near; mostly I stayed within 200 metres of the hostel, eating sandwiches and gargling pints and waffling to anybody within earshot.
I think I had quite a lot of shit to work through mentally at that point, having only recently left London and England, so I won’t be too hard on myself. After two years of feeling very lonely and isolated, I think I was just revelling in having company, more interested in meeting new people than I was in exploring new places. But yeah – I’m ready for a change now. In Bordeaux I drank a lot for my first three nights, then on my fourth, more out of a desire to stop feeling shit every morning than a desire to change the course of my life, I decided not to drink. It’s hard not to drink on the backpacking trail these days – as the years go by, I’m noticing an increasing emphasis placed around boozing. Bar crawls, happy hour at the hostel reception, free drinks with dinner, that sort of thing.
During my first non-drinking day in Bordeaux, I felt anxious and shaky and cobwebby; cumulative month-long hangovers’ll do that to you. To chill out, I guzzled water and went to relax in Bordeaux’s gorgeous Jardin Public. I found a bench and lay down with my backpack for a pillow, and as the clouds nodded above, I took out my phone and started to write a list, because I had a hunch – a theory I wanted to test.
I wrote down my favourite memories – the times in my life that I’ve felt one hundred percent me; when I’ve felt fiercely proud of myself, or I’ve achieved something I’d wanted to for a long time, or I’d felt a deep sense of happiness and connection to the world. You know that song that goes ‘one moment in time/when I was all I was meant to be’ – that feeling. Here’s part of the list:
Making a speech at my mum’s wedding
Performing spoken word at Du Beast
Reading bedtime stories to my little sister
Taking French lessons in Bristol
Piano lessons in London
Being in a Bollywood film
Making a snowman in Strasbourg with Jeanne
I wrote them down and read them back, and my hunch was correct: I was sober in every last one of them.
That was the kicker I needed – a revelation fifteen years in gestation. I’ve always known I drink too much; everybody in the UK drinks too much. But until that point, I’d never considered the possibility that alcohol was making my life actively worse. The day before the Jardin Public, I’d been drinking with a couple of young Aussie dudes from Melbourne. At the outset, I’d been making them laugh, telling silly stories, and offering them advice for their travels through Europe. Five pints later, however, I found myself becoming an increasingly distracted listener, telling meandering anecdotes that went nowhere, and dropping too-personal stories about my own life which left them looking uncertain of how to respond. Hmm.
On my first sober evening, then, after I left the botanical garden, I went to sit alone by the river with a can of cola. My hostel was having a wine-and-mingle event, and I wanted to be nowhere near as I knew I’d get all shy and feel compelled to booze to feel comfortable. I’d been sitting by myself at the river for perhaps twenty minutes, watching the local people glide past on rollerskates and bicycles and skateboards and Segways and unicycles, when a young German guy I recognised from the hostel walked past – Rubins.
He came over to say hi, along with a dude from Mexico. We chatted a little and eventually they sat beside me, and we talked and talked until the sun went down. They decided eventually to get a bottle of wine, but I abstained, instead guzzling water non-stop. What surprised me, as the hour grew late, was that my conversation wasn’t deteriorating for a change. I wasn’t feeling sloppy, distracted, vacant or zonked, but instead… calm, interested, attentive and smart. And witty! I made the guys laugh a lot, even after five hours of sitting together. Five hours into a drinking night and I’d have been putting cigarettes up my nose and lighting my farts.
At midnight, when the guys went to a bar and I chose to go home, I walked back feeling proud of myself. The social anxiety that has compelled me to drink at almost every public occasion since my adolescence was still there – but it turns out (obviously) that it can’t hurt you. Awkward silences are uncomfortable, yes, but they’re not damaging to your reputation. In fact, the absolute worst thing you can do for social anxiety, I realised, is to drink, get sloppy, and earn a reputation for yourself as a steaming clown. Nobody has ever gone home after a party and complained that a stranger they met wasn’t overly chatty or boisterous – but they have definitely gone home and complained that the stranger they just met fucking dropped a burger all over the floor and then casually pissed their pants without realising.
So yeah – I took a week off drinking when I went to Strasbourg. I had a couple of bottles of beer my first night in Berlin, but beyond that – nada. One week sober turned into two, two turned into three, and, oh my god, I am absolutely loving it.
This is going to sound like hyperbole, but I mean this with all my heart: every aspect of my life is better sober. Every single part of it. My stomach is getting flatter, my face is less puffy, my eyes are whiter, my skin is glowing. I have so much more money, and I sleep like a baby and dream sweet dreams (last night I was a techno pirate sailing through a floating Caribbean market looking for treasure).
I wake up every morning guilt-free. I don’t say yes to things I don’t want to say yes to. I eat as much food as I want – because now I don’t need to worry about the calories from drinking. I have more time in the day without the need to cure a grubby hangover, and evenings last longer without degenerating into a fast-forward haze.
And do you know what the best thing is? I can feel myself starting to grow again, man. I feel like a primary school pot of cress that’s been left in a cupboard for months, turning white, and has finally been treated to a fat golden sun ray to photosynthesise greedily. Because you don’t learn shit when you’re drunk, do you? If you take piano lessons, for instance, while seven pints deep, you won’t remember what you practiced and you won’t ever improve. I realised that for me, it’s the same thing with confidence: for the last fifteen years I’ve used alcohol as a prop, a shortcut to boldness. It’s been a quick fix for me: going to parties and meeting new people can often feel intimidating, and rather than, say, spend several years working on embracing who I am and learning to be comfortable in my own skin, I just sink a bottle of wine and bosh, unbridled confidence. But this just extends the problem, because by taking quick fixes all the time, you never address the root cause. Repeat ad infinitum. Whirlpool.
But how cool is this: I’ve had so many sober evenings in Berlin now where I’ve met new people and not drank. And yeah, there are awkward silences, and yes, sometimes I get a bit flustered and self-conscious – but the amazing thing is that after an hour or so, the awkwardness passes anyway! People warm up and they relax naturally; it just takes a little bit longer without booze. There’s no bloody need to drink. Genuinely – I cannot believe how easy it’s been to make this change, and how immediately rewarding.
What’s more, Berlin, it turns out, is a great city to go booze-free in. I’d thought it’d be the opposite, but it makes sense actually: people in this city are all about individual freedom of choice and consent and empathy, and while in the UK there’s a large culture of ‘drink up you fanny’, here, if you say you don’t want a beer, people just nod and that’s that. No questions, no judgement, no pressure. Plus, every corner shop sells a thousand different varieties of alcohol-free drinks, including 0% beers – so I can still enjoy the summery feeling of strolling through the city sipping a beer, just without getting drunk.
I could honestly write about this all day – but I’m nearing 2000 words, which is the upper limit I allow myself for these posts. So here’s one last cool thing:
*I don’t have fucking anxiety*
Three weeks sober and I haven’t had an anxious thought in days and days. I get stressed still, sure, but then I just… act on the thing stressing me and it… goes away. No more thoughts of doom or death, no existential angst, no vague lingering dread-cloud over my head. Just… a healthy mind!
I am clear, clean, and more stable than I have been in years. And I am absolutely fucking loving it.