It was a lovely, peaceful, glowing week with Jeanne – although, as I’m sure you’ll understand, I’ve not written too much about it because I’d like to keep it between the two of us.
We parted warmly on the morning of Saturday the 12th of June, and I took the train to Berlin. I always get hyped for long train rides, imagining myself writing lots and reading chapters and chapters of whatever book I’m reading (The Three Musketeers currently, so good), however in the end it’s always the same: I stare out of the window and daydream and do nothing for the entire duration.
I arrived at Hauptbahnhof in the early afternoon and left the station in a nostalgic haze. After Strasbourg’s relative quiet and cleanliness, Berlin arrived before me as a great sudden swell of noise and movement. From outside the station I could see the Bundestag – the parliament building – and German flags waving in the breeze. It was strange to hear snippets of conversation as people passed me by; over the same great endless landmass I’ve now heard (and attempted to speak) Portuguese, Spanish, Basque, French and German. I said ‘oui’ to a guy in a sandwhich shop by mistake, like the boob I am.
Outside the station I met a girl I’d previously been introduced to in Lisbon – one of Dave’s climbing friends, Ella. Dave had offered to let me crash at his place during my time in the city, but he was out of town when I arrived, so Ella kindly met me to give me his key. She also gave me some tips about the city – there’s this nine-euro monthly ticket you can get here at the moment which covers all your travel within the city – buses, U-Bahns, S-Bahns – PLUS inter-city travel within Germany, on all but the fastest trains. I was planning to head south after Berlin (Munich, maybe?), and I can now do so for free. Nice.
After saying goodbye to Ella, I navigated slowly to Dave’s place. Neukolln, the neighbourhood Dave lives in, was where I spent most of my evenings in the city when I lived here six years ago. It hasn’t changed. Walking down the leafy, cobbled, graffiti-splashed streets, I found I no longer had the sense of direction I once did, which actually made it more enjoyable – every couple of blocks I’d stumble upon the scene of some treasured memory or long-forgotten wild night. That’s where I used to go see spoken word nights. That’s where Annie and I first met Kate. That’s where I visited a sex exhibition with Vic, in another life.
After dropping my bags at Dave’s apartment – unadorned walls, bicycles everywhere, climbing books left open, ropes and rucksacks, old takeaway boxes – I headed out to meet Zoe and Michael, my old colleagues from my time at EliteSingles, arguably the best job I ever had: paid a mint to work with kind, clever people, smack in the heart of the city, writing one article a week about love and romance. I often wonder if it’ll ever be topped.
Zoe and Michael hadn’t aged a day, I was almost disappointed to see. Was sort of hoping they’d be all fat and haggard and stunned by my own Peter Pan age-defiance. Michael said he’d been vaguely hoping I’d be all doughy and rotund too, lol. We had a few beers in a couple of bars and caught up – but not too deeply. After a month apart you tend to share every detail, but four years is too long; too much has happened, and diving into it in any depth would take a week of conversation. Instead we ended up speaking mostly about the present, and the future.
Over the course of the evening, I learned through my friends of a pretty exciting job opportunity in Berlin – a writing gig at a friend’s company; one that pays very well indeed, and which I am very qualified for. The icing on the cake however, is that this position (should I apply and get it) is fully remote, with the option to work in the office whenever you feel like it. PLUS, for six months of every year you’re allowed to work from any country you wish. Hearing this, of course, felt as though I’d been beamed up into a golden spaceship and warped to a parallel universe where everything gleams and everybody loves me and wants to give me gifts. What I’m saying is: it rather stunned me.
That’s travel for you. The hardest part is always leaving – you save, you try to plan and research, you go through peaks and troughs of fear and hope. It all gets a bit much, particularly in the last couple of weeks, but once you’re out there, the rules change. The skies clear. Opportunities drop into your lap that change the course of everything, and there’s no telling when they’ll appear. The world is bristling with potential – all you need to do it show up.
So now, six days later, I’m sitting in a café by the canal in Neukolln, wondering whether I could once again live in this city. Would I return to Berlin? It’s hard to say. There are pros and cons.
Pros: dozens of friends still here, creative city, affordable, comparatively high wages, could get own apartment, endless entertainment, beautiful weather in summer
Cons: fast-paced lifestyle, access to excess, grime, visible addiction everywhere, can be hard to make meaningful friendships with ‘cool’ people
I’m on a sober hype at the moment, which would be a concern were I to move back here. After Bordeaux I decided to sober up and stop being such a drunken tit all the time. I spent far too much time in May stumbling around beautiful cities too inebriated to really absorb any culture; it’s dumb, and a boring way to travel. I’ve been reading about sobriety a lot recently, and the benefits are just… endless. And insane. Better skin, a fat wallet, a flat stomach, more time, deeper friendships, fewer regrets, more energy, improved health, heightened creativity, more capacity for learning, and increased emotional depth. And, of course, a longer life. I want all of it.
So Berlin seems a little scary, particularly given the gleeful glittering excesses of 2016-2018. I can’t hack that now, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. I think I’m done with techno clubs and narcotic-strewn after parties and kinky dank basements. I had my fun, I sated my curiosity, I know what’s out there, and I’m content with staying away from that whirlpool.
That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot on this trip, actually. I spent the last few years after returning Australia trying to get back to some nostalgic vision of my ‘old life’. I tried to nestle back in with my old group of friends, tried to remember the guy I used to be – and I couldn’t. The process of trying damaged me a lot, and I fell into a bad place. There are two people in my head at any one time: the person I want to be, and the person I actually am – and the further apart these two people are, the less stable and the more seasick I feel day to day. But travelling over these last six or seven weeks has given me a little bit of perspective, and I’ve gradually come to accept the fact that I simply cannot go back to whatever earlier version of Dan once existed. I won’t ever regain the innocence and the passionate naiveté that defined my early twenties. I used to view this as a tragic loss – but I’ve come to realise that’s silly. Nothing is ever lost – life is a give and take. You lose something, you get something, even if it’s hard to see what you’ve gained at first. For me, I learned what not to do, and mistakes made during the last decade will hopefully prevent worse mistakes being made in the next one. Wisdom, I suppose, is never free, and never easily gained. Wouldn’t be wisdom if it was.
All of that said – Berlin doesn’t have to be a pissed-up druggy tempest. Maybe I could live here and do healthy shit: curb the drinking, join a climbing gym, buy a bicycle, rent an apartment and decorate it in warm Mediterranean yellow, jam with a band, do spoken word nights, write for magazines, sunbathe at lakes and conquer my fear of deep water. Maybe I could take German classes and finally get a grip on the language. I could read dozens of books and get cleverer. I could take salsa classes, piano classes, boxing classes, whatever. Berlin has all this and more – and all of it seems infinitely more exciting than drugs and clubs.
I don’t know. It’s too soon to say, I feel: I’d envisioned this trip as taking me around the whole world and lasting at least a year, so to stumble into an opportunity to settle somewhere after only a few weeks feels very sudden and a bit ‘GUHH?’. It feels a bit like Indiana Jones setting out on an epic expedition in search of a famed lost city and stumbling upon it on the first morning, before he’s even had time to eat his packed lunch or whip a gun out of anybody’s hand: an undeniably good resolution, but you were sort of excited for the journey, too.
Well, meh. I’m gonna bum around Europe for a bit longer and figure things out. 😊