Lawd it’s good to be back.
It took me a few days to get back in the swing of things here. The first time I took a train in Germany my language abilities failed me completely and devastatingly: hoping to enquire as to whether the seat beside a young man was free, I tapped him on the shoulder. He removed his headphones, at which point I realised I had no shitting idea how to ask ‘is this seat taken?’ in German. In a shrieking internal panic, I pointed to the seat and mewled the only three words I could remember:
“Das ist gut?”
To which of course the poor man regarded me like the fucking dunce I am, and with an almost-imperceptible nod, moved his rucksack from the seat. Foreigners, I heard his internal monologue sigh. Forgive me, I thought back, as loudly as my own inner voice would allow.
Beside the occasional humiliation, then (which is commonplace regardless of my location on this earth anyway), my return to Berlin has been excellent. Last week Dave and I went to a jam session in the secret hipster kunst-bunker that is Artistania, where I spent much of my 2016-2018 inhabitance of Berlin. Dave has a key to a sound-proof studio in the back, in which are stored a variety of instruments: an electric guitar, a bass, a piano, two drum kits, and a mic with PA system. There’s a little drinks trolley too, with a kettle, a variety of teas, and several bottles of gin.
A few people arrived to join us: Casper, another Leodensian I first met five years ago, Bella, from Australia, Lea, from the Netherlands, and two other guys whose names were Ben and Tom but I wasn’t sure who was who – because we didn’t really speak! Everybody just arrived in their own time, waved hello to the room, picked up an instrument and got to jammin’. Because of my innate shyness, I of course chose the tambourine to begin with: small, simple, hard to balls it up and ruin the jam for everyone.
If you’ve never tried to improvise with a group before, I can’t recommend it enough; it’s a unique feeling. I used to play long-winded twenty-minute messarounds all the time with my old band, Sex Rain, back in the day. It’s all just a big experiment, lawless and evolving: one of you kicks off, maybe with a drum pattern, maybe a few chords on the guitar, maybe a funky little bassline. Then the others figure out what key you’re in and the rhythm and the root notes you’re playing, and they join you, carefully at first, building confidence gradually, until everything melds together to form a loose, jangling tune. Sometimes it soars, other times it lumbers along, sometimes it looks all set to take off like a rocket then farts out suddenly, leaving you all chuckling in the silence.
There are certain activities – sheltering from the rain together, sharing food, blowing raspberries to make a baby laugh – that you just know humans have been doing, in exactly the same way, for a hundred thousand years. Making music feels like a prime example. It was the strangest thing; we barely spoke, yet by the end of our three-hour fuckabout I felt I knew everyone intimately and was deeply relaxed in their presence. After starting out with a tambourine I switched to the guitar, then the bass, and then I did something I thought I’d never do in a thousand years: I had a go at singing. Sitting on a sofa with a cup of tea and a microphone – singing! Loud, ad-lib singing! In a room full of strangers! While stone cold sober. Never thought I’d be able to do that. I was deeply proud of myself.
Later on I played a little on the piano (the only thing I could remember was Don’t Look Back in Anger) then tried my hand at the drums, which was a lot of fun, if not particularly melodious or rhythmic. After the jam session we wandered around the gallery and watched a brass band playing in Artistania’s event space, during which we shared a joint. I had three tiny baby tokes to be on the safe side, but it didn’t make a difference and the same thing happened that always happens: I immediately got head-burstingly stoned and was incapable of conjuring a single thought until about two in the morning.
I spent much of the rest of the week hanging out with two very brilliant friends of mine: Ben and Minh, who I first met on the blueberry farm in Australia, during the wild, wild summer of 2018. I’d almost forgotten they’d moved to Berlin, and felt a rush of excitement when I remembered and messaged them asking to hang out.
I’d not seen either of them since 2019, just before the pandemic started, and meeting them again in Berlin was a wonderful and strange experience. Aside from minor aesthetic differences – Ben has tattooed his own knees and grown his hair out to shoulder length, Minh has cut her hair short and shaved her eyebrows off – they were completely the same. Fun, familiar, full of life. The happy couple live together in a shared flat near Ostkreuz; they moved to Berlin after Australia, Minh first, Ben a few months behind.
I’ve met up with them a bunch of times now: Ben and I went to a lake, Krummer Lanke, one sunny afternoon, and another boiling hot day we went to sprawl beside the Spree near Rummelsberger See. It was fascinating to talk to him; Ben’s in a similar place in life to me, and since early May has given up drinking. He looks much better for it – happier, sharper, calmer. I’ve been sober through June, and it’s exciting to see a friend in the same position.
On Thursday we all went out for a curry together and spent hours laughing and sharing nostalgic memories about our time at Toku Iwi, the hostel we lived in for four months in the Aussie bush. On Friday night I went by myself to a gigantic bookshop, Dussman, near the Brandenburg Gate, and later whizzed under the earth on the U Bahn to find Ben and Minh in Neukolln, were I sat with them and their friends in the warm evening. Saturday came and it was 34 degrees, so we spent the day sunbathing and swimming and I helped Minh write a poem. In the evening Ben suggested microdosing shroom tea, so we brewed a pot in their apartment and wandered through the city feeling a little bit wavy. We had a sunset picnic by the river and sat there until long after dark, and we talked about all sorts and laughed a hell of a lot.
It was bliss, and everything I’ve wanted for a very long time. I’d forgotten that feeling – the feeling Berlin used to give me every day, whenever I was faced with some insane, creative new scenario and everybody around me would take it in their stride, and I’d be silent in my amazement, not wanting to seem amateur or pedestrian, but secretly wishing I had hidden cameras in my eyes so my family and friends could see the weird, wild shit I was seeing. Of course Minh asked me to help her write a poem about a graveyard, of course she no longer has eyebrows, of course Ben sleeps in a room with a tattoo gun on his desk, of course they microdose shrooms on Sunday afternoons. That’s what inspired me to write so much during my first stint in the city – the burning desire to chronicle all the cool shit I saw for loved ones back home. To paint as vivid a picture as possible of this peculiar other-life that exists only a two-hour flight away.
One thing that’s been unfolding steadily on this Euro-trip – something I didn’t foresee – is the stream of coincidences that is allowing me, almost miraculously, to see nearly all my favourite people along the way. It started with Seth and Blanche in Portugal, and then Dave in Lisbon. Then of course I met up with Jeanne in Strasbourg, and Dave once more in Berlin, followed by my old colleagues Zoe, Michael and Alex. I’m seeing Kike tomorrow night, and Jakob at some point this week, too. I recently discovered my lovely friend Liv is, by pure luck, flying to Berlin in a few days’ time, and on the 25th I’m getting a train to Vienna to cross paths with the one and only Annie Kissiah as she begins a European DJ tour. I’m seeing my best buddy Sam in September at a music festival in Spain, and wonderful Vic is planning to fly out when she can get time off work. I’ve been nagging my brothers to come and join me for a week, too. Imagine that – all those friends, all over Europe, in one beautiful summer!
My luck in this regard astonishes me: I didn’t plan shit. I just got a one-way flight to the south of Portugal and made up the rest as I went along. All things considered, it’s going astoundingly well.
After a few nights in Vienna with Annie, I’ve got a train booked to take me south, to Slovenia. I don’t know how long I’ll stay there for; at some point I need to get out of the Schengen, because post-Brexit, we Brits are only allowed 90 days in Europe within a 180-day window. My plan at the moment is to head to Croatia in a week’s time, which isn’t in the Schengen and therefore will help me reset my 90-day limit. From there I want to travel to Bulgaria (also outside the Schengen), and eventually to arrive in Istanbul. If I can pull this off (and I fuckin can, come on), I’ll have travelled some six or seven thousand kilometres overland, from Faro to Istanbul, and the gateway to Asia itself. After that? I dunno. Greece? Egypt? Back to Berlin to find a place? I don’t know – and there’s not really much point planning anyway, because everything can change in a heartbeat. Easier to plan sparingly and let yourself get blown around by the Strangeness.
Maybe it’s the warm weather, maybe it’s my newfound sobriety, maybe it’s all the caffeine and cake I’ve just inhaled, but man – I’m giddy for what’s to come.