Well now, I’m home from work sick as a parrot. I can’t move from my bed and it hurts to look at a laptop screen, but I’ll have a pop at this while it’s fresh in my head. The weekend just gone, I revisited the city that started everything: Berlin.
It was a Friday to Monday thing, flying out of Bristol into Schonefeld, flight delayed, tedious, overly excited. I’d been meaning to head over for months, but empty pockets kept pushing it further and further back. Finally, I picked a date, booked a couple of days off work, and flew out.
A familiar face was waiting for me at the airport. The arrival doors slid open, and on the other side, for the first time in 19 months, I met eyes with Annie Kissiah, with her thick white hair and vampiric pallor and freckled Disney nose, sitting on her phone waiting for me. She looked exactly as I remembered her, plus a hundred small details that I’d forgotten, rendering her kind of hyper-real. We hugged, said we’d missed each other.
We took the bus into the city and she pulled a couple of Sternis out of her backpack. She took the lids off with an opener her on her keyring and we clinked bottles, toasting our reunion. There’s always that strange first half hour when you meet up with someone you haven’t seen in a long while, especially somebody you used to be very close to. Neither of you really know what to say for a while but you dread there being a silence, lest this be taken by either of you as an indication that your relationship isn’t as strong as it once was. But of course, the silences that try to land – that you valiantly bat away by asking meaningless questions such as ‘how was your day’ – are silences that come from all the big questions rising to the fore at once, all squabbling with each other as to which should be asked first.
Annie, of course, can’t say something as bland and huge as ‘how was India?’, because she knows full well that will take a very long and complicated explanation. Likewise, I can’t say something as current as ‘how’re things going with your visa extension?’, because I know the answer is ‘bad’, and I’ve no intention to take the conversation there within the first thirty minutes. So, instead, we exchange odd pleasantries as if we only just know each other, but smiling all the while like the old and through-the-mill friends we truly are.
We took the U7 into the city centre, and the smell of the U Bahn brought memories sloshing back. It all seemed so hectic, so intimidating, so grimy – did I not notice that, before, or was I just used to it? We called into Annie’s place – she lives in Neukolln with two drag queens – dropped my bag, and bought road beers as we made our way towards Kotbusser Tor to visit my old office. Strolling through the leafy cobbled streets once again, streetlights beefy with layers of ancient posters like Frankenstein tree-trunks, it took me a while to remember the laws of the street that were once so ingrained – people actually wait for the green man before they cross, traffic turns right at a green light regardless, cars speed up to hit you if you dare to jaywalk, that sort of thing.
As we neared Kotbusser Brucke, I caught sight of another familiar face. It always astounded me, Berlin’s capacity for pinballing you between friends at random. Alex, my old colleague, was standing in the path with his girlfriend. They seemed to be fussing over something.
“Alex!” I called out, and he turned and I watched the look of confusion on his face turn to recognition, then to delight, then to worry.
“Man, it’s so good to see you. We just left the office as we’re off to look at wedding venues so I thought I’d miss you. It’s great to see you, you look so healthy. But mate, this is the worst possible timing. A bird has literally just shat right in Sara’s eye.”
Sara nodded a hello, hand over one eye, and dashed off to the nearest pharmacy. Alex stayed with Annie and I, clearly quite torn. He hadn’t aged a day, and looked tanned and healthy. He hugged us both – one of his famous hugs that everyone loves – and after apologising and saying he’d definitely love to catch up over the weekend, he hurried off to look after his girlfriend.
Annie and I were a little stunned as we continued, but I was very happy to have bumped into him. A minute later we were at my old office for Friday beers, which so often during my time in the city was the precursor to some great debauchery or other. But things were a little different.
We met Zoe and Sophie, two of my old team, and after reunion pleasantries we hung out outside and had a few beers together, and Zoe told me what was changing about the place. Friday beers were no longer very well attended, and a lot of the old faces had left. The position barely involved writing anymore, and was more outsourcing-to and managing freelance writers instead.
Though it was wonderful to see old friends, it was sad to see such a great place changed so much, but in a selfish way it made me happy; working in my new role in Bristol I’ve often dreamt of the good times working in Berlin – of the friendships and Friday beers and the creative freedom. It seems that’s gone now, and having seen it for myself, I can perhaps stop dwelling in the past quite so much. It’s quite rare, I think, to get the chance to take the golden sheen off the past in such a way. Usually, without any new evidence to the contrary, visions of the past only grow rosier as the days go by. It can be torture.
A lot of my time in Berlin took a similar form, to be honest. We went clubbing one night, went to a flat party another, reclined in several parks across the city, watched the karaoke at Mauerpark, and ate at some great little spots I used to love. It was so wonderful to spend time with Annie again. What played on my mind the whole time, however, is that I never felt the same magic I used to, regarding Berlin at large. In this very blog I’ve written well over a novel’s worth of entries on the city and my time living in it, often going into depth about how the city was poetry in motion and how I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
The city hasn’t changed; I have. If not ‘like’, I can at least tolerate myself now. I’m better these days; I try hard to treat those I love with the respect they deserve. I no longer have a hole inside me, I’m not broken or lost, and I’m not seeking anything. I’m not trying to be anyone – I know who I am. Travelling the world and living the way I have for the past few years, I feel I’ve been a dozen different people, all with different merits and faults. Coming back to England finally, I’ve returned to the oldest, sturdiest version of myself, with, I hope, some faults banished and some new merits welcomed. I worked hard for this.
I’ve never seen Berlin through these eyes before – through healthy eyes that aren’t hungry for adventure or inspiration or redemption or whatever the fuck. I’m not projecting onto the city any longer my own desire for something more, something greater than myself. A lot of the old quotes I used to live by have been – lovingly, sadly – boxed, and filed away. Kerouac’s got a lot to answer for in the grand sequence of fuck-ups that was my mid-twenties.
‘All of the things I wrote were true,’ he said, ‘because I believed in what I saw.’
See, I don’t honestly know if all of the things that I wrote were true, because with hindsight I’m not so sure whether I believed in what I saw, or if I simply wanted to believe. But then, maybe Jack didn’t truly believe either. Maybe for the both of us it was just wilful naiveté. Maybe it was blind optimism. Romanticism. Vanity. All of the above, or something darker still. I dunno.
Look, I won’t lie anymore, or if ‘lie’ is too harsh a word – I won’t pretend. I’ve never been the type to enjoy poetry, really. I find it indulgent and obtuse and it gets on my tits. I rarely enjoy depraved nightclubs, likewise the consumption of copious amounts of drugs. I don’t like shock-factor sex-gore art galleries; in fact visual arts rarely move me at all. Candlelit bars make me sleepy, and coffee shops make my head ache. I often feel ill-at-ease in a concrete jungle, and I can’t stand falafel. I find cool people insufferable, and I passionately believe that dancing should be a sprint, not a marathon. So… what was I doing?
I still don’t know why I moved to Berlin. I think that mostly I was obsessed with finding Kerouac’s ‘mad ones’, and experiencing the modern-day version of Hunter S Thompson’s ‘Wave’ speech. But that’s all young man stuff, and I won’t be one of those much longer. Three wild years have gone by, and I’ve gone by with them. It’s bittersweet really – I fought so hard against growing up for the longest time, seeking my own path, my own stream. Every stream leads the same way though, eventually – they’re all tributaries of the same river. In retrospect, maybe I fought so hard because I could feel it was already underway. Maybe I just wanted to go out with a bang.
Berlin through this new lens was, suddenly, just a city. It wasn’t a glitterscape haven of debauchery and unbridled creativity, a swirling hive of youthful energy with a gravitational pull for the mad ones. And it wasn’t a depraved whirlpool of apathy and indifference filled with damaged strangers doing terrible things to each other in the clammy horror of infinite pounding dark. It was just… a fucking city, man. I looked around the street and noticed old people and parents with prams for what felt like the first time. Had they always been there? Not fucked up, not shining, just heading out to buy onions and tomatoes for dinner.
The city looks normal today because today I am normal. I was a different person then; I was seeking something. I never found it. I suppose that’s because to this day I couldn’t tell you what ‘it’ was. Whenever I got close to any kind of answer, the question changed. It’s funny; all I’ve learned from the last three tumultuous years, I could probably have learned in a half hour conversation with my mum – if I’d just listened.
Berlin is no longer the centre of the universe. And I’m not sad about it. I’m happy it ends this way. How else could these diaries have ended – an idealistic, naïve idiot wanders into the big bad city and fucks it all up and spirals and… what? It all seems a foregone conclusion, now, that I should grow out of it. If you’d tried to tell me I’d write this article three years ago I’d have called you a sell-out.
There’s a sense of relief, now, that those days are through. Of course I’m full of very fond memories, but often they were turbulent, damaging times, and the constant beating waves of highs and lows and highs and lows were rough to withstand. The highs put years on you, and the lows even more so. It’s impossible not to grow up, living in that city. How did I not see that at the start?
It hurts that this is the last one of these I’ll write. I remember the very first Berlin diary entry I wrote, sitting in a friend’s flat in Kreuzberg, scared to go outside into the strange new city. Later that night, drinking a Sterni alone, I wandered along beneath the U1, watching the yellow light of the U Bahn clank by. I felt like bottled lightning that night, three years ago, innocent at the beginning of it all.
It was a mess, Berlin, supernova, there’s no way around that, but those caustic days of endless confetti are done now, and they got me where I am today.
Somewhere that’s pretty nice, actually.
From my street in Bristol I can see the countryside beyond this little city – genuine, rolling green hills, only a mile or two away. The air is fresh. On my lunchtimes I sit by the harbour watching the boats go by and the seagulls dive for scraps. Weekends are for lounging on the Downs, or munching a late breakfast between the pretty homes of Clifton, or supping beers amid the grungy backdrop of Stokes Croft. It’s always nice to sit in the back garden on an evening; often you’ll be treated to the sight of the local hot air ballooning society taking to the skies. We’ll rent bikes sometimes and spend a day cycling through the woods down old railway tracks, past pretty terraces in a pinwheel of colours, weaving through families and students, jangling down ancient streets, before hopping off at the docks for ciders as the afternoon wears on, clouds nodding overhead. I think I belong here. It feels like home. It is home.
After a long, weird journey, I’m home.
To anyone who’s followed my Berlin diaries for any amount of time – thank you.
And to everybody who was at some point humiliated/disgraced/enraged/tickled by their appearance in this series – I’m talking Annie, Vic, Dave, Michelle, Aisling, Zoe, Alex, Michael, Sophie, Kike, Georgia, Hannah, Leslie, Jojo, Jakob, Louis, Kate, Stephanie, Emily, Heleen, Lini and Emma:
And, y’know… thank you for everything.
Now sod off out of here before I start crying.