When a friend is leaving Berlin the appropriate way to farewell them is to graffiti a wall.
ICH LIEBE DICH ANNA
As soon as the temperature creeps over 8 degrees the ice-cream parlours of the city sweep the floor, mix fresh batches and throw open their doors for ICE CREAM SEASON. I thought ice cream was big in Australia what with the hot weather and beaches and all. Berliners take it to another level. Any day the air is tinged with a hint of warmth you will find queues down the street with people spilling on to the pavement, pockets jangling with coins and mouths watering for a tasty eis kugel. There are countless shops, from your friendly neighbourhood Mr Whippy style van-version at Tempelhof to the more upmarket café-style ice-creamery Fräulein Frost in Kreuzkölln. Flavours range from peanut butter to rhubarb to honeycomb to peppermint. You name it, somewhere in Berlin will have it.
Ice cream culture is what marks the warmer months here. Add an open-air party, picnic by the canal and beers in the park and you have a Berlin summer right there. Although 2013-sommer hasn’t quite kicked off yet, the eiscafes are open and ready for business. Already it has become a daily habit of mine… it’s dangerous, delicious and it means summer is on it’s way!
Even dogs get their own ice cream (seriously – this was taken at Eispiraten in Friedricshain)
Dancing with friends during a heavy rain storm, singing Edith Piaf’s ‘Je ne regrette rien’ at the top of our voices. Hair lying in messy, wet strands on our forehead as our clothes are soaked to transparency. Nearby a group cheers on the spectacular lightening show with beers and laughter. Having pizza with the owner of a successful start-up company on the rooftop of hyper-exclusive Soho House Berlin. A new moon hanging above us and the TV tower twinkling in the background. Chasing the little boy I babysit around a Dahlem park, until we fall in a heap, laughing and covered in mud. That evening attending a fancy wine tasting event held at the Hotel De Rome on Bebelplatz. Standing on the terrace and looking out over the site of the infamous Nazi Book Burnings while rubbing shoulders with an elite crowd of diplomats and ambassadors. Partying on Gneisenaustrasse during Carneval de Kulturen and being approached by a stranger who liked my freckles and wanted to take portraits of me. Turns out he is a successful art photographer with exhibitions throughout Europe and Russia. Singing with a friend in loud, operatic voices as we ride our bikes through Kreuzberg. Working as a waitress at Yohji Yamamoto’s vernissage during Berlin Art Week. Offering Yohji himself some sushi and watching the uber-stylish art-fashion crowd as they wander about, their outfits sharp and fabulous against the cavernous white exhibition space. Drinking a beer with a stranger who passed by as I was graffitiing a wall! Spending the night dancing up a sweat at an old swimming pool complex that was badly bombed during the war but is now home to hardcore, underground techno nights.
… and on it goes. Sometimes I spin about how seriously bizarre life can be here in Berlin. You can never anticipate what is around the corner. I don’t know if it is me, or just the general madness of the place but each day has a new story to tell…
There is only one part of the world where this is de rigeur and that is charming old Europe. In my early Berlin days I remember being kissed twice, once on each cheek when meeting people. It felt so chic! Like I was part of an elite Parisian art circle, where people sat around smoky tables discussing wine and politics. It took a while to get the hang of… I would always hesitate awkwardly after the first one, not knowing whether to move my head to the side and so always ended up bumping cheeks and turning away in embarassment. Now it’s normal. I kind-of forget what it’s like to kiss someone once. In fact now it feels almost impersonal!
THE TRAIN ANNOUNCEMENT VOICE
In the early part of this blog, I wrote about how exciting it was to hear the announcements on the train in German. The very sound of the official male voice saying “Einsteigen bitte” used to THRILL me. It sounded so unusual, so foreign. It’s funny the little things you appreciate when settling in a new place. I found the train voices so exciting! Nowadays, after one thousand and thirty three u-bahn rides I no longer get the same goosebumps. Most of the time I don’t even hear it. But when I do… my heart warms at the memory of the simple excitement those words used to bring.
THE ART OF LAYERING
I moved to Berlin during the fall and remember being in awe of the way people dressed. It was like they all had some private manual on how to look good when snow will wet your boots and an icy wind will bite your cheek the second you set foot from the house. They were all so stylish! And warm! How were they so stylish and warm? I looked like a dishevelled street rat, so many messy layers all wrapped up like a stuffed sausage. And I was cold. Always cold. It’s like part of the education in Northern Europe, like they take lessons at school on how to dress appropriately but with style. I was in awe when I first arrived. But slowly I learned. Piece by piece, I am far more aware now of what fabrics insulate, what fits well and what articles give a nice shape but still keep you warm. A a few years and two nordic winters later I have finally learned the careful art of winter layering!
Tschüss was originally common in Northern Germany but is now used all over the country. It means goodbye in a casual, informal manner and in Berlin it is used everywhere, by everyone. I thought it sounded hilarious when I first arrived. Something about the way the innotation goes up at the end like a cheery melody. So even if you are a deep-throated man you almost sing out the phrase like a happy little girl. Sometimes it even gets extended to “ Tschüssy!” which just kills me. Nowadays I say it on auto-pilot without even thinking! Ah what! I have become one of them! ;)
Ah the pristine powder that accompanies us during those long winter months! Little white teardrops that fall from the heavens, soft and innocent like a dream. Icicles hanging from the rooves and snow sitting in wintery sweet piles on awnings, bridges and bicycles. Having grown up on a sunburnt island many miles away, when I first arrived in Berlin the snow blew my little Australian mind. I thought it was sooo magical. Now after the bitter 100 year winter and snow storms that continued well in to April, the white stuff has lost it’s charm a little. I mean it will always be beautiful, but now when the heavens open their white halo I recall the months of bitter icy struggle and no longer run around in circles like a delusional child!
“There has never been anything like this in Berlin in late March since snow measurements began in 1895”
Friedemann Schenk, Weather expert at the Meteorological Institute for Freien Universität
Just recapping the fun times of the last 6 months! They say it was the coldest, longest winter in over 100 years with record-breaking weather that lasted well into Easter. I can vouch for that. It felt like we didn’t see the sun for months, the grey hung low, the air prickled with ice and the snow became a permenant fixture at our feet.
Well… I’m back.
It’s been over 6 months since my last post. And there has been good reason for that. I have experienced what can only be called a ‘life metamorphosis’ during this time. A breakdown of the familiar framework that shaped my existence and a deterioration of all that I thought I had. But as I have learned… from breakdown comes rebirth. Awakening. A new perspective… and most importantly a hint of things to come.
Berlin literally chewed me up and spat me out again. It started during the dawn of winter, in the inevitable November greyness that descends upon this great Northern land at the closing of the year. I had it all in November, a job, a visa, friends, apartment, social life. Tick Tick Tick. It was “alles ok”. But inside something was sinking. The source of the struggle was unclear at the time, but as I walked the now-familiar Berlin streets it didn’t feel right. Which made no sense because seemingly the goal was reached and I had finally built myself a life here. But there was something gnawing, a termite chewing away at my spirit… effectively this termite ended up destroying it all. It manifested a life change so great, so defining, that it forced me to re-evaluate everything. Around this time, an unforeseen circumstance threw me in to a tailspin that 6 months later, I am still trying to work myself out of. Basically, after months of hard work I lost my job and therefore my visa and status in this country. This was completely unexpected. As someone who has been defined by their job for 10 long years, and being that I was in a foreign country… far from home… this loss was palpable. Being left without a regular income, without a stable position in Germany and with very little savings was an unexpected whirlwind change. At this point all the comfortable barriers of my existence were broken down. I spent the early days of winter crying snowy tears as the greyness became a permanent fixture overhead. By January it was back to square one. No visa, no job and no idea what the hell to do.
I started to make outlandish plans to leave Berlin and go to India. To live in an ashram and study yoga and meditation, another of my life’s burning goals. Being an insanely impulsive human I made all the moves to do this, including getting rid of my apartment, selling my furniture and clothes, pulling every last penny together and basically packing up my life. India was going to be the answer to my problems, it would put to rest that little termite of uncertainty that I had felt when I was employed. That unsettled feeling is what I now believe actually manifested the loss of the job i.e. subconsciously bringing this change upon myself in order to shake things up. To force the choosing of a new path. And going to India was the first step in that new direction. As a closet hippy that had hid my love of spirituality and new age philosophies behind a desk job for over a decade, India was going to be my spiritual awakening. My chance to explore what I always knew deep down was my passion.
It’s strange. How sometimes you can physically feel a shift inside. When you listen to your heart and can almost hear that cosmic voice from deep within. That is your instinct talking. As I got closer to my departure date, I felt that shift and slowly began to realise that maybe the decision to leave wasn’t right. I couldn’t pinpoint why… it was just a feeling. I would walk the Berlin streets and feel a great sadness as India loomed ahead like a big, grey February cloud. With this came a desire to belong again. The holiday period was over, and the initial novelty of moving to a new place had died down. But my roots had made their way in to the Berlin earth. Perhaps I had to really face the prospect of leaving, but I began to realise that I wanted this city to not just be a stop over on my way forward, but my future.
And then… 3 days before my Saudi Airways flight left Europe for New Delhi there was a panicked, tearful phone call to my twin soul in Australia. It was the final straw. After an hour of talking and crying in to my croissant I made the snap decision to stay in Berlin. Not knowing what the next steps were, just knowing I couldn’t get on that plane. And so the Saudi flight left on 4th February 2013 less one very confused Australian female passenger.
Now, several months later I am still rebuilding. It has not been easy. The job market here is volatile and I have been forced in to unreliable minimum-wage work. My lifestyle has changed drastically and I no longer party on weekends, buy new things or eat out at restaurants. When I think back it’s amazing how differently you cope with the world behind the stability of a regular paycheck. Trying to live on nothing is a daily drain, but it’s something I have committed to doing until I can get a job with a part-time schedule. Something that will allow me the space to work on a passion project that is linked to my fascination with new-age philosophy. The goal has been set pretty high and at the moment things are hard. Many times I have thought about giving up and going back to Australia. But, even against the pressure of my loved ones who also want me home… something has kept me rooted here.
The thing I am beginning to realize is that I didn’t need to leave Berlin and go to India in order to have a spiritual awakening. In fact I am experiencing one right now. With the no job, no money, no visa situation along with a relationship that turned out to be completely destructive and dysfunctional, life has been a daily battle. The last months have brought so much pressure, financially and emotionally and I have had to push myself to the very limits of my humanity in order to survive. Its amazing the myriad of emotions that can be experienced in a process like this. It started with depression. Then anxiety. Then anger. Then a great sadness and sense of loss. Then purposelessness. And much, much more. It is only now that I am pulling myself off the rollercoaster and putting one foot on the ground again. After so many “why-me” tears, I have finally decided to turn within. To look inside for the answers, instead of basing my identity and feelings on my “life situation”. And what I am finding is that it doesn’t matter what chaos each day brings, as long as you can learn to let go and connect to the peace inside. The magic of the universe lies within each and every one of us human beings and no amount of materialistic stress can compete with the power of this. It is potent and it is there, now, within you. This learning is linked to Buddhist philosophies about the debilitating state of materialism, which is essentially the belief that matter is the only reality in life. One of my favourite Buddhist proverbs says it best: “All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.” So no matter what your life situation, inner peace and happiness is available to you now. This is hard to digest when your day to day reality is so damn worrying but it is a truth I have been forced to learn.
Yes, life’s ups and downs are a journey… but the real journey is the one inside yourself. Ultimately, it is the destruction and rebuilding of your own personal character. These last months have brutally tested my resolve but I am now emerging a stronger person who is slowly finding their inner calm. I have learnt to plug in to the universal energy the way you put a power cord in to an electrical socket. When you do this everything melts away… no matter how bad… and you begin to feel empowered rather than overpowered.
Today, I am still trying to get that visa, sort out that job and find the suitable apartment. Life is shaky, nothing is confirmed and I am still uncertain. But I’m learning to let go and simply move with the meandering watery flow of each unique earthly day.
Ironically the backdrop to this phase of enlightenment has been the city with the dark, shadowy energy, the city of Berlin. No holy Ganges river here… just the dirty old Spree. Go figure. I guess now I know one thing for sure. It’s the same feeling from almost two years ago (which I wrote about at the very beginning of this blog)… I am meant to be here. Berlin is my home away from my home. It is no longer a non-stop whirlwind of parties and new people. It has taken on a different feeling now… less novelty, more reality. Sometimes I long for that buzzing excitement of moving to a new city, that feeling of new-ness and the possibility to explore forever. But at the end of the day, what I have now is far more valuable.
I have found my little corner of the world. That unsettled feeling I experienced last year was a test. It forced me to evaluate my position and define my future path. Even though I am not set up here yet, now I know. This city is my future path. It is a place that I feel inexplicably connected to, that drives me, feeds my spirit and then tears me apart. A city that tests my limits and pushes me further than I have ever been pushed before. There is comfort in realising this because I know the forceful, sometimes-harsh nature of this city will push me toward my goal, my truth. It is my India, my spiritual awakening.
Berlin is not only my home but one of my life’s greatest lessons.
[ The soundtrack to this “lesson”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz9JmpULP3o ]
Isn’t it awesome when a moment in your life feels like a scene straight out of a movie? I had a very cool experience like this recently when riding my bike home from work. There is this scene from ‘Berlin Calling’ that I love. Well, it’s not even a scene more like a flicker of an image but its just something that resonated with me. It only goes for 3 or 4 seconds but is powerful in its simplicity.
It is a shot of the TV tower at twilight. An ominous sky frames the scene as a flock of birds that look like bats come in to view, flapping their way in circles around the dome. It is accompanied by a dark, repititious techno beat and the eerie sound of crows squawking in the night. It really feels like Berlin to me and perfectly captures the energy of the beginning of a night out in this gritty city. So one recent Friday eve I was on my bike, and rounded the corner at Alexanderplatz in to the concrete square that sits at the base of the TV tower. People were criss-crossing everywhere hurrying along, on their way in to the night. I looked up and saw a darkening sky and a group of crows flying above the city, circling the curve of the great dome which was glowing silver against the inky-grey sky. In my head, the familiar techno beat from Berlin Calling started up and suddenly I was there in the movie, standing at the foot of the TV tower feeling the cold, dark promise of a night out in Berlin. It was such a wierdcool moment and I smiled inside at the strange familiarity of it all.
Here is a link to the scene – which appears at about 00.14 or 00.15: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drdf8OeBUUM
One Friday eve during the last days of summer, I was walking Oppelner Strasse when I saw a group of people enjoying a dinner party on the street. They had literally moved their entire indoor dinner party setting outside and on to the street – tables, chairs, wine glasses, candles, music, friends and children playing at their heels. It was warm and lovely and all I could hear was laughter and the clinking of glasses. I watched them for a second, taking in the scene. Their table was glowing with happy energy, the sky above was black velvet, the air smelt like lavender and in that moment I really felt the spirit and love of this little group of friends.
It was the last of those balmy evenings where the streets are alive with people and icecream and smiles… and as you walk you can literally see the collective human spirit blossoming, flourishing in the warm night.
A few weeks back I had the best Monday of my life. It was a hazy August evening – the sun lay low over the city spilling it’s hot light in to every street corner. The heat wrapped Berlin like a blanket, heavy and oppressive. I went for a walk with my best friend along the Görlitzer canal – the light flickering as it found it’s way through the trees and across our faces. We stopped by a graffitied bridge and found a little iron gate with steps leading to the waters edge. We took a seat and named it our “secret spot”… it was private, off the main pathway and allowed us to take one step closer to nature. All the way down the canal you could see people tucked in to the trees, in their own “secret spots” reading, eating, resting their souls in the yellow afternoon haze. A moment later a tourist boat went by, I could see the great flag of Germany at it’s helm and people taking photos of all the life that breathed along the banks of the canal. After it had passed, in a sudden fit of summer energy we decided to strip down and go naked swimming in the (dirty / brown / inner city) canal! And so we did. Two crazy girls at 8pm on that 30 degree evening jumped in to the filthyrefreshing water. It was a magic moment, green weeping trees hanging low, the graffitied bridge above, a group of white swans floating by and our naked freedom in the dirty brown water! Oh Monday!
I have decided that Berlin is an adult’s playground.
As I was walking the Sunday streets I saw people weaving through the traffic on their bikes, dodging and swerving across the city – to meet a lover, have a coffee, read a book in the park, do their thing. I saw a dreadlocked rastafarian sitting outside a bakery with his feet on the table smoking a cigarette and tearing in to a croissant at the same time. I saw a group of party-goers sitting in an ominous circle outside a club, drinking stale beers and holding each other in the morning sun. The blank walls and apartment buildings were splattered with colourful graffiti. Each wall – somebody’s statement to the world. I saw two September lovers by the canal, lost in each others embrace. Looking up, there was a group of twenty something guys, drunk on life, sitting on the roof of a bus shelter, legs dangling over, singing sad morning anthems to the world. I heard whistles blowing and a voice through a loudspeaker and suddenly there was a procession of people, protesting, united in their passion & opinions.
It was then that I saw the city as a veritable playground –like a place where children go to play, a place that is fun and full of endless possibilities, where freedom rules and you can do as you please. Berlin is the playground except it’s adults that play there. You can do or be anything you want, see whoever you want, write all over the walls, climb the bus shelters, dance till dawn, everything is free and open and it’s up to you how you wanna play it…
I had just been on another trip – a two week ball-out around Eastern Europe and had arrived back yet again. I was walking over Ann Micheal Brücke – a bridge the crosses the river Spree, feeling dazed and weary when I stopped in the middle of the bridge to pause. You know how in life sometimes you just need to pause. I looked out and saw the great TV tower with its mirror ball dome and spiky antenna. The river was lined with warehouses and factories, crumbling industrial relics of another time. Green weeds, graffiti everywhere, the gentle brown river and the sound of techno music wafting up from an open air party on the shore. I could hear people laughing as they meandered along the water on a wooden raft, clinking beers, the sky grey and low above them. And there she was… Berlin. In all her dirty, twisted glory. And it made me smile.