Alone in Berlin Summer 2014

Holocaust Memorial Berlin

Holocaust Memorial Berlin

Kino Intimes, Friedrichshain

Kino Intimes, Friedrichshain

At the Brandenburg Gates

At the Brandenburg Gates

Last fall, I made plans to live alone in Berlin for five weeks this summer. When my cousin who lives in southern Germany found out, she wanted to join me for a week; next, my partner’s plans fell through and he suddenly wanted to join me for two. I whittled his request down to one. I couldn’t say no to the cousin. My five weeks turned into three. I knew it wouldn’t be enough. It would be far from enough. But three weeks, I told myself, would be better than none. Travel is, after all, a luxury that few can afford. And being totally alone, to the vast majority of people on an over-crowded planet, would be unthinkable.
Thanks to a writing grant from the Canada Council, I was going to Berlin to write a new young adult novel, set in Germany during WWll. I had been doing research for three years and had two Hilroys full of notes. I had a laptop. I had courage. I had basic German, my father’s mother-tongue. I had a desire and craving to be alone that would have filled two large suitcases. I knew Berlin a little, from a 3-day stay there two years earlier. It had grabbed my heart and my imagination, with its mixture of old and new architecture, its desperation to come to terms with its dark past, its spirit of reunification, and its vibrant artistic movement forward. Two years ago, when I was there with my partner of 25 years, I vowed to return – alone.
There was never any question that this wouldn’t be a trip for two. I knew my dream to connect with Berlin could not be shared. My partner didn’t have German roots; the omnipresence of the war in Germany’s capital city had just depressed him – he didn’t want to try to understand it. He hadn’t had the experiences I’d had: the teacher in grade four who made me stand on a desk, along with three other German kids, while she told the class that they mustn’t blame us for the war. He’d never had other kids mock his father’s heavy German accent and call him “Hitler.” This was my baggage. I carried it with me on the plane, fully prepared to trot it out. It was a trip I should have done years earlier, in my twenties, but life circumstances had made that impossible. Instead, here I was, at the age of fifty-four, going off alone into somewhat of the unknown. And I couldn’t wait to get there.
When I said goodbye to my cousin at Tegel Airport on Friday of the first week (she was flying home), she was the nervous one. She felt it wasn’t safe to leave me alone, with no contacts, in the big bad city of Berlin. But I wasn’t scared. I couldn’t wait for her to leave, even though we’d had a lovely week together. I was eager to hop onto the TXL bus that would return me to Alexanderplatz, the heart of eastern Berlin; from there, I could begin my true adventure – living solo in the city. I knew that being alone would allow me to feel like less of a tourist and I have never been a good tourist; my chameleon-like desire to blend in and my natural self-consciousness are too strong. On my own, I could morph into a resident. Back in my apartment in Friedrichshain, a former eastern neighbourhood that has experienced a renaissance of artistic and commercial activity, I cracked open a bottle of 5 euro wine, purchased at the Kiosk downstairs, sat on my little balcony overlooking Boxhagener Platz and thought, “I am alone.” There was no one in sight to whom I’d have to explain my motives or actions. No one whose opinion I would need to seek, or whose advice I’d need to consider. No one to bring me down, or to lift me up. I was high up physically, on the fourth floor, but also emotionally. I was flying. I was free.
Traveling alone can be very liberating. It’s true that you don’t have another person to help share the confusion, or plot the best route, or marvel over the sights; you only have yourself. But that soon becomes its greatest benefit; it is an experience unmediated by conversation or the demands and desires of another human being. You are free to travel deep within yourself in a way that you couldn’t with another person at your side. Even walking down the street feels different when you’re alone: you can put on your public face, no chatting required, except when you choose, as I did strolling down Unter den Linden or the Kurfürstendamm. You can stare into space and let your imagination wander, in a way that a partner would inadvertently, albeit not maliciously, destroy. And you can stay deep within yourself for long stretches of time, tapping uninterrupted into thoughts and emotions. Anyone who has been in a relationship for a long time knows that that is hard to do. The voice of the other always calls you out, like it or not. Having three weeks in which to travel inwardly, without witness or distractor, was one of the most freeing experiences of my life.
Another wonderful benefit is the confidence that comes with independence. The need for independence is, perhaps, not felt by everyone in equal measure. Certainly, the women in my family don’t seem to have that drive. They are kind, loving and creative women, but they are not particularly independent. Both my mother and sister were somewhat in awe of my ability to travel alone, as were many friends, who told me outright they could never be alone in a strange city so far from home. Indeed, my friends who’ve been partnered, or married, for as long as I have would never dream, it seems, of leaving their husbands for that length of time – as though marriage is a contract that nullifies the right to distance and independence. Without wanting to insult these fine, funny, and wonderful women, it strikes me that fear is at the heart of that notion. Women grow up in fear – fear of strangers, fear of failure, fear of looking bad, fear of being alone. I have not been immune to these fears. In fact, years ago I had an epiphany of sorts, where I realized that so many of my life decisions had been driven by fear. When my mother said I was brave for doing this trip, I had to disagree. I wasn’t brave; I was riddled with fear. But my determination and my need to not be controlled by the fear were stronger. This trip was my attempt to face those fears, as well as my past, as I navigated myself through this city that is so burdened by history. Since fear is the greatest obstacle to independence, I feel my three weeks alone gave me a greater sense of confidence. Confidence and independence are not exactly the same thing, but the latter isn’t possible without the former.
Being alone in a strange place also allows you to redefine yourself. Redefinition isn’t easy, and is perhaps impossible, if you are with someone who has known you for a long time. Being alone allows the actress in you to come out; it’s a bit of a cliché, but you can be anyone you want, here in this new place where you have no history and nobody knows your name. I loved that feeling of complete anonymity as I climbed the dome of the Reichstag or wandered the lively streets of Kreuzberg, people-watching to my heart’s content and taking the pulse of Berlin’s diverse and colourful crowds. It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate my life in Montreal; it is a good life, full of love and comfort and fulfilling work. But it is familiar and I am familiar to those I interact with as a teacher, writer, mother and partner. I wanted to be taken outside of myself; I wanted to be someone else – someone new and surprising, even to me. In Berlin – a city that is itself in the process of redefinition – I was more open and engaging than I often am at home, even though I retained my shy and introverted nature. I had no history in this city steeped in history; I could be anyone I wanted and, ironically, I was in some ways more myself because I was without connections. I suppose it comes back to the idea of liberation. We are not always aware of how much binds us down at home until we leave. Sometimes, our own limitations are our biggest bind. Being in a new place where I felt like someone new allowed different sides of me to emerge more freely.
Security wasn’t something I worried about before leaving home. I had researched the neighbourhood where my rented apartment was, Friedrichshain, and determined it to be safe and lively. There was a rather raunchy bar across the street where tough-looking people drank too much and had tough-looking dogs wrapped around their feet, but they routinely pulled out guitars and broke into Bob Dylan and Neil Young tunes, so I wasn’t too worried. If the dogs stared at me crookedly, I simply crossed the street. There was an all-night Polish café downstairs where you could get wonderful bowls of goulash for 2 euros; the hookah bar at the corner was full of young people sucking on tubes, filling with air with a wonderful scent of vanilla and spice – so it was all good. I never sat in any of those places (except the café) on my own, but I could take everything in from my perch – that and the action across in Boxhagener Platz, hipster central, where the requisite badges of entry were multiple tattoos, piercings and dreadlocks. I could stroll around them in the square, but never be one among them, which was fine, and as long as I wasn’t down there late at night, when too much beer and other substances had obviously been consumed, I felt perfectly safe. If I was out in the evening, I made sure to be heading home by ten pm at the latest; the U-bahn was full of people and I never felt threatened in any way. In fact, I have always felt safer in big cities than in quieter settings. I had bought a cheap European cellphone and knew that 110 would connect me to the police, but I was also pretty sure I’d never have to use it. My apartment had a fortress-like lock on the door and apart from the nasty neighbour who spat Scheisse touristen at me day one, I never had any issues in the building.
I established a routine pretty quickly: I wrote in the mornings from about 8 – 11; I ate a light lunch; then, I set out to see the sights. I had made myself a list of all the museums, galleries, streets, squares, and neighbourhoods I wanted to visit, keeping in mind that I was looking for inspiration and material for my novel. Travel time became some of my favourite time. I’ve always loved public transportation, the notion of random strangers being thrown together in such close proximity for short periods of time; it is a people-watcher’s paradise, although in Berlin, as in other European cities, you have to do it discretely. There is an unwritten code that people’s privacy is respected on the U or S-bahn. There is little to no banter between strangers; if a seat is occupied by a bag or purse, the etiquette is to stare the person down. If that yields no results, the next move is to ask “ist hier frei?” The offender will then normally remove the obstacle. I loved it all, every sweaty, unairconditioned, stalled-in-the tunnels or soaring high-above-the-city minute. I loved that I could eavesdrop on the English or French conversations, and also pick up some of the Spanish or German. And the best part was that, because I was alone, I blended in and became a Berliner. I didn’t have to talk; no one was beside me, pointing up to the route plan, or pulling out a guide book. For all anyone knew, I was a stone-faced unimpressed Berliner. The chameleon in me was singing.
In the afternoons, from 2:30 – 6:00pm I did the one thing that became the crowning jewel of my trip; I took a German class. This allowed me to meet and mingle with other people from all over the world (Korea, China, Thailand, Holland, Venezuela, Greece, Norway) and to feel a connection that even a natural loner like me needs. The teacher had a dry and sarcastic sense of humour, my favourite kind; the mostly 20-something “kids” in the class adopted me as their unofficial Canadian mother and it became an activity I looked forward to every day. People were genuinely interested in Canada and in me, which boosted my sometimes flagging confidence. All that was unexpected and the unexpected is one of the wonderful things about travel. If I had been traveling with another person, I would not have enrolled in the class and I would have missed out on this great experience. Even if my partner had been waiting for me back at the apartment, I would not have connected with people the same way; I would have felt his pull and denied myself the socializing that often occurred after class – not because he would have expected me to, but just because that seems to be the way it goes. We are often more open when we are alone, when we are forced to reach out to others.
Some of the things I found hard surprised me: food-shopping was one. It took me three trips to the local grocery store to discover that people grabbed cardboard trays near the door to use as baskets. I had been balancing stuff in my arms; you had to pay for the carts and that seemed too complicated. The wonderful marketplace across from me on Saturdays, in Boxhagener Platz, also intimidated me; I think because marketplaces are so personal. It’s where friends and families meet; exchanges between vendors and customers is also more friendly and chatty than is usual amongst Berliners. At times, I felt outside of it all in a way that was unsettling; it made me wish I really was one of them and not a pretender. But I learned early on in the trip to forgive myself for the things I could not do easily. Eating dinner out alone was another one of them. Lunch was fine. Sitting in a café or park with a sandwich was easy, even fun, but to walk into a restaurant alone in the evening, surrounded by groups of people, was something I could not do. So I didn’t try. I ate on the balcony, watching the action below. But I was kind to myself. That is so important. I didn’t focus on what I couldn’t do; just on what I could. I nurtured myself daily, showing myself a kindness I don’t always show at home. There is such freedom in that.
I know my three weeks in Berlin do not compare with some solo trips that women have taken; I have a good friend who has traveled twice through Asia alone, once for eight months. The younger generation of women, I suspect, have way fewer fears than women my age, and travel alone in greater numbers. But for me, it was an accomplishment. It was like a coming home to a place I’d always wanted to be – confident and comfortable in my skin, not always questioning my abilities. Now, I am carrying the experience inside me and I know it has changed me. I still have the same life, full of its usual ups and downs and in-betweens, but there is, deep inside me, the knowledge that I was able to create for myself and by myself such a wonderful three weeks. I carry within me the knowledge that I was able to do it and do it well. I made something out of nothing, by myself. And that something was incredibly special. There was a me that coped with unfamiliarity and wandered the streets of one of the world’s great cities with a smile on her face and a confident clip in her step. I can now carry that knowledge, nestled in my palm, hard and solid as a stone. It is my talisman. When something shakes me or troubles me, I squeeze it firmly and know that it is mine and nothing can take it away. That is very powerful.
I cannot wait to go back.

Advertisements