I’ve never lived overseas. That’s quite an odd thing for an Australian, isn’t it? Australians are a nation of travellers, and I know more people that have lived in London or New York for a year than that haven’t. But I never got around to it. There was always a job, or a boyfriend. Usually both. But finally, earlier this year, it felt like the right time. My boyfriend and I decided to move to Berlin. It’s cheap, it’s gritty, it has an excellent cultural scene, we will learn a new language and live life differently…yes, let’s move to Berlin. The time felt ripe for renewal, the beginning of a new era. And besides, I am 33. My biological clock is ticking loudly now, so I wanted to fulfil my dream of living in another country before it is time to “get serious”. You know, quit the avocado on toast, get a mortgage, have 2.5 kids, forget about dreams and living dangerously.
It did occur to us that moving would be a difficult process. There’s no working holiday visa when you’re this old! We knew that Germany is a country of bureaucracy and layer upon layer of seemingly unnecessary procedure, but we were both ready for a change, a shock to the system. Even though you pay through the nose to live in Sydney, if felt too easy, too comfortable. Like a warm bath; you used to make an occasion of it, with candles and red wine and soft music, but now you don’t even bother to put bubbles in. Like a marriage gone stale, it was time to get out.
Off we went. Farewells, plane tickets, one month of “get-settled” accommodation. Blind-friend-dates, Google Maps, restaurant recommendations. Visas! Urgh, visas. You know, you can smoke cigarettes in Berlin and it doesn’t even feel like it’s giving you cancer. At first it was all ahead of us, then, after a month, we were in the midst of it, floundering, feeling lonely. Then, after another month….well….I don’t know exactly. Where are we now? We have a visa appointment on the twenty-fourth of July. Then what? We live here, we work, we pay rent, we find a new favourite breakfast spot?
I am having a traveller’s existential crisis.
You might have had one too, but I’ve rarely heard people talk about it. I don’t know what I’m doing here, why I’m trying to make a life for myself in a country that I have no relationship to, very few friends in. I don’t speak the language, which is admittedly almost no problem at all, given that even the homeless speak perfect English. I have no job, no purpose. No structure or routine. I find myself sleeping in later and later every day, waking up after dreams of confusion and violence, feeling as if I’ve been hit with a sledgehammer. Feeling afraid. Every morning asking myself, what is my reason for doing this?
I told people I came here to write, which is true, but I always knew that even if I did write here I could never make a living out of it. Berlin is cheap but it ain’t free, and that’s the fee most publications offer you these days. And what happened, of course, was that I arrived in Berlin and didn’t write at all; the pressure of all this free time was too much and instead I stared at my empty screen wondering what to write about, or writing something only to realise it was completely fucking boring, or slightly unhinged, or downright demented.
To be honest, it’s not that I miss home. I genuinely don’t, which makes me feel slightly guilty. I definitely miss my family and friends, but not achingly. And sometimes I miss the ease of “being” in a city that is my home; knowing which train to catch, knowing the guys at my coffee shop, not using an adapter for my electrical devices. Really, it’s the surface level of missing something. And I’m not lonely like I was a month ago, not longing for the type of conversation that comes with history and knowing and connection. When I was going on blind-friend-dates and they were awful. You know, when a friend of a friend has a friend that lives in Berlin, you should have drinks, she/he is lovely, they’ll show you the ropes? Those things. God, I really botched them. I was too eager to connect, too obviously lonely, too desperate to stifle my eccentricities, too forcefully squeezing my square persona into the round hole of early interaction. But the shitty blind-friend-dates served a purpose. No, I didn’t make a bunch of new friends, maybe one or two. At home, I thought I was so great at making new friends, and I maybe was. But when you are stripped of context, that is, the people that surround you, the suburb that you live in, the job that you do, the places you go on the weekend; it suddenly becomes very difficult to convey yourself as an entity. Which is a really shitty concept when you think about it. Who are you without all this stuff?
So after a few torturous evenings where I drank too much and forgot to not be weird, I figured that perhaps I should stop trying to impress people or trying to be some faux-cool person and just be myself. This is actually the same advice you get when you’re wondering out loud how to get into Berghain; be yourself. I laughed it off at the time. Be myself?! What does that even mean? Get to the front of the line, make a bad joke, then be embarrassed, then eat two large pizzas really quickly before falling asleep? Should I then lean in and let the bouncer know that I hate the sound of people eating cereal and that I’m secretly really worried that one day I will murder someone because of it?
Ha! That’s cute, be yourself, I love it!
Alright, so, let’s do this Penny. Let’s be myself. I used to work in tech, I used to love the outdoor tables at Eveleigh Hotel, I used to see films at the Palace Verona, I used to be renowned for my ability to point out any dog and implore my companion to look at how cute it is. But I don’t do any of that now. Especially the last thing, God. People here think I’m nuts with the dog admiration! I even have people quietly letting me know that they prefer cats before changing the subject. And I don’t have any candles here, that used to be a big part of my self-care routine. I’d light a candle and clean the house and water the garden, I’d tidy my things and feel safe. But I don’t have any candles here, I burnt my travel candle until there was nothing left. It’s just me, sitting in a kitchen that doesn’t really belong to me. No candles, no friends, no context, no purpose. Just me.
I don’t know if you noticed, but I’ve been answering my own question this whole time. What am I doing here? I am finally getting to know myself. I am stripping back the layers of who I thought I was and I am peering, terrified, at who I really am. And I don’t know what that is yet. I don’t know who it is. I don’t like this journey that I’m on, by accident, unwittingly. I didn’t sign up for the discomfort and isolation and instability of my own reality. But, after 33 rotations around the sun, and ten thousand “how are yous” answered with just as many “I’m greats’” and innumerable moments of smug self-satisfaction, thinking I had it all figured out, thinking I was fine. Here I am.
The reason I’m writing this is not because I want you all to be wailing in sympathy over my lack of fucking candles. People get quite hysterical about any public display on non-ok-ness. It’s a cry for help! She’s desperate for attention! She’s depressed! No, I am not any of these things. I just feel like we need to be more open and real about travel (and life) not always being the most peachy thing ever. A few weeks ago, I posted a few photos on Instagram saying that my boyfriend and I were having a tough time. I did this because I was trying to be honest about our experience here. Believe me, it would be pretty easy to just post sunny, happy pictures of us doing fun things then lay back and enjoy your seething jealously from across the ocean. And I have wanted to foster that fantasy, to be the subject of envy. But it wouldn’t be right.
Everyone, everywhere, has shitty days. Everyone questions things. Rich people, poor people, people on holidays, people in Berlin, people with kids, people without kids, people going to the Olympics or winning the Nobel Prize or being a blogger in a nice hotel or living the fucking dream. Everyone! And it’s not always the end of the world, but I think we need to talk about it. Be frank. Because if we don’t, then we are continuing this fallacy of the “should”. I should be happy right now, I should be enjoying every second of this holiday, I should get a boyfriend, I should be grateful for this horrible job. No, thank you. You should be giving it your best shot, when you can, if you want to. And that’s all I’m doing. Berlin is beautiful, and I want to be here, but I some days suck. That’s normal. That’s life. That’s Berlin at any age.