Berlin, Wieder, Immer

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It is in the nature of cities to change.

They tore down the stand where I used to buy currywurst; the sidewalks and streets are busy with bicyclists now. Hipster restaurants line the streets of Neukoeln and they’ve built fancy condos along the East Side Gallery. The graffiti is denser on the walls, but it’s more words than pictures. The buses have two stories; they sell tortillas at the small grocery store near my flat.

It is in the nature of people to change.

My German is ten years decayed, clumsy on my tongue and slow in my mind. I am fat, now, my flesh lush and my mind untroubled by the endless depressing calorie counting of my twenty-year-old self. I have a business and I apparently come across as enough of a professional that people want to listen to me. My home is ludicrously full of plants, my community ludicrously full of love.

I was afraid to come back to Berlin.

I fell in love with this city at 18, moments after my plane touched the tarmac. I had never encountered something like it; my models for cities were Memphis and Dallas and Tulsa, heat and endless driving. I’d seen Chicago, briefly–been dazzled by the skyscrapers and taken dozens of photographs of fire escapes. I’d been to London, even more briefly–at 17 I found it too clean and proper to hold my attention.

But Berlin–it was 9:36 am when I landed, and I hadn’t slept a wink on the plane. Berlin shocked the sleep from my eyes with its visual cacophony–the art, the graffiti, the inexplicable giant pipes, the glorious old architecture standing by the scars of war, the no-nonsense lines of communism.

I had never experienced such freedom of movement; I had never seen a place with so many surprises. It was my first experience walking in a city where the air smelled like flowers. Berlin is an intensely green city–towering shade trees line the sidewalks, and even the waste spaces fill with plants.

It was a place where I liked to be outside.

That had never really happened before. Oklahoma is a hard place to grow up if you don’t like to be hot or cold. I spent most of my summers looking for pools of shade to scuttle between. My neighborhood didn’t have sidewalks. I’d never ridden a bus that wasn’t a school bus.

So my love for Berlin was immediate and intense.

And that was just the city. My friends here seemed so grown-up: multilingual, well-traveled, competent. I had only had my driver’s license for six months; when their girlfriends slept over at their parents’ houses, they shared beds. They navigated these huge, complex systems like fish in a river, utterly at home, and I still didn’t know how do do laundry.

I resolved to split my time between Berlin and the US. I was going to be a commercial pilot; I would fly the trans-Atlantic routes for FedEx and write novels high over the ocean. I’d have lovers in Berlin and Paris and New York, slipping into their beds in the wee hours still smelling of expensive perfume, ozone, and jet fuel*.

That didn’t play out quite like I’d planned, but I came back to Berlin as soon as I could. I spent a semester at the Technische Universitaet, not eating enough but still rattling around the city in a constant state of wonder and delight. I was probably depressed, then–too isolated even from my friends here and spending too much time alone in my cubby of a dorm room–but Berlin drew me out over and over to chase some new surprise.

I was trying on identities then, I think. I had plans of becoming glamorous and cosmopolitan. Berlin sang endless stories of possibility and adventure that I could spin my life around.

And then I went home (it never gets any easier to leave Berlin) and didn’t return for a decade, except for a handful of days that Christmas and another handful in 2010.

I was afraid to come back to Berlin.

I have changed so much in the intervening decade, and so much more in the four years I count as My Adventures in Real Adulthood™. I am happier than I have ever been, for all that this year was a series of storms to weather, but I have long since abandoned plans of being either glamorous or cosmopolitan. I gave up bras, for Christ’s sake, because I can’t stand to be even the slightest bit uncomfortable unless it is absolutely necessary. I put a significant amount of effort into optimizing my closet into a uniform chosen for practical comfort; I’m pretty sure I discarded glamour some time ago.

I doubted that I had grown up to fit in Berlin.

I worried that the intervening years had worn away my friendships–that’d I’d missed too much while struggling to survive in our late capitalist dystopia. I worried they’d find my decayed German irritating, my body too large to exist in their city.

Fortunately, Past Me is always glad to sign me up for things that terrify me, and then my plane was landing and I was once again submerged in the delicious shock of Berlin.

It took me a few days before I concluded I could still swim here and not drown. My first night, as I am standing outside my flat, desperate to pee and completely unable to unlock the door, I had serious doubts. I felt keenly out of place in public–my uniform has rather starkly diverged from the styles of Berlin, and I was self-conscious about the fullness of my skirt and the neckline of my dresses. Last Friday, exhausted and pushing through the crowds of revelers beginning their nights at Warschauerstrasse, I thought maybe the me who moved through Berlin in a cloud of grace and delight didn’t exist anymore. I felt, instead, intensely awkward, perpetually standing in someone’s way and forty-five seconds behind on the correct response in German.

But on Saturday I had lunch with a new friend, someone who came to know me only after I entered Real Adulthood™, and together we threw a rope across the gorge between my diverged lifetimes. Suddenly I was no longer just ghosting through nostalgia, observing the places and people as they’ve moved on without me, but building something new again. My German, assisted by a German language viewing of Captain America: Civil War, began to return a little. The awkward chill of time and distance began to melt off my old relationships and they introduced me to their lives and selves as they are now.

I successfully ordered an ice cream cone even though I couldn’t remember the word for cone.

I needn’t have worried. Berlin changed and I changed and my relationships changed and though we didn’t change together, shaped by each other’s changing, we weren’t rendered irreconcilably different, either. There are new things to bring us delight and wonder together, even if they aren’t what I imagined they would be.

A selfie of the author, taken standing under a weeping willow tree by the river Spree. The sun is shining off the water and in her hair.

It is, after all, in the nature of cities and people to change.

*A pilot should probably not smell like jet fuel. Further, it would be really impolite to slip into someone’s bed while smelling like jet fuel.

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Berlin, Wieder, Immer