At the close of each year it has become customary for me to write about the year that has been, not so much to glean from it some inchoate narrative line or life lesson as to simply have a record of where I am in the journey so far, so here I am.
What can I tell you about the year that has been?
I can tell you that this year I read plenty of great books. I can tell you that I tried to resuscitate a dying relationship, one that meant to me more than any other relationship in my life, and failed. I travelled to some new cities and revisited old ones. I made new friends, lost a few. I suffered a great deal of losses, but earned myself some victories. I discovered new things about myself I did not know, and even more about people and friendships. I learned that there are certain things that stay with you forever, long after they are gone. And I can tell you that I have loved and I have gotten hurt, and I have come out of it battered and bruised but all the more better for it.
The way the summer sun seems forever suspended in the sky, taking its time, refusing to sink beneath the horizon, and when it does go down, it does so slowly, reluctantly, so that even at half past ten the sky is still quite bright and streaked with ambers and oranges amid the deepening blues. It makes the days seem longer than they actually are, and it fills you with a sense of promise and wonder so peculiar to Berlin.
The kindness of Berliners that you do not often see but is there, if you know how to look for it. It is true that they can be a cold, aloof, guarded bunch, and they may often lose their patience with you, but they are never mean-spirited or rude. That’s why an act of kindness displayed openly (and it is everywhere) can really strike at the heart.
The grit of Berlin, which derives from as much as informs its vibrant art scene.
Thielpark and the solace it offers. When I want to be alone, which is often, I would find myself there atop my favorite hillock that I have come to claim as my sanctuary. Relatively secluded and shaded by a canopy of trees I would read there, or think there, or even cry there, and I would emerge from it feeling better.
Walking down the affluent streets of Dahlem, you see rows after beautiful rows of stunning houses: mid-century, victorian, art moderne, A-frame, cottage, ranch-style, colonial. One spring twilight I was walking down Im Schwarzen Grund and was captivated by the scene before me, as if I were in a magazine spread out of Country Home: Porch lights were being turned on, lawn sprinklers off, the windows offering views of cozy living rooms lined with books, wing backed chairs, the orange light suffusing every corner with warmth. It was an aspirational view to behold.
It seems as if most everybody is from some place else, and there is some comfort to be had in knowing that there are also those who are in the same boat as you, that you are all exiles trying to start a life in a foreign land.
Berliners’ utter and total disregard for small talk and conversation fillers. They never would ask you how your day is going unless they genuinely want to know. They would not start a conversation with one subject when in fact they actually want to talk about another. They tell it to you straight. They do not engage in pointless conversations out of some unspoken social code, or out of politeness. It is refreshing.
In a city as big as this one, going from point A to point B regardless of distance is a breeze thanks to its efficient public transportation system. Sure the buses can sometimes run behind schedule, and many tracks on the U-Bahn are undergoing perpetual work, forcing you to take alternate routes. But where I come from, on any given day we were lucky if the train comes at all. Public transportation in Berlin is the one blessing I will never fail to count.
The monochromatic cast the whole city takes on once the last vestiges of autumn finally gives way to winter, and the chill that goes with it. Many people dislike how cold it gets. I do not.
The greenery. There are trees and parks and open spaces everywhere. It is perhaps the greenest city I have ever been in, and I adore it all the more for that.
Sundays at Mauerpark. Say what you will about Mauerpark but Sundays there is to me a brilliant encapsulation of Berlin’s culture and its myriad complexities. You see how laid-back it can be, but also how hip and edgy. The people lounging on the meadow. The bear pit karaoke. The flea market. The buskers. The artists painting the walls on top of the hill with graffiti. A young family grilling on one part of the park, a group of youths smoking a joint on the other. A portrait of a symbiotic community.
The brief friendships you make in its nightclubs. Some friendships last only a short time, and sometimes end the moment you leave the confines of the dance floor—that doesn’t mean these relationships are not meaningful, or unimportant. I’ve developed plenty of these transient relationships at Schwuz and although I do not keep in touch with these people, they hold a special place in my heart because despite fleeting, we shared a precious, vulnerable moment in our lives to a total stranger.
The vastness of the city. I remember one friend saying she could never imagine living in Berlin because it is too massive. I like it. You never run out of space to lose yourself in.
Ten minutes, perhaps less. Use straightforward language. Simple sentences. No Jamesian syntax or vocabulary David Foster Wallace would likely approve of. The tone could either be sad, or it could be self-deprecating. Maybe both.
The story is going to be about friendship. More than that, it is a story about the loss of that friendship.
Today is the fifteenth of August, and today you turn twenty-seven. Not unlike the previous times you woke up on your birthday, you don’t feel that much different from the person who went to bed last night. You’re still the horny, somewhat angry, pimply, overeager self. Except now when you look in the mirror, you’ve actually grown to love the image staring back at you—or at least, most days. Even the clouds outside your bedroom window are grey and heavy, just like how they usually are back home this time of the year.
In “Hang the DJ,” the fourth episode of the fourth season of the British TV series Black Mirror, its premise takes on an expedient approach to speed dating. In its world those who seek true love are placed in a simulation called the System, in which theyfind themselves paired off with seemingly random people. Embarking on a relationship of sorts, they each then try to get to know one another within a certain period of time (lasting anywhere between a few minutes to short of a year), after which they each go their separate ways to be then paired off with their next match. These couples are not always smitten with each other; some relationships are purely sexual and superficial. The System’s algorithm tries, through collection of personal data from each relationship, to match their users with his or her perfect mate—or in the case of the episode’s protagonist, his 99.8% match.
Written by Charlie Brooker, the whole premise makes for an interesting hour of television, not to mention an apt commentary in the age of Tinder and social media. But isn’t that how it really is in real life? With each failed relationship you gain a little more insight about yourself, what you really want and what you need. Through the process of trial and error you learn what your tastes and preferences really are. You understand yourself a little better. And in turn, you get a clearer picture of what you want out of a relationship, out of a partner.
I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness lately, because it has become to me increasingly apparent that despite every effort, it has remained an elusive virtue to achieve. But perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise. You see, early last year I set the intention—as a resolution of sorts—to be a kinder, more compassionate human being. I told myself and everyone who was willing to listen that when I leave this earth I want to be remembered not as someone who was great at what he did, nor someone who was very talented and very successful; on that day when I finally leave this vessel I want to be remembered as someone who was deeply kind. I should have known that when I put something out there, the universe would respond.
It always does.
Because since I’ve embarked on this journey of self-improvement I have been placed in circumstances and introduced to people and brought to places which have repeatedly tested my resolve. I wish I could say that for the most part I’ve succeeded, but I’m afraid I’m not that lucky on that front. Sure, there are days when I would catch a glimpse of the person I want to be—offering strangers a smile, say, or doing someone a favor without prompt or a reward in mind—but often I would hang my head in defeat and catalogue the day’s sins of either commission or omission—the petty remark given carelessly, the failure to give a passing beggar a dime, the little thoughts that would fester in the mind for days on end—and in turn anger myself for my inability to change.
I am in Vienna for the weekend because I have been listless too long and burned out too badly and too often shiftless to do anything except rewatch episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix. But I am also here because Vienna is where my good friend MT now lives and she offered me a place to sleep and promised that I would not have to spend a single dime for the entire duration of the trip.
There’s one more reason why I decided to come to Vienna for the weekend: I decided to come because Vienna strikes me as an infinitely romantic city, and I imagined it would be great to route the places where Jesse and Céline have been and pretend that I too am young and in love.