Today marks the beginning of my 29th revolution around the sun—a small wonder considering there had been a time when I could barely imagine myself past the age of 25. Some days I still can’t bear the idea that i’m past 25. Today is also remarkable in that it is the beginning of the end of my twenties—a label with which me and so many in my generation have identified the moment Time magazine labelled us (1981-1996) the “Me Me Me Generation” aka “the Millennials.” (I still remember the collective outrage, and at the same time validation that we felt when the issue made global rounds, forever cementing my generation’s role in the world.) I wanted to do something to commemorate this period, so of course I decided to write some of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far in this journey called life.
One of my favorite Filipino authors once said that “as you go through life, you learn many lessons. Unfortunately, these lessons only apply to the specific instances in which you learned them. Therefore, you can expect to make horrible mistakes no matter how long you live.” That’s true. Nevertheless, I do believe that in each of these lessons there lies a universal truth with which most everyone can resonate. Some of them are serious. Some of them are less so. Some of them are painful, and some of them I learned through joy. But most of the rest of these lessons are deeply personal, lessons I learned the hard way. I’ve written them down so you don’t have to.
One of the many limiting aspects of shooting film is that film rolls can only sit on the shelf (or in the fridge if you’re of that persuasion—I’m not; too much work), and unless you want to be experimental with the look you’re trying to achieve or specifically going for the expired film look which can be stunning if metered correctly, you’d have to shoot and promptly develop your rolls before their expiration date. Most professional films have a longer shelf life and tolerates temperature fluctuations well, for example the Kodak Portra line, but not Cinestill 800T, a few rolls of which I had on hand. This film stock is especially finicky. I don’t know why this is so, but I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that it is a repackaged motion picture film (which is not intended for still photography), specifically the Kodak Vision 3 500T with its Remjet layer removed; a lot of variables are introduced in the Remjet removal and its subsequent repackaging which disturbs the base film integrity. (Don’t quote me on that.)
We need to talk. Listen. Cut people some slack, and for that matter, cut your own self some slack. No one has had experience dealing with the current situation, and we all have our disparate ways of navigating this uncharted territory, and it may not always look like how you imagine things to be handled. We hardly managed to figure things out in this cold, unfeeling world before the pandemic even hit—much less now.
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.
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 my favorite episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix. I am also in Vienna because it is here where my good friend Theresa now lives and she has invited me to visit, with promises that she would host me and that I would not have to spend a single dime for the entire trip.
There is another reason why I am here for the weekend: I am here because Vienna has always struck me as an infinitely romantic city, and I imagined it would be great to visit the places where Jesse and Céline have been and pretend that I too am young and in love.
I was actually recovering from the flu in the days leading up to the trip, and I tried to speed up my recovery with plenty of bedrest and a concoction of warm lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, and honey. I’m not sure it worked because on the morning I was to fly out, my body felt as though it had been struck by a mack truck. I made it to my gate three minutes before it closed.