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.
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.
Writers, especially young writers, new writers, writers who have not had that much experience with the craft, are often advised to write what they know, write stuff about which they can say something, anything. Although on the whole I do not find it an unsound advice—in fact it is a great way to jumpstart the mind, get the juices flowing—I believe there is a better way to go about it. Instead of writing what you do know, write about the things that you don’t. Write not about falling in love, say, but about how that certain someone makes you feel and why you think it is love you’re feeling in the first place. Don’t write about the beauty of the sun sinking under the horizon, or the tranquil glow of freshly fallen snow on the pavement; write about the visceral responses these visual cues trigger in you. Write about art and death, about feminism and patriarchy and racial inequality. Writing this way forces the mind to engage with a concept, to thread a coherent narrative line in order to make sense of it, render it less obscure, understand it. And there are plenty of things I don’t know.