Although I’ve been in Berlin for quite a few years now, it took a personal loss and a thorough dissection of my parents house to make this city feel like my home.
Even if I wanted to move back, I couldn’t. And though nothing about the materiality of me (still) being in Berlin changed, the concept of why I am here is different. Before, it was a daily, pro-active choice to live in this city. Now, it is my home, my castle, my rock and my prison, with nowhere else to go back to. All I can do is look further, to “bigger and better things”, as they say.
Halloween / American Party
How ridiculous is Halloween? Someone told me she dressed up three times, in three different costumes. I think that maybe Halloween is an excuse to get really wasted; a universal excuse for everybody to be who they would love to be or an incarnation of what the world is; a day full of hedonistic choices, mediated by the costumes, “it’s not me, it’s someone else doing this silly thing!”, and it leads me to thinking about Americans being crazy about superheroes, and I think about all of that while standing on a rooftop at a Millenials’ Halloween party. I’m looking over the skyline on the other side of the river, and I come to the conclusion that every holiday is like that and it still won’t explain the costumes.
I went as Pablo Escobar. Sadly, all I had to do is stick a mustache to my face.
10:04 / Brooklyn
10:04 by Ben Lerner was a spontaneous buy in a book-shop in Williamsburg. I didn’t realize it was about life in New York, but it quickly became my narrative, cross-media style tour guide. He would describe places and I would turn up there with his depiction in mind. Instead of delving into collective, historical memories, I just dived straight into a fictional New York. That way, I didn’t feel pressured into writing my own story. How could I, when New York has been written by so many people before?
So I was guided by the book, and by my hunger pangs, and by how tired my feet were.
“The cupcakes are the same everywhere in the world, but it’s worth looking at the skyline while you’re here.”
Everybody is quite literally wired to their white Apple earphones. All are talking on the phone while they’re getting somewhere. As if they’re trying to eat their stress from A to B. I feel insignificant. I wouldn’t have anyone to talk on the phone to so urgently that it couldn’t wait.
It’s loud. My head is bursting from the moment I arrive at JFK. People are shouting to be heard, the trains on the tracks are screeching, sirens from police cars, someone’s playing really loud hip hop music with their windows rolled down. NYC screams you to sleep. Fucking Central Park! Like someone buried me beneath a space rocket construction site. Prospect Park seems to be the only resort from the noise. It was worth the detour.
2 Minutes on Times Square
I’m not wandering or taking walks, I’m running. I have to stop myself every now and then from pushing people out of my way. I get really angry in New York, much more than back home. The headache isn’t going away.
It’s my fourth trip, alright, but I still can’t detach myself from the shock and the awe of thousands and millions of stories that were born here. And they all passed through my mind and my body at some point, and now I’m projecting it back onto these walls. Thinking about New York as being occupied by so many different individual stories, it’s already a pretty worn out concept, and in knowing so, I become redundant. There’s a moment when I have a panic attack in the middle of a rush hour crowd, and I feel lost and tiny. Like when you start actually thinking and envisioning how big the universe is, and you feel physically sick, because your mind just isn’t equipped to do it visually. But this has never happened to me before. I have to stumble to the next wall and I feel sweat pouring down my face. It was the most negative psychological experience of my life.
2 Minutes in Chinatown
Berlin doesn’t feel smaller after New York. In fact, it feels larger: it’s empty. Now I understand the value of space. It leads you to believe that you have a change to spread out. It’s ok if you fail here, because nobody is going to take your spot so quickly. Now I also understand why people are fighting to keep this space. They don’t want houses stacked up into the sky to manage life.
Natural History Museum / Central Park
On a 7 day trip, you rarely leave anything to chance. Your itinerary is paralyzed and fixed, constructed around various points of consumption. I am relieved to visit a dear friend here, one who just takes me along their journey through life and work and friends. It’s still mostly consumption or lying in parks and reading (which is also consumption, just cheaper).
I realize it’s super not easy to get lost in New York, but it’s easy to walk 150kms in a week and raise bleeding blisters from 0-100 in your wrongly chosen footwear.
Washington Sq. Park
Washington Sq. Park makes me feel nostalgic about a college “campus” life from the movies that I never had. In a mediated life, I was here, wearing the hoodies, struggling through finals, discussing relationship drama and lol’ing in texts. When I imagined my college phase in my youth I kinda imagined it like this, and surprisingly, I still do (even though I’m almost done with university). What have movies and Gossip Girl turned me into?
There’s nothing here that I have to see. I am relaxing. It’s 25°C in November. New York is a perfect city to get a backrub and your nails done. I’m eating hotdogs at the beach.
It’s in the details: nobody doubts my ability to speak the language, but I offset people by reacting slowly or saying “huh…?” too much. I am much more anxious to fail at local customs than I would be, say, in China, where it’s clear that I’m not one of the locals. There is a cultural shock. I wasn’t prepared for it. It’s a delightful, albeit uncomfortable surprise. You know how Hermoine Granger tried to learn Quidditch by reading about it, and then comically failed when she actually tried riding a broom? That’s how I feel about all the American music and books and literature I’ve consumed, only to end up here and laugh about myself.
It’s not like London, where people have a certain, universal unspecific awareness of style. New Yorkers don’t wear make up everywhere, thank God; they’re much closer to Berliners in that way. They know that concealer won’t hide the dark bags under their eyes.
The city doesn’t expect anything from me, but I expect everything from it. Jesus, who could live up to these expectations? I had my fair share of experiences here, from the limousine ride with my parents in 1997 to the Halloween subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back because all the parties were already fucked by the police. I wasn’t planning on finding the light, you know.
Sleater-Kinney Aren’t Even From New York
Some aesthetics haunt me when I return home. I listen to Sleater-Kinny and think: oh my, that’s so punk, that’s so dark, and I read about Bowery and Myles and Caroll and I feel all sorts of pain and melancholy about a city that I visited (again) in 2015, and I brought my own pack of cigs and had Chia pudding for breakfast. There’s such a dissonance between expectation and reality. I think at this point I’m mostly frustrated that I am tense, my back is killing me. I didn’t relax as much as I thought I would, unfortunately.
And anyway, who has their own story to tell amongst millions and millions of people who’re trying to stay afloat and heard and original and creative? No wonder they’re all shouting.
I understand how people like to move away from New York. It’s frightening there. You’re always only a paycheck away from being homeless.
Verdict is: New York is one of the most fascinating places for many reasons, and yet somehow I managed to completely avoid them. I just wanted to look at the high rises and indulge in that feeling of awe and wonder that only man-made constructions can provide.
You know what Berlin is? Safe. People are scared about REFUGEES here. LOL! And while NYC is scary in many ways that have nothing to do with how dangerous it feels at night, the sparse Brazilian graffiti that looks like art and not like tagging kind of hinted at the exotic courage that people grow here. Thick skin.
Am I too scared of challenging places? Am I too old? I know many people dream about leaving, but the more cities I visit, the more I think that I would be insane to leave Berlin. Ever. I used to say “I am only in Berlin because I can’t afford NYC” when I just moved out of my parent’s house, but it’s only now become true.
I used to dream of the urban grind, now I am the urban grandma.