Anyone coming back to New York from Berlin will tell you that the entire experience is weird, uncanny, unheimlich to use a German turn of phrase. I mean, you get off the plane into one of the dingiest, most unwelcoming airports known to man, get into a bus or a cab if you’re lucky, and proceed to drive through swampland or industrial wasteland, all the while the image of this shining city in the clouds, this Oz you forgot all about in your wanderlust, rising, menacing, ahead of you. You were born there, grew up there, and only left it about fifteen months ago, and yet every time you go back to it, you forget how truly grandiose and unbelievable it all seems. And as you get closer, and the buildings seem to grow up around you like in some sci-fi nightmare, you realize why you left: it’s just all too overwhelming, and you just seem far too small.
But thinking about coming back this way, one can forget the emotional impact that comes along with it as well. I count the first time I really returned to Manhattan as my trip in August—when I came back last year for Election Day, it was not with the conviction that it was only for a short visit to a place that used to be my home, and so the impact was not as great. But in August of this year, after spending a whole winter, spring, and summer in Berlin and deciding that I really wanted to make a go of it and stay forever, New York seemed entirely unreal. It was like coming to Moscow for the first time—just that grandiose—and I had to remind myself that at one point, New York had indeed been the only city for me, the only reality.
August in New York is always bizarre, but I believe there were a few moments in that three-week span when my entire being practically cried out for the comforts of home. I heard the two-tone “doors closing” warning on the subway and it was the “zurück bleiben bitte” that rang out in my head. Smells were strange and different and entirely foreign all of a sudden, and the cacophony of all of those conversations I could suddenly understand fully, without even having to try, caused emotions difficult to describe. I welcomed that clarity, and the ability to listen freely once more, and yet it was also overwhelming, contributing to moments of what seemed like sheer panic as I walked around and experienced my old city like new.
I have now returned from my third visit home in three months, back once in that August, then at the beginning of October for a wedding, and then again just now for Thanksgiving, the only holiday that ever seems worth traveling for. My perception of New York has changed once again—I’m more comfortable coming back there now, less consumed by that odd mixture of fear and expectation. I know what to expect, and I ease in just a little bit easier. I refuse to rush around town, I accept that I can’t see everyone, I breathe more and dash less.
What I did not expect this time, however, was the strangeness of transition in the opposite direction. Sometimes, I guess, you can stay in your hometown so long, it starts to feel like home again, and your new home that was originally so comfortable suddenly feels strange. Now, two weeks over Thanksgiving is really not that long at all, but I was sick for a good half of it, and perhaps that old feeling of having my parents come in to check on me, feel my forehead, take my temperature, bring me water, was enough to make me feel like a little kid again. My first day back here, as I fought jet lag and drifted in and out of sleep, I couldn’t really remember where I was, and when I did remember that I was in Berlin, I experienced one of those old “how did I get here?” moments that I still feel frequently, even after more than a year. But then I ventured outside, got on a bike, saw a movie, saw friends, and everything seemed real again, and everything seemed good. Maybe I will experience this sense of rootlessness and confusion every time I travel from one city to the other, or maybe at some point in the future, I will accept both of them as my two cities across the ocean from each other. For now, each is strange, and each is familiar, and each is loved. And that’s the closest thing to home I can ever ask for.