The other day, while I was on the treadmill at the gym, I had an epiphany. While I often get epiphanies at times like these (the two other most likely locations for the occurrence of a brilliant thought are in the shower or in bed when I first wake up and am too groggy to consider it a enough good idea to get up and actually write it down—yeah, I lose most of those) this one was special, if only for its simplicity. I may be paraphrasing here, but the thought was basically, “This is my life.” I know it doesn’t seem like much, and in fact it might be depressing for someone who is in that state of mind already. But for me, it was simply a surprise. It was a surprise because I realized, in an instant, how long it’s taken me to get here.
“I live here. This is my life.”
There’s a lot to be said about Berlin as an escapist fantasy (and a lot of people have been saying it lately), but actually, sometimes after a very long while, it ceases to be that long-hoped-for European paradise where you go until you figure out how to be an adult and just becomes real life. A couple of people have hinted at this over the years, the most memorable being my somewhat manic-depressive boss at the ad agency I first worked at, who once told me, “simply living in a place does not make you cool.” At that point, about six months into my time in Berlin and working twelve-hour days, very often including weekends, at an ill-paid and abusive internship, I had basically come to suspect as much. But he really made it clear: here was this guy, well-educated, ambitious, had founded his own company in his early thirties, and now owned a flat on the canal in Neukölln, a district where I had first started out and desperately wanted to return to. Wasn’t all that pretty damn cool? The New York Times article I link to above that caused such an uproar in the Berlin expat community the week we returned from New York at the end of November expresses a similar sentiment, only this time it’s “creativity: It’s not something you will find in a place.” Well, it turns out, neither is coolness.
But you see, here’s the thing about Berlin cool (being cool in the city or the city’s coolness itself). My old boss was right all along, though perhaps not in the way he meant it. Berlin cool comes with an expiration date, and it is only once you’ve passed it, once you’ve taken one good long look at your life and realized that it’s exactly that—a life, and not some artificially-constructed premise on which to rate yourself in comparison to those who are not here—that your life begins to feel real. I’ve had inklings of this realization before, but perhaps they came and went like those groggy, brilliant sleep-thoughts I had and just as quickly and surely lost. But I can say with all assurance that it took me four and a half years to get here, and now that I’ve had this thought I want to hold onto it.
“I live here. This is my life.”
There’ve been moments, God knows there’ve been many moments this year, where I’ve wanted to give up, pack it all in, throw in the towel, or any other cliché you can think of. And for me, giving up and packing it all in would mean packing it all up and moving back to New York. J and I were discussing the differences between Germans and expats in Germany of my age, and although he didn’t exactly say it, he hinted at something that hadn’t occurred to me: in a way, it’s much harder to be German in Berlin than to be an expat, because the Germans don’t have anything to fall back on. This is simply their life. If things start to go wrong, they can’t find a job, or they just get bored as hell and don’t want to take it anymore, there is no New York for them to give up and go home to. I don’t want to generalize in more ways than one, claiming that Germans in Berlin move forward while we internationals stagnate, but for a while there, I felt like that’s what I was doing. This realization, I feel, has a lot to do with getting over that. Whatever I’m doing now, I figured out on that treadmill, is my life. And why not? What am I doing here that I wouldn’t be doing elsewhere? I am working to make money. I am trying to motivate myself to do work that doesn’t pay money, but rather fulfills me and makes me proud and satisfied in some other way. I am also constantly working to try and figure out what that work is. I pay rent. I pay taxes. I have friends, I have acquaintances, I have colleagues. I have a husband. I put in effort every day to make sure all of them are accounted for, treated well, and feel appreciated. I hope they do the same. On Thanksgiving we go to my parents’, on Christmas we go to his. The signs couldn’t be clearer and yet I had been so busy going through the motions, perhaps waiting for something small, medium, or large to happen, some sign that would tell me I was really living and that my life had truly started. What better place than on a treadmill, your heart pumping blood through your body, breaths in and out filling your lungs with oxygen, sweat tickling as it’s trickling down your back and front, to realize you’re alive.
I live here. This is my life.
Happy New Year.