‘The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time. The ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.’ – On the Road, Jack Kerouac
I thought about this quote the other day from a book that is very dear to me. On the Road is a classic as it is consummately American: filled with dreams, illusions, sex, drugs, and a whole load of heartache. It contains all that we seek to find in American literature: dreams punctured by reality. Pulsating to the rhythm of 1950s jazz and the emergence of counterculture, On the Road captures the exhausting richness of life: its exuberance, its melancholy, its incomprehensibility and, more importantly, it’s variety.
It is now after spending six months away from home that I realise the gravity of Kerouac’s statement about ‘the mad ones’. It is these people that I have come to know in Berlin. The people that live for life and experience, the people that speak to strangers simply because they want to, the people who pluck conversation topics out of thin air and fuel them for hours on humour, gesture and narrative. Storytelling is what we live for. It’s what travellers crave.
Clear in my mind are the days that I wandered through the city, anatomising the face of every building and every person with a childlike curiosity. I began to speak to people out of desire more than necessity. Small talk gave way to conversations of unimaginable depth. I revealed sides of myself only a stranger could understand.
Chance encounters became my source of serendipity. Searching through underground clubs of dancing and flashing lights, where drugs and alcohol give visage to the faceless, to find my friends was just another way of making new ones. Sharing in the song of a blues guitarist in the park was just another, more lyrical, way of speaking. Reading aloud about my life story was just another way of learning to bargain with the dangers and difficulties of words. The diversity of languages owned by the many different kinds of international people became both a bridge and a barrier to communication. Under such circumstances, you fashion new ways of understanding.
I found that the people who said that they were travelling for fun had the most to hide. They veiled their pain under a guise of spontaneity. These were the people who were running from something, but who couldn’t quite articulate what. After a few drinks, you knew why they had fled. Everyone is always looking for something. The people who say they aren’t just don’t know it yet.
Time can mean everything, and it can mean nothing. There are people who can instantly become part of the furniture in your life. You shuffle over and prepare to make permanent room for them. These are the ones who provide a sturdy bed and a place to rest your head. The ones who will tuck you in after a bad night. And then there are the people who will pull up a chair to immerse themselves in you just for a few, fleeting hours.
Romance can exist for a night, and it doesn’t have to be marked by sex. I often tell people about my one night love stories in Berlin clubs. They are never what people expect.
There’s something that seems deeply spiritual, even uncanny, about connecting to a person just for a day or an evening. Significant events in life don’t have to be judged by their longevity. A night of looks across a room, a night of dancing and talking, a night where moments of conversation pique your interest for a lifetime, have their own importance. They say you never really forget a face.
It’s 3am in a club that I never would have trespassed this time last year. For most, the night is only just beginning. I find my Parisian gentleman wandering around by himself, just soaking everything in – or just clearly out of his mind on alcohol. If there was ever a stereotype to be fitted to a Frenchman, he fit the bill entirely. This guy loved the romance of it all. A story about the English girl with big brown eyes and a heart full of curiosity began to spin off his lips. He later filled in the part about her falling in love with the French poet.
We talked of an alternative life where I abandoned Berlin to live with him in Paris. Every morning we’d open our pearl white kitchen windows and have breakfast on the balcony on red-checked tablecloths laden with jams and croissants. Outside, our bikes would be lined up next to each other, ready to embark on our scenic trips out of the city on the weekend. We’d dine into the evening, getting as drunk on each other as on the traditional Parisian wine, and return home together, hand in hand, in the rain. You get the picture.
Narrative is integral to human nature. It connects us to time and place, and to each other. These moments of serendipity, while short-lived, still hold significance. My Parisian love may have wandered into the distance without my phone number, but he left behind a deep impression of the novelty of the moment.
It’s possible to be happy just where you are, just for one night. The irony is that part of the romance of meeting somebody is never seeing them again. You suspend that moment in time and place, and preserve it for what it was. He was definitely one of Kerouac’s ‘mad ones.’
Learning to treasure each moment just because it ‘was’ is entirely what it means to be in Berlin. Time functions in a mysterious way. Berliners do not move to the tick of the clock, but to the beat of underground techno. You spend the weekends awake. Time rolls on. You realise it’s day. You’re back at your desk but your mind is still next to the DJ decks where you danced for hours the night that you felt totally free. I learned to let go and be absorbed into the swell of Berlin’s timelessness. None of us really have anywhere to be.
Looking back on my photographs of Berlin – my own visual memoir of the best six months of my life – made me think of how these are snapshots my children will look at someday. Perhaps they will know that their mother had stalked the sidewalks of life without fear and apprehension, and had learned something along the way. On the Road is all about the quest for ultimate fulfilment. This is the paradox of human life. We seek to be fulfilled, but we never will be.
In a way, I never want to know what it’s like to feel utterly fulfilled. I never want to grow old in a house at the end of a street in suburbia, sat in a chair in my perfectly ordered garden, gazing out at the trees I never climbed.
My grandfather always said that looking at life with an ever-youthful, ever-curious eye was what sustained him throughout his life. The demise of curiosity is the moment you stop living.
‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’