Strangers and Serendipity

 

‘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 came to know in Berlin. The people that love life and experience; the people that speak to strangers 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 the 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 – those uncanny moments of meeting somebody who you need or desire right in that moment. A stranger who will take care of you just for the night. 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 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. 

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Time can mean everything, and it can mean nothing. There are people you meet who 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 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, again 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: English girl with big brown eyes and a heart full of curiosity travels to another country to find herself. He filled in the part about her falling in love with the Parisian 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 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, hold significance still. 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.’

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 never will be so. 

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. 

And here we are, back at the present moment. Today marks my six-month anniversary in Berlin. Some people I have met have stayed, others have fled, and the ‘mad ones’ have become a part of me. In Berlin, people live with a natural and purposeless freedom. To live is not just to be alive, but to experience the inexhaustible potential of people and places. The sands of time have little bearing on anything. 

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’

 

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