What silence did for me

 

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It’s hot. My first of Germany’s intense and unrelenting Summers. I feel a silence within me that wavers between peace and ecstasy. It is the silence of lightning diffused by rain. 

I’m sat on a rooftop at sunset, watching the heat seep into the concrete. Up here, the angles of Berlin’s skyline can be observed in their entirety. I watch as the city’s shades of beauty reveal themselves slowly over the changing light of the evening. The buildings are stripped of their sheen; each prism of light revealing their imperfections. I could have been up there for days.

It is through lasting images such as these that we connect ourselves to a time and place. I close my eyes and envision rows of pristine white, post-war houses with gilded balconies; disused buildings anticipating reconstruction; metal tramlines; cycle paths bearing a range of cyclists, some clad in thermals, others with shopping piled high in their baskets; flea markets yielding goods of old boots; exotic handmade jewellery and books with torn pages; local bakeries stocked with crisp rolls and dark rye; underground clubs with graffiti branded across every entrance; elderly couples enjoying cups of coffee across red checked tablecloths. Berlin’s spirit of change and enterprise is palpable. You can do little else but internalise it. 

In six short months, I have nearly perished in Berlin’s deathly cold – never before has my skin been touched by such biting temperatures – and witnessed the lateness of Spring. With time to spare and a mind clear enough to contemplate my surroundings, I have seen the seasons come and go so fleetingly. Snow gave way gracefully to budding flowers, withered branches grew heavy with a sudden fostering of leaves, and I too emerged from spiritual hibernation. I watched as the city came alive. 

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Graefestraße, Kreuzberg

With the first flowers of Spring came the first fleet of tourists, scurrying about the city in any available site like ants near a fruit bowl. I hear you smirking at my confidence to exclude myself from the definition of ‘tourist’, but how long does one have to be resident in a country before identifying oneself as part of it?

From the rooftop, one can cast their eye over the landscape and imagine a city decimated by War and rebuilt from the ashes. Over the horizon, I picture Hackescher Markt, now a thriving scene of commerce, desperate and despondent in its post-war gloom; the crumbling buildings, broken streets and concrete slabs graced only by the life of tangled weeds; the beauty and violence beneath our feet. 

This is a city who still sleeps with one eye open. The legacy of war is what Berlin climbs into the sheets with at night. It is the monster at the bottom of the bed. The city has been constructed anew, with every last brick a tangible emblem of what they can’t forget. 

Yet amidst the rubble, this divided city became worthy of aesthetic attention. Unlike any other place I have been to, Berlin allows its old to coexist with its new. It is a mass canvas of mixed material. Berlin’s task was not to cover and conceal, but to find a way of incorporating the past into the fabric of the future. Stagnation shifted, and reconstruction inspired a new way of seeing. 

In art nothing ever stands still, and Berlin proves it. At every street corner, workmen whistle as they emerge from newly constructed buildings, caked in plaster. The sad frames of disused warehouses brandish banners of images indicating what future form it will take. Baroque architecture maintains its majesty above street view, incorporated into newfound buildings that welcome commerce as a medium for change. Functionality collides with ornament; modernity with history. Art and architecture become the chisel with which Berlin carves itself a fresh identity. I see myself reflected in every new sheet of glass. 

Of course, places can offer you the illusion of feeling changed, or enlightened in some way. They absorb you in a swell of activity, addressing your feelings of anonymity with opportunities for communion with others. There’s a reason why backpackers return with a new set of values to match their post-travelling ponytails. They establish a new sense of self away from routine that reflects their surroundings. Liberation becomes woven into every last strand of dredlocked hair. 

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Sredzkistrasse, Prenzlauer Berg

 

There were nights when I could walk out into the city and forget I was anywhere. I had no shackles. But with an absence of responsibility came an absence of connectivity. Sometimes I felt like I could walk the streets and each house would turn their lights off one by one. No lamp would illuminate the glass allowing me to see my reflection. No flicker of a candle could offer me a nightcap. 

I was alone. The lack of light was just a tangible reminder. I could wade through a throng of people and not one soul would speak. I could be submerged in a sea of faces and still feel all alone.

These were moments where one solitary night can feel like permanent seclusion. I had to learn how to situate myself mentally in nowhere. I learned to inhabit loneliness.

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.’

 

Will We Ever Switch Them off?

I’d love to see what would happen if all mobile phones went dead. 

I’m sat in a cafe contemplating this as I observe an awkward scene. People watching is one of life’s virtues, especially when hidden behind a laptop screen. One quickly learns the strategies. Leaning over and craning your neck to eavesdrop in conversation is not entirely subtle. The trick is in the eyes. Learning to quickly divert your gaze from the scene in front of you to the screen of your laptop is the first step towards successful snooping.

I’m watching a couple on a date. It’s going well. They’ve so far managed to order their coffee, and say a few words to each other. Ten minutes later, these words still hang in the air like a bad smell. No progression has been made. Hands reach to cradle their phones. One of them takes a call. The other nonchalantly drinks her coffee, gazing round the room as if to pluck a conversation topic out of the caffeine-fuelled atmosphere.

This is just painful.

Phones provide a justifiable excuse to not speak to each other, a handy tactic when on an awkward date. As young people, we are protected from having to deal with social interaction only by our common propensity to pick up our mobiles and immerse ourselves in Facebook mid-conversation. We just don’t know how to communicate anymore.

Everyone of course talks about the ‘millennial’ generation with contempt. But ultimately, our critics should just feel sorry for us. We are rude and obnoxious; ruthless in our attempts to capture the perfect photo to upload to our social media sites. ‘Likes’ feed our egos more than real-life compliments. GIFS and Memes provide humour where ours has lapsed. We are the avocado-loving, cafe-brunching, news-munching millennials who know nothing of times gone by. We exist in a vacuum, bombarded by the constant flow of information, of which we can’t escape. Armed with a step-by-step account on social media of how we fill our days, our generation are leaving behind us a technological footprint of triviality. Is this all we will have to show for our posterity?

The need to constantly document our lives, however, reveals something a lot more sinister about current social interaction.

Take the prior mentioned date as a case in point. Meeting somebody in the flesh requires a lot more cognitive effort, particularly as their choice to position themselves opposite each other makes them more exposed. In this instance, they have nowhere to hide. Queue the picking up of the mobile phone.

Interacting with a computer is entirely different. A computer does not care about your feelings. When online, one does not have to labour to understand another’s body language, or negotiate with social cues. Instead, our emotions become archetypically summarised in emojis. Virtual interaction removes feelings and emotions. We are, as the world fears, turning ourselves into beings void of the aspects that make us human.

Our self-esteem becomes based on the acquisition, essentially, of strangers who favour our content. Our ‘supposed’ selves, the ones we can perfectly package up and present to our gang of worthy followers online, somehow become more desirable than our actual selves. We come to envy others who are equally as inauthentic. While we know this, we can’t seem to shake the feeling that millions of others out there are prettier, thinner, smarter, richer or just generally more content than we are.

Like everything else in a capitalist society, our sense of self-worth becomes based on acquisition. ‘Likes’, ‘retweets’, ‘favourites’ are currency: we acquire and exchange.

A further frightening aspect of all this is that the more we reveal, the more data we contribute. Companies feed off our online presence, using information about us to tailor their advertisements to our interests, and consequently contribute to this atmosphere of acquisition. I find myself frequently screaming ‘HOW DID YOU KNOW?’ inside my head when my most recent searches on Google appear in my Instagram and Facebook feeds, as if a satellite had somehow supplanted my brain.

It is as if I am competing against a machine that seems to know me better than I know myself. My iPhone can anticipate which emojis I would like to use based on the words I have tapped into a message. It knows all the locations I’ve been in … ever. It knows my exact distance home, the temperature in my room, where I am going to be at certain dates and times and locations. Perhaps at one point it will grow a pair of arms, reach for a stethoscope and conclude after seconds of analysing my heartbeat that I am actually nearly dead prior to my morning coffee.

And yet, what this all essentially boils down to is our generation’s preoccupation with insignificance. We live in a network of spies and informants. Ads are tailored to us based on personal information. Molly from Blackpool knows you’re spending a weekend in Tenerife because of the hashtag you used. Google stalks you at every turn based on your internet searches. Every drip of news is as necessary as the blood flowing through our veins.

It would not surprise me if soon we were diagnosing technological illnesses based on our anxiety to constantly be informed. Perhaps medication will have to be administered to those of us who are addicted to our phones. All joking aside, a period of weaning ourselves off from technology is overdue.

I am actively trying to cut down my time spent on the web before my brain disintegrates. When I find myself having to force myself to read a book – something I have known and loved ever since I can remember – I remind myself of how much I have attuned my brain to autopilot. It’s high time we saved ourselves from becoming machines.

It’s that time again: re-entering the job market

Perhaps it’s a dangerous thought, but I have to ask myself daily, ‘could I be anymore content?’ I get to spend my days walking the most beautiful streets, hanging out in cafes or parks; reading, writing, contemplating. I have time to myself. Time to enjoy not rushing from one place to the next. And yet, I have the overwhelming feeling that this is the most free I will ever be. 

It’s about that time again where I have to think about the direction that my life is taking me in. In two months I will be unemployed, again. I will have to face the depressing graduate landscape, where every organisation brandishes a banner reading ‘No room at the inn.’ I will have to face those feelings of inadequacy that I’ve dispensed of since being in Berlin. Reapplying for jobs means reentering the Rat race.

Yesterday I started going over my CV again, scolding myself for the fact that I haven’t spent a year as a journalist, civil servant, lawyer-in-training, or any of these other professional careers that I used to fancy for myself. I slept last night, badly, thinking about the nine-to-five desk job calling me, its wood scratching my fingernails and splintering my skin as I resist its pull. I’m holding onto Berlin and what it has symbolised for me personally – freedom, stillness, balance – with dear life. I fear that fighting the hoards of graduates just like myself for a single job will only derail me.

Not everyone can function on a hamster-wheel. While I have often tried to imagine myself climbing up the career ladder to reach the pot of gold of success, I’ve realised that I just can’t. I don’t have the stamina. So if not nine-to-five, if not working in administration or management or business, what else is there for me? The job market in England rendered me tired and disillusioned. I felt unskilled, worthless, betrayed by a system that propagates education as the sole ticket to success. I felt like I had nothing to offer any job, creative or otherwise.

For years, I have situated my future life in London. There’s a reason why this city is one of the most desired places to visit in the world. It’s vibrant, fast-paced, full of opportunity. It attracts the young and enterprising with its strong sense of individualism. It weaves each person into a romantic narrative of advancement: ‘young entrepreneur seeking success in the big city.’ It makes you feel part of a whole – a super-charged machine at the forefront of world advancement.

But its atmosphere is also oppressive. Floods of people get on and off the tube at ridiculous hours of the day, music booming through their headphones. Melody becomes a fugue to accompany the bitter march to their desks. Coffee becomes the taste in everyone’s mouths. Exhaustion permeates through office walls. People often seem tired, sickly. We are here for one purpose and one purpose only: to work, and to stay alive.

Perhaps this sounds dramatic. Perhaps I sound work-shy. But really, I am just trying to understand how we got here.

Coming to Germany has been a valuable experience in how other countries live. While Berlin, as a thriving economic capital of business and commerce, obviously has aspects of its working environment that are similar to London, it seems a little more free. A lot of my friends work full-time, but they have contracts that offer more flexible, sociable hours. It’s more common than not that I meet people who are freelance, who work several different jobs trying to pursue creative careers, or who work part-time and are still able to cover their bills. And this is deemed ok – normal in fact. Berlin’s prices, while rising, are significantly cheaper than London. People have disposable cash to build livelihoods. Artistic jobs are as highly prized and sought after as economic, or business-related ones. Naively, I suggest that Berliners have cracked it. People know how to enjoy working-life without the blood, sweat and tears.

For the first time, I’m realising that a life like this is entirely possible, and more importantly, justifiable. I no longer want to have to explain to myself and others that I don’t want to live my life enslaved by a desk. Despite the odds, I can’t help but suggest that there must be something more than this.

It seems that modern people have emptied themselves of their dreams. People frequently snigger at my desires to become a writer, or even to work in a job that allows me to practice creativity.

In an ideal world, I will have a job that’s varied and enjoyable, that affords me structure, discipline, the option to advance, but also freedom of mind and creativity. It’s about time that I returned to the job market, not to skin myself alive and plague my thoughts with encroaching feelings of fear or inadequacy, but to challenge myself to find a life that I want to live.

It is possible. I want to believe that this is so.

Germany & the Anxiety of Remembrance

I was walking in the vast forestland of Grunewald the other day, accompanied by someone who grew up in East Germany in the days of DDR. She spoke of how she was taught Russian in school but has now forgotten most of what she learnt. After losing the ability to remember her Russian education, she vowed to retain her English vocabulary. She remembers Germany as a country that, in her childhood, was divided by the territorial interests of foreign invaders. World War II (1939 – 1945) arguably set the stage for the Cold War (1947-1991), and the construction of The Berlin Wall, set across the landscape like an ugly scar, made Germany’s dissolution a tangible reality.

It was during this conversation that I realised how events of the last century still retain so much prominence in the lives of German people today. Forgetting is unimaginable. Treading through neat rows of trees heavy with leaves, my companion pointed out that they had all been planted, tall and straight like soldiers in a row, decades ago. It hadn’t occurred to me that much of this land had been obliterated in the Second World War by the Allies who littered the land with bombs: tearing out the trees by their roots and sewing seeds of destruction in their place.

Seventy years after WWII, it is estimated that more than 2000 tons of unexploded munitions are uncovered on German soil per year. Casting my mind back to a century ago, it is easy to imagine the curves of the Havel River shrouded in mist; the barks of the trees and the foundations of buildings reduced to ash and cinder.

To me, this newfound information was remarkable. Somehow I had never contemplated the probability that of the millions of tons of bombs dropped on Germany by Allied aircraft, at least some of them would have failed to explode. It hadn’t occurred to me that while I was taking a pleasant afternoon walk in the forest, I was actually ambling across a minefield.

The discovery of bombs, and their safe detonation, is, I’m told, standard procedure in Germany. People will be digging in their gardens and will come across munition lying unsolicited in the ground. Being asked to leave your home in such an event is a daily menace – more of an inconvenience than a weighty cause for alarm.

While the East and West of Germany rose from the ashes of a ruined Reich, layers of unexploded bombs lay beneath its surface. An apt metaphor, I think, for how the legacy of the World Wars is still embedded in the soil, the foundations, of German society.

Berlin’s visual culture of remembrance is almost suffocating in its excess. Memorials to victims of National Socialism crowd the city. Each Museum inscribes guilt into the description of every artefact. Statues pertaining to power and national pride are, unlike other places in the world, notably absent. New reconstructions of buildings have in common an architecture that inspire little emotional response in their simple design. It all seems like one huge apology. This is a city who cares about the lessons of its past, and has its moral and educational mission inscribed in every last scrap of its stone.

Peter Eisenmann’s National Holocaust Memorial is emblematic of this mission. Placed strategically between the central crossing of Potsdamer Platz and Tier Garten, it is nigh impossible to ignore. One does not merely stumble upon it, but is accosted by its harrowing shapes that tower above street view. Constructed of 2711 large concrete slabs reminiscent of coffins, it demands to be interacted with. When walking through its narrow aisles, the coffins engulf you the deeper you go in. Children play hide and seek in this maze, their voices lost, like those of the dead, to the impersonality of stone.

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But how does a country truly repent for the heinous crimes of its past, and for how long? While the generation of individuals who survived Germany’s 1933-1945 Nazi era is dwindling by the day, Germany’s youth have now been passed the baton to bear the burdens of its past. And while the legacy of the Holocaust is still, as in Eisemann’s Memorial, at the forefront of everyone’s imagination, guilt is epidemic. Germany’s contrition is enshrined in law and written into the ‘federal government’s funding objectives.’ The World Wars take centre stage of every classroom history lesson. Education about more recent German history, like that of DDR, is forfeited in lieu of the remembrance of the deaths caused by the National Socialist regime.

This constant apology, this inability to forget, has seeped, I’m told, into current politics. After Hitler, the ‘you know who’ of the past century, the man who ostensibly cannot be named in conversation with anyone of German origin, all parties now choose to languish comfortably in the centre. Politics has become diluted, as neither Left or Right dare to express any views that may be considered ‘extremist.’

What does seem to be a consensus though is Germany’s willingness to talk about it. Far from labelling its past as taboo, Germany admits to its prior aggressive war politics, its responsibility for the World Wars and the crimes of National Socialism to such an extent that generations from now may still feel the weight of its legacy.

In February of this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated the nation’s guilt after Poland imposed a law that criminalised any suggestion that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. This is ultimately just a war of words played out on the international stage. A petulant blame game. It’s not enough that Germany must apologise visually and rhetorically again and again. In the current view of the world, no reparation can be made.

But what is the future?

Germany must remember those who fell victim to the World Wars and to the Holocaust, as all countries should. The past should not be eradicated, but understood. Guilt should not be absolved, but transferred to its actual perpetrators – the last generation of Nazi criminals who will soon be lost to history.

While the young should have no guilt, they must, at least, have a view.

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Unlike any other place I have been to, Berlin’s old coexists with its new. The city is still largely under construction, torn between its opposing agendas: commemoration of the past, and innovation for the future. The city centre, while laden in concrete, retains its beauty in a complex collage of remodelled pre-war structures and baroque architecture. Functionality collides with ornamentation. Berliner Dom and the Reichstag, recently reconstructed, maintain their pre-demolition splendour. On the East Side, creativity flourishes as artists continue to move into industrial spaces to practice their art. Older buildings lie in disrepair as vessels for rain and canvases for graffiti. Berlin’s monuments to the dead are located in the beating heart of the city, forming a part of Germany’s past and future.

To visit Berlin is to feel a part of the current of history. In language, in architecture, in memorials, this place seeks to repair the damage of the last century. While bombs may lie dormant beneath its surface, Germany’s sense of cultural responsibility, however, does not. How long must this country continue to repent? Only time will tell.

Lost in Translation: my grapple with the German Language

‘Ich hätte gern die Rechnung’, I asked, shakily. The girl behind the counter giggled. ‘You’ve just asked me for whipped cream,’ she said, ‘but I suppose you’d like to pay.’ 

Before insulting the German public with my lack of linguistic skill, the first phrase I decided to learn prior to my trip to Berlin was ‘Ich kann keine Deutsch sprechen’, or ‘I cannot speak German’, just to cover my back. I hadn’t anticipated that my first week in Germany would render me confused and tongue-tied, like a baby learning how to pronounce it’s first word. We forget about the nuances of phrases and pronunciation in other languages when we’re so used to speaking our own. I figured that just getting the words out right was the first step towards conversation. Who knew that a slight mispronunciation of a vowel could have rendered me a laughing stock.

There’s nothing like visiting another country to make you appreciate your own culture, and how it differs so much from other places. My Englishness is all too apparent even when I do manage to get the German words out right. A prim and proper girl from the South of England, they all seem to think..’Your accent is so nice’, they say in their strict Germanic sound, but all I feel is ashamed for my inability to converse.

‘That’s a whole new kettle of fish’, I found myself saying to my English-speaking German friend on my second week here. He roared with laughter at this. Having uttered an English idiom completely by accident, I had forgotten where I was in that moment. Situated in Germany, I had managed to tie myself inescapably to my Englishness in just a collection of words.

English politeness, while a stereotype, is real and it’s something I battled with in my first few weeks here. As much as we British like to think it is, it’s not common to say please and thank you and sorry a million times, and people’s lack of reciprocity of my excessive manners made me think them rude or ungrateful.

One of the first words I learned here was ‘entschuldigung’ for ‘excuse me’, or ‘sorry.’ Can you imagine my frustration as I attempted to utter this? I’d tread on somebody’s foot on the underground and by the time I’d even tried to pronounce this long, obscure word the person would have already walked away. My lowly, over-polite, english-speaking heart was broken.

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Language is absurd, but it bridges the gaps. If anything, it makes us more expressive. Confused faces are often met with grand gesticulations when trying to communicate in public. My lack of German has made me adept at miming.

The grandma of my host family and I have certainly perfected this art. She doesn’t speak a word of English. We have brief conversations in my very limited German, and we fill in the gaps with a game of charades, literally. My favourite of her mimes are dancing, gardening and an elaborate series of sunbathing movements. We bond over minimal conversation as we play a game of ‘snap’ while trying to match the children’s pairs of odd socks. We make meals together and embrace, chanting ‘sehr lecker’ to congratulate ourselves on our brilliance. Oftentimes, we sit in silence. We may not be able to communicate in words, but her warmth, her energy, her maternity, even for a stranger – (I once got stung by a ‘pferdefliege’ , or horsefly to you and me, and she spent at least ten minutes holding an ice pack to my wound and rubbing my back) – and her humour makes me understand on a human level what a kind heart she has.

If my last few weeks in Germany have taught me anything, it’s that people are, ultimately, good. While I have come up against conservative Germans who will refuse to speak to me in English, identifying me as just another tourist that doesn’t give a sh** about the culture they are trying to preserve, I have met people who want nothing more than to help me settle in.

My German is limited, but it is growing by the day.  I confidently ask for the bill, say ‘entschuldigung’ profusely if I do end up treading on someone’s foot, and I can say ‘Nein, danke schön’, quite kindly to the advances of German men.

I have been asked out on three dates since landing here in Berlin. I say this not to gloat or pat myself on the back as each of these experiences have been no less than entirely awkward, but more to illustrate the different dynamics of heterosexual dating in Germany than in England.

The German guys I have met have all been honourable, if not very forthcoming, and charming. I don’t pretend to be able to read men’s minds but they have always been honest and direct with exactly what they are after. ‘I’ve seen you in Potsdam quite a few times and I like you. Would you like to go for dinner sometime?’, or something along those lines, was my first offer. I haven’t yet had this experience in England. Mostly men seem to observe you from afar for weeks on end before shuffling over and making very weak advances, or the total opposite.

While this guy could have touched up on his techniques in subtlety, at least he stated directly, in a very practical, to-the-point, no beating-round-the-bush kind of way, (which I might add is very typically German), at least there was no misunderstanding. Englishmen, you are not all bad but you need to up your game.

The result of this was, however, nothing. I panicked, probably went a bit red and scuttled off but this was my first, if not entirely fruitless, lesson in German dating conversation.

Up until now, I have been the new girl on the block in the tiny city of Potsdam. I’ve been told that au pairs often assume the ‘girl next door’ trope. ‘You’ve been the discussion of the next door neighbour’s dinner table’, my host mum said to me in my first week. I immediately started scanning my brain for any heinous crime I could have committed. She laughed, ‘They have two boys in their twenties who were eager to check out the new au pair’…

Berlin is one of the most international cities on the planet, and Berliners are used to meeting people from all over the world. What’s nice is that people are always sensitive and inquisitive. I’ve spoken about what I love about England down to the last bourbon, and I have experienced everything about German language and culture that has enlightened me on what we could improve on back home. My skills in German speaking are still much to be desired. I only dread when I have to get a hair cut…

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Re-writing the self: Thoughts on memory

‘When it rains, think of us as we walk under dripping trees or through small rooms lit only by storm’ – Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels.

One of my earliest memories is of being lost in a field near my family home in the country. It was Summertime. I remember the heat and the tall grass looming over me. Small as I was I could see very little, only the sky and the heavy overhang from the leaves of the trees that beckoned me into the forest.

I remember being aware that I was lost – that is, I knew I had wandered away from my childminder in a game of hide and seek and that she hadn’t yet found me – but the idea of being missing wasn’t yet a concept for me. I don’t remember feeling distress, only wonder at this new mellifluous world of the neighbouring field that I hadn’t yet trespassed. I remember my name being called, echoes circling around me, but the length of the grass obscured me from sight so that I was unable to be found.

Perhaps it is a condition of early memories to resemble an ethereal, almost dreamlike quality due to the limits of our perception at that time. This memory of mine is always veiled in a kind of golden haze, either obscured by time or romanticised by my mind. I see shapes, I remember colours. Golds and greens and yellows. I remember the cold relief of wading through the stream. I remember the unsteady path: the soil; the roots that clawed at my ankles. I remember the sensation of being lost but not my emotional response to it. I just remember happiness. A child charmed by curiosity.

While the likelihood is that I entered into a panic and ran through the woods in alarm once I realised I had strayed too far, my mind wants to remember the positive perception I had of my surroundings. It wants childlike inquisitiveness to take precedence over feelings of fear.

It wants to reconcile fragments of memory into a coherent, happy narrative. While our logical minds want to preserve integrity to the facts, there is always a part of us that wants to tell a good story.

Virginia Woolf speaks of the associative potency of memory in her autobiographical essay ‘A Sketch of the Past.’ She tells us that one of her earliest memories was looking at the patterns of flowers on her mother’s dress, as she lay in her lap on a train journey to St. Ives. This is how Woolf always remembered her.

In memory, we are all compelled to understand our lives through narrative and symbolism.

Like the flowers on the dress of Woolf’s mother, I relate my memory to a sensorium of warmth and playfulness, represented by my childlike experience of nature. My memory conveniently chooses to omit my alarm of being lost and instead reframes it as a pleasant adventure.

In Orlando, Woolf acknowledges how our subconscious minds play a part in obscuring memory. She writes, ‘Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.’ Memories are set against a backdrop of narrative that we construct for ourselves. When we look back into the past, we view events through a prism. Integrity to facts falters in our intrinsic desire to tell a more desirable story.

Memory is a seamstress. It weaves together representations of the past into a coherent timeline: a kaleidoscope of images, objects, fragments of conversations, emotions.

It is a mediator between past and present. It preserves connectivity between our present and past selves. More importantly, it situates us in time and place. We make sense of ourselves through the narratives we choose to construct.

Ultimately, we are creators; the seamstresses of our own lives. We subconsciously distort memory, re-fashion narratives, re-write the self and consequently inform the present. We grow by seeing our present selves reflected in images of the past.

Memories, while unreliable, allow us to understand ourselves, our current place in the world. They make artists of us all.