October 2013

It had just stopped raining the afternoon I arrived. It was supposed to be the morning, but the flight was delayed several hours due to some kind of waning fuel mystery. In an uncharacteristic bout of patience and gratitude (for the wise prevention of an ocean crash), I waited at the Newark airport late into night next to a fluorescent-lit Brookstone, closed several hours ago. I sat on the carpeted floor, snacked on wine and several varieties of exotic airport fruit (watery Red Delicious, chilled tangerine, a green banana), and chatted with a Chilean film student, whose name I never learned.

A cab through the city was my last leg of the journey, and in the quiet early afternoon the streets all shared a grey tint that reminded me a lot of Seattle: murky, cerebral, hushed. Exactly as I imagined bookish Berlin. 

A year ago, I would have had zero interest in ever going to Berlin. When I used to think of Germany, I thought of rough consonants and, um...Christmas craft markets. 

But then, and this is seriously what happened, I was wearing a sparkly skirt with a polka dot sweater and fringed scarf one spring day, and basically an old lady stopped me on the street and told me "YOU BELONG IN EAST BERLIN."

So I was like, well, okay.

I chose to go in October, because October is the electric month that I imagined would ignite the entire city with opulent color and melodrama. I imagined Berlin as dark, moody, and elegant (the Tilda Swinton of cities), and predicted that October would bring out these qualities in the theatrical moments of its blue evenings and pallid mornings.

I stayed in an apartment in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood that used to be cool in the 80s, and is now cool in a throwback way. When I arrived, its streets were damp under a buttermilk-colored sky as rain still collected in the grooves of cobblestones and on the edges of awning over the shawarma restaurant next door to Frenk's apartment.

Frenk's a 40-something tattooed architect whose aging apartment's high ceilings are comically disproportionate to the small German appliances in his kitchen. There are murals in every room, paintings on every ceiling, and rudimentary tile mosaics scattered capriciously on bare patches of wall throughout. There is a prominent old-fashioned coffee maker which Frenk uses every morning to make himself a demi-tasse of Austrian roast, black. He offers me one when I ring the clanging doorbell, chilly and disoriented.

Kreuzberg is a tawdry mess of baklava shops and skateboard stores and smoke-filled nightclubs, now just beginning to empty out on a Thursday afternoon. The parties begin before dawn and end before twilight, when kids who are just now discovering grunge and punk stumble out on to the sidewalks and merge with conservative Turkish immigrants who have established Kreuzberg as their home since the 60s.

There is a more stately part of the neighborhood, where the now-grown-up original punks live. I happened upon it my first night, where I sat at a mellow candlelit bar called Luzia, which clearly drew a more sophisticated plum-lipsticked crowd than the surrounding clubs. I drank a whiskey sour next to a Swede and a Brit who told me that the place across the street had "some of the best Mexican food in Germany." I never did feel compelled to check it out.

I slept almost a little too late every morning, setting my alarm for an ambitious 8am, and remaining deep in the piles of blankets an hour longer. I slip into routine so quickly when I'm traveling. At home, I always want to mix things up, wander, explore, remain a new stranger in my chosen city. Abroad, I'm eager to belong. I immediately claim a cafe, a bar, a route home. At the end of the week I casually mention my baristamy subway line, and I mean it. By the final day, the spectral flicker of a blue neon sign on my apartment building in Berlin became as familiar to me as the well-worn sight of permanent scaffolding on my apartment building in DC.

"See you tomorrow," the man at the coffee shop told me on my last morning, and I believed him.

I thought food would be more important to me on my trip--that is, famous restaurants and Black Forest schnitzel, and elaborate two-tiered breakfasts in the posh suburb known throughout Europe for its brunches. But I don't think I sat down at a restaurant once, unless you count the extended morning after going out with a group of Saudis and Italians to an entirely LED-lit club called Watergate, which is all I have to say about that. An extravagant vegan buffet sopped up most of the adverse effects of the night's many many Pilseners and Berliners.

I started all other mornings with a German or Turkish pastry and cappuccino from the emerald-painted coffee shop in the basement of my apartment, and ended each night with a plump sharawma sandwich soaked with tahini from the place next door.

Throughout the day: warm pretzels with crunchy flakes of sea salt, spicy curried sausage, squares of mild cheese, and slivers of raspberry cake. Before noon: coffee. After noon: wine. "Coffee" and "wine" were two words I could consistently squeak out in German, and I love to say them. Kaffee bitte. Rotwein bitte. Danke shön. Ciao!

Like many people, I thought of German as an inhospitable, harsh language, but that's because we often hear it in the context of screaming Nazis. When it's actually spoken for the gentle purposes of taking a baklava order, or offering directions to the soul and funk record store, or asking "Are you Norwegian?", or suggesting a gingerbread waffle for a fall afternoon, it's quite romantic.

Embellished with superfluous final vowels and delicate elisions, German sounds like old music.

I wore sweatshirts and tight black jeans every day, with ankle boots for taking languid two-hour walks between Kreuzberg and other lyrical neighborhoods: Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Neukölln, Scheunenviertel. My feet never stopped hurting, and I took a nap from 5-7 every evening while the sky darkened.

I bought a hammered gold necklace shaped into a cloud, a flea market army jacket redolent of cologne and old paper, pencils made with charcoal found in south German caves, and sequined black and gold high-top sneakers that have earned me many compliments from the under-10 crowd back at home.

For someone who sure likes to talk, I did very little talking in Berlin. That city is the strong silent type, and so we got to know each other through a series of nods, smirks, and nonchalant stares. Spending massive amounts of time alone in a new place brought me to new corners of myself.

I did very few tourist things, but I was set on seeing the Holocaust memorial, and did so my second day. It was the Platonic ideal of a fall afternoon, when the ephemeral light was gold and looming shadows were periwinkle.

The memorial is a huge field with about 3,000 coffin-like concrete blocks. They are large, and you can walk in between them, and as you walk through they seem to grow closer together. Your footsteps are crisp like church heels clicking on stone pavement; you can hear the clear echo of others' steps all the way from the other side. As you walk through the blocks, they grow taller and you begin to feel claustrophobic. Even on a blue sky afternoon, you feel like you are walking yourself into night. The light's once romantic glow now looks eerie. Shadows swallow you. Eventually, you lose light completely, finding it only for a brief sacred moment when it slips through the slabs of black concrete.

Then, you come out the other side. It is the same afternoon it was moments ago. There are school kids sitting on one of the shorter blocks, sharing pretzels and texting. There are security guards telling them to stop eating; they whine in protest.

I sat for a long time at the edge of the Memorial, disarmed by how beautiful a day it was. The kaleidoscopic light illuminated the surrounding trees, the cheerful color of sweet potatoes. Warmed by lunchtime beer and the fleeting sun, I was so happy to be living that day. I was so happy to have that day. 

I thought about how everyone who died in the Holocaust also had a life. I thought about the things that the victims experienced long before they died, like autumn light, for example. When they were young they went to school and took notes on thin paper about geography and they sometimes looked out the window, wondering about things like adventures and God and boys and what their face was going to look like when they were old.

Then a few years later they sat on red velvet cushions in the back of the movie theatre with someone they liked a lot, and it felt like their nerve endings might explode into stardust when they held hands with that person. 

Sometimes they drank beer a little too early in the day and stayed up a little too late at night, both for the purpose of stretching life to its widest edges. 

They had 27th birthdays, and wondered if they were headed on the right path. They wondered if they should still be dating this guy, doing this job, living in this apartment, spending money on going to Berlin in the fall when there were probably more important uses of finances. 

They wondered if they had achieved anything, if they ever would.

I thought about all the things I'll really miss about life. Things like pressing elevator buttons, and making coffee in a sweatshirt on Christmas morning, and finding a seat on a crowded subway, and reading on trains, and whispering when there was no need to, and watching a cat clean his ears with his paw.

I won't miss achieving things. I'll miss experiencing things.

This past year was the happiest year of my life. And I didn't achieve one thing. 

Well, actually I did. I went out dancing every single week, while still managing to have a full-time job and a part-time job. (Please take special note of the exact spelling of my name when you submit me for Nobel Peace Prize consideration.)

The things I treasure about this past year are sharing croissants at the Ace Hotel, spying hand-written letters through the decorative cut-outs of my copper mailbox, kissing on the East Village sidewalk, beginning my Friday nights at my weekday bedtime, eating blackberry crisp for breakfast all spring, having three-mimosa brunches with my mom on lazy Saturdays, finding a house painted like a watermelon in the middle of DC on an otherwise melancholy evening.

Those are my achievements.

A tombstone that reads "Here lies Mari: She enjoyed herself" would be a wildly fortunate accomplishment.

From now on, my life lived will be my life's work.

My last day might have been frantic. Instead, I took it slow, dawdling around a neighborhood I'd already covered the day before. But this time, I stopped in to every shop that caught my eye, and took a long, careful while to finish my waffle and cortado. I found an art store where everything inside was handmade in Berlin, down to the tiger-shaped erasers--and I talked late into the afternoon with the owner, Ottilie. She had stories for every product in her shop, and a sharp, witty way of telling them. She agreed that it was serendipitous that I found her little corner of Kastanienallee, the prettiest street I walked.

My last night I had exactly 4 euros left to my name, and spent 3 of them at a French restaurant on a pressed coffee. The weather outside was manic, and people kept coming in, filling the barstools with all sorts of interesting characters. I watched an old man at the end of the bar sit down to do a crossword puzzle with blue ballpoint on smudged newspaper, his black bowler hat covering his caterpillar grey eyebrows. As he worked he sipped an espresso con panna, one of my favorite treats that I haven't had in years. A single euro wouldn't have covered half the luxurious drink, to my dismay. I've been craving one ever since.