Back to Berlin: An Essay

“Don’t panic; act cool” I told myself as I faced the immigration officer on the 16th of May, 2019, as I scrambled my way to the airport after a last minute turnaround of events. Are you on vacation? Who stays for this long in Berlin? I was afraid to get asked these. Instead the officer asked, “What are you doing in Berlin?” and I replied with a swift “I’m doing an artist residency program” and in less than a second, I heard the sound of the stamp as it landed on my passport—the page opposite my Schengen Visa.

I was here. Finally.

Six months later, in the same airport, I’m no longer panicking as I checked in my suitcase and made my way through immigration smoothly—I’m on my way home, geographically—for now.

Berlin, like I always said, was an afterthought. It was a “what if” when I went to Germany last year. Again, this country was never on my list too. But it came when I least expected it—the realization that I could call this city a temporary home both scared and excited me in many ways I cannot even begin to explain particularly why. 

I suppose it was the efficient transportation system. No, wait—it’s the gluten-free and dairy-free options at the local grocery to satisfy my health concerns. Wait, it was also the duck curry at the nearby Asian restaurant. Or was it the several coffee shops, bars, and never-ending conversations created in those places with old and newfound friends? It could also be the long summers, short winters, the changing of the seasons. Or the hours spent making something out of nothing in an actual studio. 

It was everything. And it still blew me away how I can find myself in a city this big. 

There were lots of questions I asked myself before saying “yes” to this. First, there was, “Are you out of your mind?”, and then there was also “Maybe New York isn’t the place—and Berlin would be the place.” There were also lots of what-ifs I don’t intend to disclose (I now know the answers and I’m fine with that), but those were reasonable enough to make me book a flight and look for an apartment.

The first attempt at apartment hunting terrified me so much that I was so close to getting cold feet. A lady instantly responded to my ad, sent me her information (a passport immediately?), a contract, and the whole shebang (but did not want to Skype / show her face to me) and after a friend told me it was fake (catfishing), I froze. I settled for an airbnb, prayed for a miracle, and sealed the deal. 

Looking back, I realize the name of the street I lived in was Liebenwalder Straße. Lieben means love in German. Well, that’s a start.

What’s more coincidental is the last month was spent in the same street, just a few blocks away—my friend sub-let me her extra room and it all worked out in the end. I still found myself in the same neighborhood, but me in May versus me in November was a big change, to say the least.

2019 was an inconsistent year for me, work-wise. I traveled a lot: for work, for personal reasons, for family trips. If I count until December, almost half of the year was in another city and in another timezone. I remember telling a friend last year that my goal for 2019 is to take at least half a year off—which I think I did (I saved enough to not work for months). All in all, it was meaningful. It was a lot of decision-making which is something I’m always anxious about.

My anxiety attack started when I found out about the 90/180 rule the day before my first Berlin flight. Since I went to Barcelona early in the year (15 days), according to this rule it was unlikely that I could still do 90 days in the EU during the same period. Hence, I had to reduce my stay to exactly 75 days.*

*By November, this has reset since six months have already passed (I was also able to make a side trip to Switzerland, so that was nice). 

My second anxiety attack was the most unforgettable one. I woke up at 4AM on the 20th of May, crying for four hours until I finally asked a friend if he could meet me for dinner so I could compose what had happened. It was my second week of anti-depressants and the effects were taking its toll on me. I had gotten myself in this situation and had suddenly felt the urge to go back home not out of lack of courage, but because I didn’t know if the medicine was enough to calm myself down and not be anxious about every single thing.

My third anxiety attack was pivotal, and it happened the same week: we ran from the city center to Como’s central station, headed back to Milan. We sprinted for 10 minutes (with our luggage), and I was out of breath for half an hour on the train. I couldn’t look at anything properly and the silence was making me more anxious. I was frantic and instead of staring into space, I picked up my pen and started drawing. 

That was the exact moment I knew one thing: art always saves me. It’s also the reason I’m still here tonight, typing this out at Tegel Airport.

Growing up, I felt a lot of distance with several aspects of myself. Later did I realize (upon my visit to my current psychiatrist) that me putting myself in the third person POV has limited my way of thinking. Maybe it’s why meeting new people fascinates me; or reading about other artists or people before our time that have influenced and shaped the world we are in now have an impact on my worldview. Maybe it’s also why I get so curious looking up on current events, things that are usually out of the picture that for me, mean something more than the surface. 

But these questions and points of curiosity, as important as they are, led me farther from myself. Life back home prohibited me to go out and see life the way I wanted to see it. It was all from a screen, and yet I was hungry for more. And it’s always the reason why I book a trip as often as I can. I can choose to sit and dream in my room—of all the places I could go, people I could meet, things I could do—but I’m never one to sit and wait. I’m always that person who takes action and goes for it, all in (even if I get scared sometimes).

Earlier today as we were discussing about having other jobs apart from a creative one, a friend asked me, “So what made you decide to resign from your Advertising job?” and I sat there for a few seconds actually thinking of a proper answer. I always said it was because of the book deal. But really, it’s like I knew that I was headed to where I am now anyway—I just didn’t know it yet.

Every day for the past thirty days felt so new. Each day I had to worry about different things—which route to take to the studio, what type of work do I have to accomplish for that week, who I’m meeting for dinner, which friend I am meeting for the upcoming weekend, whether or not I had a fresh pair of socks the day after tomorrow, or if I did enough laundry for the next seven days.

And it’s in these daily, mundane things that I learned so much about myself. I also learned so much from a place that used to be so foreign to me. Small advancements included knowing that “w” sounds as “v” in Deutsch, and knowing how to translate restaurant menus. Laktosefrei meant I could consume that particular food item, and Fahrt ende hier meant the train ended at that stop. I found out that you’re not allowed to jaywalk (well, not as much as I used to do in New York) or your life might be at stake. I learned that I wouldn’t get a hangover the next day if I got myself a döner by midnight, and that I still get home in one piece thanks to the night buses that run after midnight on U-bahns.

Choosing to leave everything behind isn’t easy. It often startles me how drastic I can seem to shift from one thing to another; but what can I say? I’ve never been a creature of habit. If anything, knowing I have a reason to leave has always kept me on my feet; and I’ll probably be in that area for the years to come.

Danke schön for everything, Berlin! Tschüß for now.

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