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.

En Route: Berlin, Germany

October 25, 2018 | 9:08AM | Seestrasse U6 en route to Alt Tegel

You know you’re in love with a city when you get on the U-bahn for the last time, say goodbye, watch the doors close, and realize you have never felt more alive in the last few days as some tears make its way down your cheek.

I never put Germany on my bucket list because traveling to Europe always seemed impossible. Growing up I have always taken trips that show you merely tourist spots that all look the same: old towns, churches, photo op sites. That was it. As much as I didn’t like it, it did give me a sampler of what being in Europe would be like. I always thought it was intimidating, but I guess it took a good dose of courage and “what if” questions to make me take this trip.

I boldly plot all the possibilities as if they were limitless—maybe I could do this, maybe I could do that. For months I was surrounded with maybes and slept uncomfortably at the thought of “too good to be true”. I have never flew to Europe alone or took the trains here on my own. It didn’t help that I didn’t know anyone in Germany (back then) so there wasn’t any reason to go (until now).

***

9:24AM | Bus 128 en route to Flughafen Tegel (Berlin TXL airport)

You know how you see someone for the first time, get smitten, and immediately fall head over heels with the person? (Oooh, familiar!) Then you realize this person is not all that. That’s how New York feels to me. I think things started okay between me and New York, as I saw it unfold right in front of me as I landed with a view of beautiful city lights right before my eyes. Two weeks of exploring such a place was convincing enough for me to say I could go back and try out what living is like in New York. I held back my tears as I flew out of JFK in 2017, promising myself to go back and make my dreams come true.

But I’m quite aware some expectations don’t really keep up with reality. I liked school, but I suffered with anxiety every day, especially when I decided to drop a class and pick out ones that will really test my abilities. Every few weeks I’d be okay, then the cycle repeats itself. It’s like the past few months has made me more vulnerable and I’ve never felt this weak in my life.

But Germany just washed out everything for me. I landed at noon, was greeted with a pleasant view of trees and a clear sky. It wasn’t much, but it was nice. I panicked for a bit as I got out of the Tegel airport and booked a bus ticket to HBF. I entered this huge building that had Berlin Hauptbahnhof written on it and I was in awe. I made it! Well, almost.

After what felt like minutes of walking around the huge train station with two heavy luggages, I just wanted to hop on my train to Nürnberg and call it a day. My friend picked up my stuff (huuu thank you, Lorenz!) and I ended up carrying just one bag as I boarded the train and spent the next four hours staring out the window, waiting for what’s ahead.

My week in Nürnberg was amazing—from meeting the people behind Faber-Castell to spending every day learning something new, exploring the city, and getting a glimpse of what Germany looked like, I was in awe. I liked it. I was blown away. (You can read more about it here)

I left Nürnberg after four days feeling sad and longing to be back (how could I even leave such a beautiful city?)—but I was surprised to have spent the train ride to Berlin with a newfound friend from the workshop I held at Faber-Castell (hi, Emily!). On the four hour ride to Berlin, Emily told me about Berlin, and told me I’d love it in the city. That was a good sign, I guess?

I arrived at night, half past ten, at the same HBF, now freezing as I carried my things out of the train and met up with Lorenz and headed home. I was tired. I’m just grateful he had lavender oil and I could just shut myself off after a busy couple of days (my jet lag has been really bad). Life had been so busy that I didn’t even bother plotting out a set itinerary for my five days in Berlin.

Exploring the city fully wasn’t on my mind. I knew I’d be back, but I did manage to see quite a few things during my short stay there. Apart from seeing the sights, I was keen on seeing how this city worked—how everything operated. Mind you, I was amazed. Here’s a photo diary of my trip. Maybe some commentaries here and there, but mostly observations as I made my way into this city that unexpectedly caught me off guard.

Brunch at Distrikt Coffee. I look so happy??? I love brunch!

We were on our way to our walking tour and found a Photoautomat (photo booth)! Our first attempt was a fail. I think I was more shookt when the flash suddenly came out of nowhere, lol

BTS of Lorenz taking this photo of my artwork (now his). Also gave him a crash course on making content lololol

I’ve known Lorenz for maybe 5ish years already? But we only became friends after coincidentally wearing the same outfit on New Year’s Eve in Hungary last year…and finding out we both love Abstract (yes, the Netflix series). He’s a scientist currently taking up his PhD and residing in Berlin (ikr, he’s cool), so it was a no-brainer that I visit.

Berlin’s transportation system is SO EFFICIENT. A train comes in every few minutes, and you’ll manage to get to your destination in no time. I’m so amazed! It took maybe only less than 20 minutes getting to the city center from where we were.

There’s the U-bahn (underground), the S-bahn (older trains that are still in use), and the buses and trams that are around the city. I love that you can check Google Maps for the time and not be late—which meant we had a lot of running to catch our tram heading to Mitte. Lol. #cardio

A piece of history right behind me, the Berlin Wall.

A very touristy photo of me behind the Brandenburg Gate (please don’t mind the tourists behind me). We booked this walking tour (it’s free, you leave a tip at the end of the tour) around Mitte and it was really informative! I learned so much about Berlin’s history in an entire afternoon.

We walked to the Jewish Memorial and Checkpoint Charlie, as well as the underground bunker where Hitler killed himself. So surreal to be in this place! I was just writing about wanting to go to Berlin during my trip to Eastern Europe last year.

Lorenz introduced me to Currywurst—”You’ll like it!” I did. We had it twice at the same currywurst spot because it was the cheapest (and the best).

Went to this neighborhood called Schöneberg which was brimming with beautiful architecture and this ice cream place called Jones. Who eats ice cream in cold weather??? *raises hand*

I did mention I didn’t do much research, did I? I think the spontaneity made it easier for me to not worry about most things, and just take each day as it comes.

Lunch at Umami was sooo good. I haven’t really had a bad meal in Berlin, tbh.

Sunday was spent at the East Side Gallery. This part of the Berlin Wall boasts of mural artworks by different artists and continues to attract tourists and locals alike. It’s a long stretch and there are quite popular ones we did manage to take photos of.

A fellow tourist was nice enough to take our photo (the framing was A+ too!).

We went to another Photoautomat (because it’s so pretty? I mean, yellow!) to take more photobooth pictures. Each photo took around five minutes so we were basically just bored…so…*takes more photos*

Picked up some autumn leaves (and lavender stalks??? because they’re free) in Tiergarten, a huge park right smack in the middle of the city. We were tired already but if I had more energy, I would have walked the whole stretch and explored more.

 

The next day was rainy, but I made my way around the city. I went to art stores and walked around the small neighborhoods. I love how quiet it is during the daytime. 

Modulor has been on my go-to list for the longest time, and I spent a good two hours going crazy over everything, lol. It really is “art heaven”.

Bits of color here and there.

Dropped by Do You Read Me?!, an independent bookstore housing various titles and magazines.

Polly Paper was another hidden gem, just a few steps away from Do You Read Me?!.

The next day was still rainy. *sigh* I ended up leaving for Museuminsel early, because I told myself to pick at least one gallery I’ll like. I picked Altenationalgalerie, which houses a lot of classical art.

Obviously, I made the right choice. I learned about German painters and how they paved the way for impressionism to take shape in Europe. It was nice listening to the audio guide with explanations of notable artworks and what their purpose is.

Some Monet spotting because he is an all-time favorite.

I met up with Emily and she took me around some of her favorite art and stationery shops in the city. I was surprised to find myself buying a few things I’ve never seen in my life—from cute notebooks to autumn-colored highlighters (!!!) to fountain pens. Fountain pens! Omg. Hahaha.

Thanks so much Emily for the fun afternoon despite the rain~

On my last day, I took a train ride up north to Pankow—and ran to the next tram that I missed (I told you, trams here are really on time). I went to an art institute to check out the facilities and was in awe. I was probably out of breath when I got back to the city center because of all the running…and panicking…and navigating with my phone battery on 1% (I hate myself sometimes, you know?). Anyway, that’s why this photo (above) is so memorable to me. I was just staring out the window for a good few minutes taking in the view.

10/10 will live in Berlin for scenic routes, tbh

Just some evidence of how messy my desk was. It wasn’t even my desk, technically. LOL. *hides*

My last night in Berlin involved a good serving of Turkish cuisine (I finally tried the döner!) and some People Watching IRL. I’ll never forget it.

I’m in the New York Public Library as I wrap up this post for the last time and queue up all my videos on my channel. I keep revisiting this and figuring out what to still say, but again, I’d like to think not having a plan helped me love this city so much more. The spontaneity opened me up to the beauty of finding happy accidents in between. Maybe that’s how life should be, you know? I’m so tired at having to make sure everything goes according to plan.

I’ll just leave it at this: it’s not yet over, Berlin. I’ll see you in 2019.

Abbey

PS: Germany playlist below~