Saying goodbye to Berlin

I wish my city had a light rail. You can really fall in love with a place by effortlessly gliding above its busy sites and streets, above its parks and rivers. We have a subway, but that’s not quite the same. I fell in love with Berlin observing its intricacies and learning its geography, while comfortably perched on its elevated rails, immune to the traffic and goings on below. As I write these words, I’m sitting on a train leaving Montreal and enjoying a view of it I almost never get to experience. At this very moment, we just rode over the Saint-Lawrence Seaway. As I soar above the seaway and the crumbling highways, free of the impossible traffic and roadwork, I realize Montreal is actually quite small. I wish I could go everywhere by rail. 

Today marks 6 months almost to the day since I left Germany and returned home to Montreal. This is how long it took me to digest and finally write about my time there. In the days after my return, I kept thinking I would wheel out a conclusion to my several posts written abroad, and I kept not doing it.  Back in October 2018, when I first arrived in Berlin, I experienced the exact same block. I couldn’t write about my reasons for leaving home until I made my first trip outside of Germany. The first travel post was written not in Berlin, but on a train between Cornwall and London, England. Similarly, I’m writing this post while sitting on a train to New York. It’s my first trip since returning home. It’s also mid April and the beginning of Spring and I feel like I can breathe again. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I can finally write again.

One of the hardest aspects of writing about a stay abroad is figuring out where to start. What can I say about the life I started, ended, and still struggle to mourn? And how do I spin it all into a story worth telling? I guess I’ll start in the middle and talk about one of my favourite things: love. Some of my funniest anecdotes I can’t recount here. I’ll eventually find a way to work them into a script or a standup routine, because they’re both  impossibly funny and dreadfully embarrassing. If odd and unlikely life experiences were currency, I’d be very, very rich. Suffice it to say that by Spring 2018, by some freak occurence, I had multiple suitors and it was very stressful. I had to figure out which one to eliminate before any of it got too serious and I would confide about it to my boss, Chris, at the bar. Chris was an adorable redhead, just a few months younger than me and he and his wife had recently become parents. He would always say the same thing: “Just make sure you remember what you told whom. And have fun.” Eventually, the smooth Italian photographer eliminated himself (the details of which you’ll have to attend my standup to discover) and I was left with the more romantic and better suited option: the beautiful and shy Middle Eastern man I had met through my catering job. For the purpose of this essay, I’ll call him Rashid. I love our story and its details and maybe this will someday turn into a longer tale, but for now I’ll try to select some highlights. Most of my finest and sharpest memories of Berlin are of catering and of him. The job gave me access to countless fascinating locales and allowed me to mingle with all manner of people. I worked inside events and architectural spaces far more exclusive than I would ever get to enter otherwise. I covered nearly every corner of the city and, as a lover of buildings and stories, I was delighted to experience hidden spaces of all types. Working events is extremely social and I loved that aspect of it too; it’s all about team work and I met some wonderful and fascinating co-workers, both German  and internationally born. For most employees, this job was a stepping stone. For many of the international workers, this was their first employment in their new country and language.

He and I met on my very first shift, at the congress hall at the city’s Western extremity. (The Berlin Messe is a spectacularly ugly city within a city. It looks like a giant space station.) I was terrified and desperately trying to remember the German names of the dishes I was carrying in flying service. I had no idea what was going on and was trying my best not to get in trouble. I don’t remember meeting him and he doesn’t remember meeting me, but the second time we worked together, we recognized each other immediately. I was only on my third shift by then and still terrified. We were working a huge Jewish wedding, right in the city centre. We passed each other in the hall leading to the makeshift catering kitchen. I introduced myself straight away and struck up a conversation. I very rarely flirt, but once in a great while, I notice someone that I can’t pass up. He was gentle, respectful and sensitive. I asked him to fetch something for me as I couldn’t leave my table, and he came up to me hours later saying that he had been whisked away by a supervisor and that’s why he hadn’t returned. Dear sweet, dependable man. Later that very evening, he would tell his friend, referring to me, that he had seen a star. This, he told me only much, much later, near the end. The Jewish wedding was a fast paced twelve hour shift with no breaks. I finally left at 3am because I told the supervisor I couldn’t handle it anymore. It was a brutal and marvellous introduction to event work.

After working with Rashid once more at a Mercedes event where we gathered the courage to add each other on Facebook, we hit the jackpot and had a week scheduled together at a military air show. Everyday, I looked forward to seeing him and getting him to come out of his shell just a bit. When he talked about airplanes and soccer, his eyes sparkled. On the last day, we rode back into the city and just one stop before I got off the train, he asked me if I’d like to go for a walk sometime. I beamed. That was the start of our very slow, very sweet courtship.

Rashid and I came from different worlds but we were drawn to each other like a magnet. It was as if we had been cut from the same stone. Every day, I took delight in discovering some new facet of him. He was a constant surprise to me and I felt I could spend a lifetime uncovering his many secrets. As someone who is naturally curious and easily bored, I had never been involved with such an enticing challenge of a human being. He was kind and good and honest and he loved me beyond any reason or measure. I had always viewed this kind of fast devotion as a mark of stupidity or weakness, but he was anything but stupid. He was strong and brave and steady. He was also incredibly annoying. When things started getting serious between us, he pressed me with all kinds of questions and confronted me to my core. He would leave no stone unturned and he would not let me get away with any vagueness or avoidance. He started discussions that would turn into fights. If we wanted to be together, he said, we needed to be very very honest with ourselves and with each other about everything. No sense in starting something we wouldn’t be able to keep going. When dealing with a cross cultural relationship, you can’t make any assumptions, because everything is different. So in our insufficient German, we talked, and talked, and fought, and talked. Some days, I would shout “I don’t want to TALK anymore!” And yet, for the first time in a long time, I was beginning to dare to hope. Maybe love was possible for me after all. Maybe, as he said, our different cultures and perspectives would make us smarter, stronger, and better people. Maybe the challenges of visas and residencies and immigration were surmountable, if we were patient enough.

Maybe I could move to Berlin, and we could live on that little street we liked so much near the canal, and his friends would become my friends and mine would become his. And he could finally tell his family. Maybe we could have German children who would correct our grammar mistakes when we spoke and we could get one of those funny little huts on a parcel of land in the communal gardens and grow our own vegetables. We could make our own rules.

But then I also learned that sometimes, love is not enough.

So you can imagine that when I found myself spending the dark winter months back home in my parents’ basement, reluctantly giving up my hopes of marriage and of a new life in Germany, I was unable to see the light in anything. I did all I knew how to do, I set new goals and forged ahead. I settled on an MBA. After all, according to just about everyone, I’m blessed with management skills. So I spent the winter studying for the math test required for MBA admissions. If my twelve years in the arts have taught me anything, it’s that it could easily take another twelve before I make a space for myself in that industry. That means I can afford to take some time off and get a few useful degrees to throw in the mix.

Now it’s time for me to let go of the version of happiness I was experiencing last year, and adopt a new version of happiness: one that has more to do with building new skills and making a difference. 

This new version of happiness also has to do with gradually becoming a guide and mentor to a new generation of artists. I suspect that a significant part of my calling is to bring out the best in others and I will happily accept this mission, as long as I get to go on nursing my own creative flame. If I’m patient, I’ll figure it out. And as Rashid used to say to me “You always worry so so much, and then you always end up making the best decision.” If he was right about that, then I’ll surely be ok.