We glide for a long time in the cotton-candy safety of the clouds. I stare purposelessly through the small window of the plane, trying to make out some kind of a magical landscape. Any kind of sight would be fine really, to justify getting up in the morning and hassling with packing, double-checking my documents, and trying to suppress the build-up of anxiety that had settled into the pit of my stomach a few weeks ago. It has been a long summer, full of twists and turns, uncertainties, indecisions. I was expecting to have it all figured out by the time I got back to finish my final year at University, but instead, I am now decidedly more confused than ever.
Who am I?
The soundless plea doesn’t soften the will of gravity, and sky. The clouds do not move to the sides to present me with some great revelation, as they would if we were talking Hollywood movies. The plane flies slowly on, with me in it succumbing to sleep. It’s only a few hours’ ride, but the constant worry has left me feeling depleted. I don’t know what will happen once we land, if I’ll have the strength or will for anything other than sleep and a few pages of the book I’ve brought along.
Ellie pokes me in the ribs as we’re preparing to land. I open my eyes feeling groggy and irritable, as if coming down from an unusually long drug high. The first thing I see are indistinct gray buildings. Lots of them, in varying concentrations here and there among the green, like ants gathering around randomly scattered bits of ripe fruit. They remind me of my little ex-communist hometown. Big, practical, supremely ugly. This is my first impression of Berlin.
It doesn’t strike me at once, the way other old cities have in the past. It doesn’t seem to possess the grand pretentiousness of Vienna or the nonchalant, elegant enormity of Paris. Its size almost appears rebellious. I realize we are coming from the East after all, and that what I am seeing is probably the DDR part of the city. Rebellious, what a fitting word to describe it.
The customs officials seem to find us of little interest, and we’re out of the airport in record time. Ellie fiddles amusingly with the map of the city on the bus as we try to figure out the fastest route to the hostel. The effort is wasted, as we get off a station too early and then walk up and down the broad avenue in hopes of seeing any kind of sign that would point to where we are. Finally, a subway entrance appears in the distance so we descend into the cave-like tunnels. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where we ought to go, but we still smirk at each other as if having accomplished a small miracle. This might be the case, too, since neither is known for her sense of orientation, and my dislike of tubes is almost a character trait, stemming perhaps from unresolved issues with claustrophobia.
The little Thomas train takes us to the station near Checkpoint Charlie, our hostel being a short walk away. We will be sleeping here for the next week or so – on the old border between East and West, the now and the then. This small coincidence brightens my mood. I’ve always lived on the border. Born in a communist country when the regime was already ending, the same year they tore down the Berlin Wall. Growing up in a society that was torn apart by those same borders – both material, legal ones as well as the excruciating balancing act of trying to fit new Western ideals with an innately Eastern lack of discipline and socialist mind-frame. Then, as much as now, I never knew what to swear my allegiance to.
Who am I?
The echo from the plane reaches me even here, on the ground, the whisper from the darkness of my room that is now hundreds of miles away. But it doesn’t seem as threatening as all that, when I am surrounded by strangers who don’t know the answer to this question either, and have not yet attempted to construct their opinion on me. I have been relegated only the role of the tourist, or the blonde girl passing by. Anything else is up to me at this point.
I can live with not knowing for a week or so, I think to myself.
After a short nap then a trip to Lidl to buy a dinner of chocolate and rice biscuits, the trip and the morning’s reluctance peels off my skin. I decide I am ready to give Berlin another chance. Leaving the creased clothes of the day aside, I don a red jacket and new shoes to test the nightlife of the city. Following an hour of cruising and much deliberation, we settle in a seedy bar named 8MM where they’re projecting a silent black and white movie on the wall next to our tatty sofa. Joy Division blasts through the crackling speakers as we sip our beers.
Isolation, Ian calls out.
I notice that the lamp to my right is identical to the one my grandmother had in her old apartment. It’s a bit of familiarity in a city foreign to me, but in spite of my innate dislike of anything related to my home country, I welcome the intrusion of thoughts regarding my gran. On our way back from the bar, a big neon sign saying we’re at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz catches my eye. Being disproportionately excited by this fact, I insist on taking a photograph under the signboard. Gran would be proud of me, I chuckle. Thinking about her has another weight, now that she’s gone, and now that I’m here. My father’s mother, the partisan. I look at the photo on my phone. A girl in a red jacket holding her hand up in defiance under Rosa’s name in Berlin.
Perhaps I know a little of who I am after all.