They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It is true. I have taken many journeys, and fully aware because the night before each trip I just do not sleep – whether it is going to New York to change my entire life (and you can subsitute New York with Warsaw or Lisboa) or a bimonthly business trip to Brussels. Anyway, the saying is true also for the journey home. It begins with a step, and then the journey takes over and there is not much anymore you can do. Unless you live in a Hollywood movie, where people make it a habit to stop cabs, pull the emergency brakes on trains or unboard planes. All romantic gestures, all not part of our everyday life. In my case, it was waking up totally swollen from crying with vague memories of the previous night, dragging myself to the Rossio airport shuttle station and then sitting on the bus trying not to vomit. Lisboa flashed by the windows while I was thinking: I wish I had licorice.
But anyway, the point is, I did take the step. I did leave. Following sensibility, and going against the pain in my guts. I came back to Berlin and tried to enter the acceptance stage without going though the previous ones. It did not go so well.
But I tried. I really did. I did everything that you could expect. I unpacked my bags, went to the doctors, went to the unemployment office, went to every other office and institution you can possibly imagine, and filled out numberless forms. And then I waited. For something to happen. I was curious to see if some of that glittery fairy dust that had landed on me the minute my feet touched Lisbon ground had found its way into my luggage, or was still residing in my hair, and would now work its magic also in this city. In the beginning I was positive, drinking my espresso and eating my bread with olive oil. I also started a Portuguese class, which was a bit bizarre because during the first two sessions I found myself constantly with tears in my eyes because my teacher speaking Portuguese touched my heart and made me miss so many beloved people. The effect of hearing the language is so much stronger than for instance looking at pictures – I had no idea!
But soon the fairy dust got lost. I don’t know if it was too many showers, or the city dust killing those sparkling grains of sands. I was complety broke and stopped drinking galoes (milk is a luxury good) but instead went back to knocking back a couple of mugs of the acid black German coffee every morning. I started to go to the gym again and stopped eating bread. It took exactly one month and 15 days until I first screamed after a missed bus again. Two and a half months until I cried in a public building. Berlin had me back!
Of course it is not Berlin’s fault. This city offers opportunities for everyone, no matter what your goals and interests are. I cannot blame Berlin. I think what was always my problem here was the feeling of powerlessness, of being forced into doing something that I didn’t want to do. Living a life I didn’t want. Well, what a load of crap – as I would learn later. Doing what you want is quite easy if you are as privileged as we all are. It is not that big a deal. In my case booking a flight to Portugal, refusing to take a job and applying for government money. Who knows what could have happened if I had found that courage like five to eight years earlier? The answer is: noone, so I should fucking stop whining about it.
Anyway, I came back to Berlin in anticipating that things would get worse, and they did. But to be fair, they would have gone bad no matter how much optimism I might have generated. Berlin is not the right place for me, and not many good things have happened to me here. Actually, some have, but it seems like the frequency of things happening to me here is very very low. I feel like walking under water when in Berlin. Things pass by slowly, and without touching me. I wade through the air, day in and day out, to the bus station, to the university, to the supermarket. People pass me by, sitting next to me on the subway for ten years now. I do not particularly care about them. I do not look around. I read my book, wear my giant headphones. Things happen but they do not affect me and I do not affect them. When a man does catch my attention and we make eye contact, he leaves the subway at the next stop and I will never see him again. I am the person staring at people’s babies on the bus, standing between giant supermarket shelves staring at couples shopping together. I watch their lives like I watch movies. I feel really alone here most of the time. Sometimes, on the subway I feel so isolated from people that I wonder if I am invisible.
The reason why this post is called “The Berlin rant” is because since my return many things have actually happened to me but none of them were good. Just to give you a feeling of my miserable time these last months here (I am overdramatising for effect) and the neverending list of unfortunate incidents that is my life (again), let me give you a short recap of the most shiny jewels the last months had to offer. We will start with the most obvious, a little thing called MS, that in an inexplicable act of the Gods, whose humour I have yet to understand, was handed to me. As with most things that happen to me, the only explanation I can find for this is a scenario I like to call “the Fate Council”. (Before you continue, please note the following: before you decide I should be institutionalised for being suicidal please read until the end of the text.) OK, what is the “Fate Council”? This is a council of people deciding my fate. In my mind they are male and old, kind of like most parliaments and global councils. They sit at a round table and debate what problems they could throw my way. Usually their job is not too hard, but sometimes they show a level of creativity that I cannot help but respect. Let’s start with the more obvious obstacles they have come up with lately:
Exhibit A: The side effects
I am taking Interferons, which means I have to give myself a shot three times a week. Which I think is bad enough as it is, but what is really aweful is when you have to ram a needle into your own body knowing that this act will make you feel like you want to die during the next five minutes. When I started, it seemed like I was one of the lucky few who actually did not experience any of the really bad side effects. Just some tiredness, a bit of a headache. Obviously, this made me suspicious. But I did not need to wonder for long. Soon the heavy stuff started: muscle pains, bone pains (I never thought these existed, but believe me, they do), fever, uncontrollable shaking. The only solution: go to bed, squeeze your eyes shut and pray you fall asleep soon. I found myself quite brave in the way I endured all of this, especially when – being single – I had to do it all alone. Of course, I have roomates and them and my friends have been nothing but supportive with the whole thing, but let’s face it: in the end, with stuff like this, you are alone. Unless you have a loving person sharing the bed with you. Anyway, the Council agreed they had not gone far enough and read the package insert of my drug a bit more closely. And they found what they were looking for: a rather rare side effect named insomnia. So, for the past weeks not only have I been alone in my bed with all of these flu symptoms that make you wish for the mercy of sleep – but now I could not sleep. Literally. Whenever I use the drug, I fall asleep at seven, sometimes at six am, if I am lucky. Case closed.
Exhibit B: The bank card
As some of you might recall, my wallet was stolen during my first week in Lisboa last June. I reported the loss of my bank card and after a loooong while they actually sent a new card to my friend Raquel. Now, almost a year later, my new card stopped functioning in the cash machines here in Berlin. I went to the counter to talk to a nice lady and she said she would order me a new card. It should not take longer than one week. So I waited. After two weeks of having to either beg friends for cash or having to be humiliated by 23-year-old bank tellers raising their eyebrows, calling me Miss and questioning whether I should really take out 20 € as my account was already far in the minus zone, I asked what the fuck was taking so long. They checked and informed me the card had already been sent out: to Lisboa. My reasoning that I had been actually standing in Berlin asking for a new card did not impress the bank. I would have to wait another week. But they at least deleted the Lisbon address from their system. I waited. Again. After another two weeks I went and asked again. The card had been sent out. Thank God! Whereto? I dared to ask. The bank employee (the same one who had repeatedly looked down on me for my bad financial situation and my general life style) blushed to a deep deep shade of red. What can I say? My friend Raquel now has two bank cards and I still have no money to buy food.
Exhibit C: The bus ride
I have been living in Berlin for ten years now. I have always been a law-abiding citizen who is so uptight that she won’t even ride the bike when under the influence and I never ever ever ever have taken the subway or bus without a ticket. For five years now I have been living near the bus line M41, and I can tell you, in five years (and during the sporadic bus rides I took before) I have never NEVER been controlled. Because they usually don’t do this on buses. The driver checks your ticket when you pass him by, and that is it. Three weeks ago I was finally ready to hand in my application papers for the freelancer government fund I now receive. I didn’t have a ticket, as I had no cash (see exhibit b). The office is four stops away from my house and my bike was broken. So I decided to borrow my roommate’s student ticket, which only said her name and birthday but had no photo. After all, we both agreed, noone ever gets controlled on the bus. You can already see where this is going??? Well, I could not. After not even one whole stop I was controlled. As I could not produce a valid ID I was asked to leave the bus and sign a sheet confirming that I was indeed my roommate. While I had memorised all her dates, it had not occurred to me to look at her signature. Which was exactly what the scary controller guy did while handing me the pen. It was bad. I did not hand in the application that day but went home shaken by uncontrollable laughter brought on by the fact that I had just commited document fraud and, more importantly, that someone out there (up there??) obviously hates me.
As I wrote above, these incidents, while unfortunate, may not be extraordinary enough to convince you of the existence of “the Fate Council”. Which leads us to Exhibit D.
Exhibit D: The false VAT declarations
As mentioned before I have recently become a fulltime freelancer. For this I applied for some government support, which was granted to me last Wednesday (I know, this is a good thing. We will get to that later). I don’t know how it is in your respective countries, but in Germany being and especially becoming a freelancer is a bitch. There is so much to know about taxes, VAT, health insurance, social security, legal issues etc etc etc, it took away my sleep (this was before the side effects). After a long period of suffering, a friend proposed I should take part in a workshop training freelancers-to-be in all these aspects. So I paid money I did not have to be counselled for four days and become a new me, business-wise. It was great but also it was really exhausting. The final day was dedicated to tax issues, particularly VAT. There is a rule that if you are a freelancer you have to declare to the finance office every month the VAT you earned and the one you paid, and the difference is to be paid to the finance office or paid by them to you. There is a form to fill out, and you have to organise all the receipts, etc etc. So far I had never done this which means I probably gave away money to the state but more importantly I didn’t have to deal with this. I have no illusions about this: I am not made for business. Friday was my day off and I was happy that I had finally understood all of these things, and ready to finally hand in all my documents to the finance office on Monday. I was coming – and noone could stop me! Well.
I think the Council was as surprised as I was about how I had nailed all of these obstacles and pitfalls related to becoming a freelancer through this training. What to do?? If they didn’t act fast on Monday I would hand in all the correct papers, and then what??? They would have failed. So a special meeting was scheduled and a long debate held. Many suggestions were made, but in the end they all seemed illogical and too absurd to work. There could only be one conclusion: Screw this, so what if it seems absurd and unlikely. We will just have to create a random, not-to-be-explained problem. It is our only option.
That Friday I received an angry call from the finance office, whom I had never spoken to before, convinced they did not know about my existence, apart from my yearly standard tax declarations. The bottom line of the call, which fortunately had gone to voicemail, was this: what about the VAT declaration I had handed in, where were the receipts and why did I suddenly hand in this declaration at all? Please call back immediately. I sat in a cafe, staring at my phone in awe. What the fuck had just happened? This was destroying my entire plan. And I could not make sense of it. I had not handed in ANYTHING. Before this day I has not even known what a VAT declaration was. I finally called back and tried to explain exactly this to the angry late fourties officer, but she did not care. You did this, you did this, she kept bitching, it is in my system so it must be true. I threatened her with my nonexistent lawyer but she did not care. So I had to write a letter, telling them to ignore all of this. Could someone accidentally be using my tax number? No, impossible. Why? Because it has never happened before. Ah…ok. But what to do now? That is your problem.
I had to postpone the handing in of my documents by a week and try to solve this problem, which turned out to be unsolvable. A month later another angry call: I don’t know what you want from me, Ms Korthues, first you write an angry letter and now you hand in ANOTHER declaration for March??? IT – IS – NOT – ME. In the end only yelling. The Council had done an excellent job. This problem was so absurd that not even Germany’s finance office had any clue how it could have occurred and why it was happening to me, of all people… After two weeks I just gave up. The insomnia had started and I had literally no energy to do anything but lie in bed. That was that. The Council had won.
So these were some of the highlights of my past months. As you might have noticed I left out my personal life. I have my reasons. One week ago suddenly things started to get better. It was like a knot in a thick rope. Once the knot is there, there is no use fighting it, it will only tighten more and more. But once one loop losens the rest can follow. The first loosening loop was my former roommate’s news that in our awesome flat directly at Praca Figueira a room had become available for June. Against all financial responsibility I decided to take it. And felt happiness, no, euphoria. Next, I received a mail from a really embarrassed financial officer stating that indeed someone had used my tax number by accident and the VAT issue had been solved. Apolgies, etc etc. And then, finally, on Wednesday, the letter saying that for the next nine months I am not only financially but also geographically independent.
So why “the Berlin rant”? Truth is, I had planned to write this post before all of this happened and I didn’t want it to be taken away from me. And some things still remain. There is a connection between me being unhappy and Berlin, but it is not Berlin, it is me. So the real acceptance stage is not accepting to return here and create a life, but accepting that Berlin and I are not happy together. So I am breaking up with Berlin. Returning to Lisboa in the summer is just step 1 (we are taking a break). I definetely plan to return there many times from now on – with my new status it is just a flight ticket away. And my 30th birthday is in November. I think this is a day that should be celebrated wherever you are happy. Especially when apart from happiness you do not have anything else to show for. My best friend, when I asked her if she had ever seen me as happy as I was in Portugal, said: “Maybe when you did Erasmus.. but definetely never here.” So in the end I have to thank Berlin. I was not strong enough to accept the end of our relationship, with all its implications. But Berlin was, and it has kicked me hard again and again to show me: Face it, Rebekka, this is not right! So I guess I will move. Hamburg has water, and a Portuguese quarter, so it may be a good interim destination before I manage to live in Lisbon. Or, maybe, I stay here in Berlin but just accept it for what it is: the dressing room, not the stage.