On the 26th September 2017, I said goodbye to my husband at Manchester Airport and boarded a flight for Berlin.
“Alone? But why?!”
I’ve told many people who have asked me this that it’s because my husband couldn’t get the time off work and that we agreed I should go it alone as opposed to not going at all. But in all honesty, there are so many other reasons I have done this.
There is so much about myself that I want to learn and confront, and sometimes you can’t do that with the honesty you deserve giving yourself when you know you have external validation and reassurance from your peers. The hands you are so familiar with holding you. Sometimes, the kind of honesty with oneself I am seeking comes from being alone.
Amanda Palmer talks about a similar kind of experience at a yoga retreat she once attended, where those there were asked to sit and look each other in the eyes for no more than five minutes. Participants were asked to really look at one another. See the person in front of them. See in to them. Really see them. Palmer describes how after only the first minute the experience broke her down into tears. For the first time, she writes, she felt as though someone could actually see her.
It is this kind of honesty that I want to have with myself. It is this kind of journey that I want to embark on.
The first twenty four hours were rough. I arrived at Schönefeld Airport at 4:00pm. Having made my way through to security, and out of the airport, I located a bus stop. I knew I was supposed to be catching the 171 and that I was in the right place for catching it, so it was just a matter of waiting. But as I waited I could see that everyone getting on the other buses pulling up were just sitting straight down, none of them buying a ticket from a driver. I went inside to ask the woman at the Tourist Information desk how I should buy a ticket for a bus to Niemetzstraße. At this point a confusing exchange took place whereby I don’t know if we misunderstood one another or whether she was just grumpy and unpleasant. Either way, I took myself back outside and waited for the bus, deciding I would ask the driver. The 171 rolled up almost immediately. I saw people buying tickets from a machine so I thought I’d give it go, but it being all in German, and me being clueless at this point, I was at a loss. I approached the driver who was standing smoking. “Excuse me, how can I buy a ticket?”
“Nein! Nein! Too late missy. You European?”
“Too late now. Shoo! Shoo! Get on the bus!”
“Get on the bus? But…”
“Yes, too late now, shoo!”
Bemused and somewhat perturbed, I got on the bus and sat upfront, waiting to be told off for not having a ticket. But instead, the driver boarded, winked at me, and drove us off.
I had no idea how many stops there were before we reached Niemetzstraße so I trusted my directions and waited for the name to appear on the screen at the front of the bus announcing each upcoming and current stop.
After about fourty minutes, Niemetzstraße came up on the screen. By this point we had driven quite far into the suburbs.
It is worth mentioning at this point that for the duration of my time in Berlin I had arranged accommodation through the website Couchsurfing whereby you can apply to stay with people for free in their homes. Before anyone freaks out, check it out! It’s perfectly safe if you use it properly and is a great way to travel as you a) save money, b) meet new people, c) can participate in fantastic cultural exchange, and d) get the best tips on where to go and what to do in the area that you’re staying in using your host’s local expertise!
My host Kelly had told me nothing about Niemetzstraße and I had not looked it up prior to arriving. Perhaps I should have done, or perhaps my host should have warned me, but Neukölln (the area I was now in) is not the… softest of areas! In short, it’s quite rough.
Combine this with the fact that upon arriving I found that my phone would not work and my laptop was refusing to turn on, and I suddenly felt more alone and lost than I’d ever expected myself to, irrespective of the fact that in part that’s what this trip had been about. I hadn’t ever considered being alone and lost.
But here I was.
I walked around for a while looking for a cafe in the hope of some WiFi, and eventually, due to some helpful strangers, located what I only now know as “The Pink Cafe”. I bought a drink, connected to the WiFi, and proceeded to sob quietly into my almond raspberry latte (it was caffeine free. Don’t ask. I have no idea either.)
At this point I tried to ring Sion (husband), but our call wouldn’t connect properly. I could hear him, but he couldn’t me. Eventually, the phone call proceeded like this, “Hope, I can’t hear you, I don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can, I hope everything’s OK and that you’re alright. If it’s not, keep calling. Otherwise, I love you, and I know you can do this. I love you.”
Eventually, I asked one of the people working in the cafe whether I could use their phone to ring my host (from hereon known as Kelly) who helpfully obliged, and even spoke to Kelly for me when I failed completely to pronounce the name of the cafe. Kelly said she’d meet me there.
Upon arriving, Kelly threw her arms around me and asked me if I was OK. It was good to finally know I was going in the right direction. Although I was still feeling raw from crying.
We got back to the flat and I rang Sion. Our call connected. “What if I can’t do this?” I cried quietly into the phone.
“Of course you can. You’re at your first house! You’ve arrived. That’s brilliant. And if it’s still awful in a week or even less, you can ring me, and come home.”
That night Kelly took me to a Turkish restaurant in the centre of Neukölln. It was lush. Turkish people know how to cook their vegetables and they make sublime hummus. “Whenever people ask me about Neukölln is like to live in, I tell them it is Little Istanbul! All the streets here are dominated by Turkish shops and places to eat. Some of the shops, I don’t even know what they’re called or for, because they’re not in German!”
She wasn’t wrong. The streets were lined with different Turkish cuisines and supermarkets. The smells were amazing. Outside some of them people sat drinking small glasses of what I assumed was black sweetened tea, and in front of others they smoked shish that filled the air with the smell of liquorice and smoke. Next Kelly took me to a roof top bar. We went in through the front of a shopping centre and arrived at the top in a multistorey carpark. I thought maybe I’d misunderstood, but as we walked up the ramp to the final level, ivy trailed its way down the walls intertwined with fairy lights and other foliage. Jazz music could be heard increasing in volume as we wound our way round the corner. As we got to the top I was amazed. The floor was covered in wooden panelling, and in the walls grew micro gardens. Metal sculptures of cats and cars sat perched in various places, and at one point there was even a giant sand pit (I should have really taken photos, I know!).
That night, I cried myself to sleep. In the group chat between my family and best friends, everyone was wishing me well and saying how much they loved me. I didn’t tell any of them how broken I was feeling. How scared I was. How out of my fucking depth I felt.
The next morning I woke up terrified. I had spent the night having nightmares. Kelly had gone to work. I was alone and in another country far away from the people who brought me comfort and reassurance. Isn’t this what I had wanted? Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this. Maybe I just couldn’t do this. Maybe I had exceeded my own limitations. I rang Sion.
“What if I really can’t do this? What if I’m just not cut out for this? Do you really, honestly, think I can do this? Be honest with me, please.”
“Of course I do. You have all the necessary skills. You are more than equipped. Hope, do you really think I’d have put you on a flight to Berlin if I didn’t think you could do this? This was always going to start off hard. It was always going to be like this at the beginning. But you’ll adjust. You will be OK. And you’re going to have an amazing time. And if you don’t. You can absolutely come home.”
Leaving the flat that morning was one of the hardest things ever. I didn’t have a key to get back in. So it was either in or out for the whole day until Kelly returned from work.
But I did it. I set myself two goals, 1) go to a phone shop to sort out my phone, and 2) buy a pair of sunglasses. Setting those two goals gave me something to focus on, and although I didn’t accomplish either, it got me outside and suddenly, I was actually OK.
I wasn’t quite ready to hop on the S-Bahn and go zooming around Germany. But I was ready to explore, and put one foot in front of the other. I was ready to be alone with myself, and explore this beautiful and brilliant world.