Yesterday was hard. In a way that made me not want to talk about it. I guess because I felt silly, or maybe because I was simply struggling to find the words to explain it suitably.
After a night of good food, great company, and fine discussion, I slept peacefully. I woke the next morning full of beans, and ready to embrace the bright and beautiful day. The weather here really was gorgeous.
I was up and out of the house by 10am ready to do a walking tour using ‘The Berlin Experience’ route from my guide book as a, well, guide.
I took the S-Bahn from Wollankstraße to Nordbahnhof, and walked up through the Berlin Wall Memorial.
There was a group of students in bright blue hoodies following a guide around the site. I hung back and waited for there to be distance between us.
The Berlin Wall stretched out ahead of me on my left. First, were the copper coloured rusting bars that had initially supported the concrete slabs of segregation, followed by the remainder of wall still in its entirety.
I worked my way around the memorial site, reading the information points, only making the mistake of pressing the ‘English Audio’ button once to hear the voice of an informative historian boom out louder than felt comfortable in such a quiet and serene place. I shuffled awkwardly and tried to look like I hadn’t noticed.
I finished the memorial site and stood looking at my guide book to see where I was next supposed to go, aware that I was the only person standing on the grass while everyone else stuck to the paths.
The guide book told me to next take the S-Bahn to the GDR Museum. Cool. OK. But where is the GDR Museum? Why wasn’t it clear which S-Bahn station I was supposed to be travelling to? I took a deep breath and tried not to feel agitated. It’s probably really straightforward, I thought, you’re just not processing the information properly. Read it again, slowly, and look at the map. I tried. I tried. And I tried again. I could feel my chest rising and my stomach turning. Ignore it, I thought. Don’t think about it. I tried to find a way around the situation. What if I don’t even want to take the S-Bahn? What if I want to walk? It’s only twenty three minutes away. But maybe there’s a reason it says to take the S-Bahn and not walk? This route is designed as a day trip. Maybe there isn’t enough time to walk with all the other stuff on it. But I want to walk. I will feel better if I walk too. But what if it ruins the rest of the day because I run out of time? What if…
Just fucking walk.
I felt sick but I told myself not to think about it. You’re walking, I thought, you will feel better soon.
I’m so used to, in these situations, either being able to walk away from the point of stress or anxiety and come back to it later when I’ve calmed down, or having Sion take over, that in my moment of inflexibility and fear, I felt myself crumble a little. I could see it happen. I wasn’t unaware. It was uncomfortable. I didn’t want it to be happening. I wanted to push that part of myself away. I wanted to reject the moment. This is what this trip is all about, facing these moments and learning to deal with them. It’s about you. You are doing this.
I reached the GDR museum, and decided to skip it and move on to the East Side Gallery. It was a beautiful day, I didn’t want to be indoors.
I caught the S-Bahn from Alexanderplatz to Warschauer St.. Walking out of the station, tiredness hit me.
I found a Korean street food stall, ordered spicy chicken and potatoes, and sat down. A girl joined my table. My food arrived. She watched me eat the chicken, sauce dripping down my hands, breadcrumbs falling to the floor. “Is it good?” She asked.
“Delicious. Exactly what I need.”
She smiled. After I’d finished, we got talking. She was from Milan and was on holiday before the start of her next term. She’d just been in Prague. She pointed out the direction of the East Side Gallery to me, said it was lovely, offered me some of her dumplings, “There are too many for me.”
I walked up to the East Side Gallery and dawdled at the edge for a minute or so.
It was strange to see such pieces of work themselves having been covered in graffiti. Was this an act of taking back the wall as well? Or just disrespect and ignorance for a piece of history?
The street alongside the East Side Gallery was heaving. Tourists practically lined it from one end to the next. It was suffocating. I was overwhelmed.
I walked about half way and took a break to sit on some steps in the sun, and escape the onslaught of people happy snapping their way along the wall taking photos of themselves and each other, posing with intentionally nonchalant expressions.
Having finished East Side Gallery I was ready to move on. Checkpoint Charlie was next so I headed there, walking again instead of taking the S-Bahn.
When I arrived at Checkpoint Charlie I immediately regretted it. Men dressed as guards wandered the streets for people to pay and pose with in return. Small coaches of men on stag dos unloaded onto the streets. If East Side Gallery had been overwhelming, this was drowning.
I escaped into a cafe and bought an overpriced coffee. I tried to use the toilet but you had to pay 50c and I had just spent the last of my loose change on the coffee. I googled the nearest public toilets. There weren’t any.
I walked and walked to find somewhere that had some. They all cost money.
I took out more cash and tried to find a shop that would change it for me. None of them would. I bought a bottle of water and the woman overcharged me. I couldn’t be bothered to argue. I’d been trying to get to a toilet for an hour now, and was exhausted. I was in Berlin Mall and it was unbearable. I don’t even like shopping centres in the UK, the air-conditioning always makes me feel ill.
I finally had coins. Found the toilet. Used it, and sat there for an additional five minutes just to make it feel worth the extraordinary effort I’d been forced to put in to get here.
How do homeless people cope with these situations? It must be so much worse…
When Sion and I had been in Manchester on the days leading up to my flight, I’d struggled with the poverty on the streets. Everyone just seemed to be looking the other way. But how could they? Was it easy? Did they not feel awful doing so? I couldn’t understand how people could act as if these people were simply not there. Refusing to even look them in the eye.
In Berlin, it was so much worse. At one point I saw a kid, younger than me, probably mid teens. He had a sign. I felt his grief. We made eye contact. I smiled. He didn’t. I gave him €1. I could have given him more.
I caught the S-Bahn home and sat writing in my notebook. A man hobbled by on crutches and said something to me I didn’t understand. He pointed at my bottle of water. I nodded. He took it and put it in his pocket and carried on down the train repeating the words to other passengers. He went by a group of girls. They were around about sixteen. Their eyebrows perfect. Their hair immaculate. They’d been shopping together. The bags nestled around their feet. They saw him coming and looked hard out of the window until he passed, only to turn around, and point and laugh at his back. Other passengers were not dissimilar, but not all were as mean, although I saw none of them give him anything.
I pulled myself together.
As I got off the S-Bahn, I moved quickly to get back to the apartment. I could feel myself breaking. I made it only as far as the front door and my face was streaming. I rang Sion.
“I’m not a city girl.” I sobbed.
“Berlin has no public toilets. Tap water is not free. People are not kind. There are too many homeless people. No one seems to care. Everyone looks the other way. How are they looking the other way?”
“Go for a walk and find a cafe where you can have some quiet time. You need to process everything.”
I walked around the block. Looked at a cafe, was offered a spliff by a man sat with his friends drinking larger, decided to go back to the apartment.
That evening I just wanted sleep. I was exhausted and I felt disappointed in myself for having had such an emotional day. This is supposed to be your life-changing, incredible trip around Europe. Not some anxiety inducing palaver. Get a fucking grip and get over yourself.
We are all our own worst critics.
The problem (and benefit!) with Couchsurfing is that you are often staying with people who actively want to host you. Now, most of the time that is absolutely wonderful. In fact, that’s why I chose Couchsurfing! But when you’re emotionally and physically drained, you don’t want to be hosted, you want to Netflix and chill with your partner or by yourself, preferably in silence, with a blanket and a beer and/or cup of tea. But that isn’t an option all the time when you’re being hosted.
I took some time by myself when I got in. Skyped my parents. Read some emails. And managed to recoup just enough for dinner. Cati and Claudia came over from the other flats, and we shared a multi-course meal. Anders loves to cook and best of all, loves to feed people.
We laughed and ate, and I was grateful for their companionship and distraction. I started to wane towards the end. I felt as though they noticed, and I felt rude for dipping, but I couldn’t help it.
I think I took for granted just how exhausting travelling would be. I knew there would be hard days, difficult moments, homesickness, fear, and all the rest of it. I went into this very aware that my trip would not be a montage of millennial Instagram #travel #Europe #YOLO moments. But I also didn’t think it would be like this. I am learning every day in ways and moments that I hadn’t anticipated.