“She did it anyway…because she is brave.”
**This series will be published in instalments to avoid burnout**
Very recently, Facebook reminded me that I moved to Japan ten years ago. In fact, I arrived in Tokyo on 7 August 2006. From Tokyo, I took a plane with a dozen or so other new college graduates to Yamaguchi, where we were all divided into even tinier groups and shipped off to various parts of the prefecture like neatly wrapped parcels. And like parcels, we carried with us a multitude of different ambitions. Some wanted to learn Japanese. Others wanted to bed as many Japanese women as possible [spoiler alert – I wasn’t one of them].
…I didn’t know what I wanted. Reading my writing from back then, I see that my thoughts were disorganised and emotive [but hilarious]. Still, it feels like I was fighting to shed a skin that didn’t fit me, living a life that wasn’t meant for me and walking against a very strong current telling me that I was wrong to question any of it…I mean, aren’t we all?
I remember so clearly the acute frustration at being unable to do simple things, like buy bread from the baker at SunLive [pronounced ‘Sun-Lee-bu’] because I didn’t know how to tell them to slice it in Japanese. So I lived on onigiri [savoury rice paddies] from the Kombinis [convenience stories] instead. I remember feeling heightened levels of anxiety at the idea of going out with friends, and having to work myself up to take the train for day trips…often leaving at 2-3 in the afternoon. I remember how I would put off going out to cafes by myself, unless Hannah or Ashleigh were available to join me. And I remember riding my bicycle through Kudamatsu in the winter, chasing the sun so I wouldn’t have to worry about getting home after dark, at which point my sense of direction became drastically unreliable. I was overwhelmed by everything and deeply isolated in the heart of a beautiful but lonely place.
And that…was the beginning of a journey that has since taken me around the world…and landed me in the city of my dreams ten years later.
…it’s hard to believe that so much of my life since that day, comes down to just being confused as fuck. But that’s been a constant theme in my life – admitting to myself that it’s okay not to know everything.
I moved to Berlin on 1 August 2016, almost ten years to the day after I moved to Japan…and man, what a difference a decade makes…
Lesson 1: Gratitude
The primary difference between Jennifer in Berlin and Jennifer in Japan is gratitude.
I’m grateful for [almost] every little thing that has happened to me since I landed in this crazy, amazing city. I’m grateful for the filth, the smells, the sounds, the colours and the frustrations that wash over, through and around me like a tidal wave. I’m allowing them to shape me into the person I need to become in order to write this book so that I can die in peace [hopefully, not any time soon].
I’m grateful for a long overdue challenge, and an opportunity to fall in love again…not with a person, but with my life. I feel humbled by the day-to-day difficulties of learning German, and empowered as the words slowly drop into place in my brain like a puzzle, once jumbled by impatient hands.
I’m grateful for…
iPhone music mini-concerts in the park with French artists. Curly fries with South African idealists. Coffee dates with a Bavarian poetess whose voice sounds like honey.
Writing workshops with British iconoclasts. Tutorials on German curse words with chocolate treats and Turkish apple tea. Open air cinema and sweetened popcorn [even though sweet popcorn is just WRONG] on warm summer nights that quickly turn cold.
Bike rides through Potsdam and picnics for one on a river while children swim past.
Salty pretzels at beer gardens shared with retired men thankful for the company of a young, pretty Auslander [foreigner].
But I’m also something else I wouldn’t have called myself ten years ago – ballsy. Yes, I will get up on stage and perform standup comedy. Yes I will try my German at every available opportunity. Yes I will get on that train and ride somewhere new and different to explore, meet new people and have new adventures. Yes I will put my heart on the line and read my writing before an audience of strangers. Yes I will stand in line with your for 2 hours to get into that club and get shoved around by nude gay men during the biggest queer party of the year. Yes I will open my heart up to a beautiful stranger to see what’s possible. And no, I won’t let any disappointment of the aforementioned make me regret the attempt to do so.
Berlin and I have a lot to prove to each other, but here’s what I already know about myself – I am fearless.
And I remind myself of that every morning, as I sit on the ledge of my window with a cup of peppermint tea and honey, swatting away flies and holding ladybugs in my hand. I remind myself to take it in stride, to breathe through the highs and the lows…and to just keep swimming.
Lesson 2: Wilkommen in Deutschland
The excitement I felt when I initially landed in Berlin is difficult to describe. Everything was new and amazing. I got a warm, tingly sensation when an ambulance came racing down the street because the sound a German ambulance makes is so different from the sound an Australian [or American] ambulance makes.
The air pollution made me happy – “Yes! Yes! Fill my lungs with your aerated raw sewage!”
I enjoyed getting yelled at when I crossed a street during a stop signal. “Yes! I’ve never felt so alive!”
I thought to myself over and over again “I live here now…how can that possibly be?” I imagine people who climb mountains have similar epiphanies, except when you’re climbing a mountain, the worst thing you can do is break your neck [Adam Courtenay if you’re reading this, don’t do that when you ascend Everest].
When you move your life to a different country, you also risk breaking your spirit…or rebuilding it…let’s hope it’s the former.
Living in Berlin is like…I came from a world of black and white and then, all of a sudden, someone handed me a pair of glasses that put everything in a Snapseed Instagram filter. And I’m not talking about the colours…I’m talking about the attitude. This city is teeming with it. From its green-haired residents to the crude graffiti on the Kindergarten walls, everything wants to make a statement. People don’t move out of the way for you on the train. Even the dogs who lie in the middle of a crowded car will, at a moment’s notice, tell you off for looking at them the wrong way. People smoke cigarettes in your personal space and blow smoke rings into your kid’s bassinet. Then your kid sits up, takes out his pacifier, takes your cigarette, puts it out on his tongue and lays back down.
Berlin will put hair on your chest, make your testicles drop and put that bass in your voice. Berlin is for hustlers.
But while it’s easy to become hypnotised by the attitude, endless counter-culture and fascinating history…I know I was… it’s also a city that strips layers off of its inhabitants like a cheese grater. There’s too much emphasis on appearance and distinction and not enough on, well, depth or compassion. People are lonely and everyone has an agenda. The city doesn’t produce much, so what we’re left with instead of industry, is counter-culture…a LOT of counter-culture.
Before coming to Berlin, I had always considered myself left of centre. But that was before I came to a city where everyone is in an open relationship, and every person in that open relationship separates their collective garbage into four different bins and then they take turns having sex on those bins while listening to a techno remix of Morrissey’s “Meat is Murder.”
I’m not working on a short film about two cousins who fall in love with each other, you know, “despite the odds.” I’m not starting a new cult that mixes astrology with obscure 12th century Pakistani polygamy. I’m not building a start-up that aims to educate children in developing countries on the benefits of a raw vegan diet because…DO I EVEN HAVE TO FINISH THAT SENTENCE?
I don’t want to drop pills and party all night in a fishnet body suit.
I’m writing a book. And that might have been a noble pursuit back in Melbourne, but here, in Berlin, that’s the most ordinary thing I could possibly do with my life.
To be fair, some people have been really fascinated with the idea. So much so, in fact, that I’ve had to create a cover story in order to avoid revealing the actual premise of my novel. And then…there are the people who feel like my ambitions aren’t unique enough.
So let me be clear – I was raised in a conservative, religious household. I didn’t have access to normal social circles of friends. My parents’ biggest fear was that I would one day become sexually active, so! I was kept under lock and key for almost my entire adolescence and the only escape I had was literature. Except it wasn’t an escape – each book was an opportunity to live a life I would have otherwise not experienced. Each story, autobiography, tutorial and deconstructed lesson helped to shape my world view at a time when I was as yet unable to experience the world itself.
These critical lessons, moments and periods of self-reflection have been replaced in recent times by social media. People growing up now actually think that a world view should be shaped by the views, status updates and Snap Chats of others. The entire process of creating an identity has become an external exercise, where who we are is relative to how others see us on a platform made up of binary code.
I understand I sound like a curmudgeon. I know I sound old. But I want to participate in the tradition that helps people to look inward for answers, instead of desperately asking others.
…To be continued.