“… But while my loved ones was fighting a continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one.”
-Kendrick Lamar [Hood Politics]
Summer is officially over. The days are shorter and the air has cooled to body temperature. The sky has taken on that faded haze, like God is smoking a joint and can’t be fucked dialling up the colours any more. The birds are gathering in their murmurations and mesmerising the pedestrians who walk beneath them…or maybe that’s just me.
Autumn is here. Before I lived in Australia, it was my favorite season of the year – the sky was bluest and the trees were at their loveliest. Cinnamon. Cloves. Pumpkins. Halloween. I never wanted October to end…but after 7.5 years in the Southern hemisphere, where I often spent these days dodging large magpies with razor-sharp beaks and drunken carnival attendees on the tram, it feels different. It feels like winter is coming…and it’ll be my second one of the year.
To say I’m dreading it would be an understatement. I think back to just 6 weeks ago when I was traipsing through Leipzig on a bicycle and laid out on the beach of Cossi baking beneath the sun amongst a sea of nude Europeans and I want to cry. Or closer still, performing at Köpi with Lisa Skye on a warm night while punk rock bands made the walls of the squat complex shake. I miss walking through Mitte on a weekend and eating strawberries by the punnet. I miss opening my windows the moment I walk into my flat to get air circulating, instead of pulling on my Converse socks to keep my feet from freezing on the wooden floors.
I HATE the cold. I say that as someone from Chicago. I hate, hate, hate the cold. But here it comes…like a sledgehammer.
…and it’s going to hit a wall.
No, wait. That’s me. I hit a wall.
Rather, I crashed into one…head first. No seatbelt. I moved into my flat, which is small but perfect, and the excitement that might normally be expected to follow was replaced instead with severe anxiety.
Only a month into what I can hope is my tenure in this city and I had already encountered the following characters:
**A narcissistic paediatrician, bordering on psychotic, who I believed to be a friend until he proposed to me in a WhatsApp message while on a combined MDMA/LSD trip. He laughed like a villain from an 80s action flick and had hair all over his neck and back that looked like he was smuggling an exotic carpet through customs. He made consistent attempts to touch my hair while it was an afro and bragged about the women in Africa who threw themselves at him while he was working for MSF in Cameroon, refusing to acknowledge the unique position he was in to exploit their socio-economic desperation as the privileged white European doctor he was, taking his pick of women who didn’t have better options, while reducing them to a colour fetish.
So! After declining said proposal [crazy, right?] and telling him that I didn’t want to see him anymore in any capacity, he followed up with a detailed outline of our life together for the next two years, in which I would abdicate my freedom during winter in Berlin to be his live-in warm hole while he saved lives in Mozambique. Needless to say, I wasn’t persuaded. Upon declining yet again, he followed up with his most charming suggestion to date: “Well, we should at least have one good fuck.” I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that this naturally concluded in one of the most severe responses I have ever issued to a fuckboy in my life, which included the words “fucking you would be beneath me” and “If past lives are real, I hope I come back as you so that I too can experience your level of entitlement.” He subsequently blocked me and retreated to his lair to lick back to health what I can only assume are the festering wounds once occupied by his fragile ego, before I crushed it to pieces. Meanwhile, I was over here screen-shotting that conversation and sending it to my girls like…
And while I normally believe in extending the respect a pseudonym would naturally imply to almost everyone in my writing, this motherfucker who makes more money than god and trounces around the world using his status to his advantage to exploit women of colour as his personal sex slaves [and BRAGGING about it] can go straight to hell, or to your Google search…you just have to ask me if you want to know his real name.
**I also had a female stalker who, for all intensive purposes, was a lovely human being, but deeply unhinged. As a woman who has grown up in the loving presence of a mother with severe mental illness, I think I am more finely attuned to picking up on the mental health issues of women than men. Men still get past my radar [as evident by the above] because social expectations have conditioned them to hide emotional distress and disguise it as masculinity [rather than the vulnerability to which they’re entitled]. I still fall for that some times…that macho bullshit that makes me think I’ve done something wrong to agitate a man who simply is not equipped with the psychological tools to unpack his own emotions.
…But women…when I see it, it hits a personal nerve, and I run. I run because I know there’s nothing I can do. In Leila’s* case, I saw someone who was desperate to connect to another human being, but I could’ve been anyone. I was open and playful and we appeared to have a lot in common, before I realized that she was merely aligning her interests to match my own after asking many in-depth questions to figure out what they were:
“Oh you like Tori Amos? Me too. Oh ‘Winter’ is your favourite song? MINE TOO. Oh, you were deeply unhappy at your last job? What a coincidence! I HAD A COMPLETE PSYCHOTIC MELTDOWN.”
[…it’s funny, because Pocahontas is actually my cartoon twin.]
After our first coffee catch up, we were sending each other daily WhatsApp messages, throughout the day. Or rather…I was responding to them…trepidatiously. When I became sick, she checked in frequently to see how I was feeling, which felt nice being in a new city and so far away from a familiar face. She even offered to help me move into my new flat…after one coffee. After our second catch up, this time over dinner and sekt [sparkling wine] we found ourselves at Rose’s Bar in Kreuzberg where she unloaded a series of unfounded emotional confessions that had me sinking into the sticky leather couch until I swear I became part of the fixtures.
Leila was intense. Leila was talking like she was in love. Leila wanted to see me naked, photograph me, take me places and build life together from scratch to the soundtrack of Morrissey [and, sure, probably Tori Amos]. And despite Leila’s loveliness, Leila was freaking me out…hard core. I went home alone that night…and the next day, after waking up to no less than a dozen texts from her [and more than 50 Instagram notifications] I told her that I didn’t want to be friends any longer, and wished her the best. She responded calmly, even though I felt terrible about the idea of hurting her. She really did just seem lonely…
…until she showed up on my doorstep. Twice. Once at 6:30pm and another time at 12:30am. My AirBnB flatmate at the time, who shooed her away on my behalf, laughed and shook his head at me. “Oh Jennifer,” he said, “You pick ‘em.”
**By the way, it’s also worth mentioning that the woman who ran my second AirBnB stole a pair of my underwear. It was a pair bought for me by a stranger while I tried them on in a luxury lingerie store in Mitte called Blush. I loved that underwear. I hate her. She smoked in her underwear in the kitchen at 1am with the windows closed and had a hoarse cough that sounded like sandpaper.
**Three French girls who wound up on my doorstep when they realized that the AirBnB they had paid for [another one in my building at the time] didn’t actually exist. My host was in Mallorca at the time, so I snuck them into my flat and they stayed in one of the free bedrooms, leaving early in the morning before I woke up, after folding up their blankets and washing the dishes. I liked them…I hope they’re okay, wherever they are.
There are many other people, of course…some are worth mentioning: comedians with brilliant wit and severe cognitive dissonance, neighbours who drink themselves into a stupor and then play KRS-One at 2am on weekdays, another female stalker I met at Kit Kat club, a lovely British Masters student with whom I bonded after we both crashed a networking event for the free food, hilarious German classmates with unique, charming personalities and equally as brilliant German class teachers.
…and then there are some people not worth mentioning at all. **pours some sekt out for the homies**
I guess all of this would be okay, if it hadn’t been compounded by that one time I was followed home by three men from the U-Bahn station. They grabbed my hair and my arm and called out to me in English.
They laughed at me when I swatted them away, and when I realized that we were the only ones on the street, and when I saw how they were looking at me…well, let’s just say, I know when men are showing off, and when they have intentions to do harm. In this case, it was definitely the later. I felt my stomach lurch like it does when I’m sick and adrenaline flooded my body. So I ran, and I knew it was the right thing to do when they ran after me. I got to my building before they did, and shut the door on them hard, after which I had two thoughts: 1. I’m okay and 2. They know where I live now.
I called Darren and he came over. He stayed with me until the police arrived and I was able to tell them what had happened.
There was a woman, whose name was not visible, whose name I will not repeat. They walked and spoke and looked at me like cops do…skeptically. I didn’t exactly feel comfortable having them in my home, or anywhere near me, but I had hoped they would be different from the police in America or Australia. After telling them what happened, in detail, they said they couldn’t do much. They didn’t grope any of my girly bits, they didn’t threaten to rape me, they didn’t pull a weapon on me…so the assault was too minor to be, well, an assault. “If they had done more, we could do more…”
“Well, I’m kind’ve glad they didn’t, you know, ‘do more.’”
She shrugged. “That’s Neukölln…this isn’t the safest area.”
I escorted them out of my flat and Darren, offering much support and several hugs, left shortly after. I took a hot bath and a sleeping pill then stared at the ceiling all night.
The thing is…I feel about 90% certain that the leader of the three was a man from the hair salon where I got my twists in. He had an unusual hair style, dark on the bottom and blonde on the top with a cut through like a bad 90s hip hop video. He stood behind me for 3.5 hours while the salon owner did my hair, and stared down at me, through me, like he saw nothing but reproductive organs. And when I shouted at him what he found so interesting, the woman who did my hair said “Oh what do you expect? He’s a man. Men stare at beautiful women.”
…but he wasn’t a man. He was a kid. I would be surprised if he was older than 20.
But the night I was followed, it was dark. I wasn’t sure if his hair was blonde on top or if the street light just reflected off of his dome. I didn’t get a good enough look, and because I couldn’t tell the cops with absolute certainty that it was definitely him, they didn’t do anything, and racial profiling is an issue I want to avoid as much as anyone else wants to avoid being the subject of it.
Still…say it with me now… “If only you had been assaulted more…”
In the aftermath of the incident, I became a little paranoid. The next day, I had a business dinner in Mitte and rather than go home so late, I crashed with a friend close by. I began to tie my hair back, so nobody could grab it. I stopped walking around with my ear buds in so that I could hear the noises around me. I made sure my glasses were always on so that I could clearly see faces, hairstyles, hands, eyes…everything. My friend Mareen gave me her kubaton, a hand-held weapon that can only be described as a combination between a metal dildo and brass knuckles. I still walk home with it in my hand.
…but then, I dunno…I don’t know. Life. It just doesn’t stop for anyone, does it? Eventually, I got back into the swing of going to German class for three hours every day without looking over my shoulder. Eventually I started to relax again when men stared at me on the train. I even made a game of it – snapping pictures of them on my phone and sending it to the Instagram account “men who stare” [hilarious if you haven’t seen it] and eventually I started venturing out at night again. It didn’t take long, actually. It’s amazing how quickly the brain recovers…and if I see those chumps again…it is ON.
Coincidentally enough, the day of the incident, I skipped my German class to spend time with Darren. We had lunch in the sunshine and went to the Bahnhof [train station] to take the S-Bahn to Ostkreuz to see Mareen. She got her dogs and we walked to the Stralau Inselspitze, where we sat on the grass overlooking the river and took pictures of the sun reflecting perfectly off the water, unloading our frustrations on each other.
I suppose Berlin is not too dissimilar from any other big city in its criticisms. It’s large and dirty. People are rude and disconnected from one another. It’s status quo to have a lot of acquaintances but few friends. I could’ve just as easily described New York or Los Angeles just now. But unlike other large cities, or the large cities I’ve been to, it’s a city of extremes. It’s just that here, there’s only one extreme…all the way up.
Mareen warned me, she warned both of us back in June. It wasn’t enough to keep us away and I’m glad I came in the end. But in that moment, sitting at the river and reflecting on her initial warning, both Darren and I had to nod solemnly in agreement. This city is exhausting. The intensity of the social climate spins out most people too quickly and results in fried nerves and empty pockets. I realized that I would need to take extra care not to end up amongst the pile of human waste that Berlin spits out like chewing tobacco.
The thing is, I’m a severe introvert [not to be confused with ‘shy’ which I definitely am not]. I love my friends and meeting new people, but I naturally find it exhausting to be around others. Being alone replenishes my energy supply, in the same way that being around others energizes an extrovert. So my first month in Berlin, where I had to throw myself into the lion’s den to meet people, make friends, date, network and mingling with strangers…was more effort spent in socializing than I’ve exerted in the past three years combined. It’s no wonder I crashed. Head first…without a seat belt.
I wasn’t just fighting to make a life here. I was fighting my own anxieties and pushing my limits to a brand new place, in a brand new language, with brand new people…and now I was experiencing the snapback. It’s an uncomfortable feeling…
One day in September, one of the last beautiful days of Summer, I took the train to Potsdam where I rented a bicycle and rode around town for six solid hours. Potsdam is a gorgeous place – filled with breathtaking Prussian architecture, clean cobblestone streets and charming corner cafes. I turned my phone to silent and took pictures of roses and small castles and tree-lined streets. I rode my bicycle down steep hills and shouted “WOOHOO!” as I passed picnicking families and romantic couples, who stopped to stare, smile, scowl or cheer me on. I didn’t mind any which way.
That same day I had several invitations to spend with others, but I knew none of it would have done me any good. I was flat and I needed a come up. I needed a break from people…and expectation and pressure…I had some travel coming up to promote my literary services, and I knew I wouldn’t be any good at those engagements unless I re-centred myself.
So, instead, I listened to Kendrick Lamar and ate pretzels topless in the sunshine next to a river while people canoed past.
…and when he spoke about fighting wars on your own, I knew I would never hear truer words in my entire life.
Which leads me to German bureaucracy. Let’s get into that after my VISA interview next week…the moment of truth.