Four years ago tonight, right around this time, I had just checked into a hostel in the district of Friedrichshain. The first day of my first move to Berlin. I moved here for odd reasons, essentially following the call of destiny, and had no truly firm expectations about anything. However, as my taxi from the airport rolled through the streets in the dark, I distinctly recall that I thought, “I’ve made a mistake.” Berlin’s vast expanses of empty space and its sea of graffiti were a disappointing contrast to all the bustle and the meticulous attention to glitzy surface appearances that had charmed me in Shanghai. I missed the beauty I lived amidst in China, not expecting to find beauty right here now in this much less glittering Berlin.
In fact, the only thing I did that first night in Berlin before going to bed was make plans with a friend and book a ticket to Aalen, leaving the very next morning! after waking up before the crack of dawn to go on an adventure someplace else.
… And that was beautiful. And finding myself in Aalen on my very first full day in Germany was lovely. Aalen forever holds a special place in my heart.
But then that weekend and Aalen and Munich’s Oktoberfest were over. And it was back to the spontaneous, little-informed choice I had made when I bought my plane tickets: Berlin.
Germany’s autumns are decisively gray, and that October was also windy and cold — windi-er and cold-er than October usually is around these parts. At least for the first three weeks or so. I continually questioned why I was here, whether I had made the right choice. But it didn’t take me very long at all to realize that, in fact, I had. Because Berlin, more than any other place that I had ever known, was a city that felt like it reflected my very own heart. Its maxims of live-and-let-live, love-and-let-love, unabashed authenticity, respect through transparency, and compassionate memory. And that year, in each month of my stay, there was a new reason to celebrate: Oktoberfest, then the quarter-century anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, then the famous Christmas markets. Every week, magic was somewhere to be found.
Also, trippy enough, I felt frequently like I was still back in Shanghai; Berlin reminded me of that city so hard — a sentiment I’ve heard from two other friends I met in Shanghai who also decided to move to Berlin. I don’t know what it is, but the places resonate somehow the same, I guess. I even accidentally ended up living on a street in Berlin whose name I didn’t realize was an exact transliteration of the first street I’d ever lived on in Shanghai.
I thought I’d gone far away, but I hadn’t.
During those months, I was broke (as usual) and struggling to find work capable of sponsoring a visa, so I found free things to do around the hours of my freelance editing and tarot card-reading. I took long walks. I spent countless afternoons in the library. I found peace in the most unexpected places. I met people who would become very significant in my story. I didn’t know it, but I was planting seeds that would take root, whose fruit would nourish me — and others — years later. (I mean this in a short-range sense, that of just a few years… but maybe I am saying something beyond that; maybe the fruit from the seeds I planted will nourish still more…)
After nearly three months, I still wasn’t able to get a visa, so I just went home to the U.S. while I figured out my next steps. In the end, I felt Germany calling again. And yet again, there were the strange coincidences to confirm. “Yes, come, this is the place. It will be new this time.”
And it has been, and yet so much of the old that I have loved all along is also still very much a part of my experience here.
It would honestly take me a book (or three) to explain the role that this city has played in the journey of my soul, the shaping of who I am. It’s a pretty magical thing to take a leap based on nothing but the sense that you’re supposed to — not even any concrete expectations — entering into the fall with a heart totally open… and to be met with pure magic. Some results are immediate, some are not… but all comes in divine time.
I’ll close with some lines from a poem that came to me very synchronistically in the days before I left for Germany the first time. I can’t remember the author (I will add the poet’s name if I can find it — or if any of you recognize who wrote this, PLEASE let me know! I have the book at “home” in Pennsylvania and don’t have access to it now to check the author or the title.) However, what I can remember is that the book came to me in a very synchronistic fashion, and this poem in particular hit me like a ton of bricks; it told me why I was coming here before I even knew. (So much magic in this world. So much love.) Here are the lines:
come un’automa del dovere
per quest’Europa frammentata e antica…
E di nascosto inseguivo un tracciato-immaginato
il richiamo di un senso-limpido
che si sottrae alla presa
La ricerca riflettuta dell’identita perduta
[My rough translation: I walked blindly, like an automaton of duty, through this old, fragmented Europe… And I secretly pursued a path imagined, the vital instinct heard, clear call of a sense that eludes one’s grasp… The search, a reflection of an identity lost.]
And so, I am back in Berlin, near midnight on an October 1, NOT thinking I made a mistake this time, NOT immediately buying a ticket to someplace else. Just thankful. Very thankful to be here. ❤️