The Breaking and Making of Myself in Berlin

By Felicity Edwards

“You’re asking me to lower the rent?” the main tenant of the apartment questioned me condescendingly.

I sat there, palms sweating, fidgeting nervously. Twelve hours of working non-stop hung heavily on my body and I could feel tears welling up behind my eyes.

I responded, “Not by much. It’s just that the washing machine doesn’t work, neither does the internet. My door doesn’t lock and there are mice. So, it’s not really up to par as advertised for the price.”

His eyes bore into my soul as his chest puffed up and he readied himself to deliver his diatribe, “Do you know how lucky you are to be here? This is Berlin! This is how it is! When I first arrived here, I was in a house with seventeen other people. Christ! Five hundred and eighty euros for a bedroom in Friedrichshain is a damn good price. And you think you can…”

And so it went on. I went to sleep that night shaking. This was my third day in Berlin.

I’d always considered myself to be a fairly strong and independent person. Growing up, I helped support my single mother. The moment I turned sixteen, I always had a job. I went off to London for university and remained there for work post-graduation whilst juggling several jobs to pay rent.

Making the choice to move to Berlin seemed like a daunting prospect, but ultimately manageable. After saving for nearly a year, I booked the ticket and was finally ready. I envisaged excitement, exhilarating challenges, navigating the city and exploring new avenues. Yes, I knew there would be difficulties. But nothing worth having comes easy, right?

I expected to be thrown into the deep end but my perception didn’t quite match the depth of reality. For the first half a year, I worked tirelessly at a startup which demanded six to seven day weeks of gruelling hours, being constantly on call and expecting to complete numerous vague tasks with scarce training, whilst dealing with erratic and demanding bosses. I dragged myself to the coffee machine every morning and counted to ten reminding myself why I was here. I needed the money, quitting was not an option at the moment.

My working situation was coupled with my endless fervent search for a new place to stay. After escaping the first squalid room in Friedrichshain, I’d moved around from place to place for a month here and a month there all over the city. The routine of packing up my belongings, heaving my suitcase onto the U-bahn, sweat pouring off me in the ferocious summer heat was all too familiar. In the evenings, after each move, I’d have a beer and walk to wander around familiarising myself with my new temporary territory. I felt exhausted, but at least I was busy, and the idea of stagnating was far worse to me.

Navigating German bureaucracy was another aspect I was unprepared for. Along with learning the language and attempting to converse effectively through all my paperwork, I was thrown by the sheer level of anxiety in going to these appointments, filling out this and that document. The tasks, mind you, of which before moving I would have assumed to be fairly straightforward. They were far from it.

The people I met flitted in and out of my life like butterflies and there was little intimate continuity. My friends and family back home continued their lives and expected reports of delight, excitement, and happiness over my great adventure. I became insular after realising I couldn’t muster the levels of enthusiasm they were anticipating with each message or phone call. I focused negatively on myself.

Asense of isolation and feeling adrift characterised my being. And quite frankly, I felt angry at myself for finding it all so difficult. How had this gone wrong? Was I just weak and useless? Why couldn’t I get a grip and just go with the flow? Why did it feel like every damn thing I did was to just keep my head above water?

Occasionally, when my exasperation surfaced and I compared London and Berlin’s negative sides, I always saw them as two housemate analogies.

London, I was a glitzy and glamorous person, but ultimately far too gifted in cajoling you into going out and frittering away your cash one too many nights a week, leaving you to pick up the bill. Then the second you were broke, she dropped you and no longer a part of the inner circle.

Berlin, another vibrant housemate, but one which you could never pin down to a certain type apart from being ‘alternative’. He was exciting and gregarious, but also peaceful and shrewd. Although, make no mistake that if you screwed up, his steel-toed boot would be the first thing you’d feel kicking your face come the morning.

Having struggled with mental health issues before, I am aware of feeling the metaphorical edge, teetering and terrified at the distance I could potentially fall. In Berlin, it felt as if I was flung right off the edge and clinging to a piece of fraying rope as I tried to scramble back to the top.

I remember eventually asking a friend who had lived in Berlin for five years if it got any easier.

He said, “Well, yeah, it does. But quite frankly it took me over two years to feel comfortable here. I even thought about packing it all up and going home on a few occasions. You need to ride it out, but you’ll get there.”

My friend’s words stuck with me as I marveled at how it had taken him so long to even begin to feel comfortable here. Interesting enough, I felt comfort through his words. It would get easier. Eventually.

I have since surpassed the two year mark. I will say it has become easier, but not for the reasons I expected. When I look back and reflect the role Berlin played in breaking and making me, I realised that it had stripped me bare of so many of me preconceptions, notions and assumptions and placed me at a crossroads, asking me which path I wanted to take. I could choose to see the chaos with curiosity and explore it, or I could fold, shut down and become a victim of the situation.

To this day, it’s still not easy, and the flux can rear its head at any point. But one thing I do know is that the only thing for certain is change, and the only constant is the mind and body in which we inhabit for this time. I am not the same. I am different, and the lessons I’ve learnt are far more valuable than anything I could have hoped for; to forge meaning through the strife and build identity. That’s what I’ll always strive towards.