Tag Archives: best-laid plans

Check In: A tl;dr* special

The story so far
I set up this blog with the intention of writing about my New Exciting Life In Berlin, which was just sort of okay, and then Berlin fucked up and I started travelling instead. It is now a year since I left Berlin, a year of just me and my rucksack and whoever I met along the way. And there are quite a few things I want to address in this blog post. Therefore, here is today’s agenda:

I. Where I have been and what is going on
II. The importance of balance, which I will attempt to outline without sounding overly self-helpy
III. Stuff that is good

I
Listing all the countries I’ve been to since July 2010 feels like a pointless exercise, because who really cares besides me (there are a couple maps in the sidebar, anyway), but the new ones were Lithuania, Iraq, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. In addition to these I pinballed around quite a bit. It’s all about cheap flights and creative overland solutions and whatnot.

I think it’s about time I mentioned that I’m not actually a wreck any more, okay? I mean with regard to the whole break-up angst that prompted my departure from Berlin. That episode left me with a couple of issues, such as: reduced faith in humanity (oh, the melodrama!) and newfound fear of rejection, but those have faded somewhat with time. However, it’s hard not to tell my story without referencing it to some extent, since it was the impetus that caused me to begin travelling.

Berlin remains kind of a no-go zone for me for the foreseeable future, apart from its airports, which are handy for Leipzig purposes. But I’m okay with this. A big reason why I left Berlin was because I didn’t have a support network there to help me cope with the break-up. Some people opt to endure unpleasant situations to prove they can do it, in order to ‘win’. Whatever. I won by taking back a little control and getting the fuck out. Berlin still makes me feel kind of weird and uncomfortable to think about, which is why I don’t want to revisit it, rather than for fear of running into my ex or something. But that’s okay. Other people can have Berlin. I have the rest of the planet.

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Armidale, New South Wales

I spent six weeks in a country town that claimed to have a population of 25,000, although I suspected it could be fibbing. I made two friends and I had a couple glasses of wine with the next door neighbours. I was looking after a small dog that was a Jack Russell crossed with a chihuahua: ponder that for a moment. She had these spindly legs and sometimes she’d just stare at me and kind of tremble and once in a while she’d get mopey and emit a heavy sigh like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. But she was cute and she couldn’t get up on the sofa by herself so I felt like a giant elevator sometimes. Other times I’d open the sliding door and she’d race into the house, scrabbling, sort of rabbity, and we’d play chase around the dining table. I called her Pickle.

I did some writing and some editing and some audio transcription. I began to structure my days around my 4pm fix of Roseanne, and sometimes my evenings around The Golden Girls and M*A*S*H, and I wept predictably over Go Back To Where You Came From. In one episode of Roseanne, Darlene has a friend round and makes out with him on the couch, which is her first kiss, and plus she gets felt up, and I remembered this episode from when I was fourteen or whatever and how it gave hope to people like me who were being subjected to advice like “if you’d just tie your hair up and wear a little make-up (and look more feminine) then you’d be really pretty and everyone would want to go out with you” and I was all: hell no, these are not my terms and conditions. Also, like all right-minded people, I totally had a crush on Sara Gilbert.

I remembered how whenever I was watching the show my mother would invariably walk into the living-room, pause, and then go, “I can’t stand that woman.” Every time. And I would be like: Shut up, Mother! Let me watch it in peace! I already know you can’t stand her! And it occured to me now that maybe I started calling her “Mother” because Becky does that on the show when she too is exasperated. And on the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death I didn’t know what to do so I just sort of sat out on the deck with a mug of green tea and tried to be peaceful and then went back inside when I was done, but watching Roseanne and hearing my mum’s voice in my head each time the show was on was kind of nice.

I went to the pub twice. The first time, a caged hen farmer in his early twenties took a seat at our table without invitation and began to chat up a vegan. “If you ban eggs from caged hens they’ll just import them from China,” he insisted. “What would you rather have, eggs from Australia or eggs from China?” “I’m a VEGAN,” she reiterated. His bleary drunken eyes swivelled in my direction, as if I was going to back him up. “If the eggs aren’t free-range I don’t want any at all,” I explained. “Where are you from?” he asked. Oh, don’t you derail me. “Who gives a shit where I’m from, we’re talking about chickens!” He seemed confused, turned back to the vegan, got a bit table-thumpy, and eventually went away.

One day I went to the post office and then I got back into the car I’d been lent and sobbed for a few minutes because things hit you at unexpected times. I sobbed for my small family with two members missing, one due to death, the other due to an impasse to which I could see no solution. I sobbed because my refusal to engage with someone who’s hurt me, who has continually demonstrated an absence of respect for me, means that I get to be the one who’s seen as being difficult. I sobbed for a few minutes and then wiped my eyes and drove on, vaguely recalling that someone had maybe said once that I never especially look like I’ve been crying after I’ve been crying.

I located the fruit market and the supermarket and the bakery. I took some clothes out of my rucksack and put them on shelves for a change. I read A Wedding In December by Anita Shreve. (“What’s it about?” asked Holly. “GUESS,” I told her.) It made me think about school reunions, teenage expectations, and who I’d thought I would become. I got to know my surroundings: unfamiliarity dissolved as I discovered shortcuts and worked out where the streets joined up. I got in the car and drove about fifty kilometres to Australia’s second highest waterfall, singing along to mix CDs with the volume up loud, enjoying that the speed was measured in kilometres rather than miles so it looked like I was going faster than I would at home. I saw a peacock-like bird, and another bird that made noises that sounded like a spaceship, and I saw a dead kangaroo by the side of the road. And the sunsets were pretty epic in this part of the world, spreading dramatic colours across big skies that made it feel as if you were driving into a painting.

I heard these scrabbling sounds at night and I thought it was possums but then two nights before my departure I was going through a bottle of wine for no good reason (I woke up the following morning with the hangover of the soul and decided not to do that again) and I heard the noises coming from a cupboard. I opened it. “Oh, hi,” I said out loud, “you’re a really big rat.” For want of any better ideas I closed the cupboard again.

David Byrne’s voice got into my head every so often, that line from Once In A Lifetime: “And you may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?” I recalled the dramatic departure from Berlin almost a year ago, the hurt and the sadness and the bewilderment and the whole goddamn mess. And then all the countries between then and now, all the different experiences, and how unavoidably cliché it feels for the phrase “change in direction” to apply both literally and metaphorically. I thought about loneliness and how it’s ceased to be an issue, and how saying goodbye doesn’t faze me any more because I’m always moving on. I thought about the last time I had stayed in a place for a month or more: that was October, which meant I was getting two autumns in one year, in two different regions both known as New England. I counted how many places I’d slept in the last year: over sixty. Was that all? It didn’t really sound like that many to me, except it averages out to more than one a week which apparently is maybe a lot. I no longer make plans the way I used to; the only time anything is set in stone is when I book a ticket. I may be a year into this way of living but I don’t think I’m anywhere near done with it yet.

Repurposed

January to March
The snow at the beginning of the year increasingly struck me as artificial, like it was really icing sugar, or maybe talcum powder. I went out and got drunk a lot, but I mostly abandoned weekends and saved my adventures for midweek instead. I was opportunistic, but frustrated. I frequently woke up with the hangover of the soul; it was like I was looking for something but not finding it. The previous night would come back to me in flashes and mainly it would look like a pointless exercise. I behaved badly. I was just waiting to leave. Correction: in order to leave I was waiting for term to end so I could get my money’s worth from the Polish classes that I got at a discount on account of my low income. Still, in between the many nights full of bad ideas I managed to make a couple of zines, do a couple of readings, DJ a few times.

I went to Anglesey with La Glitch for my mum’s birthday. We rented a cottage and I lit a candle in a church on the day. Hard to tell whether I’d just gotten used to her absence, or whether I hadn’t given myself sufficient time on this trip to reflect. Four and a half years, though, that was a fuck of a long time. By now it just got reduced to brief moments when I was lying in bed hungover and I’d find myself sobbing hard for five seconds and then I’d stop.

We drank in the pub next to the cottage and an old woman with Parkinson’s disease talked to us and somehow, something about her reminded me of my mother, even though the similarities were subtle. She told us about the time she took a bunch of kids to the zoo and one of them stole a penguin. I’d heard this story before, but without the excuse he provided: My mum won’t let me have a cat, he’d explained. When I got back to Edinburgh, I printed out the Snopes discussion and sent it with a card to the pub, addressed to The Nice Woman Who Drinks Whisky And Lemonade. She wrote back.

Mostly, I felt like my mind was never where I was. Penguin had been picking up on it, she said that it was like I wasn’t really there, wasn’t really focused. I didn’t mean anything bad by it, but it left me without much to say for myself.

Term ended. I got drunk one last time in the Wayside and felt mild regret that I would miss the Bon Jovi tribute band playing at the weekend. I went round to Penguin’s and we made badges together, and the next day I left Edinburgh and flew to Brussels, feeling not a whole lot other than numb.

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Turbulence and missed connections

I sat at the gate at Tegel airport listening to The Golden Hour by Firewater while I waited to board my flight to Heathrow. I think I had bags under my eyes. I was breaking my own no-flying-into-London rule because I was too distraught to care. I was eating grapes for breakfast, lunch and dinner because I’d lost interest in food. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, I just knew that I was leaving, that it was the only good option available to me.

It doesn’t really start with the break-up. It starts a year and a half ago when I joined the redundancy club. I was no longer tied to a place. I could go anywhere at any time. I registered as self-employed and earned a third of my former salary. I struggled to deal with the instability of not knowing when I’d next get a well-paid project. I traded financial security for freedom, and decided it was worth it. I started drifting, taking off places. At first it was the trip to Hong Kong, Macau and Australia, which began six days after I said goodbye to my old job, while my colleagues were busy trying to find new ones. Later it was rural Wales, to recover from punishing my liver with free alcohol throughout the film festival, and because I got a couple of free lifts. In the autumn, frustrated by my sort-of girlfriend’s failed attempts to make it to Edinburgh, I found myself a cheap flight to Barcelona and was there the next day.

But now, with this whole Berlin thing … three and a half months there, living rent-free, being generally happy, and now I felt like I’d taken a holiday from reality. What was going on, really? I left, and few people were going to care that I’d left: not that that is a measurement worth looking at. The night before I flew to Heathrow, I raided the bathroom cabinet and gathered my findings together for a game of What The Fuck Is This. Pills labelled in Czech, Danish and Spanish. I wasn’t looking to do anything drastic, I was just desperate for something to help me sleep: the prospect of going through another night like the previous one filled me with dread. I fed the brand names into a search program, used an online translator. Nothing useful. My friends in Edinburgh and Belfast authorised me to have a glass of wine. Just one; okay, maybe two. And it really did take the edge off things, it calmed me down, I stopped crying and was able to sleep for more than two hours at a time.

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I just want to buy a sandwich: A Q&A

Q. Is it reasonable to ditch an entire city just because you got your heart broken?

A. Your mileage may vary, but I decided it was the best course of action under these particular circumstances. 95% of my associations with Berlin involved my ex. I could’ve stuck around and made a new life for myself outside of that, sure, but I didn’t see a pressing need to put myself through that kind of pain: when the relationship ended, my physical distance from any support network made it a lot harder to cope with what was happening. There is a danger of really getting fucked up by extensive moping if I stick around, so the smart thing to do is to remove myself from the situation.

I love Berlin and I do feel conflicted about leaving, but Berlin won’t go away. I can come back some time in the future when I’m ready. Meanwhile there are other places where I can actually work on being happy.

Q. Where have you been since mid-July?

A. London. Belfast. Edinburgh. Murcia. Valencia. Barcelona. Vilnius. Warsaw. And back to Berlin due to prior commitments. I took cheap flights and buses and trains and ferries, stayed with friends and strangers. I didn’t know when I left Berlin that I was going to embark on so many journeys. I had no idea I would go to Lithuania, for example, until a few days before I arrived there. I just kind of let things happen.

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Intercambio

I
I’m in an illegal bar and this man points out the dog in the hallway, ostensibly kept away from the clientele by a child safety gate. I assume the man lives here. Juan is telling me that this bar is as dodgy as it gets, which doesn’t seem that dodgy given that everything is draped with fairy lights. The man sits down on the other side of me. What’s the dog’s name? I ask, for the sake of making conversation.

Is it important that you know the dog’s name? Do you think the dog cares about its name? Do you think the dog cares about your name? Would knowing the dog’s name give you a greater connection to it?

Oh, god. And we’re off. Well, that’s put me right. Clearly it was presumptuous of me to think that asking the name of a dog might pass as an inoffensive, friendly remark. He’s repeating himself now, just to drive the point home, about how much more evolved dogs are for not needing to know the names of anything. I nod and agree, contemplate the dog as if I’ve never seen one before in my life, which is perhaps the man’s reading of the situation. I wonder when whatever he’s taken will wear off. I wonder why Juan has not rescued me yet. I consider being abrupt and rude, but reluctantly reject the option, since I’m too tired to defend the bad vibes I would undoubtedly be bringing to the encounter.

The man tells me he’s here with a friend from work, who is unfamiliar with this environment, and I get hopeful that he’s going to go check on the friend, but my hopes are dashed when he reaches the conclusion that his friend’s social awkwardness is his own problem. Goddamn flaky hippies. He asks me my name – I could counter that with a lecture, but I’m too weary – and where I’m from, and then switches to broken English, largely to sing the praises of Barcelona and the techno scene. Fresh panic washes over me that I am going to have to tell him that I don’t care for the techno scene, and then maybe he will try to convert me to it by expounding its virtues at great length. At least when he was talking about the dog I was able to look on the whole godforsaken exchange as language practice, but I guess it’s his turn now, in the democratic spirit of the unrequested intercambio.

II
Look, said Holly when she phoned me for a pep talk last week, Soon you’ll be in Spain. You love Spain. You’ll be going around speaking Spanish and feeling smug.

III
I mean, it’s not like Friday was all bad or anything, okay? I was in the company of a bunch of men whose use of the word maricón did not send me scrambling for the emergency exit. Other than the goddamn hippie lecture at the end of the night, all was well.

After a few hours’ sleep – I never sleep much here, but it’s okay – I go to a beach an hour north of Barcelona. I swim in the sea for the first time in twenty years. I left my swimsuit in Berlin – when I packed up in a hurry, my bi-annual swim was the last thing on my mind – so I swim in my boxers and a vest top, which makes me the most over-dressed person on the beach, but I don’t feel under scrutiny, I feel happy to be wearing something in which I feel comfortable. Later, sprawled on a towel reading Searching For Zion by Emily Raboteau, I plunge my hands repeatedly into the sand, feeling the tiny pebbles slip through my fingers. I eat croissants that are baking in the heat. I think about how it’s three weeks since I left the life I’d established for myself in Berlin; how three weeks is both a lot and a little, especially when everything you thought you had is now gone. I tell Juan some people think I’m running away; he says no, it wasn’t your home, leaving was the best thing you could do. I think he’s right. I try not to analyse too much, try not to think about what might have been. I’m here now and I’ll be somewhere else soon.

The Raval never stops. Volem un barri digne, plead banners on residents’ balconies. Women work on the corner day and night. I hear shouts and songs and sirens and skateboards rattling past. Cannabis smoke wafts up from the neighbour’s place. Hashish, offers a man walking past us on La Rambla. Juan’s place got broken into recently and the door’s still fucked; I hide my laptop under a bag of laundry like that’s going to fool the burglars. And I know this place, not like the back of my hand, not like I’m a goddamn expert on how everything works, but I know it and it’s where I feel good.

Reporting live from the heart of the action

Check me out! Here I am, in possibly the most happening city in Europe, staying in and talking to the internet on a Saturday night.

But that’s okay. Once this deadline is out of the way, I’ll be able to work on my Berlin social life for real. You know, just in time to have a few drinks, catch the Withered Hand gig and then head to the airport for my next trip.

I went to the Turkish market yesterday, bought a parsley plant (this is a significant commitment) and what may or may not have been a variant of tulumbe. Somehow I was there for fifty minutes, even though I was by myself and shopping is not something that generally takes me long. It felt like I spent most of the time trying not to trip over hipsters’ toy dogs.

The hipster thing is really kind of fascinating. Edinburgh is too busy playing host to hippies and goths, I think, to cultivate a real hipster subculture (although perhaps I am naive; I tend not to club, so I could be missing out). As a result, it’s still a novelty to come face to face with the sort of fashion disasters previously seen only on LATFH.

Small victories

  • Identified vegetarian halloumi cheese. Or, if I’m wrong and it’s not actually vegetarian, it’s better that I just don’t know.

  • Found some sage after three days of effort. The word is Salbei.
  • Speaking of which, I appreciate that German makes it so obvious when a noun shows up. At least there’s that.
  • I bought skype credit for the first time and called my dad. It feels so weird to sit and talk into my laptop. I have taken a while to catch up with living in the future like everyone else does. Remember those joke e-mails people used to send around, that claimed that thanks to developments in technology your computer was about to take a picture of you?

Sandra booked to come visit next month! I’m touched that a friend has already gotten organised to do that, and super-excited because it will be fantastic to see her again. I’m looking forward to showing her around, even though I barely have a clue myself yet.