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.
April to June
I got a lift from Amsterdam to Berlin in an Audi for €40 with someone in his mid-twenties who ran a successful business and had a home in each city. The Serbian ukulele player travelling with us asked where I was from and when I said Belfast, she said oh, England. At half past midnight I climbed four flights of stairs and unlocked the door of my new home: a huge space just for me and the few belongings I’d brought with me. That same night marked the beginning of the relationship I had been hoping for.
I lived in a neighbourhood of immigrants. I ate simits and halloumi cheese and sundried tomatoes for breakfast. On the walk to Kreuzberg to visit friends, the hipsters gradually increased in number; I wondered whether those with the biggest sunglasses were also those with the tiniest dogs. One or two expats referred to my area as the badlands – I lived further south than anyone else they knew – but the Germans, they said my neighbourhood was nice, that it had started to be done up in the last couple of years. I felt embarrassed by my inadequate German, even as I understood that I could get by without it: to do so would be artificial; to learn the language (again) did not require me to like it. I felt more enthusiastic about learning Turkish, but first things first, I supposed.
I had been afraid to get into a new relationship; I usually gave the vague disclaimer that I had issues, and left it at that. Before I left for Berlin, though, I realised I had to open myself up to the possibility of being hurt, otherwise I would never move forward. Now I told my boyfriend things. Things that happened to me that I couldn’t share with just anyone. I felt like I could finally relax and breathe. He said he was already hoping to convince me to stay in the city long-term.
One afternoon we were lying on his bed. It was a single mattress on top of a couple of long wooden crates. The surface of his desk used to be the kitchen door. Things seemed to get repurposed a lot more in this city. Nine, he said. Take me to Ireland.
First, though, I found us cheap flights to Paris and we stayed with my friends in a flat next door to the one Amélie lived in. The greengrocer’s from the film was on the corner. You could buy decent table wine in the supermarket for €1.07. But things changed while we were in Paris. Why does travelling with a partner sometimes feel like the kiss of death? There was a disconnect between his professed feelings for me and whatever he saw in the future. He backtracked on our tentative plans, explaining it away as some sort of selfless desire to not hold me back, like I should follow my dream or something. It was just, I didn’t have a dream. This was the first time I felt unwanted.
There were festivals and gigs all the time, so I could take my pick and it was okay if I missed lots of things: there was always something happening when I felt like it. I was enjoying the quiet life. Then the World Cup happened and the people of Berlin gathered inside and outside every bar and cafe to watch matches and celebrate victories. I found myself drinking cheap caipirinhas and learning about football. The city was boiling hot. I walked everywhere to save money.
July to September
Fleeting moments of reassurance and then that feeling of being pushed away again. I tried to distract myself, studied routes across Ukraine, idly investigated how much it cost to fly to Ulaanbaatar. But mostly I just waited for him to find time for me, the person he used to talk to every day, and all the city did was magnify my anxiety. I knew it wasn’t right to be put on hold like this. The heat was oppressive and the man at the grocery shop looked me up and down and licked his lips and I felt red hot hatred and I went home and cooked a tortilla that fell to pieces and then my boyfriend came round, finally, and said he didn’t want to finish with me except that was what he was doing.
I wasn’t paying rent in Berlin. I didn’t have a job in Berlin. I didn’t need to be in Berlin, and so I left. The man at the check-in desk gave me a seat in the back row because I told him I wanted to be alone. I sat cross-legged and stared down at the city as we took off, and I hated everything about being awake.
In Belfast the sky was grey and wet. The only clue that it was July was the huge union jack next door to my friend’s house; at the end of the street, there were traces of the eleventh night bonfire. Five minutes away, there were bilingual street signs. Thinking about this messed up place I came from sometimes distracted me from my more immediate mess. In my dad’s car, I blurted out in a small, sad voice: Dad, I don’t know where I want to be. He had no answer for me. I had never felt this lost before.
I bought a one-way ticket to Spain and started looking for hosts. A retired Belgian general regretted to say that his grandchildren would be visiting, but he and his wife would be happy to host me any other time. A chef and his husband told me that if only they weren’t going on holiday, they would welcome me like family. I sat in front of my computer and cried at their kind responses. But I was met at the airport by a photographer who drove me the forty miles into Murcia and gave me food, drink and accommodation. In a town outside Valencia, I was hosted by a Romanian boy and his father, both of whom were so generous it was all I could do to smuggle some groceries into their home and wash some dishes when they weren’t around. A girl at the bus station asked me to deliver her brother’s passport and bank card to him in Barcelona, which I did. I stayed with Juan and wandered the city streets again, like I did the year before when I was only temporarily running away. I swam in the Mediterranean and stared out to sea, and the distance between here and Berlin was overwhelming. I thought that I would find a lift to France next, but instead I flew to Vilnius where I was taken in for a few nights by a gay male couple who made me feel so at home that I got emotional saying goodbye. After ten hours on trains, during which time I translated from Polish to Spanish for a Catalan family, I reached Warsaw and stayed with a retired physicist, but now I was anxious, needing to get back to Berlin due to prior commitments, not wanting to, but deciding to cut short my time in Poland and get it over with.
Nine days later when I left Berlin for good, the last thing I did before takeoff was erase my ex-boyfriend’s details from my phone. I had lost not only a relationship but a home, a social circle, and any idea what I was doing. I was on a flight to Oslo, where I got caught in downpours, followed the river at midnight, pooled resources with the other travellers sharing a tiny bedsit with me. Our host asked me if I got lonely when I travelled.
I spent four weeks in Edinburgh selling everything I could while I waited to find out where I was going next. It was Massachusetts. I was questioned by three different people at Boston airport. I told them I’d be looking after someone’s house and cats. What do you get out of it? asked the immigration official. A place to stay, I explained.
October to December
I wasn’t sure anyone noticed I was a foreigner. I was baffled by simple things like how to cross the road and how to turn on the shower. My phone didn’t work here and I had no way of telling the time, but asking strangers meant conversation. For a few days, I was hit with another batch of moping, replaying events in Berlin over and over. I didn’t need this. I knew it was bad, I was there, why was my mind going over this again? I waited and it passed. I decided maybe I was actually hopelessly in love with a friend, which didn’t offer any solutions but at least gave me something else to think about.
After a month I hit the road. Heading west, I covered over 2000 miles, which cost me just over $100. Kindness was everywhere. Friends helped me out, strangers stepped forward. By Ohio, the customer service was so friendly that anyone from the UK or Ireland would be suspicious that they were taking the piss. I stayed with the best friend I’d never met before, who found me on the internet in 1997. The transition from a screen to real life was easy. I love you, she said when we parted. I got waylaid for two weeks in Chicago, where the squirrels were fat and plentiful. I walked to Andersonville to meet Marion and her friends in a diner for brunch, and they fetched champagne and orange juice to celebrate my arrival.
I flew back to the UK in December and spent the weekend in Manchester surrounded by good friends. I got ID’d on my 33rd birthday. I was tired and jetlagged and I couldn’t seem to sleep, but I was happy. I spent Christmas in Northern Ireland, wearing my coat and scarf indoors because my dad’s house was so cold. I raided my childhood coin collection for foreign currency I might use while I was away. I had made a couple of definite plans but the rest were maybes. I didn’t know when I would be back here and I didn’t know when I’d be back in Edinburgh. I was just going to keep going.
In Dublin I took the bus to the port so I could buy a standby ticket for the ferry to Wales. I was going to spend two weeks looking after a house, two dogs and a rabbit. I would go somewhere else after that. Something would fall into place; it always does. I thought about the places I’d been, the welcomes I’d received, the places still to see, and I felt overwhelmed by luck. This is it for the foreseeable future. There is nobody holding me back.