I spent two extra days in Kurdistan because I turned up at Sulaimaniyah airport on time for my flight to Stockholm and the airport staff didn’t know anything about it. This turned out to be because Air Sweden had changed the departure airport to Erbil, two hours away, without bothering to let me know. I was now overstaying my visa. I stayed with an activist friend and his family. I didn’t sleep well at night because I was in the room that he normally slept in and he had received death threats. I didn’t bother to mention it because I had only two nights to worry about a prospective case of mistaken identity whereas he had to deal with it every night. They knew where he lived.
Finally in Stockholm, I had to quickly come to terms with all the snow and the fact that things were super-expensive. And then on to Berlin for half a day, too tired and in a hurry to bother stating that it felt weird to be back. My home from mid-February to mid-March was Leipzig, where I was looking after a cat while its owner was travelling.
I was in a neighbourhood not far east of the city centre. A few times a week I’d head down to the Turkish shops on Eisenbahnstraße to buy flatbread and yoghurt, which I’d eat with my date syrup from Amedi in Kurdistan. I didn’t go out much at all my first week, I was just glad to have some space to myself. I followed the protests in Sulaimaniyah closely, worrying about my friend’s safety.
I found myself narrating the cat’s every move. I couldn’t help myself. “Stretchycat!” I’d crow whenever he awoke from slumber and stiffly attempted to straighten himself out.
John from Belfast came to visit. We went out to Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, allegedly Leipzig’s most happening street, on a Saturday afternoon. The ghost town effect lacked only tumbleweed. That night we got drunk in a cheap smoky pub called Dolly Dimple. “Maybe it’s a stealth gay bar,” I said hopefully, watching the heavily tattooed girl dancing with female friends to nineties dance music. “I don’t think so,” said John, ever the realist. I requested The Key, The Secret by Urban Cookie Collective and the DJ agreed instantly. I drank a lot of wine. “Maybe he’s a nazi,” I said to John when a shaven-headed boy showed up with a dubious smile. “You think everyone is a nazi,” said John. I attempted to chat up the heavily tattooed girl for him. “Du bist sehr schön,” I explained, harking back to Blur lyrics rather than my two and a half years of German classes.
I allegedly turned into a troll on the way home. “You just don’t understand,” I wailed to John, weaving from side to side, “I hate EVERYTHING.” I couldn’t find the way back to the flat even though we were close, and John stopped a helpful passerby for directions. “Yes but what is there to do in Leipzig anyway?” I demanded to know. “Everything,” said the poor stranger after a bewildered pause. I don’t remember any of this. I am sorry for being a troll.
After John went back to Belfast I developed a social life. I met New Friend Andre and New Friend Ursula and went for VoKü with them, got a free haircut, took a day trip to Dresden with its tobacco mosque, attended house parties with cheap bars. I realised there were indeed things to do in Leipzig. If I were to move to Leipzig properly in the future, I’d already have good foundations for a life there.
I knew that one reason why I thought of my time in Berlin as artificial was that one of its main features had been a relationship that turned out to mean different things to each party. But besides that, it was artificial because it was too easy. If you move to Berlin everyone will be jealous of you. Everyone will tell you that you’ll love it. “Berlin is so you,” they’ll say. It’s not as if you won’t like it when you get there, but the experience will already have been scripted for you to some extent. As an English-speaking expat I’d lived in a bubble where I didn’t need to use German beyond the most basic of transactions, and few of the people I ever hung out with were German and in a way we could have been anywhere. Leipzig was different. Its low immigrant quotient was disappointing in the sense of less multiculturalism – beyond Eisenbahnstraße there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of scope – but at least I was spending time with locals and I felt more conscious of being in Germany.
The legacy of the GDR had not entirely faded. “These West Germans,” said one of my friends, “they’ll see apple trees and they’ll still go to the supermarket and pay money for apples. Us East Germans will just pick them.” I learned about the antideutsch people and Kamal K, the Iraqi man who had been murdered in the city centre. I went to the free museum to learn about life before and after the wall.
I watched Anita – Tänze des Lasters. It was in German. There were a few parts I didn’t understand but I got the overall gist and even enjoyed the film. I went for vegan kebabs at Vleischerei.
There comes a time in every place I go when I’m surprised that it’s almost over. But I have become used to saying goodbye. And anyway I will be back to look after Stretchycat in the summer.
Then Vienna, Istanbul, Kandy, and now Kuala Lumpur. I was last here in 1999. I didn’t last 24 hours back then. Cockroach Stuart and I gave up on it and took the first train we could find to anywhere, which turned out to be Penang.
Heading for Australia, crossing time zones in short bursts. Every so often, especially as my expenditure currently outweighs my income, I find myself wondering what I am doing. How did it come to this?
On my first night I stood on Jeffrey’s tenth-floor balcony. I could see the Petronas Towers and the KL Tower in the centre of the city. I could also see a cluster of lights shaped like a lassoo or a speech bubble, glittering in the sky above a tower block. What kind of futuristic craziness was this? But it was Genting, Malaysia’s Las Vegas, a distant town in the hills, not a projection in the air at all.
Dear Decidedly Un-Troll-Like Person, You are awesome and I miss you. Thanks for posting, as always you are a delight to read. xxx
Glad to hear from you again! I miss your writing, and your stories. I hope your friend turns up ok. I will be watching on Twitter. xox
This is absolutely fascinating Nine. What a story! Your travels are inspiring, really.
John claims he only managed to get you home by repeatedly telling you that *I* would kill *him* if he lost you in a Leipzig canal. I owe you an email, and will be finished second job on Saturday so I might even start to have free time again that would enable me to be on gtalk at some point. Safe onward travels, lovely xoxo
Congrats! This article is going to be included in the 7th Byteful Travel Blog Carnival! It goes live July 26th at Byteful.com, and I’ll be sure to tweet about it. If you could retweet and help spread the word, it would mean a lot. :)
Lovely post. Love Stretchycat.
your journeys are amazing – so many places you lived in. thanks for taking me back to my own memories of Leizpig and Berlin. & loved this language note: “Du bist sehr schön,” I explained, harking back to Blur lyrics rather than my two and a half years of German classes.”
Viele Grüße aus Deutschland~~
your comment about the apple pickers is something i experienced just last weekend in the middle of a remote valley in montana. there was a horse i remembered from being there before, but he hadn’t liked the grass i offered him. months later i returned, remembering 50 miles before his jump-twice creek pasture that i had promised him an apple if i ever returned. and where to get an apple? my companion shrugged off my suggestion of a market in the small town we’d pass through. he had remembered apple trees near the basketball court in that same small town.
nice to read you via the language carnival.
Wow, what a journey. Loved every word, especially the insight about how relationships color the places we visit. Peace…