Tag Archives: on the road

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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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.

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.

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.

Tonight, 2am



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Here’s what’s new: ten days ago I left Berlin suddenly, brokenhearted. I feel lost and sad. I don’t know where I want to be. I didn’t want to travel in these circumstances but travelling was the only positive thing I could think to do.

Two days ago I was on a ferry. Two elderly women sat at my table. Are you going on holiday? they asked me. I’m just sort of drifting, I said.

Sometimes it all seems so goddamn huge I feel like I can’t move. For days all I could do was cry. I had all the usual symptoms: I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I’m not the only person this shit ever happened to. It’s kind of boring. Painful and boring.

I’m at a crossroads and I get to go anywhere I want now, I guess, except I didn’t want it this way so it’s hard to get excited about it. But I’m coming round to it.

Last Thursday I visited a writer I hadn’t seen in fourteen years, a respected journalist. I’m taking you for a picnic, she said. I made a unilateral decision that you’re a vegetarian. We sat by a river and talked about travel and writing. She asked me what had happened in Berlin and I tried to explain the end of it and I realised that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. You don’t need that, do you? she asked. And suddenly I thought that maybe I didn’t.

It didn’t make everything instantly better but something shifted that afternoon. When I woke up the following morning, I didn’t hate everything.

The elderly women on the ferry were sisters and widows. They bickered together. She’s bossy, said the younger one. I am not, said the older one. You’re assertive, I offered. Thank you, she said with a smile.

When they asked where I lived I didn’t know how to answer. But I told them the places I was considering. I sounded free and independent and interesting. If I talk like that often enough, I can believe it myself as well.

Over to you

FUN GAME: Identify the writers!

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The day before I left, Edinburgh was all about the haar, something I’m unlikely to get much of in Berlin. I took crappy pictures to try and convey how difficult it was to see ahead of me.

The day I left, it was grey and rainy. I caught the cheapo number 35 bus to the airport. I pondered the fact that I didn’t know when I would be back in town, and concluded: oh. I watched as someone walked into a field with a shopping bag, wearing a cardboard box on his head. I thought: oh.

The Brussels flight was mostly populated by businessmen. The one opposite me in the departure lounge looked me up and down, didn’t seem to approve of what he saw. Another one tried to barge ahead of me in the queue. I sat in my window seat hoping the one next to me would stay unoccupied, but eventually a middle-aged Belgian banker sat down in it. Hello, he said, nice to travel with you.

Likewise, I replied.

Thank you, he said.

I thought it was a pretty nice opening remark. We spent most of the flight talking about travel and languages. He was good company, and I meant to wish him all the best when we disembarked, but instead I kept moving while he located his luggage, unsure if I should hang around.

I keep feeling tempted to write ‘Brustles’, but I should banish such awful ideas from my head. Belgium is my first new country this year, and my first French-speaking destination since Quebec in the mid-nineties. Today I wandered the streets with My Mysterious Friend Germán, took in the Moomin exhibition at the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée, went for mint tea. Tonight I cooked mushroom, lemon & leek risotto for three Czechs and a Spaniard. Minus the leek. Also minus some of the other stuff that usually goes into it. I had my ladle, though. I can’t believe, observed My Mysterious Friend Germán, that not only have you packed less than 15 kilos of stuff to cover your needs for the next several months, but you’ve included cooking utensils. Yes. If I can bring it it means I don’t have to buy it when I get there.

Here is all I’ve got:

From top to bottom and left to right:

  • Cheap second-hand jacket, with lining completely falling apart
  • Cardigan donated by friend
  • Rucksack given to me by kind boss when I left on my first solo trip aged eighteen; it’s been everywhere with me since, and shows no signs of falling apart. Still bears Jetstar luggage tag from last year’s Australia trip (a redundancy gift to myself)
  • Shoulderbag with handy compartments for discperson and camera
  • Canvas bag containing laptop, which actually fits into shoulderbag, but I needed to create some more space to accommodate the extra complimentary sandwich I scrounged on the flight.

Next stop: Amsterdam.