I rode in the back of the taxi, weaving through the empty city streets, the lights reflected in the wet pavement and the walls of the Berliner Dom. I had forgotten that every fall the Festival of Lights comes to town, projecting patterns on the major buildings throughout Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood, synced to music.
I’d visited each of these buildings the first time I came to Berlin, marveling at the gritty, enigmatic city I’d discovered. I made a promise to myself back then that I would come back and live here, a promise I made good on that following summer.
That was over five years ago, and seeing the Festival of Lights again this year was so symbolic, as though it had come full circle, because my on-again, off-again love affair with Berlin is coming to an end.
It’s strange, because I can remember a time when getting approved for my visa was the most important thing in the world to me. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. But the things that initially drew me here aren’t as important anymore, and I’m starting to feel that although it’s bittersweet, this chapter is coming to an end.
Why? First, let’s go back in time.
Why did I move here in the first place?
First and foremost, I love Berlin and I love Germany. I would not be who I am today without the experiences that I’ve had here, and I owe all of them to the opportunity of residency through an artist visa. I think it is incredible that Germany offers this visa and I have so much respect for the culture and the country as a whole.
When I first came to Berlin, I fell in love with the alternative vibe. You can be whoever you want here and the beauty of it is, nobody cares! It’s so freeing. It feels a bit like Brooklyn meets Oakland to me, and I love how progressive it is. I love that there are ‘refugee welcome’ signs everywhere, and that people can be openly queer here (the most popular club here, Berghain, is a gay club after all), and I love that Germany was the first country in Europe to recognize a third gender.
I also love that there are so many artists here, and that their work is visible on city walls and re-purposed urban spaces all over the city. Where else can you skateboard down an old airport tarmac, climb up into old spy domes that are now covered in art, and go to a nightclub on a Wednesday afternoon and stay there all the way until Monday morning? All of these things blew my mind when I first moved here. I was also a huge fan of the price tag.
When I first moved to Berlin, I only paid €275 a month, all in, for a room in a shared flat. Now I’m leaving behind a top floor, two bedroom flat in the trendiest part of town, paying about a third of what I would in Southern California for the same thing.
I felt cool living here, I saved a lot of money living here, and I loved the nightlife. So why would I choose to leave such a good thing?
I don’t know why I’m paying rent for a place I’m never in
When I first signed my lease here, the most important thing to me was stability. I thought it was what I wanted more than anything else.
However I’ve come to find that I am nomadic by nature and I keep wanting to take every opportunity that comes my way to travel.
Therefore having an apartment and living the lifestyle I want are at odds and I constantly feel guilty for leaving an apartment that I’m paying for. I have also come to realize that I don’t like renting it out to people – they never treat it the way that I would. I hadn’t bargained for coming home constantly disappointed and finding things that I need to fix.
The city is also a transient one, and most of the friends I had here have moved away or it turned out that we were only party friends. There is not much anchoring me here anymore.
I’m starting to question if living in a big city is really living
When I first moved here, I loved that I could always find something going on. I was going out with friends all the time, but my lifestyle has changed dramatically and I barely party at all anymore. The chances of me being awake past 10:30 PM are slim these days, and I like it that way.
When I travel, I avoid cities. I spend almost all of my time in rural areas, close to the beach, up in the mountains, or deep in a desert. While I love the convenience of a big city, every time I’m in one I ache for nature.
I spent most of my life close to an ocean, and I miss it terribly. I miss seeing the horizon.
Ironically, I’ve never lived in a small town, but I’m starting to wonder if that’s exactly what I need. The next place I live needs to have more accessible nature. I don’t know where that may be but I am searching for it.
Berlin is too gritty for me
When I first moved to Berlin one of the things I liked about it was the grittiness. It’s strange because this has slowly but surely made me feel uncomfortable.
As much as I love my neighborhood, I can’t get from the train station to my front door without being offered cocaine on a Saturday night. I’ve walked up on people shooting up heroin in the train station four times now, and when I’m alone it’s scary being around unpredictable people. I never know what I might be walking into.
I know that addiction is slippery, seductive, and unmanageable, and I don’t blame those who are suffering. I don’t know what the answers are, but this is an aspect of living in a big city that gets harder for me year by year.
I hope, by the way, that this doesn’t put anyone off of visiting. It took me 5 years to have these run-ins and by and large Berlin is a safe city, much safer than cities in the US.
I like the version of me who travels better
I started to notice something about myself particularly when in southern Africa, Canada, and much of the US – I am a better version of me there.
While I wish I was always smiling and approachable, my surroundings bring it out of me more.
I really like smiling at people on the sidewalk, having random conversations with complete strangers, and being outwardly friendly to everyone. It just feels better to me and it is something that I want more of from the people in the next place I live. I know that I can do that here, but it’s just not part of the culture, and it sure is easier when others mirror it back to me.
I’m starting to wonder why I am so far away from the people I love
Finally, my biggest reason for leaving is to be closer to those I love. When I first left California, I just wanted to see the world and experience something new. However my close friends and family in California are still important to me. I’m lucky that I have been able to form even deeper bonds with my friends back home than I had before I left, and I’m wondering why I put an ocean between me and the people who I love so much.
This experience away has taught me how valuable those relationships are and how much I want to nurture them. We only get so much time on Earth and I want to spend it with the people I love.
That said, I think that everyone should be an expat at least once in life and see what it’s like to live in another language, another culture, and to appreciate what it is to assimilate and be in a place where nothing is familiar and everything is a learning experience.
Overall I couldn’t be more thankful that I got to live in the coolest city in the world in its heyday. I recognize how privileged I am to be able to make these decisions about where I wish to live, and I value the passport I have that allows me to follow my whims.
I’m not sure where my next home will be, but I do want it to be closer to the people I love, closer to nature, and with people who I feel connected with. Come January, I plan on going nomadic again.
The road is my happy place, so why deny it?
Thank you, Berlin, for five beautiful years. I would not be who I am without you.