When I lived in Mulhouse a few years ago, I shared a large flat with four other people. The rooms were large and bright with beautiful wooden floors. Everything there was brand new but things fell apart unexpectedly. The kitchen sink developed a leak and despite calling the landlady repeatedly, no plumber ever came by while I was there which meant putting a plastic bowl underneath whenever we washed up to catch the water. The internet connection never worked either so I ended up using the unsecured one from the orthodontist opposite. My room had a tiny iron balcony and looked out onto the street. For most of the day and night, there was the constant sound of trams rattling by but somehow I got used to it over time and even came to enjoy looking out to see all the people down below waiting at the stop outside our door. The set up of the rooms was strange; to leave mine meant either going through someone else's next door or via the bathroom which involved checking carefully if anyone was using it first. Luckily, I never walked in on anyone taking a shower! Yet the atmosphere was nice and with one exception, so were the other flatmates. I got on best with A., a young German girl from a tiny village close to the border with Denmark. She had smooth skin, mid-length blonde hair in tight curls and laughing eyes. She had arrived in the flat first, taking the smallest room at the back overlooking a the back yard. Her boyfriend came from Africa but lived in Spain which meant her routine was punctuated by constant journeys to and from the airport and long weekends away. Unlike most Germans, she was incredibly messy; the floor was littered with piles of paper and saucepans remained unwashed in the sink for days but we shared a passion for homemade pizza, film evenings, especially with 5X2 by Francois Ozon, bowling evenings at the alley just down the road and chocolate cake. I remember her giving me her favourite recipe in her neat, little handwriting and most of all, her comment that as much as she loved living in France, she knew that this wasn't the place where she wanted to die.
I've often thought back what she said, particularly during those difficult days when I was trying to decide about my future. Wandering through the city, seeing all those familiar corners and imagining myself saying goodbye to them. I thought back to harsh winters where the sun never shines and darkness falls at 4pm and the sticky summers which I find truly unbearable. No matter how hard I tried though, I simply wasn't able to erase the sadness that filled my heart when I pictured the city without me, of packing everything into boxes. Most absurd was whenever I entered bookshops, seeing all those volumes of German books, all the authors I haven't read yet and thinking how I'd have to buy them all to take back.
The charming interior of the C/O building - enjoy it while it lasts!
I wish I was as confident as these postcards which say you look good and you feel good about things.
The poster with the cat reads, you can give up everything in life, except cats and literature.
So it was then, slowly but surely, the realisation that I simply can't leave, there's too much here that has simply become part of my identity. The tremendous sense of freedom that I've never found anywhere else, to be able to go out wherever and whenever I liked without having to worry about money so much. But after telling my family of my decision, hearing the disappointment in their voices and putting the phone down, I felt like an absolute heel and just wanted to cry. If it's the right decision for me, why do I also feel so bad? I'm literally torn between two places. Most of all, I wish I had the guts simply to face my demons and return to the UK where so many of my compatriots live happily. Why can't I be the same? I find it terribly hard to stick by decisions, not willing to commit myself and longing for the option to rush out into the open the minute I get cold feet. The idea of saying out loud to myself that this is forever seems daunting; as Tom Stoppard once wrote, eternity is a terrible thought, you never know where it's going to end. What I have is much less than eternity but all the same, the thought is a little scary. I remember listening to Leonard Cohen singing "I've tried to leave you many times" and thinking how it defined my relationship to Berlin.
Walking around Sanssouci park a couple of days later on a golden October afternoon, Berlin suddenly seemed far away. I felt alone at last after escaping the crowds who remained near the palace. I just wanted to live for the moment right there and then; no commitments, no plans, no guilt. The only way to live is to try and accept myself for what I am, that I need this self-imposed exile, for better or for worse. I have the feeling I should stay, that good things will happen and perhaps that's all that matters.
The Chinese tea house in Sanssouci park
My sentiments exactly!
Calling by for lunch at La Madeleine crêperie which so many friends had recommended. It felt wonderful to switch off and get my book out as I sipped my bolée de cidre and waited for my galette with Roquefort, walnuts and caramelised apples (see below).
Lecia inspired me to make Molly's/Luisa's plum crumble when she published the photos on her stunning blog. It was perfect for that rainy afternoon when the combination of warm fruit and soft, whipped cream reassured me that all's right again in the world. You can find the recipe here. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.