I’ve just touched down in Berlin. It’s a cloudy Wednesday in July 2016 and it’s been five days since my dad’s funeral. I’m standing on a residential street corner in Friedrichshain with a broken suitcase and no GPS. I can’t find my new flat and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to cope if anything goes wrong.
Obviously my dad having a funeral was not part of the original plan. I got offered the job in Berlin in May, my dad had a heart attack in June, his funeral was early July and so here we are in Berlin holding back the tears.
But part of me knows, in a way, that dealing with my dads sudden death will be easier in Berlin. I’ll have a new life here. Everything will be different. New job, new friends, new city, no dad.
I know it’ll be okay because I’ll meet loads of new people and one of them will be you. We’ll talk and you’ll find out more about me and you’ll be so impressed that I had the strength and bravery to move to Berlin four weeks after my dad died. We’ll become close, things won’t be so scary and I won’t need to be so strong. Slowly I’ll be able to lean on you until it feels a bit easier, not so nightmarish, and I’ll be okay again.
But, until I meet you, I’ll need to do this by myself. I’ll support myself through those first few months. Navigating the Burgeramt, IKEA deliveries, German banks and HR departments. Making friends in this city is hard but I find my crew of diamonds early on.
I manage the first hurdle without you. My housemate turns out to be a sociopath. She sends me WhatsApps to say my cleaning isn’t up to scratch while letting her three pet guinea pigs shit on the kitchen table. On my birthday she sends me a message suggesting I need to move out, but I later realise she just likes to see me upset. My new friend Ralph helps me move. He carries my stuff downstairs and waits in the car outside while my flatmate and I have one last shuddering row — as my energy drains away I can see it filling her up. But it’s okay. I know I’ll meet you soon and everything will be easier.
And then, suddenly, there you are. That was easy. I sit next to you on a swing at Berghain. We start talking and that’s it. Click. Your eyes are soft and kind and your hair is long and tied up in a bun. You did acrobatics at school so your torso is almost triangular and my hand slips into yours as easy as a glove, just as it was always supposed to. I drink in your shape as you lead me through the warrens of Berghain. We talk all night.
You were perfect in Berghain and we date for four weeks before it unravels. I’d come over to your flat and you’d light up a joint and then, even though you’re talking to me, you aren’t really there. Every time I come over I hope you aren’t high but you always are. It kills your chat and your libido. We’re supposed to meet for dinner one Friday night but you wait all day to confirm. At the very last minute you message. “Sorry,” you say. “I’m exhausted. What time shall we meet?” I know what you’re saying. You just want to go home and smoke weed. So I call it. “Hanging out with an exhausted person isn’t my idea of fun.” I say. “Let’s just leave it.”
Fine, no problem. That wasn’t you. I meet you a week later out with friends. I’m on mushrooms in a candlelit bar in Kreuzberg and even through my hallucinogenic haze I can see that you are very fit, very fit indeed. You are French and your golden hair is combed back and your eyes are green and your skin is olive and your smile is straight out the movies. That night we talk for hours and hold hands and exchange numbers.
I’m super chill. I wait like two days to send you a message asking you out for a drink. “Yeah sure!” You say. “Let’s invite Nick and Kat and the others, too!” Erm. What the fuck. That’s not how it usually goes. I do some digging. Someone tells me you just got a new girlfriend. Okay, not you then.
No problem, no problem. I can do this by myself for a while. Grief washes over me like a wave and I wake up every morning without a distraction.
I move into a new flat with a girl I trust. I haven’t met you yet, so when I get my wisdom teeth removed it’s my new friend Athene who collects me from the surgery. She’s the one who apologises to the nurse on my behalf as I come round from general anaesthetic, dribbling blood and asking weird questions in German like: “Welches Hobbies hat deine Schwester?”
Athene stays with me all afternoon watching Sex and the City even though I know she hates it. When she leaves Duncan comes over and makes me two different kinds of soup, enough for me to eat for a few days.
Anyway it’s fine. Any weekend now. I’ll meet you soon. I meet a million people every week. I know you’re around here somewhere.
Ah! Excellent. There you are, there you are. I know right away from your Bumble profile. You have a sort of hipster thuggish look. Shaved black hair, piercing blue eyes. You’re an artist, you went to Goldsmith’s. Perfect.
We meet on a January night in a bar in the grimy back alleys of Kottbusser Tor. You’re there already, sitting on a swing. You stand up and kiss me on the cheek. You’ve ordered red wine and you’re so nervous your life story just falls out in one long stream of consciousness. It’s self-absorbed but endearing. You tell me about your mad Norfolk family, how you were the youngest of eight and your big brothers had wild house-parties that exposed you to weed and making out at a young age.
“Who do you live with now?” I ask.
“My girlfriend.” He says.
He’d forgotten to mention his open relationship on his Bumble profile. I almost get up to leave. “She’s travelling in South East Asia right now.” He says. “We’ve been together for seven years. This is the first date I’ve been on.” For some reason I stay. My logic is this: while I wait to meet you, I can chill with him. I can enjoy this connection or distraction, whichever it is.
And that works, for a few weeks, until he stops responding to my messages because he’s met someone he prefers.
It’s fine, it’s fine. I can do this. I have to. I handle my new housemate, the one I trusted, also turning full loony. She sends me messages detailing what size order she’d like the pots and pans to be placed in the cupboard. She tells me I use too much oil and that I don’t keep the inside of the cleaning cupboard orderly. She’s Instagram famous and likes to monologue about how good she is at everything. One night she keeps me up past 1am telling me why she’s a low-key piano prodigy. I need to move out.
My friends Kate and Laurence help me find a new flat. It’s a high-ceilinged studio in Kreuzberg, somewhere I can live in peace, undisturbed by toxic housemates.
The week I move in I meet you through a friend. She invites me round to dinner because she thinks we’ll get on. You’re her old house mate and as soon as I see you sitting at the table my heart jumps. You’re from Melbourne and you’ve been here for nine months just like me and you laugh at all of my jokes. As our friend makes us dinner we chat about the strange experience of moving to Berlin and afterwards you look me straight in the eyes and say “Isn’t it just so weird — how we both moved here in the same week but we haven’t met until now?”
I guess it is weird, I say. For the first time in months I feel seen.
I have an early start tomorrow so we hug goodbye. I’m so happy I met you. I hug my friend, too. She knows I’ve had a hard time since I moved here. She’s kind, I think to myself.
The next morning, when I wake up, the night rushes back. I mainly just feel relief. Finally! You took your time — I thought I was going crazy for a minute. I cycle to work that morning and realise it’s the first day of spring.
I message my friend. Thank you for last night I say He’s awesome.
I’m really sorry Alice
I really didn’t see this coming lol but after you left we had sex.
Okay okay okay okay okay. It’s fine. This is fine. Maybe… Maybe this is because I’m not attractive enough. I came off the pill recently and I put on a bit of weight. When I moved to Berlin I had a flat stomach but now I’m definitely bigger. Maybe if I was slimmer this wouldn’t be happening. Shit. Maybe it’s my teeth. They’ve moved slightly. The front ones have begun to overlap a little. Maybe I should look into getting Invisalign.
But I can do this. I’ve been in Berlin for a year now. I can carry on without you for a while. I can handle loathing my job, applying for new ones and never getting them.
Fuck. My dad was so amazing with work problems. I really really need his help now. I don’t want to work in marketing any more but I don’t know what to do instead. What should I do?
When I meet you, you won’t believe what I’ve had to deal with on my own here. You’ll be amazed by how strong I’ve been, how I’ve picked myself up every time something’s gone wrong, how I’ve stayed positive. When I meet you I’ll tell you how I launched No Filter on my dads birthday. February 24th. The Facebook announcement said ‘today is as good as any to announce a project I’ve been working on’ but what I really meant is my dad would be proud of this and it’s his birthday today.
When I meet you I’ll tell you all about No Filter’s launch event at Das Gift. How the room was packed out with all my friends — the space full of friendly faces and laughter. I’ll tell you how I read about getting catfished by Green Day, how the room was in uproar, and how afterwards I felt so proud I could’ve cried. It’s a shame you missed it. You would have loved it.
You lay low in 2017. I stop looking but I catch glimpses of you everywhere. I find you while I volunteer on an organic farm in Portugal. You’re an artist from Belgium who’s travelling the world by bike. Your English isn’t great and your dreadlocks gross me out but you’re still the fittest crustie I ever did see.
I find you again that same summer in Lagos. This time in the form of a bright, gorgeous Glaswegian. We meet on the dance floor at a bar that plays Beyonce and DJ Khaled and when I tell you that Amy Winehouse once called me beautiful you take my hand and say “She’s right — you are.” For three days we lie on the beach and have dinners and you smell good and we talk and laugh and then you get on a flight back to Glasgow and with a heart so heavy I’m surprised my plane takes off, I fly back to Berlin.
I find another you, newly single, amongst my group of friends in Brighton. I’ve known you for years. You are perfect. I’ll come back for you another time.
It’s 2018. It’s nearly been two years and I wonder how the hell I’ve gone this entire way alone. Where the fuck are you. Friends offer advice.
“Have you tried just not looking for it?”
“Have you used dating apps?”
“Maybe you’re being too negative.”
“I think you must be coming on too strong.”
Boy problems aside, I currently have no idea what I’m doing with my life. I’m jobless and I need a career change. My friend Jo invites me round to her flat to talk about it. She’s a hero and endures several teary, snotty meltdowns from me. But afterwards I decide to turn it around, use all my experience so far to build a career I truly want.
You aren’t around to celebrate me getting the freelance job of my dreams but my phone buzzes all day anyway with friends and family telling me how proud they are. To celebrate I go to Israel. I find you a thousand times over in Tel Aviv. You are everywhere I look. Green eyes, olive skin, dark, curious, unafraid of women. I find you in plant-filled bars in Jaffa. You walk up to me, fearless, in coffee shops and ask for my number. I find you in the form of a beautiful barman who gives me free shots and confidence boosts. You are everywhere in Tel Aviv, but I need you in Berlin.
Holy christ. Ffs. Finally. I find you in my German class. The first time we meet your back is turned and from the state of your hair and clothes I can only assume you’re homeless. But then you turn around and you’re 6 foot 4 and you’re tanned from travelling South America and your skin glows golden and your turquoise eyes are so beautiful I outwardly gasp. YOU are the fittest crustie I ever did see.
But you don’t speak to me. And that’s fine. That makes sense, someone that fit must be a bit of a dick.
But then you invite the class round to your house for dinner and you teach me how to make tzatziki.
“I wanted to make sure you could come tonight.” You say.
“I had a good feeling about the people in this class.” You say.
“My ex-girlfriend was from the UK.” You say.
Although there’s 12 of us at dinner it feels like it’s just you and me. You fire questions. You seem genuinely, truly interested in getting to know me. But I don’t dare to think this could be a thing. I am terrified. Every experience in Berlin so far has gone wrong, I have misjudged every single situation. Real fear grips my heart. After dinner everyone leaves your apartment and we watch the England vs. Australia game. It’s the World Cup and I’m convinced that it’s coming home.
That night I dream of you. I dream that it’s real. My subconscious recklessly indulges in the possibility of a real, actual connection with a human man, and while I slept my heart had opened up like a flower. In my dream I wasn’t suspicious or scared and whatever was happening was real. When I wake up I feel hollow. The dream shines a bright, unapologetic light on how very, very alone I feel here.
It’s England vs. Sweden, its coming home, and you send me a WhatsApp. “Where are you watching the football?” You say.
“I’ve got two mates with me, can we watch it with you?”
We sit next to each other, shoulder to shoulder. My head is screaming “Danger! This is dating in Berlin! Nothing is as it seems! Beware!” But I can’t help it. It could be you.
It doesn’t come home. As the football match ends the heavens open and you and I cycle, drowned rats, to the nearest bar. We have a drink together. You tell me about your family. If I was anywhere else in the world, England for example, I would assume this is a vibe. But I’m in Berlin, and you go home after one drink.
That’s fine, not a problem. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my two years in Berlin it’s that I don’t fucking get how people date here. So I tell myself to forget about you, protect myself. Don’t even think about it.
But it doesn’t seem to stop. You say things that are outlandishly flirtatious. “Let’s get drunk together soon.” You say. “Do you want to just make out?” You say. One day you hold my hand in the kitchen. You make a habit of playing with my hair. Danger! My head says. But I can’t help thinking this might actually be a vibe. Maybe I should make a move? But I am terrified. Rooted to the spot with fear. I just don’t know what to do.
Another party. Me and you again. Folded up, close, on the sofa. “Do you have any holiday plans?” I ask.
“Yeah I’m dating this girl — I think she’ll be my girlfriend soon, we’re gonna go to Italy together.”
I freeze. Then I smooth it out. I’m getting good at this now. On my way home I congratulate myself, bitterly, for never letting myself believe that was you.
My heart beats behind a wall of paranoia, suspicion and insecurity. I’ll be ready to go on a Friday night date, only for it to be cancelled last minute with a promise of a reschedule that never happens. My romantic experiences are confined to one night stands or lacklustre flings with low-energy boys who don’t seem to see an ounce of value in me. I second-guess everything. I look in the mirror and can only conclude it’s because my arms are fat, my shoes are shit and I have no bants.
In a moment of confidence I ask a boy from work via Skype if he wants to come to a gig with me. I’m certain there’s a vibe, but I almost don’t recover when he never, ever responds.
I try to solve the problem on Tinder only to find myself physically sprinting away from a man who’d said “Women are only successful because they’re attractive.”
For a moment I think you might be my personal trainer. Your face lights up when I walk in, and you flirt with me constantly and call me short and pretend to push me over. One Friday night, after a particularly brutal date cancellation, I stay in and go to the gym the next day, certain that you are the only person who can make me feel better. And you do, for a moment, until I find out you have a long-term girlfriend and this has all just been a fun game to you.
It’s been over 2 years and my head says Houston — we have a problem. My work life is amazing. My friends are awesome. But sometimes, alone in my flat on a Sunday evening, I feel so alone that it hurts. I come up with rules and patterns — headlines to try and make sense of it. “I’m cursed.” “I’ll never meet anyone in Berlin.” Sometimes I wonder if this is all a conspiracy — this can’t be serious. Am I being filmed? Am I on the Truman Show? But mostly I internalise it, blame it on my weight and my looks.
The weirdest thing is that I don’t feel like this in other cities. My love life is fully-functioning elsewhere. I have no problem getting hoes in different area codes, just not the one that I live in. I feel like there’s only one way I can take control.
In late summer 2018 I decide to move to Melbourne. I have friends there but the real reason I’m moving is because — fuck I can’t believe I’m saying this out loud, please don’t tell anyone — because I want a boyfriend.
When my dad was alive I had many tantrums, similar to this one, except they’d be about my career. I’d tell him I’m leaving London, moving somewhere else, because I hate my job.
“Ali — I fully support you,” he’d say. “But you need to be going towards something, not running away from something.” When I got offered the job in Berlin he was so happy. “This is it,” he’d said. “This is the right move for you.”
So I tell my friends I’m leaving Berlin to go to Melbourne. I only tell some of them the real reason — that I can’t do this anymore, that intimacy is too important to me and I’ve been starved of it for nearly three years. I’ve got so much out of this beautiful city and I don’t really want to go but this has become too difficult now. I can’t pick myself back up anymore. And I just see no sign of it ending.
So why is it, after I decide to leave, that I feel fucking miserable?
It’s because I love my apartment, I love my job, I love my friends. Somehow I love this city. I know what my dad would say. “You’re not going towards anything.” And he’s right. I can’t leave Berlin because I want a boyfriend.
The moment I decide to stay I feel a huge sense of relief. It’s not time. Yet.
Afterwards I look around, blinking, at everything I have here. I look at my beautiful studio flat and my incredible friends and the freelance writing career that I built from the ground up. The career that is undeniably all me.
Berlin gave me the space to become a writer — now I get paid to do something that brings me joy every day. This I can have forever.
What else has Berlin given me? Somehow, with every blow and rejection, I’ve become stronger than I ever thought possible. Through no choice of my own, I’ve become truly independent. I’ve learnt how to love my own company.
The creativity of the city and my talented, sparkling friends has seeped into me and blown my world wide open and I realise you’ve been there all along. You are Ralph, who saved me from my mad roommates, and Athene who picked me up from the dentist and Duncan who made me two different kinds of soup. You are Kate and Laurence who helped me find my apartment and you are Jo Kent who endured several of my snotty meltdowns. Come to think of it, I haven’t done this alone at all, really.
Now I’ve been in Berlin for 3.5 years and I still haven’t experienced a genuine romantic connection with a human man. But back then I needed you. Now I don’t. Now I think you would be a nice addition — but look at what I’ve done without you. All of my joys, all of my successes — they’ve all come from me.
And the greatest gift of all is knowing that even if it’s just me and my mates forever, that will be enough.