Travel Woman - 48 Hours ‘Finding Myself’ In Berlin

Image by Author - About To Start A Three-Hour Walking Tour!!

The American girl was neither encumbered by children nor baggage. She had a small cross-body handbag, a proper camera slung round her neck, a confidence and a self-contained presence. I yearned to be her. “Where’s everyone from then?” asked Peter, the guide, as we started to gather for the English-speaking version of the three-hour ‘top attractions’ walking tour. We made up just under half the group, I reckoned we’d have to give a decent tip at the end. The complaints had been coming in thick and fast since we left our accommodation, it wasn’t fair to expect them to walk for three whole hours. We were standing outside Tränenpalast, the Palace of Tears, the check-in hall, erected at Friedrichstrasse railway station in 1962. We heard about the tearful partings between Western visitors and East German residents, who were not allowed to leave. As daylight faded, we would visit its interior, experience the oppressive atmosphere of the passport inspection booths, a regime inflicted overnight to prevent population exodus, to control the right to be free. That wasn’t fair.

I never asked the American girl her name. Later, as we parted, I would wish I had, but by then, it seemed a little too awkward. We were unlikely to meet again. We had chatted about her travels, her two-week solo-trip around Europe. She had arrived via Prague, had enjoyed Salzburg and Vienna. I admired her courage and vitality. “Good for you,” I said like a middle-aged mum. She asked me what my favourite city was. I couldn’t decide. There were none I had inhaled on my own terms, most had been compromises. Rome? But, there had been that incessant crying at the Colosseum. Copenhagen? Infamous now for the missing suitcase. Lisbon? I didn’t make it to the palaces of Sintra, too many hills for tiny legs. Amsterdam? I’d had a sudden panic attack there. Perhaps holidays are just like childbirth, painful but soon forgotten.

“So, you’re from Belfast,” said the Scottish woman in the t-shirt, wearing the Ray-Bans. It was unseasonably hot for the end of October. I’d brought all the wrong clothes, no hat to shield me from the glare, no cream to provide UV protection. We’d just paused for a comfort break at Checkpoint Charlie, I’d briefly wandered off by myself to photograph the image of the real US soldier on one side and the fake Soviet one on the other. We were now passing TrabiWorld and on our way to ‘the Wall’. “Yes,” I said to the Scottish woman, “we have our own walls in Belfast too”. The insanely blue sky did Berlin a favour. “It isn’t very scenic,” I would tell people when I returned home. There was no centrepiece to define it, the majority of its buildings had been reduced to rubble during World War Two, its architecture paid homage to the limitations of the ’60s and ’70s, there are much more glamorous rivers than the Spree. It was grey and concrete, defiant in its grimness. Its beauty wasn’t to be found in its exterior, there were bullet holes in much of its brickwork. There was something else that ran much deeper beneath its surface, a resilience, a rebellious hope, a refusal to be bound by the injustices inflicted on it. At the end of our 48-hour stay, I would find myself processing its impact on me, how it had crept under my skin, how freedom to live as ourselves should never be anyone else’s business. I’d write a post on Facebook describing how, having grown up in a divided country, one that still thrives on pettiness and grievances, Berlin had made me realise how important it is to respect the past whilst simultaneously embracing the future. Perhaps I wanted to be Berlin too, to rise up from the confines of my own past into a brave, new future.

If outside was bright and sunny, then inside was all shadow and gloom. I could barely see to read my novel about discontented mothers in the bedroom, my drink in the bar could have been anything, but its pink fizziness became a momentary solace, my make-up looked like it had been applied in an unlit toilet cubicle. In the mirror, I was broken and exhausted. The bottle-green ‘vibe’ in the hotel¹ suited the moody teenagers who insisted they’d not only been duped into walking for three hours, but also made to climb to the top of a tall, glass structure and forced to endure relics from Babylon. They weren’t convinced that the Ishtar Gate was a must-see. “Why did you buy us tickets for a museum?” one of them screamed as she showed us the blisters on her feet. We paid for large portions of currywurst and endless supplies of fritz-cola to make our lives easier. I craved more space for respectful reflection. Peter suggested we didn’t take selfies at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It wasn’t that kind of place. “But you’re not that kind of group,” he said. And they weren’t. Everyone was patient as they waited for a father to queue for a toasted salami bagel for his hangry daughter. Everyone was silent here as we emerged from its sloping, undulating, labyrinthine concrete corridors, the architect leaving its meaning open to each person’s interpretation. It was simply disorientating.

Image by Author - Memorial To The Murdered Jews Of Europe

But, then, it was a disorientating weekend. The clocks had gone backwards and forwards. For twelve hours, my watch was at the right time. I could never figure out whether we were in East or West. There was so little of the wall left to orientate us. It was hard to picture how it once criss-crossed through the city, two walls really, a no-man’s land, the ‘death strip’ inbetween filled with hundreds of watchtowers, guard dogs and machine guns. There were tales of daring escapes, zip wires, hot air balloons, terrifying desperation. I became more and more frustrated at my children’s self-centredness. I was emotional as I read the plaque in Bebelplatz, the square, where 20,000 books were burned by the Nazis in 1933, Heinrich Heine’s quote, “Where they burn books, they will too in the end burn people” ominously becoming truth.

It was a city where you had to look both up and down, the stumbling stones on the pavements, commemorating individual victims of the Holocaust. “A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten,” said the artist who conceived the idea. We stood on Hitler’s bunker, just an unremarkable patch of grass in a carpark, the TV Tower was always visible in the distance. As the Communist government promoted atheism, the cross which forms when the sun reflects on its dome became known as the Pope’s Revenge, a message from God to those who still believed.

It was a city that extolled its right to individual expression, to have personal perceptions, perspectives and preferences. As we ate herrings and meatballs and dumplings in a restaurant that called itself ‘traditional German with a twist’, I admired the waiter’s nail polish, a perfect shade of taupe. He asked us where we were from. He’d watched a recent Graham Norton episode on YouTube. I wondered if he knew about the ‘cancel culture’ backlash. He told us that Colin Farrell and the other guy with the beard were on it. He talked about their film. “Yes, The Banshees of Inisherin,” I said. I had been struck by Brendan Gleeson’s existential crisis, his desire to do something creative with whatever years he had left. “You have beautiful countryside,” he said. I didn’t have the heart to tell him Achill Island is a long way from the North.

It turns out I wasn’t as resilient as the city. On a Sunday evening, on a high stool in a crowded tapas bar, I wept over my beetroot tartare. I was reading Deborah Levy². I was struggling with my remit in life. “When our father does the things he needs to do in the world, we understand it is his due. If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us,” she wrote. I was tired of planning and organising for everyone else, of being at their service at the expense of my own pleasure. My eldest daughter held my arm as I sniffed my way through the streets. I wondered by nineteen, do you start to appreciate. I had a folder in my inbox, emails from all the places I’d booked, they represented hours of research toil. I doubted anyone was grateful, neither for my itinerary nor my mothering.

As we discussed stopping pocket money, consequences for poor behaviour, how we had failed as parents, how I’d given birth to a bunch of philistines, I thought of the list I had made, the sights I’d hoped to see. I wanted to complete it. I refused to be derailed. “We could go out tomorrow by ourselves,” I said to my husband. It felt like a secret escapade, an abandoning of responsibility as we left them sleeping, as I breakfasted on caffeine and apple spelt. As we exited up the steps from the S-Bahn, the ruins of Kaiser Wilhem Church loomed before us, a symbol of Berlin rising up from the ashes of war. I pondered how each of us has raged against our own inner war. We held hands as we strolled along the East Side Gallery Wall. I realised how much we still needed to be a couple. Sometimes, the person we agree to cherish is the one we neglect most. I noted a rusted bicycle, poised against some railings by the river. It was a piece of art, battered yet worthy. We had a flight to catch but maybe a little more time to indulge in each other’s company. “Let’s not rush back to the children,” he said. As we walked past the doors of the hotel, there they were, sitting together, a tribe eating pancakes by the window, a force to be reckoned with. We waved and walked on.

Image by Author - Rusted Bicycle

As we checked out, I realised there was one more item left on my list, another memorial, the resting place for 7000 Russian troops. I didn’t know if I’d ever be back in this city. I debated the hassle of getting off and on the train but I was afraid of another Sintra. As the machine slowly spat out the tickets, and our transportation approached, my husband yelled at us to jump on. As I took a split second to ensure no-one was left behind, the doors closed. It was me that was left behind. I thought about the American girl, how she only ever needed to look after herself, that bliss of independence, the liberation from never having to find yourself because you’ve never been lost. I had everyone’s passports in my holiday handbag. It seemed they couldn’t go anywhere without me. Before the next train arrived, I contemplated where I could go without them. But, they were waiting for me at the next platform. I could see them through the glass. I didn’t actually know how to be without them. So, I stepped off and joined my family. I was ready to go home.

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Deborah Sloan

I’m a mum of four girls who recently left a career to focus on writing. I write about leaving, change, career, motherhood and life. @deborahjsloan on Twitter