Goodbye, London. I’ll miss you

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I’m writing this in Berlin, which is wild to me. I’ve been here for nearly two weeks and I still haven’t quite realised what’s going on, but I can tell that I’m getting used to it already. The more I commute to work on an underground line where nearly every station has a bakery, so the smell of fresh bread wafts into the carriage at every other stop; the more cute dogs I see all over the place,

So I guess it’s time to say a proper goodbye to London, my home for the past 9 years or so.

February was a tricky month. Work picked up a great deal, with projects needing completion, lists requiring handovers, a desk in dire need of a clean, and So. Many. Goodbyes. We managed to finish our first (and my last) Dungeons & Dragons adventure in an office meeting room, and yes: our entire party survived.

Mostly however, I spent February walking around, saying goodbye to a city that shaped me.

In a way, London was the place where I became an adult. When I first arrived, I was 21, fresh out of some much needed therapy. I felt like an egg cracked open; just a tiny nudge and I would spill everywhere. And spill everywhere I did. After a rough 3 years in a not so great place – in many ways – I found myself starting over again, in a different room in a different part of town; closer to trees and woods and fresher air, where I could walk and run and feel more like myself. I joined a drama group, where I made my first proper London friends, people I still care deeply about 5 years later. Theatre taught me how to channel my restlessness into words and movement, and to communicate what I was going through in a way that made it not only accessible to other people, but made them feel more seen in return. Joining a choir had a similar effect on me, and I will miss both these groups a lot. London is a place full of opportunities like this, with thriving creative communities all over the place, and the value of the work they do cannot be exaggerated. (I will forever defend the need for creative community groups and their ability to heal both their members and those who come to see their work, but that’s a different essay.)

There is a sense that living somewhere other than your home country is ‘making it’ – your (Eastern German) parents can proudly tell their coworkers that their daughter lives in London and that she has a fulfilling job many would love to have, a job that sometimes even gets her close to famous people (psst: living in London in the 2010s makes it very easy to get close to somewhat famous people, it just boggles the mind of someone who grew up in a comparably small Eastern German town. I still feel this sense of ‘what is my life’ all the time). You don’t quite realise how much they worry until you have another boyfriend you tell your mum about, and a birthday card arrives from your aunt who mentions how glad she is that you’re ‘not so alone anymore’. But you lean into your big city life, going to plays and exhibitions and complaining about tourists and shaking your head about the political situation you can’t do anything about as a foreigner, and every time someone tells you that you barely have an accent, you feel a sense of pride.

Then you miss a funeral. And another. And you miss a wedding. And you haven’t spoken to your stepdad in months, because every time you Skype home he’s always on the phone in a different room. And you wonder if your version of the big city life is worth it.

There’s a small part of me that’s tempted to see the move to Berlin as a failure. That I wasn’t able to ‘make it’ in the big city. But the thing is, a place like London isn’t for everyone. (Most people I met in London don’t like it there.) As much as I love it, and I do, some relationships just don’t work out. And this particular relationship has simply run its course. Looking back, I didn’t ever imagine I’d grow old in London. There were times when I couldn’t imagine leaving, but maybe part of that is a lonely person’s relief at having found friends, and her reluctance to give them up.

But that was several years ago, and I’m not that person anymore.

Leaving London now is not a failure. If anything, I see it as a success. It’s the end of nearly a decade of trials, of meeting people both good and bad for me, and learning to accept myself, and learning to look after myself. To admit that something isn’t working, and to change it: that’s courage to me now.

They say you can’t love others until you love yourself, but there is a lot to be said for others giving you permission to love yourself. They’re the ones who will hug you when, at the age of 30, you still doubt whether your hugs are wanted. They’re the ones who sing happy birthday to you in 7-part harmony, and the ones who come to see your performances. They do your backing vocals at your first karaoke night. They get up early to meet you for breakfast. They take your phone as soon as you mention your Youtube channel, so you can be in a shot for once. They are the ones to send hugs and emojis and ‘how are you’s and slowly help you tune out that voice at the back of your head that keeps asking, but why me? 

I will miss London and its streets and its diversity and its crazy culture. I will miss the free galleries and cheap theatre tickets. I will miss the buses and the grumpy tube drivers, and Oyster cards. I will miss the Wellcome Collection and its weird and fascinating exhibitions and gorgeous reading room. I will miss the Barbican in all its massive glory. I will miss the British book world. So much. I will miss my flatmates and the shrieking foxes in the garden and the cuddly neighbourhood cats, but most of all, I will miss my people. I’m so grateful I was able to get to know them, and I hope I get to come back for a visit soon.


You can hear me read the above text as part of this video. Yep, still doing the Youtube. Not promoting it if it can be helped, but still doing it.

Changes

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It’s official – after 9 years in the UK, I’m moving to Berlin.

I’ve been hinting at this for a while: London hasn’t felt right for some time now. After a breakup last January, I spent all of 2018 uhm-ing and ah-ing about what I should do – should I keep trying? Should I ignore that voice that had been calling me since my last trip to Berlin a year earlier, and continue building a life in London? Would I be a failure if I didn’t?

It took me until November to start sending out applications. Just before Christmas, I got a job offer in Berlin. I’ll be working there from March on.

January so far has been a month of making arrangements. I’ve given notice on my job and my room, I’ve cancelled subscriptions and made plans to see friends as much as I can. It’s been a strange time – I’ve moved countries before, but my old life in Germany felt a lot less established when I left it to go study in Scotland, and I was excited to leave and start something new. This time, it’s bittersweet. I have a life here; I have a great job, and wonderful friends, and leaving all of that sometimes feels like a silly idea. But I know that I’m strong enough now to make this change – to start again, ‘friendless’ as I keep saying, in a new job, and a new environment. Overall, it feels like the right step. It feels necessary.

It was not an easy decision though. Some years back I already wanted to return to Germany. I couldn’t find any jobs, so I decided to try and make my London life a little better. It worked, and soon I wanted to stay. This hasn’t been the case for a year now: I can’t afford the life I want, just thinking of the London dating scene makes me shudder, healthcare is not great, and, naturally, I’d rather not be in the UK when Brexit happens. As much as I’ve grown here, as much as I’ve learned and achieved – this relationship has run its course. Staying here feels like treading water, and so I must move. Berlin has been calling my name some time now, and I’m glad we’re able to give it a try.

I have four weeks left in London, during which I need to pack, organise a life in Germany, and say goodbye to as many people as I can. I already feel a little untethered; but I know I’ll always land on my feet.

This week, I was happy in my own company

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Earlier this week, on my way home, I walked past a man and his young bull terrier. Pulling the excited animal along behind him, he picked up a phone call just as I passed them. ‘Hi,’ I heard him say. ‘Yeah, I’m okay ... I’ve been feeling a bit introspective lately.’

‘Me too,’ I thought before I turned a corner and lost them.

Everything has been moving in this direction for a while. Right now, I get most of the human interaction I need from my work hours. After work and on weekends, I tend to stay on my own. I haven’t felt this way since my early teens, so it’s almost a bit concerning now – how content I feel with myself, and my own thoughts.

I’m an only child, and an introvert, so I grew up entertaining myself. I would come up with the greatest stories to play out with my animal toys, or I would draw. Once I could write, I would do that. By the time I had my own computer, I would sit inside, curtains drawn against the bright afternoon sunshine, and write pages and pages of stories nobody would ever see.

It’s similar now. Of course, age and years of depression change you, so nowadays I can’t go 24 hours without leaving the house, or a dark cloud will form above my head. But I take a notebook, or a podcast, and I walk. Maybe I run errands, or maybe I just wander. Maybe I take photos or sit down somewhere to write. If I hear from a friend or family member, that’s great. If I don’t, I don’t miss it.

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke had a lot to say about ‘Einsamkeit’ – solitude. In a letter to friends in 1906 he called it a ‘plaster cast for the soul’: ‘My inner life has been dislocated for months, and solitude for now only is a plaster cast for the soul, inside which something is healing.’*) He mourned the attitude towards people who like their own company (‘Parents fear when they notice in their own children the quiet tendency to be alone; those shy boys seem eerie to them, who early in life have their own joys and their own sorrows[…].’) when solitude is a necessity for everyone; especially the artist, and those who love, because a good love is a love where ‘two solitudes protect, adjoin and greet each other’ – as it is impossible to truly love another person without having taken the time to get to know oneself.

Fun fact: in my near 30 years in this life as a German, I don’t think I’ve seen Rilke’s use of the word ‘Einsamkeit’ as meaning solitude in modern German. It always means loneliness; there is always a negative connotation to it.

It’s not always easy being alone. Especially these days; social media can connect us, but it can also remind us with even more ease how much we’re missing, and increase our feeling of disconnection. I’m sure I’ll wake up soon one morning with the belief that everybody I care about has decided they don’t like me anymore.

Until then, I keep learning to enjoy my own company again. If we can believe Rilke, the relationship with ourselves, after all, is the only one in our lives that will not be characterised by distance.


* All clunky translations from the original German are my own.

This week, it got spooky

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October, three years ago:

My heart was shattered into a thousand pieces. It would take over 8 months to put it back together, but the second of those was October 2015. I was desperate for anything I could hold onto as the days got shorter and the nights got longer and darker.

So I turned to Halloween. It had always been there and I’d always kind of ignored it (apart from the annual re-watch of The Blair Witch Project that I started in my teens), but the internet loves it, and I love anything spooky, so I decided to embrace the mood this time. I browsed Netflix and dived into American Horror Story. I read The Exorcist and Richard Matheson’s Hell House and Shirley Jackson. I found the moodiest, darkest playlists on 8tracks and listened to them all day at work.

It was awesome. For one entire month, I could take those ghosts and witches and endless renditions of This Is Halloween and stuff them into the hole in my heart, which ached a little less when I worried about what might be hiding in the depths of Briarcliff Manor.

Since then, every year, just like the way I still get excited about Christmas because it was really great at some time, I can’t wait for October, when I do it all over again.

It occurred to me last night that most of the cold months (in the Northern hemisphere) seem to be dedicated to something: October is for Halloween, November is for novel writing, December is for Christmas, January is for new beginnings. (In February, we’re tired.) I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, this series of ‘themes’ gives me something to nestle into and focus on when my bedroom gets so cold I sometimes can’t sleep properly.

October, though, feels special in a way. October feels like giving in to something. I’ve always enjoyed dark tales, and loved reading and writing them. (My first NaNoWriMo novel was a heavily Shirley Jackson-inspired haunted house story that I’d love to revisit some day.) They allow us to acknowledge the dark sides of humanity, to explore the supernatural many of us have decided not to believe in. They are a glimpse into an abyss that is normally forbidden, where emotions triumph over reason, and control is abandoned or lost. For a little bit, we can believe in the power of witches and the existence of something beyond what we know, all from the safe comfort of our bedrooms, with a cup of tea in hand and a scented candle burning. Where we can imagine the thrill of the threat without it being real.

Now if you will excuse me, I’m about to find a cozy coffeeshop to start reading my third creepy book of the month in.

This week, I was busy

Happy last day of September!

Where did this month go? I have no idea.

For me, September was a month of pretty intense emotional growth (ooohhh) that I can’t write about because I don’t know how (aaaww), lots and lots of drawing, a return to my love of reading, all the planning, and of course work.

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Mood-wise I’ve been doing very well (intense emotional growth will do that to you, apparently), which is why it was such a big surprise when, last Tuesday, I got up from my office chair and nearly toppled over. Maybe it was a blood sugar thing, because a slice of lemon drizzle cake (or my belief in the cake) seemed to sort it out, but since that day I’ve been feeling … off. Slightly wobbly in mind and body.

I thought that I was taking care of myself, but looking back, it seems I have been pursuing self care with the kind of gritted-teeth determination I have been applying to everything else recently: getting up early for yoga classes twice a week, running in the morning three times a week, meditation on the daily to do lists I’ve started writing. I’m not about to change a single aspect of all these things, because they do make me happy, but I have to find a way to un-grit my teeth. (Literally. My jaw hurts.) Going forward, there will be more reading time. More writing time. Shorter to do lists.

One of my weaknesses is productivity videos on Youtube (how did we ever get anything done before other people started ~inspiring~ us to do them?), and I often hear from these people how they (apparently) fill their every second with something improving. Got a free minute? Read a business book. Hands busy, mind unbusy? Listen to an self improvement podcast.

I came across this song by Tom Rosenthal earlier in the week:

It gave me a sense of vindication, because I have often thought that, especially living in a large city, it is an absolute pain in the backside to get people to free up their time. There are friends I don’t see for months if we don’t do the same group activities. At the same time, I used to be that person. I know how easy it is to be that person.

October is upon us, and I will not be doing Inktober or Blogtober. It makes me sad, but I have enough on my plate with my 100 Day Project and my plan to revive this here blog a little. (Also all that regular life stuff.)

That being said, I’m so excited for October. I can’t wait to read only horror books and watch only horror movies and listen to only creepy songs and burn all the candles. Maybe I’ll even wear a little more black.

The week in words #18

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I'm writing this on the morning of my final day on holiday. The past two weeks have been an amazing time of great food, tons of sun and relaxation, first in my hometown, and then 5 days of Amsterdam. I'm well-fed, sun-soaked and happy. Both cities have shown themselves from their best sides, and I'm now convinced that Amsterdam is the most beautiful place I've ever been and I'm ready to move here. The LIGHT, you guys.

Since May has sort of creeped up on me I haven't done a reading wrap-up, but ... I don't really care? Over the course of April I kind of got a bit disenchanted with the whole of social media, and I've barely been checking any channels. Maybe I just needed some time off. Once I'm back in London and ready to face the real world again, I will get my head back in the game and post more on here.

But before that – one last sunny day in Amsterdam.

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The week in words #17

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On Thursday morning, I woke up and nearly panicked. I’d woken up in full daylight, so clearly I’d massively overslept. I’m at home, and for such a long time I’ve only been here for Christmas, I haven’t seen daylight at 6am here in years.

I came to the UK first in 2010, for an internship at a magazine company. This week, at my dad’s place I threw away the magazines that listed my name under ‘Editorial Assistant’. That internship made me realise I wanted to work in publishing. A year later I started a publishing degree. After my graduation, I got a job at a publishing company not because of my degree, but because I’d taught myself HTML in my teens. I guess you’ll never know what’ll get you to the places you want to go.

Right now I don’t know where I want to go. London has tired me out, and each time I’m away from it I miss it less. It requires a lot of work to be happy there when you value certain things, like a nice living space, or time with your friends. It was the place to be in my 20s and I enjoyed it, but the closer I get to starting my 30s, the more I’m starting to wonder if it’s where I want to stay.

Being home in spring has been wonderful. It’s been years since I’ve seen my hometown in green and sunshine. On Friday evening my tram got redirected and went past the area I used to live, on my own, during my BA studies. It’s a quiet but well-connected area with a huge park in walking distance. I miss living on my own. On Sunday I ran a half-marathon along the riverbank in the blazing sunshine, soaking in the views and the atmosphere. I only have one more week left before it’s time to go back to London. I’ll do my best to enjoy them, aching legs and all.

The week in words #16

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It has been the kind of week I would euphemistically call a challenge.

On Tuesday, my mental health took a nosedive. Everything good I’d ever thought about myself, anything good anyone’s ever said about me, fell off me like snow off a tree, revealing the truth underneath: that I am nothing and nobody, have achieved nothing, will achieve nothing, and am nearly 30 years old so it’s too late anyway. I went to work, where I stared at my screen waiting for the day to end. There was no point to anything I was doing. I’d fucked it all up anyway, so why keep trying?

By Wednesday, a calm hopelessness had settled over me. When I went into a clothes shop for some retail therapy, it quickly became clear that there was no dress or shirt that could make me feel better. You know those days when you dislike yourself one hundred percent, head to toe, inside and out?

The week went on like this until Saturday brought sad news, and I spent the day listening to music and feeling numb. When these phases come around, I try to remind myself that nothing lasts and everything changes. It makes these days and weeks feel less like endless misery and more like a particularly rough part of the journey.

On Thursday, I made a list of all the things I didn’t like about myself – all the things that take up space in my head, things I am annoyed or bothered by, when I could be focussing on more productive topics. I prioritised the list, and set deadlines to fix those things. My hair is now so short I can stop being annoyed with all the ways it doesn’t behave. We’ll see what else I can make progress on soon.

I write this sitting in our garden as my flatmate makes a horribly greasy breakfast; the air smells of flowers and bacon. Bees are hovering. I have two more workdays left before I go home.

The week in words #14 – On running in the woods

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You know that cold I mentioned last week? It stayed. It’s one of those ugly ones that make you feel like your brain is trying to exit your skull through your face. I was the gross one at work this week, sneezing more than I talked, my desk cluttered with tissues I had to keep within sight and reach because my nose was out of control (Reader, are you in love with me yet?). It has not been fun.

I have been running in spite of it. This morning, after a week of illness, little sleep and going out twice (including yesterday), I picked up the water bottle I’ve never used, zipped up my running jacket, and headed off towards Hampstead Heath. My half marathon is in three weeks and this was my last chance to get some distance in before tapering, so damn the cold and the rain and my aching head, I thought, and hit the road.

I recently read about effort-based running, which is a mindful kind of running that disregards pace and heart rate and requires you to check in with yourself, and rate your effort on a scale of 10. For recovery and long runs, aim for a nice and easy 3-4. Ever since I started going by that, I have been both slower, and better. Running feels less like a chore and more like walking: a thing that I do with my body and enjoy while my brain is busy doing other things. I return feeling less like I want to die, and more like I want a shower, that weird post-run snack I’ve come up with*, and get on with my day.

Today’s aim was 15km, so, bored by my neighbourhood, I went for the Heath. I thought, if I can do 15k in hilly North London, I will breeze through that river half in a few weeks, and I can stop worrying about all the training time I missed.

It all started out innocently enough, walking some hills (because I’m sick, don’t judge me), running everything else while the remainder of my cold left my ears in little pops, until I got lost in the woods around Kenwood House. All of a sudden I found myself in a world of mud, surrounded by trees dripping heavily with rain, and all paths looked the same. I passed several people in running gear holding paper maps, and I felt silly and out of place with my phone, and a little bit like I’d crashed a race I hadn’t entered.

Once I made it to Kenwood House it was raining so heavily I decided to take the shortest route home, and – got lost again. My way home was one wrong turn after another. At one point I remembered food and popped into a Tesco, soaking wet, to buy a protein bar that I ate on the way up the next hill. Then I remembered that my running jacket is water resistant, not waterproof, panicked about my phone, and started to run. I am now the proud owner of my very first running injury caused by accident. (I slipped on the wet pavement and bumped my knee. It’s fine. Yes, it happened in front of people.)

I have never considered myself a runner. Not when I started, or when I ran my first 10k race, or when I finished my first half marathon last year. Only today – caked in mud, dripping with rain, nose running after a week with a horrendous cold, in the line at Tesco with my Graze Protein Bite – I thought: yes, running is a thing I do. I’m a runner. I like this.

The nap after lunch, though, was the best of all.


*My post-run snack for the past weeks has been a banana, cut in slices; a spoonful of peanut butter; and frozen raspberries. Microwaved for 40 seconds. Not good for Instagram, but great for your tastebuds.

The week in words #13

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I had so many plans for the Easter weekend, and then I got a headache. And a cold. All the stress of March seems to have caught up with me, in the form of a bad back, a stiff neck and aching jaw and head where I grind my teeth at night. It's not easy to be productive when your body is throwing a tantrum. Let's cross all fingers that the coming weeks will get better.

For April, my personal focus is running. I have a half marathon coming up at the end of the month, and I need to be in shape for that. So April is for eating and running. And, hopefully, some more creative work. I've been reading some pretty awesome books I'd like to have deeper thoughts about.

Speaking of deeper thoughts – I am, once again, trying to disentangle myself from my phone. This time I'm following a plan (more on that next week, when it's over), and yesterday I spent the entire day without screens. No phone, no laptop. I went outside, I watched other people on their phones, and I walked. I got lost. I had to deal with some strange memories that decided to attack me when I stood, vulnerable without a screen to look at, in the line to the loos in the British Museum. It was an interesting day.

But oh my god, did I read pages. And I wrote pages. And in the evening, I did use my phone: to listen to music.

I haven't properly listened to music in such a long time. I forgot how, when I lived alone, I could spend hours dancing through my flat. I forgot the feeling of having the window open at night, looking out into the darkness while listening to an epic orchestra piece. (Music always sounds best in the dark. It has more space then.)

Music is always first to go when I prioritise. (Of the many things I'd love to do but don't have time for, dance and playing the piano are my biggest regrets.) It's so easy to just put on a random Spotify playlist for 'concentration' to have in the background at work. And then, as soon as priorities shift, say, while walking, what goes into our ears needs to be more productive: audiobooks and podcasts, to educate and inspire us. Surely I'm not the only one who feels this pressure to always have their mind on something 'improving'?

I used to have a folder on my MP3 player named 'instrumentals' that I'd listen to on my way home from school. It was about an hour of epic orchestral and electronic pieces whose structures I knew by heart. I could walk to their rhythm, fast, carried by the sound.

Someone once asked me, 'If you don't drink, where do you get your fix?' The answer has always been music. I've made it through many brain crises thanks to the maximum volume setting. And still. I haven't properly listened in months.

I'm now working to recreate that 'instrumentals' playlist on Spotify, and add songs I've found over the years. Here's one of them. Enjoy.