My first floor Tucson apartment was infested with stray cats. At night I heard them scratching, screaming, fucking beneath the basement floorboards. They made stray cat nests next to the heaters and swaddled cat-babies in the alleys. The ghetto-living was punctuated by a shattered window next to my bed, which looked starkly into a dusty alley lined with desert weeds.
One morning, I awoke to a patch of sun and something else warming my feet. It was furry. When I moved, it moved. Within seconds, I felt the slow crawl of hunting paws first along my legs, the my belly and slowly onto my chest. Before I could wrestle with nature’s invasion, the stray cat put its face in mine and gave a long, almost grateful, “Meeeooooooooow.” After breathing her cat morning breath in my face, she pounced towards the window and made an escape before I had time to offer a cup of coffee.
Throughout that summer, the cat would return occasionally and she was, sweet for a stray, prowling for bowls of milk, or just a warm nights rest. Knowing the elements, I didn’t begrudge her.
As I was packing for Berlin, my father said to me, “You are just like a stray cat, always in and out.” I have been honing my instincts, and, I think this is befitting. Cats do not need leashes, they master surroundings, explore with fearlessness, and always somehow manage to make it “home.” Also, stray cats are, decidedly resourceful.
It always starts with fear. Displacement inspires a quickness of the mind: a letting go, of comfort, space, and security. Sensory awakening is critical—new sounds, and smells. The mind is processing and deflecting, coping with new warning signals (crosswalks, sirens, language). Constant adaptation is exhausting, literally: I think that the mind expires. What people consider the weariness of travel, is just the brain working overtime to adjust. Like animals, we go into survival mode, in a way that demands constant evaluation, a breaking down of the norm, and a return to animal instinct.
I arrived in Berlin with a severe case of jet lag coupled with two days of clubbing, which is disorienting, both in time and space. This meant, for at least a week, I was never awake or sleeping at the right time. We are only blocks from several world-famous clubs, which means the thrumming techno beats are often streaming through my windows at night.
Being stuck in this kind of Twilight Zone meant catching Berlin from an odd angle, at least at first glance (like that girl who has a beautiful profile, and then turns her face). Trying to adjust to daylight, I sat at a coffee shop while tripping club-goers navigated the cobble streets back home. Delivery men go to work. Lovers say goodbye.
The historical landscape of the city makes it difficult not to think about the war, the bombings, the meaning of the Wall. At the same time, Berlin’s own history seems to be eradicated by its very presence (culture is on overdrive). Still, I watched a man with long, thick dreadlocks and a half-mohawk push a stroller and a small baby, some kind of incarnation of a beautiful, blonde Aryan icon and thought, “Hitler would have been proud.” These are the kind of thoughts I am trying to keep to myself.
I moved into an apartment in Kreuzberg, a neighborhood I would compare to the East Village: same hipsters, but ridiculously cheaper. We are in a 5th floor walk up with rooftop access and an open terrace with a bar that faces the city streets and canal. The three-bedroom flat is also rented out weekly and there have been, since I moved in, Italians, Lithuanians, Australians, Americans, and the French circulating the apartment, among others. The rotating door can feel like a college dorm, but there is never a shortage of memorable interactions (Lithuanians rapping, an Italian carbonara feast, and one night of French bootie dance hall lessons).
I have established certain patterns to help myself acclimate. I survey and recon like a cat, remembering the blocks, then the streets, then the neighborhood, until eventually I take a one way train, knowing I can look at the windows and have a sense that there is, at the very least, a one-way track to get me back to where I need to be. Though, there is nothing like getting on a train, watching the station signs and realizing that they do not match the ones on your map (you are going the wrong way).
My American friend, “Auley,” (a Burning Man enthusiast, windmill tech engineer by day, guitarist/electronic musician, costumed dancer by night), has lived in Berlin for 6 years has been teaching me lessons. The first week, he sent me on a 4-mile excursion in heels just to see if I could navigate the cobblestone streets leading to his office. A few days later, he sent me home on the train alone, without a map and vague directions to and from the station where I was supposed to land. I lumbered from the platform with a stupid look. My lack of direction at midnight and then another long walk home in heels made me borderline pissed. After the isolated near-tears disorientation, I decided, it couldn’t really get worse, and I learned my lesson (I am now carrying a map). Also, memory saved: I will never forget that train stop, or that intersection. I have conquered the fear of being lost and riding the train (alone).
A bonus lesson in learning the streets, I got a hand-me-down bike from my former French roommate, Felicia. Just my luck, I am living with a guy who has a business building fixies (tagline: “My legs are my gears”) and (I already mentioned the hipster thing), so that’s what I’m flying around on these days. There are a bunch of hot twenty-something fixie riders at his shop around the corner who have been more than helpful fixing the squeak of my chain. The bike is probably the best way to see the city, though I must admit, I miss my little hybrid back in SF.
In another twist of, “Let’s see if Wayward Betty can survive,” Auley took me to a club that demanded a long-bike ride through some Berlin backwoods and some trail hiking (again in heels). After a couple hours of dancing, then alternatively, warming next to the large trash cans that functioned as fire pits, he left me and went home with a girl dressed as a unicorn (he had to, it was his birthday.) If you are picturing “sexy unicorn,” stop. She was mysteriously blanketed and looked like a stuffed animal with a horn. My only advice was, “Don’t turn around.”
Not speaking German has proved difficult, if only because it is hard to read tone here. Stereotyping (if I must), the Germans are a particular group of folks. I heard from several ex-pats and experienced it myself that NO ONE jaywalks. It is a serious (moral more than legal) offense to cross the street when the crosswalk is red. You will get yelled at, especially by mothers “setting an example” for the children. Also, for a week, I thought everyone was shooting me the stank-eye until I realized that was just the default German face. You will never see that German stank face exhibited more clearly than when they are lined up, facing each other at an intersection. No cars are passing, and everyone seems secretly embittered by their own compliance. Still, no one is willing to make a move, sending the silent stank: “DO NOT break the rules.”
Now unlike the Germans, the Turks have been my go-to resource. The Turkish have a unique cultural position here, which has been compared to Mexican immigrants in the states. Though I have heard complaints about gangs and crime, the Turks always seem to have what I need—directions and cellphones, to name a few. My favorite little coffee shops are run by Turks and a couple have already memorized my morning order, saving me the embarrassment of trying to speak German.
Berlin is an easy place to get lost in a shuffle, or swept up in a crowd. I got lost last week at 3 in the morning, missed my stop, and wandered by foot back to Kreuzberg alone. On the bridge, I met two Americans, one, a 45-year-old transient ex-pat who was playing for change on the bridge. After sharing a couple beers, we all decided to go dancing and, though he was just short of becoming a stalker, he kindly shared his life story and walked me home where I found my roommate locked out and sleeping outside the door (another stray cat).
I usually get my hair done by a traveling dread and extension artist in the states who is usually in Minneapolis, San Francisco or New York. She hooked me up with another traveling stylist from Amsterdam who has long, sticky blonde dreadlocks. We met at small shop where he does merch set up and design in Mitte. On first arrival, he gave me champagne and I nicknamed him Sideshow Bob for the dreadlocks and his name (“Bob”). While he did my hair, we traded stories of leaving the Midwest and a certain affinity for wandering.
I have mastered the neighborhood, the streets, and have gone to taking long runs along the canals toward the Berlin Wall checkpoints, past the graffiti to the sounds of morning trains. Yesterday, my German friend, Jan who I met in Australia made a surprise visit. Last weekend, a high school friend came in from Cairo and shared stories about the revolution. All of this, again, reminds me how small the world is, depending on how far you stray
The Lithuanians have left me behind a pungent fridge full of indecipherable meats and the kitchen is perpetually full of empty bottles and fruit flies, but things are good, and, like a cat, I am making a little home in Berlin.