September 20, 2012 by anelim
As the minutes and hours went by, I was finally ready to venture out. The many safety instructions left by my landlady made my head spin. I was almost OUT: standing in the corridor of the old building, slightly scared that the door that I have just locked from the outside might not let me in again. In just a few seconds, I roll down the stairs and Berlin’s sunlit September streets suck me in.
Despite the surgeon-like precision with which the central boulevards are designed and built, the small streets that form a web amidst them are in fact more colourful and rebellious than in any other city I have seen. Perhaps with the exception of London’s East end, but Berlin, so far, seems to be more densely populated with quirk than even London. And the contrast is starker between the bizarre and the hyper-organised faces of the city.
(more photos to follow when I sort them out)
Now, I need to digress before I say any further. I am not generalising, or assuming that this is everyone’s experience (I don’t even know whether it is common or rare), so I hope it’s clear that I’m just describing my own experience of moving to a new place. I’d love to know if you find anything in my account interesting, weird, incomplete, counterintuitive, opposite your own experience or thoughts, or confusing. I suspect that moving to a new place reveals stuff about the kind of person you are. In that case, I must be the kind of person that is reckless enough to enjoy new places and things, but not brave enough to take a stand or have a constant identity. I suppose I am a bit of a chameleon. I am not sure how deeply that goes. Maybe it is skin deep. Sometimes I think that this colour-changing, tolerant, and adaptable character is just a shell which covers up a very rigid, and often scared inner self. Maybe it is the essense. Sometimes I think that I really can sympathise with all sides of a debate and really, really don’t know where I really honestly stand in relation to some issues that most people I know have a principled stance on. I’d have to come across an example to say any more about that, but for now this self-indulgent digression should suffice: hopefully it has served a purpose and it will be clear why it is that I register an unusual intensity of identity-building and, by extension, freedom, in my first days in this new place.
This freedom involves big and small issues and is somewhat unsettling. What type of objects stopped my eye when I was strolling aimlessly, moneyless, and not needing anything, through the flea market this Sunday? Which passers-by seem like people I would enjoy talking to or knowing better – which ones of them are more like me? A friend sent me a funny list of German stereotypes: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2012/sep/19/germany-stereotypes Which one of these am I, or, if none, what am I then? Where do I fit in this city? How do I want to structure my days and this year ahead (to the extent that my time is my choice) – do I want to devote myself to work, which bits of work exactly, do I want to hold dinner parties, do I want to go hiking in the lakes outside Berlin, do I want to while my time away in bars or opera-houses or hip galleries? Do I want to order a schwarz coffee, a beer, schnaps, or bionade? What type of bike should I get – a fast racing beast, or a ladylike city bike?
None of these questions seem to have a clear answer, and although they may seem minute (and to be honest, they are), they are symptoms of an existential insecurity provoked by the move. This makes my identity fuzzy and somewhat more negotiable than it usually is, when I’m settled somewhere, in regular contact with my group of friends. As part of the individual’s lifecourse, meaningful micro-level events such as moving country, can be seen as transitions, windows of freedom, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_course_approach; http://family.jrank.org/pages/1072/Life-Course-Theory-Key-Principles-Concepts.html), or turning points. In lifecourse research they are sometimes called simply ‘events’, but sociological lifecourse theory at least doesn’t really unpack what significance they have for the individual. Perhaps psychological lifecourse theory does? I don’t know, I need to read something to find out. What I’m driving at is that it is not merely the effect of an event, but also the effect of physical space and urban infrastructure. I’m sure that social geographers know that urban spaces can have a very tangible, even forceful effect not only on mood and emotion, but also on the person’s more general identity (whatever identity means). I’m no social geographer, so I’m probably discovering hot water here. The city defines the person – no, that would be too strong a statement. But a city definitely provides a framework in which our social personalities develop, survive, and exist.