This is the story of my arrival to Berlin.
1. The setting. (Separation)
It is spring 2019, and I have just moved to Berlin. I am filled with excitement and curiosity to rediscover the city I was born in, but that I haven’t lived in since I was a toddler. I am still able to romanticise the U-bahn and the fact that I sleep in a bare room on a shitty mattress. It suits the coming of age narrative I created in my head. The 30 days I spent here so far have been full of encounters and activities, as if I made it my goal to explore each facet of the city as fast as possible.
On one particular night, I am out dancing with an old friend whose boyfriend I am subletting from. In a smoky bar, I try to dance between sweaty bodies, careful not to spill my drink. I make a pitstop at another (house-)party, to say hi to a classmate, which feels like an accomplishment. We catch up on our weeks over a table filled with hummus, bread and olives. As I make my way through the improvised dance floor, I snack on some apricots. “See,” I tell the 2-month-younger version of myself, which had been frightened in anticipation, “you know people!”. It makes me somewhat proud, and I am walking on tiny clouds when my friend calls me to take the U-bahn home.
The city is an ‘Hexenkessel,’ a witches’ cave. The night before the 1st of May is traditionally known for it’s uproars and political resistance, showing itself in burning trash cans and quarrels with the police. Sirens echo through the streets as we make our way down to the underground. I enjoy the swaying of the carriage and melt my tired body into it. While ascending the stairs at the transfer station, screams float in our direction. With each step up the stairs, their frequency gets higher. The way the notes echo transports me back to the opera I saw the Sunday night prior: La Bohéme. The source of the sound is two men who are brutally arrested by the police. One of them seems to be floating in the air, trying to wiggle himself out of the strong grip of hands.
We’re crossing the street towards the bus stop. Our gazes are fixed on the two men, who are now being pushed onto the ground. It has started to rain. Something about the smell of the wet concrete makes me feel like their pain is transported through tiny particles of water, and washes ashore at my feet. A flash of lightning scares some pigeons, forcing them to make a communal pirouette in the sky before they land back on their metal structure. Or perhaps, the flash of lightning was timed to illuminate their tiny performance.
Suddenly our attention is brought to a rat, sprinting over the street, into our direction. He is aiming for me with the conviction of someone that has spotted an old acquaintance that they want to greet at all cost. I panic and jump onto a bench. Looking down, the rat has disappeared. Instead, I see my friends’ big eyes. “This happens all the time in a big city, you should get used to it.” Are they just thinking these words? Did they say them out loud? The previously felt pride transforms to a sense of naïvité. Which way does the night bus go?
The ride is a blurry painting of coloured lights reflected in the drops on the windows, smudged out over a black backdrop. When we get home, I feel so worn down I can’t imagine doing anything the next day. To combat my nausea, I eat a pear. It’s overripe. There is a strange taste in my mouth when I switch on the light to see the mattress on the floor. Slowly it has started losing its charm. I rest my head on the pillow. “Just try to sleep”, I tell myself. I close my eyes with force, so that they get the hint too.
2. The night. (Liminality)
The nightlight casts my shadow on the wall as I turn it on. I can’t sleep. Why would I sleep at this hour? I trace the outline of the shadow with my eyes and realize my snout is growing into a sharp shape. I hold up my hands to closely inspect my thin wrinkly rat hands. That’s why the rat ran to me. They recognized me.
I blink. The blinking sets of a thousand thoughts at once.
How come I never noticed I was a rat? Did everyone notice except for me?
I focus on the space behind my hands and take in the rest of the room. It disgusts me. Why doesn’t anyone seem to care that the bedding I slept in all month is covered in spiders? I panic.
Foetal position. I bend too far. I am now a snail shell.
Something isn’t right. I should warn my roommates. A new dimension has opened. What if they are having sex though? I can’t just barge in. An incredible dilemma. I freeze.
Time is a cloud. Somewhere in the mist, I can distinguish a voice.
“She must be in shock and exhausted”
I try to explain to them how someone is putting a spell on me. I am pinned down on their mattress by a judgemental look that comes from the top of the shelves. Of course, it’s walpurgisnacht. I pissed off a witch – and she is sitting on top of the shelves.
Wasser, wasser, wasser. The cup that finds its way to my hands is endless. The faster I drink, the further the bottom reaches, the smaller the bed becomes. It is shrinking until I am pressed between two bodies. Schlafen, schlafen, schlafen. We are one big breathing machine. When I zoom out I see myself laying in bed with my parents, before I was born. What a coincidence! My parents met 30 years ago on this day.
I get stuck in a vicious circle of feeling guilty because the others can’t sleep because my racing heart is nervous of how fast it is beating. I convince myself and them that I feel well enough to leave and make my way back through the corridor. Two corners are enough for me to get lost.
Back in the room I have a moment of clarity – Can you tell if you are in a psychosis by the size of your pupils? I open the front camera of my phone to zoom in on my eyes but before I can check I get distracted by the curtains that are breathing.
The rain falling on the window has the color of Maria Magdalena. It invites me to touch the cold glass. Should I open it? Fourth floor. People walking on the street.
Yesterday I wore two different shoes. Juxtaposed, like Bellini and Mantegna. My breasts are uneven. I am pulling off my own face particle by particle.
I am a wave for a good 18 more hours until I finally level out and feel horizontal. My skin is layered in salt from tears and sweat. My moist t-shirt has faded from white to yellow.
Somehow I am not surprised this happened.
A text message.
How was your first of May?”
I tell her
Three dots and then:
Did you eat an apricot?”
This is how I find out about how the three dried apricots I ate were spiked with LSD. The relief to be able to point at a reason which is located outside myself, is immense.
3. The aftermath. (Incorporation).
In the days after, I seek refuge with old family friends. I drink orange juice and sleep as if I am recovering from a flu. For a moment it’s just me and the orange juice. Doesn’t make sense. Orange juice is yellow.
As an apology, the people from the party try to invite me for dinner, which feels like a contradiction in terms. As if I would eat anything from you again. Thoughts sound loudly and I learn to distinguish which are mine, since everyone seems to think something on the matter.
In the weeks after, I find myself staring at floating soap bells on the dishes. Blue china, repeated over and over in a circling pattern. How long have I been gazing at them?
One evening I sent my friend a picture of the night sky. “Do these clouds look weird to you?”
The impact of the acid rush wears off, the more I tell about it. I polish it out of the foreground with anecdotes. Language helps me understand the surreal experience, which I have come to secretly call my “initiation.” Perhaps I am too hasty. Embedding yourself in a new city doesn’t happen over nightly apricots. Reality glitches in this dimension as well.
The same daily route sometimes takes forever, and on other nights my bike wobbles at divine speed over the cobblestones. Berlin’s infrastructure teaches me to always calculate an extra fifteen minutes of travel time. Yet, I rarely do. For a German city, most people here don’t seem to care much about punctuality. “Let’s play it by ear.” Sometimes this means I’m alone on Saturday night. The sixth day of the week weighs like a hard stone on my stomach.
On other Saturdays, I dance – another way to blur the boundaries of your body. Waking up after a night of self-inflicted chaos feels like mountain climbing. I drag my heavy limbs along like a medal.
The real challenge, however, lies in maintaining a light heart. Strangers are cultivated into friends. I am trusted to look after their dog. Conversely, I feel like they scratch my back when needed. We hang out daily for a month, then I suddenly hear nothing from them.
In this city, everyone’s heartbeat is on a different timeline. Now it is around me, not in my own mind, that connections are formed, broken or opened up to an audience. I begin to see us as dots and study the lines between them. Where do I fit into this net? I ask myself. When will I be initiated?
Words and Images by Cleo Wätcher
Cleo Wächter is a Berlin-based photographer and (visual) anthropologist. She is interested in the notion of landscape and her research is primarily focused on one’s relationship to their environment and how we inscribe it with meaning. The main drive in her work is curiosity and the encounter.