I’ve dedicated the past decade and a half of my life to traveling the world’s marginal places.
I started off exploring forgotten regions, like Central America’s Mosquito Coast or the Mongolian Gobi. But I’ve also conducted a very long inquiry into expat life.
I have a checklist in my head. It’s sort of a list of my ideal criteria: what would be the perfect place for someone like me? The place that inspires me, and where I feel most at home?
I modify that list from time to time, as I visit new places and get new ideas. But it has remained remarkably consistent.
I love the landscape of the Mediterranean. I first encountered it along the stoney olive clad shores of the Adriatic, and I thought that this could be one of my places.
I moved to a small island to find out. But even after 4 years of living in Malta, I still feel like a complete outsider. I’ve never been able to relate to the culture, or to the mentality of the cultural majority here.
And so I decided to fan out my search, to explore regions that were geographically related but culturally different. I conducted exploratory trips to Italy, southern France, and to two different areas of Spain. I loved so many things about those places, but when I imagined staying there and never leaving, none of them felt quite right.
This experience brought me to the conclusion that perhaps there is in fact no ideal place, because no one place seemed to check all my boxes.
But was there an alternative…?
Perhaps it was more a matter of balancing my needs by dividing my time between two different places which speak to different aspects of my nature? The stimulation of a city like Tokyo, for example, and the laid back beaches of the Algarve?
This was the conclusion I came to next, and the next experiment I tried. That division seemed to strike a logical balance between the creative stimulation and outward drive of city life that fuels my work, and the restorative nature of deserted seaside haunts which are languidly centred in the physical and the sensuous.
Perhaps my best bet would be a mix of ⅔ city stimulation, or what might be termed a metaphorically “masculine” place, and of ⅓ softer, “feminine” places where the tranquility of nature or the sea sets the tone.
But this still seemed like a compromise to me. And something about it didn’t feel right.
Lawrence Durrell wrote that you’ll always be aligned with certain places, and that this is where you’ll do your best work. You’ll resonate with the Spirit of Place. I firmly believe that Durrell was right about this. He found it on his Greek island, and in Provence.
I saw my personal landscape as being someplace warm and sunny, with wine and olives and a translucent sea. And I clung to that idea stubbornly — perhaps because I was so influenced by his writing. But I’m beginning to think that my aim was off…
This fact finally dawned on me during a month long stay in Berlin.
Berlin is the only place I’ve ever been where I didn’t think about travel at all.
It’s the only place where I wasn’t thinking of my next move, planning my next trip, or fantasizing about my next adventure. It took me over a week to even notice this, because I was so fully in the present moment.
When I’m in Berlin, I have no desire to be anywhere else.
It’s funny. I’ve only spent a total of 7 weeks in Berlin, on three different trips, in three different years. One week, then two weeks, and then a full month. But I know far more about this city and its neighbourhoods from firsthand experience than I knew about Malta after living there for the equivalent amount of time.
The city can look slightly shocking at first, with all its graffiti and abandoned buildings. But beneath that casual grungy exterior you’ll find community-minded people carrying out interesting social experiments. It’s an open, tolerant city, a place which attracts a wide mix of people living strange alternative lifestyles, and where people simply live and let live.
Berliners are surprisingly friendly too, beneath their frowning, black-clad exteriors. I never had an encounter there, or went into a shop or cafe, where I wasn’t treated with politeness, efficiency, and cheerful enthusiasm.
Now it might seem strange that something as simple as polite service could come as such a surprise to me.
But I guess that after 4 years in Malta, I’ve just become so accustomed to rude, indifferent or completely incompetent service that meeting someone who cares about — and is capable of performing — their job feels like a five star experience.
In Berlin, shop owners or employees were interested in what they sold. They liked to talk about their products, and they enjoyed serving the customer and helping me find exactly what suited me best. If they didn’t carry a particular item, they advised me to go somewhere else — often giving me the names of other competing stores, and even U-bahn directions.
The most extreme example came at a lingerie shop, of all places. My wife had chosen and tried on an item, but she noticed a small glitch in the stitching in one place. It wasn’t a big deal, and she was perfectly willing to purchase this item. But when we took it to the cash, the owner of the shop said, “I’m sorry, I can’t sell this to you. It’s flawed. I will send it back to the manufacturer, and we will have another next week.”
She chose to lose the sale rather than sell us a product with a minor flaw.
Maybe not to you. But in Malta, we would have been told, “Don’t wurr-ry! You can sew it when you get home!” Either that or the ubiquitous shrug, that simple lifting of the shoulders while turning away which signifies how unimportant your concerns are to the staff. Buy it or don’t, I don’t care.
I wasn’t cheated for small amounts in Berlin shops either, or lied to outright by shopkeepers or service providers. But such experiences are so routine in Malta that I don’t even get upset about them anymore.
Take the experience I had buying a gas heater during my first winter on the island, for example. I wasn’t even looking for a heater, actually. Just a ceramic part for a heater which had broken when it fell on the floor.
I thought I would attempt to fix this otherwise serviceable item myself. And so I went to a local appliance shop and inquired about the part.
I was told, “Yes yes yes. We’ll have to order it.”
“Great,” I said. “How long will it take?”
“Come back on Monday.”
We were freezing already without any heat. But we wrapped ourselves in blankets — none of the houses are heated in Malta — and we made the best of it for another three days.
I went back to the shop the next Monday to pick up the part. But instead of finding a nice shiny ceramic burner waiting for me, I was told, “Yes yes yes. We’ll have to order it.”
I explained that I was there to order it the previous Friday. But I hadn’t yet learned the language. The shopkeeper’s reply had meant that it was Friday afternoon, and he just wanted me to go away.
So I ordered it on Monday. The part finally arrived after another week of shivering, but when I went to pick it up, I discovered that it wasn’t what I’d ordered at all.
“The burner I asked you for has three sections,” I said. “But this one has only two. It’s for a different heater.”
The shopkeeper’s face froze for a moment, and I saw the waters of embarrassment swell up in his eyes. He knew he’d messed up my order, and that it wasn’t going to work. But he wasn’t for a moment about to apologize or accept responsibility for this mistake.
His surprised expression quickly turned to loud bluster instead. “Yes yes yes,” he said, brushing aside my concerns with a wave of his hand. “They’re all the same.”
He insisted that this part would indeed fit my heater. And despite the warnings going off in the back of my head, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I drove back home, endured the usual fight for a parking space, searched out a few tools, and proceeded to take my broken heater apart.
When I finally got the cover off, I found what I should have expected all along. The part was completely different. And the shopkeeper knew this when he took my money and sent me home with it.
We froze for 3 weeks for no reason, and in the end I had to buy a completely new heater from a different local shop. And the best thing is, when I took that stupid part back to the first shop to get a refund, the guy was pissed off at me for taking my money back. He threw the cash down on the counter and muttered something at me in Maltese.
But that’s a daily part of life on the island. And I could fill a book with such stories — I’d call it the Book of Obvious Opportunistic Lies — so I won’t bore you with any more.
We were talking about Berlin…
One of the other great delights of this city is the sheer variety of ethic foods.
We ate out almost every night during our brief month in this culinary paradise. We started with Japanese ramen, and ran through an entire atlas of flavours, from burritos to Korean to Chinese to Thai, then on to Turkish and Lebanese by way of German, and back again through the list several times.
We always ate for less than €20 each, and that included beers. The street food was even cheaper, and in many cases even more exciting.
In such a thoroughly multicultural place, it became part of my daily routine to hunt down rumours of food carts or shacks in obscure corners of the city — like that amazing kiosk our friends took us to in Neukölln which sells kimchi fries and Korean beef wrapped in a “taco shell” of seaweed.
Again, the availability of edible food for a reasonable price may not come as such a shock to you. But I have entirely given up on restaurants in Malta. Down there a thoroughly mediocre meal for two always runs at least €100 including wine. And no matter where you go, it always tastes the same.
Of course you can find “Mediterranean food” — a greasy burger and fries, or even fried chicken — for under €10 in any village in Malta. In fact, on just about every corner. But I don’t recommend dining on that unless you’re trying to go fully native by claiming your #1 spot in the EU’s obesity stats.
As for the rest — culture and art exhibits and bookstores and films — I soaked it all up like a man deprived of oxygen (…and I guess I’m also that, given the surprising amount of pollution and the lack of vehicle emission standards on such a small windswept island…).
And don’t even get me started on cafes. I mean real European cafes, quiet relaxing places where people drink coffee rather than Nescafe, and where the food doesn’t taste like someone upset a bowl of white sugar on it.
Oh, and did I mention proper building standards? Houses that are actually warm in cold weather. Plumbing that works. Water you can drink. Closets where mould doesn’t destroy all your clothes. And an absence of every sound made by your neighbours in the next house, or on the next street. You won’t be woken up by explosive “daytime fireworks” either, or blaring car horns. A construction crew was building an apartment block right next door during our entire stay in Friedrichshain. And when I closed the windows, I couldn’t hear a thing.
If you go to Berlin, all of these things can be yours.
But of course, I didn’t fall in love with the city simply because of the basic things I’m deprived of here.
You’ll also discover a unique history, an edgy intensity that’s like nowhere else, and the creativity and excitement of a city which is constantly inventing itself out of an ever-changing mix of cultures and interests and influences.
And you’ll never tire of exploring its neighbourhoods and corners and hidden cocktail bars. At least, not if you’re anything like me.
I saw a documentary recently about the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. He talked about his first encounter with the island of Fårö, which would become his final home. He said, “If one wished to be solemn, it could be said that I had found my landscape, my real home; if one wished to be funny, one could talk about love at first sight.”
That comes very close to describing how I feel about Berlin.
I’m sorry, I don’t mean to come across as a whiner, or as an angry man bent on a rant. It’s just that I got profoundly depressed on the flight home. It got me thinking about my theories and my life. And it prompted me to pull my laptop from the overhead bin and share these reflections with you here.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink my conclusion about the checklist, and that there’s no one “ideal place” which perfectly suits each person.
As the days wore down and our month-long stay in Berlin came to an end, I seriously considered posting my house keys back to my landlord in Malta, along with instructions to ship my books. I would post my car keys too, with a map, and mark it “donation — help yourself”. And I would never, ever look back.