Two Countries, Two Cities: A Lesson in Being Alone

Double Rainbow, London, July 2016 © Michelle McAdams

Berlin is a living thing. It’s a city that’s constantly moving and changing. I don’t mean it’s a city-that-never-sleeps, lit-up like New York or Las Vegas. Berlin has been bombed and bombed and destroyed through war. It’s haphazardly stitched back together. It’s different eras of architecture are the different levels of healed scar tissue.

The city refuses to fit into a mold. Its tallest building is a giant communist middle finger to the West, a glittering disco ball above an otherwise short city. The U-Bahn, the S-Bahn, the busses, the trains: they connect the city, interweaving and overlapping and spreading out like nerve endings.

I’m a little in love with the city, if you couldn’t tell.

Early this past summer, I went on a three-week study abroad program with my university to Berlin. There, we studied at a language school in the mornings and went on educational excursions in the afternoon and on the weekends (along with an unexpected amount of free time).

We were fully immersed in the city. We stayed in host-families, only spoke German in our classrooms, only took public transportation, did activities that a normal tour group wouldn’t.

And then I went to London for a different three-week study abroad program, all on my own. After a week off in London where my mom came out so we could have a well deserved vacation, I started a course called Television in London at the University of Westminster.

London was similar, but it didn’t hold up.

I hate New York City. Or rather, I hate Manhattan. I like Brooklyn where my best friend lives, but I hate venturing into the prison that is Manhattan. Berlin reminded me of Brooklyn, while London, well…

Where Berlin was hot, London was cold. It rained a lot, several times throughout the day, even with the sun shining down on you. The wind would rip you in the streets, and the Underground would have you melting in your seat.

In Berlin, people talked. People were filing parks and green spaces, people chatting on the U-Bahn and laughed. London was quiet. It was loud, but the kind of loudness that silences you? That deafens you? That makes you feel alone despite being surrounded by millions of people?

Berlin, June 2016 © Michelle McAdams

There’s also something strange to me about being in a city with a monarchy, even a defunct one. There was something oppressive about it. Sitting on the overcrowded Underground, overheating, heart pounding, not making eye contact with anyone. Little sardines pressed into tins, worker ants going home for the day, carrying up to five-thousand times their weight in their hearts and on their shoulders.

I had quite a different experience in London.

I had assumed that I’d have an easier time there than I did in Berlin, but I was wrong.

I went to Berlin with a large group of friends, some of which were only acquaintances but have become like family since. There was something magical and surreal about staying out til ten o’clock but the sun still being out, of buying cheap booze in comical quantities, of those sunsets on the Am Kanal.

The little moments like one friend accidently calling this lady’s dog ugly, or celebrating our birthdays together that first weekend and where I played spin the bottle for the first time. Or back on the Kanal on our second to last night, when we shaved my best friend’s head for her twenty-first birthday, or when another friend accidently flung her phone into the water and the bearer of the longest arms had to dunk his head in to pull it out. The phone still worked. The crowd on the grass cheered.

But still, I assumed London would be easier. I’m terrible at German, and was equally as terrible by the time the course ended. London they speak English, but I found that to be actually worse?

In Berlin being afraid to order food was out of fear that I’d butcher the language. I knew the basics — bitte, danke, ich hatte gern — and if that failed I could always point. The people would get it, I don’t speak German, but I was trying. London though I was nervous all the time. I spoke English, but the wrong English. I’d never been more aware that I had an accent, an American one. It felt alienating.

My main anxiety came from messing something up and being able to understand the response, a possible negative one. I didn’t want to learn what the British phrase for “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” was. I like to avoid all possible confrontation. And because of that, I found myself reading all signs in my head in a British accent? I had to stop myself sometimes from accidentally slipping into one, my brain naturally wanting to assimilate and blend in.

I was only in each country studying for three weeks each, but personally for me, I felt like that was enough for a study abroad experience. Midway through the London course I was already desperate to go home. I wasn’t homesick necessarily, just done and wanting my own bed. My Berlin host mother was more like a landlady, and I stayed out as much as possible to avoid her (and that shitty waterbed I had to sleep on). And in London, the dorm room was small, and hot, and the bed was so hard I had to take the duvet cover off to use as a blanket so I could have the actual duvet as a mattress pad.

I don’t think I could do a semester abroad. It’s things like that that make me want to groan and give up and curl up for hours. I don’t want the pressure of having to do something worthwhile every day. Let me be a potato, dammit. I had just enough time in each city to get a feel for it, to feel comfortable and be a part of it (with a bit of potato time). I had other tourists ask me for directions, which I was able to give. I could find my way around the U-Bahn and Underground with ease and without having to pull it up on Google Maps.

Berlin, June 2016 © Michelle McAdams

One thing I learned though, that I think will stick with me the most is: I learned how to be alone. I was with friends all the time in Berlin, but I still went to school alone, and did go off on my own sometimes. It was nice, being in the small Viktoria-Luise Platz, the fountain shooting up cool water, dogs running around, people tanning on the grass, bike bells ringing. It was a peaceful kind of aloneness.

Even London, where the aloneness was lonely, taught me. Going around that city alone, to museums and parks and the movies, I strangely felt like an adult. Like, just got a job, moved into a new city, into an apartment building where I don’t know anyone, eating out alone, going around because I hadn’t made friends yet. That’s what part of it felt like. It felt like preparation.

Most of the time I was very self-conscious about going to places where you usually go with a group, alone, like to food places and movies and plays, but I ended up loving it by the end. A friend from my class that I made there we went to the British Museum together, and just, she took forever. I love her, but I couldn’t help thinking I would have more fun alone. Where I could go at my own pace.

Tintern Abbey, July 2016 © Michelle McAdams

The other kind of aloneness was the lonely kind. University of Westminster did these social excursions, such as a weekend trip to Southern England and Wales, and the friend that I made hadn’t signed up for them. I sat next to a stranger on the bus. I explored the cities on my own. I ate, alone. I had a single room (which was actually amazing not gonna lie). I had to take awkwardly arm-stretched selfies instead of having someone take my picture for me.

That’s where the aloneness felt like a target on my back, like a big flashing sign above my head. I felt pathetic, really. But afterwards, looking back on it, I was able to enjoy the quiet moments I had, like on a bridge in Tintern, Wales, with little droplets of rain coming down. Or by the wharf in Gloucester, or the river in Bath, or just gazing up at Stonehenge.

Those little moments belong to me and only me. I didn’t have to share them, I didn’t have to accommodate anyone else. I’ve connected with nature more than I ever have? I’ve appreciated it more than I ever had? Sometimes you just need to have a conversation with yourself.

I’m going to miss the evenings on the Kanal with my friends who have become like family. I’m going to miss those afternoons sitting on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square writing in my journal (I wrote poetry for fuck’s sake which is something I never do).

The things I learned studying abroad didn’t come from classrooms. It came from the cities, each offering a unique feeling. It came from the people, locals or others students. It came from the experiences, of relying on public transportation for the first time in my life. But most of all, it came from myself.

I could go to Europe again alone, and I’d be fine. I could live alone, and I’d be fine. I could go out to dinner or the movies alone, and I’d be fine.

No matter where I am, what country I’m in, I will have myself and I’ll be more than fine.