December 8, 2020

The Great Escape

The pitter patter of shoes upon a cobbled street echo along the graffiti-covered walls. A shadow passes along them as a man runs by.

The shoes stop. The shadow bends over, breathing heavily. The graffiti behind it reads: GETTING IT DONE, with a crown seemingly melting into the lower brickwork.

The shadow runs on.

Joseph Cotton in  The Third Man . Vienna… rather than Berlin, but close enough.
Joseph Cotton in The Third Man. Vienna… rather than Berlin, but close enough.

The man emerges into shot. He’s wearing a suit, and his hair is wet with sweat. He’s carrying a hold-all, and a scarf covers his mouth and nose. He looks around him and picks a side-road.

He joins a growing crowd of people in a square facing a tall building, surrounded by a picket line of guards. He weaves his way through the crowd deftly and then jumps up some stairs two at a time. A guard wielding a truncheon and a riot shield stops him, but he holds out a pass. A woman behinds him attempts to give him her baby. ‘Please!’ she screams at him.

The guard shoves the woman back and she’s submerged in the throng of people. The man looks back briefly, regret etched onto his face, before continuing upwards.

He enters a building and is ushered forward. Climbing a ladder now, we hear the growing sound of helicopter blades powering up. He looks up just as a shape plunges towards him in the darkness. He lets go of the ladder with one of his hands, pulling himself to the side of the wall, and the shape, screaming, falls just where he had been. We hear a thud below, but the man is already moving upward again.

On the helipad, he shows the pass to another guard, and clambers onto the aircraft. The guard signs to the pilot, and the he takes off. Below him, the man sees plumes of smoke rising from flame-engulfed buildings. He clutches his hold-all to his chest and looks at his fellow passengers. He closes his eyes and breaths in the relief.

This is how my mid-lockdown Brexit escape felt: brave, desperate, destruction and terror all surrounding me. But we can discuss my inflated sense of self-importance another time…

The real process was much more dull. Book a flight, get insurance, pack your stuff, prepare for the interrogation and… nothing. Just a nod from a border agent in the brand new Berlin Brandenburg airport and onwards into a new reality. I removed the bung of bribery cash I had packed into my shoe with disappointment.

A Pandemic Awakening.

Amid the horror of death and disease, the sorrow of job-losses, exam-cancellations, medical supply shortages, and political uproar, came some semblance of clarity.

At least for me,  a complete stop in the activities I had previously been doing helped me to reflect on them.

I could see how my life beforehand had been a series of self-sabotages disguised as career progression.

I realised I had become comfortable in the day-to-day, and yet had lost that desire for challenge and growth that feels exhilarating when it exists for its own sake. What had replaced it was “getting by”. I had become a drone, stuck in my body and its mental loops without any form of escape. The risk was too great to change, I would tell myself, so I must remain the same.

Pfaueninsel, or Peacock Island.
Pfaueninsel, or Peacock Island.

Coronavirus shut down all my work, stopped me from seeing almost all my friends, and prevented much sense of novelty.

It was a slap in the face. Just what I needed.

There could be beauty and calmness in the mundanity, especially during hotter days, but as lockdown loosened and summer arrived, I returned to the places I had been before and found them changed. Shops and restaurants had closed, or had shifted in their meaning to me. My ideas for the future had begun to warp and twist in the cognitive soup of my brain.

I couldn’t afford a therapist, so I had to delve into my psyche alone.

Outside Gleisdreieck Park.
Outside Gleisdreieck Park.

On a trip to Berlin in September, a friend provoked me with a question: “Why don’t you move here?”

I laughed it off. It was amusing to be asked whether I wanted to leave my country, my family, my deeply-made connections.

I had long-term travelled when I was younger, but knew that moving country was something that people who had their shit together did. Not grifters and drifters like myself. Plus, it’s a pandemic and Brexit’s happening. Double whammy. Would it even be possible?

Inside Gleisdreieck Park! You can tell I have explored  everything  Berlin has to offer.
Inside Gleisdreieck Park. You can tell I have explored everything Berlin has to offer.

Well, I’m now typing this from my new flat, in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Despite no bars and restaurants being open, and the bitterly cold wind beginning to wisp its way through the straßes, I smile every time I leave the house. Each day brings discovery and newness. I’m slap-bang in a honeymoon phase, I realise. There’s no way under normal circumstances being trapped in a place where the sun goes down at three thirty could provide such joy.

But you know what provides real satisfaction?

The knowledge that this is possible. That your life can change in the course of a space of months, even weeks, and that you’ve either got to wise up to it, or live each day with the regret that you didn’t take the chance.

I have a favourite Anaïs Nin quotation: “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” The pandemic shifted my sense of self, and helped me see my paths with different eyes. I took a new path this time, one that had always been available, but I had always shut out.

This is an exciting discovery. What other areas of life are we tricking ourselves into believing are non-negotiable? All it takes is a little push.

More Work
February 2, 2023
January 10, 2023
First Day Back: Opening the Veins of Bogotá

I write this perched on the fourth floor of an improbably slim restaurant in the La Candelaria area of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital and largest city. On my plate is Calentado, made up of beans, rice, onion, plenty of sausage, and a big fried egg.

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