On a Wednesday night in early March, I sat in a quiet Berlin bar with two friends and discussed our spring break plans. We drank gin and tonics and talked through the possibility of renting a car and doing a road trip through Poland and Eastern Europe. There were two other small groups scattered around the room chatting. Half of the bar was closed off with a velvet drape, a dance floor visible in the dim light reflecting off of the mural on the back wall. I sat stiffly, unable to fully get comfortable in the wooden chair that I had pressed closely to the coffee table between us. We voiced anxieties, traded assurances and tried our best to keep ourselves distracted. I remember saying how one of the things I wouldn’t miss was the smell of cigarette fog that permeated every bar in Berlin. I also remember saying this because I was thinking of how, in a perverse way, I would still miss that grimy stench that stuck to my clothes after a night out.
When I first arrived in Berlin, the city was cold and, on the surface, unwelcoming. Over those few months, I found hospitality nestled in bar corners, food trucks and in the jacket folds of the men and women behind Spati counters. Berlin is a city of stone and metal and rain, but that hard shell fosters underneath it the warm heart of the people. As I grew to feel that warmth, the seasons began to change, and the sun peeked through the blanket of clouds in the morning just to remind us it was still there.
The morning before I sat in the dark bar off of Kottbusser Tor, we were told that “there is no way you are being sent home.” Later that night, Trump announced that he was closing the borders to the United States. I had gone to bed early, around 10 p.m. As I slept on the ground floor of our lofted, airily industrial dorm room, the cool breeze snuck in through my cracked window. I woke up not long after to a missed call and a text:
Where are you?
I asked what’s going on.
Come up to the fifth floor kitchen.
The ring of a phone filled the room. I looked up to the loft where one of my roommates was fast asleep, the phone light brightening the ceiling. When my feet touched the concrete, he picked up.
“What? What do you mean?” He sprung up and opened his laptop. He then relayed the news of the border closing. It rang flat. I threw on my sweatpants as he continued his call.
“Do I want to go home?” he repeated.
In the fifth floor kitchen I found a council of my friends around the long, picnic-style table. Laptops were open, FaceTimes in process.
“How much are flights?”
“Well, who knows if he really means it?”
“But what if the prices skyrocket with everyone trying to get back?”
“Do we really need to leave?”
The hours crept on, and there was no word from any Pratt administration. The optimistic updates we had received all along were not unfounded; the virus was, at the time, seemingly under control in Germany. The first case of COVID-19 in Berlin was reported on March 2, only 12 days before I was on a flight home. But, given how fast the virus brought calamity to Italy earlier in March, the optimism we were given (though comforting during extremely uncertain times) proved to be hollow. Ultimately, Pratt’s response was consistent with how it has been during the entire pandemic since then: too little, too late.
After a series of anxiety-ridden events (including missing my alarm, a two-hour Uber ride across London and buying the wrong flight ticket), 48 hours later, I was “home.” I hadn’t been back to my parents’ house in Massachusetts since December, and even then, it was only for about a week during Christmas. I was placed in a position that many other students were (and are) in during this time: displaced beyond our will, back to our childhood lives.
During my time in Berlin, I sublet my room in my Bed-Stuy apartment, so I couldn’t go back to Brooklyn. Regardless, all of the job prospects I was looking at during the spring had fallen through. So, in the meantime, I sat in my high school bedroom and stared at the whale-grey walls I had picked out when I was sixteen and angst-ridden. The walls soak up any light that makes it in through the windows. No matter how wide I opened my curtains, it was never bright enough.
Over this period I continued to write in my little black diary that was originally assigned for class in order to document our personal time in Berlin. Instead, it’s now a relic of the transition from one of the greatest times of my life to the most uncertain. I have not opened it since late June. I have also yet to fully move everything out of my suitcases; my clothes, bags and cords are congealed in piles on what little floor space I have. Books are stacked on old VHS tapes stacked on the antique black cart that used to sit in the dining room. Since I had moved out last year, my bedroom has become a storage room for my family, and now I occupy something between a closet, my old bedroom and a motel room.
I had gone to Berlin on a mission for answers to open-ended questions. In contrast to my move from the suburbs of Boston to Brooklyn, I discovered Berlin to be a mirror that stared back at me, showing me that I already had the answers and was asking the wrong questions. I had gone with the expectation to change in the way I had known the nature of change to be. At a certain point, I found myself traversing the U-Bahn without a map, speaking German to shop clerks without thinking about it and finding myself at home in this place I never imagined I would be. With that cut short, I felt wronged, stripped of all that could have been.
Now, in this transient space, I have been trying to redefine what home means. Home as in my life, as in my friends, as in an existence that fosters growth. Time is all we have now, and it’s become so clear that it is only made of that which we fill it with. I have been here since March and now, outside my storage room window, I see the edges of the leaves beginning to turn orange.
Photo by Lucas MacCormack