Your Berlin Family

You sit alone in your apartment for the first time since Monday morning. You are on your small balcony that overlooks a Pankow courtyard. The Berlin sky is not quite dark yet – it is one of those nights that reminds you that this city fully transforms in the middle of April. It is the sun and the parks and the flea markets and the bars and the people. This otherwise Seasonal Affective Disorder-afflicting place suddenly becomes a city that you can romanticize to death, a city you are inclined to tell your friends is the best place on Earth. Almost instantly the memories of mornings with hail that sticks to your glasses and afternoons when pouring rain stops you from going further than Prenzlauer Berg become a distant memory, because now the light emphasizes Berlin’s cracks and flaws in the most beautiful way.

Your roommate Lisa is out on a date with a guy you helped her pick up at a bar — being a wingwoman is perhaps your newly discovered skill that right now makes you feel a little lonely. You have just come home from leaving your high school best friend Anders at Gesundbrunnen. He gets on an S42 that is supposed to leave in a minute but somehow that minute lasts too long and you have a semi-awkward goodbye where you sneak in one last hug as the train lets out a beep and the doors shut. You almost tear up on the platform as you start to walk away.

“I’m really happy about everything that happened, I just felt very safe and comfortable with you guys,” Anders texts you shortly after he goes back to the Netherlands and it makes your day. You feel so glad that he got to spend meaningful time with Claire, Nathan and Nikita and got to meet shortly Alexandra, Danny and Biborka.

Anders, the person you went to your first protests and Pride events with, visited you for the second half of your spring break. Before he leaves, you feel like your friendship has been rekindled. You had almost a full draft of this article written the night before he came, but now that piece feels all wrong. When you wrote it, you had not yet felt everything this short vacation was going to bring you so how could you possibly write a meaningful piece before the experience was over?

This was the first spring break when you stayed in Berlin instead of visiting your “real” family. Or perhaps a better term would be your first family. Your “second” family hasn’t gotten into the habit of taking group photos yet, but you’re working on it.

Now you feel like you have to start over from scratch while riding the wave of melancholy and joy that comes to you as a plastic pinwheel ladybug that sits in your flower pot watches you whisper the sentences that you are writing as you are having an intensely human experience alone on a balcony that will not be yours anymore when your subletting contract expires at the end of May.

You get a feeling of precarity. Labor markets disrupted by neoliberalization, cities reshaped by gentrification, friendships changed by immigration. If Berlin is to become your new home for a longer time, who of the people you love will be able to afford to live here? Will you be able to afford a Master’s program and a life here with just a student job next semester if there is no rent control policy? Will you have to instead try to find a full time job? Will your boyfriend figure out a way to come here and make your relationship work? Will you be happy here? Will it be worth it?

You want to answer yes to all of these questions, but truthfully you can’t be sure of any of it. Still, for now, this is your plan after graduation: a Master’s program in humanities (perhaps the North American Studies program at the Freie Universität) in a city with friends and comrades you love.

Anders wasn’t the only one that came. Your boyfriend Walker’s childhood friend Carter was here from Monday to Thursday. You had only met him once in Boston when you visited Walker this winter and you really got along with each other, but you couldn’t know if you were going be good at living together for three days. And yet it seemed to work. Seeing touristy places like the East Side Gallery and the Tiergarten with him was as fun, as it was to have him meet some of the people that you are closest to. He enjoyed a picnic with a group of BCB-ers at Bürgerpark and got along really well with Julia, who realized that her Jacobin Magazine colleague wrote a profile about the Grinnell College Student Union that Carter helped organize.

One moment of Carter’s visit sticks out to you. He met Nathan, Lisa, Jude and Claire at a co-op bar near Nollendorfplatz. At the bar Nathan and Carter talked about how they had heard so much about each other from Walker for years but had never met until now in Berlin without him. As the night went on, we proceeded to tell stories to each other that we all knew – things that happened at Claire and Jude’s high school, funny memories of times spent together — and like a real family, we just enjoyed this collective act of narration with no intention of learning anything new, but rather indulging in our closeness in front of someone who is usually not there.

“You coming here was kind of a wild card, but I think it worked out really well,” you said to Carter an hour before he left.

“Totally, I honestly had so much fun with you and your friends,” he agreed, admitting that he was pleasantly surprised too.

You felt sad in a similar yet different way when he left as when Anders did. You had formed what you felt was a deep friendship over three days that was basically going to disappear from your life until he perhaps visits Berlin again in a year or two. You felt a loss for the friendship you would have had, but couldn’t.

Unlike how you feel about Berlin now, your start at BCB was kind of rough and completely unglamorous. You didn’t really make friends with your peers during L&T even though they were all very nice and pleasant people – people you had a fantastic time with partying after thesis submission almost four years later. It was just hard to move to a place that was completely new after living your whole life in Skopje. So it was no surprise that you obsessively skyped your Macedonian friends during that time – something you now only do once a month or even less. The closest friend you made that year was Farah, and she is leaving Berlin in less than two months – something that makes you immensely sad, but also immensely grateful for having known her for the entirety of your education here.

It was a pretty lonely first year and not the most joyful second year most probably because of your slow adaptation process to being college and living in Berlin. But around your third year you started to feel like you had a home here. You made solid friendships and relationships that help make this city the best place on Earth on sunny days. They are friends you can call when you are sad or need to go to the hospital or have some kind of personal emergency. They are friends that would call you in those same situations, too. For example, your friend Nathan was sick two weeks ago and you and a few friends took turns at taking care of him.

“It’s really good that you guys went to take care of Nathan. You don’t have family there so you have to be each other’s family now,” your mom said to you over a video call.

You kept thinking about this concept of a Berlin family ever since your mom said it. You felt that she was right. More than just being incredibly fun and laughing at your jokes, these friends were there for you when you needed them, and you have tried to do the same for them. The dynamics you have with them aren’t perfect. And it is perhaps the fact that we go through moments that are imperfect or even irritating that make this feel like a real family – flaws and all. So, yes, there are bad moments, but the good ones definitely outweigh them. You experienced many of these good moments this week and it made you feel like Berlin is the place where you want to stay, at least while this “second family” is still here.

You have thought about applying to PhD programs or looking for jobs outside of Berlin, but you are not ready for that kind of step. It took you four years to make this new city feel like a home and you are not about to give all of that up just yet. So in the coming months, you intend to do everything necessary to make sure you keep living in a city that makes you so happy once spring comes around.

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