I was recently granted a huge opportunity to further my thesis research: a one-month VIP fellowship at the University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. My thesis novel is set in Berlin. Frankfurt an der Oder is just over an hour from Berlin. I have been dizzy with nerd excitement from the moment I read my acceptance email, 15% awake on my boyfriend’s couch.
It’s a big deal in more personal ways, too. At the ripe old age of 22, this is my first time in Europe. My first time without a translator in a country of people whose mother tongue is not English. My first proper time alone overseas, unless you count the five days I spent working at the Auckland Writers’ Festival, which consisted of running around the same building for fourteen hours each day, and which culturally felt more like Adelaide than Adelaide.
Everyone knows it, but no-one admits it; travelling alone is terrifying.
I am two days into my stay in Frankfurt (Oder), and I’m settled enough now to admit that it scared me a lot more four days ago, in the first moments after I reached my hostel in Berlin, where I planned to spend a couple of nights curing myself of jet lag. When you’re travelling, as most people know, your world is condensed to a stress train (or a calm train, if you’re a freak of nature) of okay only eight hours left of the flight, okay where’s my passport gone, actually where the fuck is my passport, okay where’s my gate, okay what time is it in wherever I am, what year is it, time is a social construct, etc, etc.
Nothing but a constant checklist of the next thing, the next thing – and then suddenly it stops.
For the first time in over twenty-five hours, in my dingy Berlin hostel, I had the space to think properly again. It wasn’t that great a time.
William Gibson calls it ‘soul jet lag’ – the state of being where your body is in one continent and your soul is in another. It’s a more poetic state of affairs than plain homesickness. In my case, add to that a language barrier, pretty brutal social anxiety, and the fact that everyone who might have been able to calm me down was currently asleep in Australia. Stir thoroughly.
To cut a long story short, I sat down on my mattress with my hired linen set still on my lap, and I cried for about three hours. When I woke up the next day, I cried again. Then I was embarrassed. I hadn’t cried this much since The Book Thief. How dare I measure up to the stereotype of an emotional woman! HOW DARE!
Fast forward two days of playing tourist around Berlin, and I’m not embarrassed anymore. That huge lump in my throat has thawed to a grape, and I’m able to breathe again.
David Lewis writes about a concept which clarifies the time traveller’s journey against everyone else’s. He calls it external versus personal time – external time being forward time, which everyone else is experiencing, and personal time being the watch on the time-traveller’s wrist, their own cobbled chronological experience.
Yes, I’m only here for thirty-four days. But that’s external time. That’s your time. And in my personal time, it’s a lot longer.
Because I am me, I didn’t pack for the weather. It’s actually super muggy here, and I find myself staring at all my lovely scarves in disappointment.
Because I am me, I have researched and compiled a (very short) list of all the cafes open before lunchtime. (Damn you, laidback Europe.)
And because I am me, I’ve already started worrying that I will reach the end of my stay and not know anyone. I’ve been myself long enough to know that I’m never going to be that frat kid who makes a thousand friends wherever they go. And that’s perfectly okay with me – but after living on campus for four and a half years, you’d think my social skills would be platinum. As it turns out I have the base game but not the expansion pack.
It would be idiotic, however, to complain. I have spent the past two days wandering around town, sourcing Wi-Fi for my ever-cooperative phone; taking sneaky photos of restaurant menus so Google Translate can tell me if there’s a vegetarian option; staring longingly at Poland from across the Oder river – and in the mornings, when Australians are enjoying the afternoon, I am condensing my regular life into a third of a day – getting in contact with loved ones, editing Empire Times pieces, ticking off things on the never-quite-empty Speakeasy to-do list, and reading about GDR feminism. Tonight I was at a free lecture about borders in Europe. Tomorrow I am meeting my supervisor. On Thursday I’m participating in a class discussion centred around my thesis, and I’m entertaining the idea of spending Friday people-watching in Berlin.
Not to mention the Parks and Rec session I had last night. Because, my friends, Ben’s claymation movie is the real adventure.