Time and time again in Germany, I am met by the same question from new people.
“So what made you move to Berlin?”
Usually I will reply with something like “mein Deutsch zu verbessern” (to improve my German) or “ein Abenteuer zu haben” (to have an adventure). But today, after a couple of important dates I wanted to talk about it in more detail.
The important dates are as follows. On the 15th of November, I celebrated six months in Berlin. Six months of living abroad, six months of going at it alone. Six months since I cried leaving my boyfriend of a year at the airport – making it also a year and a half that we have now been together. A couple of days later, the 18th of November, my best friend’s birthday. The first time missing her party in almost a decade. And also, three years since my Grandma passed away.
Gisela Charlotte Johanna Cowan was born in Berlin in 1926. A real life Berliner. A woman with a fierce personality and a lap more comfortable than any chair in the house. She was smart, she was mischievous, she was stubborn and she was never satisfied with any of her Grandchildren’s hair (“Go get a comb!”). She made the best potatoes I’ve ever had. Grandma was the head of our family, the Boss. The staple that pinned everything together.
In my second year of university, I got the opportunity to have a year abroad in Berlin. I turned it down – much to the upset of my Grandma. At the time, I worried a year out would only elongate my degree and serve little purpose towards my end goal of being a writer. As I explained this to Grandma, she, undeterred as ever, pointed out: “But if you don’t go anywhere, what are you going to write about?”
Of course, she was right.
By that time, my grandma had already been diagnosed with vascular dementia. Over the years, her condition worsened, robbing her of her memories and stopping her from being able to look after herself.
Her personality changed. She was no longer the Grandma we used to know. She could be childlike, naughty even, refusing to eat her vegetables and farting at the dinner table. She’d wake up from a nap and think it was a new day or make food for visitors that weren’t even in town. It was heartbreaking, traumatic, painful; but sometimes funny in the most bittersweet of ways. As my mum said at the time, if you don’t laugh about it, you’ll cry.
On occasion, my Grandma would turn to me and ask “when are you going?”. It took me a while to understand what she meant. Somehow the memory of my year abroad had been stored away and she was always waiting for me to leave. At some point I stopped explaining that it was no longer happening – it seemed much easier that way.
Now, I can see that the first seeds of my move to Berlin were being planted. It was an idea I wouldn’t fully realise until two years later on holiday with my Great Aunt and Uncle.
Grandma died on the 18th of November 2014 aged 88. I wish she could have known that I would finally live in Germany.
I’ve spent my whole life saying I’m half German (two half German parents) but since moving here I realised I know so little about my heritage and past. About where both sides of my family came from and what they experienced. The more I dig up, the more incredible I find it, all of it. The more I want to tell other people.
And as Grandma would point out if she was still here today: The more I find something to write about.