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 a long while. But 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, 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. It was horrible watching her struggle with what day it was, who she was or where she was going.
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 in Berlin had been stored away and she was always waiting for me to leave. I don’t know at what point it was that I stopped explaining that it was no longer happening – it was too much to keep disappointing her every time. Now, I wonder if the seeds of my move this year had already been planted way back then.
Grandma died on the 18th of November 2014 aged 88. I was shocked by how quickly my eyes filled with tears after I heard the news, before I’d even processed what it truly meant. I miss her now more than ever before. I wish she could have known that I would finally go.
Whenever I have doubts about being in Berlin or what I am doing with my life, I think about my Grandma. She always knew what was best about a million years before any of the rest of us. She has three children and seven grandchildren living out there in the world, thinking of her and using what she taught them everyday of their lives. That’s pretty awesome.
What’s more, I say I’m half German (two half German parents, will write about that at some point and link it when I can) but really what do I even know about my heritage and past? About where my family came from (both sides) 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. The more I am going to write.
I’ve said it already but I’ll say it again: Grandma was right.