Inviting failure and other lessons from moving to Berlin in your 30’s

The best part about moving to a new city is right before you actually move. Your new life hasn’t yet begun, and so, like all things that have done nothing, it’s perfect. 

Caught in a loop of productivity tracking and bullet journaling and incessant to-do lists that are glorified as unrequited love letters to ambition, not enough is said about the saccharine pleasure of intuitive chaos and the freedom of raw action. 

What does this even mean? I decided I wanted to move to Berlin and I did. 

I decided that I could risk the potential failure but not the thought of being forty and wondering out loud in the bath maybe “What if I had tried?” and knowing, well, I hadn’t. 

I was lucky in so many ways. I always have been. EU passport kind of lucky. But all the luck in the world probably can’t shield anyone from the truth that no matter where you go, there you are. There’s no such thing as ‘starting over’ because there’s no such thing as a stopping. 

I’ve been here for nearly five months and I still feel like I’m on a weird holiday with no breakfast included. I don’t have to use Google Maps every day anymore, but I’m still lost. I don’t know why German people are so grumpy, but I’m not grumpy in the least bit. Actually, and this has been unexpected; I’m happy. I had hoped for a lot of things but it felt too earnest to hope for happiness knowing full well that it’s like asking for world peace – we all want it, but it’s not really realistic, I thought. So accustomed to the slow boil of dissatisfaction and that unshakable not-quite-right Goldilocks feeling, I gaslit myself into believing that my own happiness was unrealistic. 

As much as I’m still a Berlin neophyte reluctant to say literally anything in German, I have learnt some lessons so far – just don’t ask me for directions. 

1: Say goodbye – a lot

There’s that line from Drake’s In My Feelings video, “Don’t forget to go when you leave.” It has been my experience that in order to do both, you’ve got to lean into your swansong. Plan the farewell(s) and indulge in the soft-as-pillows comfort of old friends. Loneliness will find you so it’s wise to have a reserve of blood-warm memories to temper its inevitable arrival. 

2: Don’t walk when you can run

My departure was rushed because I found out at the last minute that I had gotten an internship I applied for and needed to start within the following week. At first, this inspired some very sweaty moments of anxiety and self-doubt. What I had imagined would be a slow jog had become a sprint. There was no longer enough time to get caught up in the demands of an extensive to-do list. There were just the necessities and a fast-approaching departure date. And you know what? Everything worked out, and what didn’t work out can be purchased on Amazon. 

3: Be patient with yourself

I don’t really think you decide to learn how to be patient. Infuriating, frustrating and utterly humbling situations seek you out and then you decide: who will I be? Maya Angelou said, “You can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.” I don’t think it would be out of line to add “grocery shopping in a foreign country” to that list. What once was an almost robotic process that could be completed in various states of sobriety, is now an often Herculean task. If Hercules wanted siracha and peanut butter, of course. God bless Google Translate and its multilingual promises, but the painstaking process of trying to discern what exactly each label says is one that still leaves me resigned and hungry. To be clear, this is a low-stakes frustration, a blessing some would even say, first world problems greatest hits, and yes, it’s all true. But it’s also true that there’s a peculiar loneliness that comes from being inept at even grocery shopping, which maybe more than patience, requires compassion directed inwards. 

4: Give yourself more

Heather Havrilesky, the ineffable writer behind The Cut’s Ask Polly column tweeted this and it knocked me out: 

I’ve been surprised at how quick people are to label my decision to move as brave. Not to be facetious, but to me, it’s not brave to try to live the only way I know you can; that is, truthfully. In the words of my sort-of namesake, I’m trying to give myself more than I think I need, I’m trying to give myself what I want. It is not an opt-in matter of bravery. It’s a matter of survival. 

5: Reframe failure

So much hand wringing and needless anxiety bloom from the fear of failure. When I feel its grips around my throat I try my best to remember that failure, even if it does arrive at my door, is only feedback. There’s a famous video of Steve Jobs talking about how when you realise that you can prod the world and something pops out, that’s when your life changes. Failure, like success, is just something popping out. It only means you tried. And that’s all we can really hope for. 

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