Goodbye to Berlin

12 Jul

Rainbow Berlin

by Rhea H. Boyden

Last December a friend of mine offered me a beautiful secondhand pink couch from IKEA, delivered to my door. Did I want it? Yes, please. My old couch had been in my family for at least 15 years. My mother had gotten it secondhand delivered to her apartment in Prenzlauer Berg probably in 1997 or 98. Where it had been before that and how old it actually was is a mystery to me. ‘We need to carry the old couch downstairs and chuck it out’ I announced to my lovely Swedish flatmate. She looked at the couch and then looked at me and said ‘I think we need to tear it into little tiny pieces first. It will make things easier.’ I looked at her and said ‘Ok, but how?’ She showed me how: by upending the couch and pulling off the thousands of staples and layers of cardboard that were holding it together. I was amazed at how shoddy the interior was. Cardboard? How the heck had the thing held up through all the years of my family and friends sitting, jumping and sleeping on it. It had actually been a fairly comfortable couch. ‘It’s definitely an old GDR couch.’ my roommate said.

GDR Couch 

 The old couch-Christmas 2000- with some of my siblings sitting on it

Now six months later, I have decided to leave Berlin after 14 years and am in the thick of preparations to vacate my apartment and move back to Ireland. I certainly can’t stay in Berlin much longer than the lifespan of the cardboard GDR couch, can I? When my flatmate was ripping the couch apart however, I had no such plans to leave. It was only after I got back from my trip to New York after Christmas that the idea started creeping into my subconscience that leaving might, maybe be a good idea. But it was a scary thought and definitely not one that I was comfortable with yet or even decided upon. Berlin is my home. Why go anywhere else? I have a good life here.

donkey bridge lights

In the middle of January I met up with an Australian friend of mine who was visiting. I took him to a bar I like in Prenzlauer Berg called Eselsbrücke. I like it because it has managed, over the years, to retain a vibe I liked about Prenzlauer Berg before it became gentrified, and so going there puts me in a nostalgic mood. We were sitting at the bar and I told him that I was considering moving back to Ireland. He looked at me and casually said: ‘It sounds like you have already made up your mind.’ This scared me because I most definitely had not made up my mind and was very unsure about whether this was a good idea or not. But it proved one thing to me: sometimes others understand things about you sooner than you understand them yourself.

The choice of the bar we were in was also very significant to me making big plans. One main reason to leave Berlin is to begin a new job, learn new skills and start fresh. And as fullfilling as English teaching has been for me, I am ready to quit it and do other things. The bar was called ‘Eselsbrücke’ and the direct translation into English is ‘donkey bridge’. An ‘Eselsbrücke’ in linguistics is a mnemonic or a memory hook: something to help a student commit something to memory by comparing it to something else. I think I have been a fairly good English teacher showing compassion and patience for my many hundreds of students over the years, but the one question that has been asked of me repeatedly by so many German students is this: ‘Gibt es dafür eine Eselsbrücke?’ which means ‘Is there some easy way for me to remember this vocabulary, some memory hook?’ and usually I have no clue how to answer this. I generally just say that I am sorry and they will have to just make the effort and learn the vocabulary without any ‘Eselsbrücke’ to guide them. I really don’t have the heart to tell them the true meaning and origin of the word which is Pons Asinorum in Latin (the bridge of donkeys) which is the name given to Euclid’s fifth proposition in the Elements of geometry. The term comes from the fact that learning the fifth proposition was a bridge to learning all the others that come after it and it was a test to see who was intelligent enough to master it, or who was too stubborn (as is a donkey) and slow to get it. I am afraid I cannot provide a ‘donkey bridge’ for my students. I am a freelance English teacher. The students have to learn the vocabulary themselves and that is where my patience runs out. My suggestion to them: read as much English as possible and then you will get the words in context. I want to push myself over the bridge at this point and learn new things and move onto a new job. I am ready and I am determined to not be stubborn and closed-minded.

Flag vines

A little later in January I was sitting on the beautiful, secondhand pink IKEA couch wrapped in my pink and purple quilt reading ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed. It was minus ten degrees outside and I read how Strayed sometimes froze at night while camping and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington and is the more challenging and lesser known sister trail to the Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. ‘Wild’ is a delightful and inspiring memoir and Strayed is a smart and sassy lady. Her story was hugely inspiring to me and really pushed it home to me how a long, long hike spent mainly alone in the wilderness is a great metaphor for life. The uphills and the downhills, the bears and rattlesnakes, the people she meets who feed her, guide her and nourish her. But ultimately, she is alone and she has chosen this. She has sold and given away all her things and she is out on a hike to find herself. I sat on my couch both afraid and inspired. I was warm and snuggly on the couch. I had hot tea, nice snacks, my notebooks. Everything was cozy and comfortable, but I was wracked with indecision. ‘It sounds like you have already made up your mind.’ I couldn’t forget what my Australian friend had said to me at the bar. I had not made up my mind yet but a voice was growing stronger and stronger inside me: ‘You need to leave Berlin and shake things up a bit. It is time.’ I battled with this voice, fought it bitterly, told it it was being irrational and to please just go away and leave me alone. A few days later my Australian friend came back to visit me and as he was sitting next to me on the pink IKEA couch I made up my mind. All at once it was crystal clear: I had to leave Berlin and move back to Ireland. I am sure that his presence aided me in making the decision. It seemed he really had sensed my decision before I had made it. I told him at the time that he was one of my ‘angel people’ as writer Natalie Goldberg likes to call them: people who come into your life and guide you, inspire you and nourish you right at a time when you need them most. In ‘Wild’ Cheryl Strayed also writes of ‘trail angels’: the people who come and camp for the summer right along the Pacific Crest Trail. They are there to greet the hikers who emerge from the woods after weeks alone in the wilderness, who having eaten nothing more than oatmeal, rice and trail mix, are ravenous. Strayed says how she really tried to eat in a civilised manner when one such trail angel put a plate of potato salad, green beans and a big juicy burger in front of her. After she had wolfed down the entire plate of food her host wordlessly placed another burger and another helping of potato salad onto her plate. He knew she needed it and appreciated it fully. He had come into her life when she desperately needed nourishment.

When I read the last sentence of ‘Wild’ I put the book down and thought: ‘Wow! What an incredibly brave woman and what a crazy adventure she had’. I glanced around my living room and looked at all the junk that me, my family and my friends had managed to amass in my apartment over the past decade. ‘Where did all this crap come from?’ I gasped, and I knew what I had to do: start sorting through it all and getting rid of it, and I knew it was going to take awhile. Strayed got rid of all her stuff and went on an adventure and that is what I want to do.

Within a few days I realised that I had not one, but two copies of Christopher Isherwood’s ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ on my bookshelf. I have two copies but I have only read the book once. I love the book and so I flung open the first page of one of the copies and started reading it again. This is why I knew it would take time for me to say goodbye to Berlin: I have multiple copies of the same book in my library and I won’t be able to get rid of them until I read at least parts of them again. A sentence on the first page of ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ conveyed a powerful message to me. Isherwood writes this: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all of this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.’ It occured to me that no matter how much I take my life in Prenzlauer Berg for granted, and no matter how much it has all become daily routine involving me walking down the street with my eyes shut, as is the habit when you have lived somewhere a long time, it is now imperative that I wake up to my surroundings and pay attention to the details. I must, as Isherwood wrote, be a camera with its shutter open, really absorbing the details, taking notes and photographs for my future writings about Berlin, for if I don’t really pay attention now, I will regret it later.

mauer park

middle of street

One afternoon when I finished work early, I consciously took about half an hour to walk from the train station to my apartment. I photographed the buildings and the plants, the skies and the shadows. I walked down the middle of the street to get a new perspective. I stopped and scrutinised things I hadn’t seen before. I tried to really take in my whole street with all my senses open and alive. When I got home, I made a cup of hot peppermint tea and I sat on my balcony and took in the fantastic view. I really do have a great balcony and a great view. I can, just as Isherwood did, observe my neighbours and the activities of the street. It is a colourful and interesting view. The swifts fly and chirp and hunt bugs on a summer evening and the sun reflects back onto me from the windows on the opposite buildings. I can look over the old border and see former West Berlin from my former East Berlin apartment and I can reflect on what that view has meant to so many people over the decades.


‘But you can’t leave Berlin, you ARE Berlin!’ one of my long term American friends in Berlin said in dismay when I announced to him that I was leaving. Yet another said ‘But your place is an institution! Are you SURE you want to leave?’ I have been fielding comments like this for months and as flattering as it is for people to say that ‘I am Berlin’ I am choosing to really listen to the people who have faith in my plan which is slowly taking shape: Find a room and a job in Dublin and move there with about twenty percent of what I currently own and start over. My fear of change is slowly turning into excitement and anticipation. I feel very strongly that radical change is essential for further growth right now, and it seems that as I continue to pull books off my shelf and read excerpts from them before either giving them away or packing them into a box to be shipped to Ireland, that every book is conveying some powerful message to me. In the wake of Maya Angelou’s death I grabbed my copy of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ and reread the whole book. Angelou writes: ‘The need for change bulldozed a road down through the centre of my mind.’ I can most certainly relate to this. She also writes: ‘There is a time in every man’s life when he must push off from the wharf of safety into the sea of chance.’ This adventure through my library is proving inspiring indeed for my upcoming leap into the unknown.

dappled light

I realise now what the problem was last January: I really was cozy and comfortable sitting on the pink IKEA couch wrapped in my pink and purple quilt. In fact, I was way too comfortable. It was the sort of comfort that is stifling and blinding. It is the sort of security that terrifies me. This is not the first time I found myself sitting on a comfortable IKEA couch in Berlin and realised strongly the the comfort and security of it half scared me to death with suffocation and that I simply had to escape and live on the edge again. Exactly five years earlier on a cold January night I was sitting on a more expensive white IKEA couch in the lovely, clutter free living room of my then German boyfriend. He had a great job and was willing to spend a lot of money on me and on him for all sorts of material comforts to make us happy. My English teaching job was merely a hobby in his eyes, one that I would naturally quit once I had his baby. And as much as I am ready to quit English teaching and change careers now, it was an insult to me that he considered my job merely a fun kind of pastime until I get married and become a German housewife. I left that lovely comfortable white couch and I left that boyfriend and returned to my old cardboard GDR couch and continued to support myself alone on my English teaching job which has been my very real career for the past 14 years and not just some fun hobby. I felt alive again, like I had shaken things up and had returned to my life and who I really was. Has the loss of the cardboard GDR couch somehow really been instrumental in me wanting to shake things up yet again? What is it about the comfort of IKEA couches that makes me want to run away, give everything up and start a new adventure?

flower pots

Ernest Hemingway once said that you can only really write about a place when you have left it behind you and have some perspective on it. Some friends of mine say: ‘Oh but won’t you really miss Berlin, you have been here so long?’ and I tell them that of course I will miss Berlin, and there will be nostalgia and I will have moments of regret and uncertainty about the choices I have made, but it has been said over and over that the happiest and most successful people seem to be the ones who listen to and follow that inner voice. It does seem very true that you will always regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did do, so I will follow the inner voice as well as the voices of the many writers I admire who provide me with constant wisdom and guidance every time I pull a book off my shelf and look for the guidance. I trust the voice of Ernest Hemingway when he tells me I will write better about Berlin when I am removed from Berlin and have some perspective on it. And so I continue, day by day, to sort through my books: taking them off the shelf, flinging them open and finding solace and guidance in them before deciding whether to put them into a box to ship to Ireland or a box to donate to charity or give to friends. One book that is definitely going into a box to ship home is my Norton Anthology of Poetry, for it is the book that provides me the most comfort when I am overcome with fear or insecurity. Moving is stressful and it is taxing emotionally and physically, but I am reminded in the poetry of W.H. Auden that all will work out and my moments of distress will pass, as time passes:

In headaches and in worry

Vaguely life leaks away

And Time will have his fancy

Tomorrow or today

O look, look in the mirror

O look in your distress;

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless

If I have any distress about leaving Berlin for the unknown, I remind myself that my choice to leave is purely my own and no one is forcing me to do it. I have my support network and I have faith that it will work out. W.H. Auden also had a close friend and mentor, none other than Christopher Isherwood. They set sail for the United States in 1939, on the eve of war, on temporary visas, which was a controversial move. I think of the adventures and trials they must have faced, but knowing that they had their literary muses and writing to keep them going. I will also write my way though my adventure and embrace uncertainty. As for the two copies of ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ that I posess? Well, one is going in my hand luggage the day I leave, and the other is going to the flea market.

Rhea Balcony

And so, in my last weeks in Berlin, I continue to do as Isherwood says: ‘be a camera with its shutter open’. My neighbourhood is so familiar and only fails to be interesting to me when my eyes are closed. Last week I took a leisurely walk over to my mother’s old street in Prenzlauer Berg. It was a beautiful, hot day and along the way I stopped at one of my favourite ice cream shops. I usually just say ‘Oh, I will have a scoop of raspberry sherbet please’ because that is my favourite flavour and I order it on autopilot, just as I walk down my street on autopilot. This time, however, I paused and I ordered a flavour I had never sampled before: Waldmeister, which is the German for sweet woodruff. It is the same flavour that they put in the popular Berliner Weisse beer. As I strolled along my mother’s old street to go and stand in front of and photograph the apartment that she and my sisters lived in from 1990 to 2001, a very drunk old German man approached me and said with despair ‘Everything used to be better here, you have no idea how things have changed here, no idea.’ I looked at him and said ‘In fact, I do know how things have changed here, some things are better and some things are worse. I have been here a long time too.’ I stood and chatted to the drunk for a few moments discussing life and change in Prenzlauer Berg. We were bonded, momentarily, by nostalgia. I will never know exactly what he was thinking and what he missed about the past, but I do know where my thoughts were: they were on the time I first walked up the stairs to my mother and sisters’ apartment when I first came to Berlin to visit them in 1991 with my younger brother from our father’s home in Ireland when I was 16.

I said goodbye to the drunk man, wished him a nice day and walked away, not looking back, knowing that this was a final goodbye to my mother’s place. I see no reason to return there again. I would like to honour the rituals of departure: once you have taken your leave from something or someone it is unpleasant to have to do it again. And to the people who say I can always return to Berlin if I am not happy elsewhere, I can only say that is highly unlikely to happen. Why would I come back to a city that I have spent half a year taking my leave from? There are endings and there are new beginnings. With my departure I am very aware that I am closing not only my own sojourn in Berlin, but also that of my family’s: when I leave I am ending nearly a quarter of a century of my family living in Prenzlauer Berg. It will truly be the end of an era.

Donkey bridge Ayse

 Die Brücke by Ayse Domeniconi

When I arrived home, I made a cup of black tea and sat on the pink IKEA couch once more. As I sat there, deep in reverie, my eyes settled on a painting that I have on my wall that is the work of one of my mother’s oldest friends in Berlin who she met nearly a quarter of a century ago. The painting is acrylic with deep shades of blues, reds, black and forest green. It is a rather unreal painting with the colours fading together. In it you can see a bridge with a donkey halfway across it, pulling its load in a cart behind it. Hovering over the bridge and the donkey there is an angel. I suddenly sat bolt upright on the couch in amazement. ‘A donkey, a bridge and an angel? Wow! How crazy is that?’ I was going to give away all my paintings, but suddenly this painting has too much meaning for me. I think I am going to have to splurge and have it shipped back to Ireland. It truly is amazing, this phase of living, as Christopher Isherwood says, like a camera with its shutter open. I wonder if I can continue to live like this as I start the next chapter of my life. It certainly makes all of life more rich, vibrant and whole.

13 Responses to “Goodbye to Berlin”

  1. San July 12, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    Wonderful start for my day, Rhea. Thank you!

  2. Katy Karpfinger July 12, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

    Good luck Rhea! Excellent and very thoughtful piece! I am a firm believer in embracing change, savouring the now but always moving forward and opening new chapters (which obviously entails closing old ones and saying your goodbyes). It always takes effort and courage but it refreshes and enriches me and i have met wonderful people and had fantastic experiences in all the places I have called home. I still think very fondly of my Berlin days and of the crazy times in your apartment on that couch! Enjoy your new adventures!

    • rheahboyden July 12, 2014 at 7:17 pm #

      Thank you so much dear Katy! love and hugs to you! 🙂

  3. imamermaid July 13, 2014 at 8:00 am #

    How wonderful, Rhea! May you have many many more adventures!

  4. farfalle1 July 13, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    No one could accuse you of going off half-cocked. You’ve taken such a thoughtful and intelligent approach to your move, it can only bring you good: Good new friends, good new food and best of all, good new adventures. Keep those eyes open!

  5. Tony -Bantry July 14, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

    I distinctly remember you from ‘Ard scoil phohail’ school im Bantry.You stood out The image/ impression remains vivid in my head to this day- something unique , deeply introspective.-I somehow relate. Keep in touch. !!!!

  6. Janet Boyden July 27, 2014 at 12:05 am #

    I finally read this!! NICE. Yes, the inner voice needs to be taken seriously.

  7. John Bibby August 3, 2014 at 6:52 am #

    Enjoyed this greatly, Rhea, on a sunny early Sunday morning over a cup of coffee with no hangover. Loved its tentative balancing between acknowledging all that is and the new imperative to let go, which is indicative of maturity and the gift of hope. We’ve come a long way, and huge thanks for doing the walk and continuing bravely to blaze a trail. Strength to all your efforts, my dear, and bon voyage.

  8. Ayse Domeniconi September 10, 2014 at 9:58 am #

    It was wonderful to read this.May the Eselsbrücke take you to the best,probably also to your own language that will surround you and make you more of a,Ayse

  9. Katharine Park October 3, 2014 at 7:29 pm #

    I just read this, Rhea, and found it so powerful. I will miss you enormously when I return to Berlin in September 2015–and, through you, your mother all over again. You’re one of my Berlin beacons: I think of you as lighting up the Prenzlauer Berg streets that you know so well and have so beautifully evoked in your essays. Have you read Ishiguro’s beautiful _Never Let Me Go_? If not, it deserves a place on your new Dublin bookshelf!


  1. Review of Berlin Biennale 8 | Rhea Boyden - August 13, 2014

    […] with my eyes open in my last few weeks in Berlin. The Isherwood quote being the theme of my essay ‘Goodbye to Berlin’: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open.’ Joseph and Charla and I observed what seemed to […]

  2. Apartment Gallery | Rhea Boyden - August 13, 2014

    […] Pastel flowers by Ayse Domeniconi and acrylic on canvas ‘Die Brücke’ (The Bridge) This painting holds special significance for me and is described in my essay ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. […]

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