“What are you going to do in Germany?” people would ask. We left our Toronto home for a year and moved to Berlin. My partner had a sabbatical year and we wanted to spend it somewhere else. We found an apartment to rent, found a school for the kids for grades one and three and found tenants to live in our Toronto house. “And what are you going to do while you’re there?” my friends would ask. “A whole year off? Wow – you’re so lucky. You’ll have so much time to do whatever you want. Whatever you love.”
Right – that’s what I’ll do during our year away. Whatever I love doing – my real passion! Perfect.
But first I was busy figuring out how to live in a new place. There were bureaucratic tasks involving passports, bank accounts and school fees; our apartment was furnished but we needed more bedding for visitors; the kids needed specific closeable plastic envelopes to carry homework and hausschuhe which are not shoes but slippers. First I had to get all that out of the way and then I’d get down to doing what I loved.
One morning, after we were reasonably settled in, I dropped off the kids and found myself standing on the sidewalk in front of the school with nothing to do. I had nowhere to be. I had no immediate errands to run. So I walked home. It took about 45 minutes. I started to do this regularly and tried lots of different routes. I would sometimes stop on the way for a quarktasche and tea. Or I would sit in a park and answer emails. Or I would take photographs. A few times I hopped on a tram just to see where it went. Soon, when my schedule was truly, actually, completely clear, then I would figure out what to do with my time but for now, I was still exploring.
I did work – on ongoing contracts for clients in Canada. But there weren’t enough of these to fill the hours and in my line of work landing new contracts from an ocean away wasn’t feasible. So while I had work, I also had a lot of free time.
I began to let small distractions become big ones. I rode the transit system far and wide on the slightest pretense. In search of a new dinner idea, I headed way out of town to pick up frozen Swedish meatballs – having discovered the route during one of my tram rides. When Hanukkah rolled around I spent a whole day scouring the city for candles and dreidels.
Errands that would take 15 minutes of my time in Toronto stretched into half-day projects; not because they had to but because I would enhance the task; deciding to see whether the prices in the suburban mall were the same as those in the central shops when the kids needed winter boots; using a burnt-out light bulb or a spent battery as an excuse to wander through the big home-improvement store that I would otherwise have no reason to visit. Each time I finished a book I went to a new bookstore. I browsed every bookstore in Berlin with an English book section.
I grocery shopped slowly; examining what each shop had to offer; developing preferences for some stores over others. I figured out that the bread the kids like is from one shop while the muesli I prefer comes from another. I bought a used bike, found bike baskets, filled them with the groceries and carried it all up five flights of stairs. With four eaters in the house, plus frequent visitors, buying only what will fit in two bicycle baskets meant that I bought groceries every day. I went sightseeing. I visited tourist landmarks. I found suburban lakes equipped with walking paths from the transit station through the woods to the beer garden.
I hosted. His parents, his sister, my mother, my sister, my father, friends from Toronto and London. One after another, they came. Some for a few days, some for a month or more. I kept a list of places to see. I drew must-sees on to the transit maps and became an expert at advising the best routes.
Some days just formed themselves. Once, while putting away the dishes, I broke a wine glass. I looked up to realize that we were down to three from the original six that came with the apartment and an option for the day became clear. I dropped the kids at school, got my bike and rode through Berlin’s former-airport-turned-park to the store to pick up new wine glasses. Exercise, errands, and sightseeing all in one. I might have started to do what I love that day but I couldn’t because the glass broke. So my passion would have to wait.
Sometimes I would play solitaire on my phone. A few times I even contemplated staying on the u-bahn for a few extra stops just so I wouldn’t have to put a winning game on hold. Then I’d click my phone off and jump out at the right station with a sense of shame and a sharp internal admonishment to stop wasting this opportunity. Stop squandering this year by whiling it away comparison shopping and staring at a smart phone. Do something.
I mended all the ripped knees in my son’s pants by hand. I searched for new eyeglass frames. I worked a bit, and wrote, and read news magazines from cover to cover. I found places for us to stay when we went on trips. I bought gifts for all the kids who invited mine to birthday parties. I tried to ask for gift receipts in German but was offered gift-wrap. I sat and held hysterical children until they calmed down enough to tell me that they hate drama class or they miss their friends back home or their feet no longer fit in their shoes and in fact they never did fit ever. I finally finished knitting a scarf that had been sitting idle for ages. But the kid no longer likes green and I ran out of yarn before it was long enough and now it makes a bulky cowl for a well-dressed doll.
Even when I was busy I always had a nagging sense that I should be doing something more. I would oscillate between relishing the freedom and flexibility of my days and agonizing that I was being foolish, letting this gift of a year slip through my fingers. Sometimes I felt confident that the thing I was supposed to be doing – that thing that I love that I finally had time for – would reveal itself. But as the months wore on doubt crept in. Maybe I don’t love anything. Maybe there isn’t anything I really want to do. Or see. Or accomplish. Or learn. Maybe I don’t have a thing.
Then a child would get sick or a family member would come to visit or we would go on a short trip and I would be busy with everyday life and forget for a while that I wasn’t doing anything.
About six months in things got quiet. All the visitors had left. We were months away from the next planned trip. The weather turned cold and the days were short. The kids had their school routines all figured out. I couldn’t put it off any longer: this was the time. This was the blank slate time that I had; that I had to use. It was now.
Now I could see that there wasn’t going to be one, clear project that would define my Berlin year. I wasn’t going to go back home with a confident one-sentence answer to the question ‘what did you do in Berlin?’ I wrote a book! I learned perfect German! I learned how to use that architectural design software. No. No distinct, compelling, relevant-yet-fun project was going to present itself. I thought of throwing myself into several different endeavours but I didn’t. I had the time but I didn’t use it. Not that way. This felt like a major failure. I felt defeated and embarrassed not to have a quick answer when people asked what I did with myself all day.
But as the days started to lengthen again I realized that I was going about this all wrong. What was bothering me was not how I spent my time but what people might think about how I spent my time. If I was honest, I enjoyed my days; most of them. I didn’t really want to sit inside writing a book or staring at a screen finally figuring out AutoCAD. So I didn’t do those things. So, fine.
Answering the question “How was Berlin? What did you do all year?” deserves more than a one-line answer. If I’m not arriving home with quick and easy proof of a year well-spent, is that so bad? Will my friends and colleagues have their own one-line explanations for how they spent their time while I was away? Perhaps I became too pre-occupied by what is only a bit of lazy conversation: “How was Berlin? What did you do?”
I’ll tell you what I did: I lived in Berlin. I lived there. For a very short, very fast year. And it was a good year. I do not wish I’d used it differently. I do wish I had come to the realization earlier that the way I spend my time is not a matter I need to defend. I had a lot of time. It was mine. I spent it mindfully. I remember it fondly.