"And where are you ladies from? London? Oh...please, please tell me you're not here to 'find yourself' or some similar rubbish."
I couldn't help but stifle a laugh at this brutally honest question from the stranger at the bar. The air was smokey and lit with dusky pink lighting, bodies crushing to fit into the small room in the traveller's bar, voices straining to be heard over the pounding beat of old classics.
It was true, we were a trio of your typical inter-railing students: London born and bred, A Levels done, universities applied for, we were now on a short trip around Europe like almost every other British teenager of the same age. It hadn't occurred to me that we were going with the intention of "finding ourselves." However, I did start to think more about this. Any holiday usually involves learning, be it about yourself, your friends, the place you are visiting... With this in mind, we probably were going to "find ourselves," or at least find out more about ourselves. It sounded horribly pretentious to accept, but upon arriving home and thinking back over our small escape, there have definitely been things I learnt about myself and about the world that have helped to build me as a person, and hopefully make me a more aware and better human to share space with (or so I can hope).
Our trip began in Berlin, Germany, the city once lived in by David Bowie; huge on the music and nightlife scene, an arts central, creative hub, the place that inspired 'Heroes' by Bowie and many other songs and creative works... but also the home of some very dark (and very recent) history. I'd never visited Germany before. It was a shock to find myself transported from my friend's cosy attic bedroom, to Berlin in less than 2 hours, in a little yellow-themed flat, which was "ours" for a few days. Within an hour of arriving we ventured out to a huge festival-like market, danced to live music, gushed over gorgeous vintage finds, and swung in the rain on swings overlooking the city; taking shelter in the trees between turns. I knew I was at home on the way out of the market, where I saw David Bowie's 'Changes' compilation record hanging up like bunting, the first Bowie record I had ever owned myself on vinyl. It felt hugely pivotal, and I knew I was finally ready to listen to his music again (something I have tried, and failed to do without crying or feeling awful, since he passed away in January).
The next few days were packed full of visits to Berlin's most famous hotspots: however, most of these have links to or are in remembrance of the horrific events of the Second World War, or the deaths and terror caused in connection with the Berlin Wall and surrounding conflicts. Spread throughout the city like leaves blown across the threshold of your house after leaving the back door open in autumn are a host of tributes to the lost: the homosexuals targeted in the war, the persecuted nomadic community, the Jews of Europe murdered so brutally in the Holocaust...it casts a dark shadow over the vibrant lights of the city's creative atmosphere, but it is so important that Berlin pays tribute to the pain of it's past. As my friend pointed out, it seems as if Berlin has somewhat accepted it's history: taken it on, paid tribute to it, and now is able to move on, without overlooking or forgetting what came before. In the same way, I felt upon visiting that one could not fully enjoy the city without visiting the memorials, learning about the past, and paying tribute to the lives lost on the very land one now stood on, before it is possible to then move on and experience the beauty of Berlin as it is today. We did of course enjoy it: as much as some parts were heartbreakingly sad, after paying our respects we were able to really make the most of what the city has to offer, and had a wonderfully inspiring time. A memory I will hold particularly dear to me for quite probably the rest of my life is one evening we spent at a 1920's ballroom, drinking pretty cocktails and watching skilled dancers glide in pairs around the room to swing music. The lighting was dark and intimate, occasionally illuminating a dancer's face, eyes glowing from the thrill, glittering from the darkness of the dancefloor. I spent the entire time with goosebumps, my legs itching to swirl around to the music...we were too shy to dance with the professionals, although we did speak to a few lovely dancers and compliment their incredible talent. However, as we were leaving, we snuck out into a tiny quiet courtyard, a window open to the dancefloor, and had a go at dancing ourselves. We all agreed we had never felt so emotional or inspired from one visit to a place - it felt like a secret time-warp; a glitzy clubhouse where one could go to dance the night away, leaving the rest of the world and it's shortcomings quite definitely at the door.
After a few days in Berlin we caught a bus to Prague, where we spent a rushed three hours in the city before jumping on a train to Vienna for the last part of our holiday. There is nothing more romantic than having a limited amount of time (how ironic: life itself is beautiful in this way I suppose) and we used every second to the max. We ran through the old town, bumped into friends from college, visited the John Lennon 'Peace Wall,' and ran all the way back to the station taking a detour to cross the famous bridge lined with stalls selling trinkets and artists drawing portraits. The Peace Wall was a beautiful thing to see first hand: a singer played The Beatles' songs underneath and children were painting new peaceful phrases in bright colours. Out of the blue, the singer began to play "Blackbird," my absolute favourite song by The Beatles, and one of my favourite songs of all time. It felt so relevant and appropriate:
"Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.
Into the light of the dark black night."
It's always been a hopeful song for me; a comforting song...it's not too late to learn, to see things you didn't see before...even in times where everything is dark and you feel as if there is no way out, there is still a chance for everyone to escape and become what they always knew they could be. Darkness doesn't mean the end, it's up to you to take every moment you can, grab it with both hands, and make the best of every situation. I felt this message deeply, clutching my discarded jacket to my chest, the intense heat of the summer day pressing down on me like a smothering blanket. With all the conflict happening in the world, it feels as if there is no hope - however it is from ashes that a phoenix must rise; it's from ruin that greatness can come, if only we can hope and strive for it.
Vienna was the final stop of our trip - a beautiful city, albeit much smaller than Berlin. We gave ourselves time to relax more. Taking it in turns to buy breakfast pastries from the shop opposite our apartment, not rushing home and allowing ourselves to meet new faces and discover new places. It was here we found the traveller's bar and the skeptical man I mentioned at the start of this piece; and here we saw some of the most powerful art I've seen in a really long time. We visited the Leopold Gallery, to see the Klimt and Shiele works. However, we also ended up seeing a phenomenal exhibition by Berlin De Bruyckere. Her waxen sculptures draw influence from historical and religious iconography, and explore the human experience in the way that our existence is so wholly rooted and anchored in the flesh. It is the one thing which we all have in common, and her twisting and bordering on grotesque creations really struck me as wonderful works of art that really make the viewer think about what it is to be human. It was a really insightful collection of work.
I spent a lot more time in Vienna thinking--one time that comes to mind specifically is the morning of our last day in the city. My friend and I spent time sunbathing by the Danube river, before taking it in turns to swim all the way across. My friend went first, and warned me of the current and reeds; swans and boats. I didn't think too much of it, being a confident swimmer. However, upon entering the river and having to swim through a stretch of water with finger like reeds looping their rough tendrils around my legs and arms, whilst avoiding a giant swan swimming within a meter of me, I realized I might have actually bitten off slightly more than I could chew. I swam faster, breath coming in shorter and shorter gasps. The realisation that I was barely halfway across the giant stretch of water not helping the rising panic that maybe I wasn't strong enough to make it to the other side. Two boats coming towards me from opposite directions didn't help either, however I carried on and managed to reach the small floating jetty on the other bank after all. I lay there for a long time in the sun, waiting for the rising of my chest to slow to a steadier rhythm, before I entered the water again to head back to my friend on the other side. I swam slower this time, and didn't lose my breath so fast; I hadn't factored in the current, and so before long was veering off at a huge diagonal from where I was aiming to swim to. I at first tried to fight it, before realising that in doing so, I would simply become worn out and get no closer to the shore. Instead I changed tact, and swam with the current, letting it carry me to shore, albeit much further down than I had intended. I'm going to be overly deep here but I think sometimes it's good to be; swimming across that river reminded me of two things I'd really forgotten over the last year. One: that sometimes, things in life feel absolutely impossible, however you physically CAN do anything, so long as you just keep on going, no matter how far the other side is, how slow you go or how long it takes. Two: that sometimes life just doesn't go your way. There's no point fighting it; work with whatever it throws at you, bend it in your favour. It's not always easy, but perseverance and being flexible can help you achieve even what seems completely against the odds.
I'm definitely not very good at this in every day life but if I've learnt anything this holiday, or "found myself" to any degree, I hope it's a level of perseverance that I haven't had for a long time.