Ok, where do I start?
I hate it when people say things like "We're going back to X again this year" - where X equals, for example, a caravan site in Devon, a hotel next to a fun-pub in Corfu, a mud-hut in Angola, a kibbutz in the Lake District, or Butlins just on the outskirts of Fiesole.
In that respect I feel like I'm in danger of becoming what I hate. Although I'm not the most well-travelled person you might meet - far from it - its been rare that I've gone to the same place twice. When that has happened its been down to purely arbitrary circumstances, or there's been a gap of several years since the previous visit. I've never fully understood the need to keep returning to the same place regardless of what it has to offer, when there are so many other places in the world - or even just Europe - to go and see.
Not so in this case. I last/first went to Berlin last November, and its impact on me was such that I was determined to go back there at the earliest feasible opportunity. Which is what I suggested to my best friend, via text, before I returned home on that occasion: that he needed to go out and see the place too, so we should make a week of it. Now, having returned from my second visit, my main thoughts are of going back there again. At the earliest feasible opportunity.
Is this sad? Will I, in Y amount of years time, be saying to people who frankly couldn't give a flying fuck what I think, "Oh, I've been going to Berlin for Z amount of years and I wouldn't think of going anywhere else?"
Maybe. I hope not. But if that does happen, I hope its for all the right reasons.
I'm about to skirt off the point here - well actually I'm not because it serves to emphasise the general thrust of the impact of my stays in Berlin, although the specifics are different.
There's a small town (if not a large village) on the south shores of Lake Geneva, called Thonons les Bains - in France, but a short enough distance away from Geneva itself. I first went through there the day after the wedding of some good friends - which was itself a couple of days after the funeral of someone very close. Something which I might write about soon enough, but which was a significant, life-defining event.
Anyway. We had been driving along through gorgeous, scenic Swiss countryside for several hours, only for that to be replaced by gorgeous, scenic French countryside. I was full of beautiful, bitter-sweet, life-affirming and heartbreaking memories - death and life - all of them very current. All swimming round in my head, as we went on our car journey around Lake Geneva back to where we were staying. Amplified in no small degree by the hangover I had accrued at the wedding reception the night before - an amazing multinational affair which I'm sure will also arrive here as a topic in its own right fairly soon.
On our right, as we drove, was Lake Geneva itself. On its far side, incredible snow-capped mountains. The lake appeared beautiful, shimmering, sparkling, and warm enough for a paddle at various junctures. On its near side, between us and the shore, a little railway line. Either side of us, some houses, shops, little bars dotted here and there. In terms of time and distance was the romance of passing through from place to place - nowhere of significance in itself perhaps, but all adding up to a memorable travelogue as we headed back to Geneva.
Somehow, on this journey, Thonons les Bains stayed in my mind. For reasons I can't quite define, it summed up the (for me) quite unique and special quality of the moment. Not at the time, so much, but in the residue that remained, and remains, in my memory. In the aftermath of the funeral and of the wedding, somehow that little place was the point where something clicked. A collision of circumstances is the best way I can describe it. A silence, albeit a plangent one, after months of anxiety and disquiet.
Years later - 8 years - I was Best Man to someone, a very very good friend. The brother of the bride who got married in Switzerland above. So in another collision of circumstances, we found ourselves driving along the same road towards Geneva. A very long journey, since many of the stag festivities happened in Chamonix. But somewhere amidst it all we passed through Thonons les Bains, again on our way to Geneva. As we did, the feeling I had, the lump in my throat and the immediate connection to the circumstances of my last journey through there, were indescribable. The intervening years only added to the impact.
A lightning strike.
The best way I can describe it, is that it felt like I was home again. That I had left some part of my existence there and I was now unexpectedly rediscovering it. Not to mention rediscovering all the pain and poignancy of loss as well as joy. All intensified by the gap of nearly a decade. Almost like meeting a lost love.
It left me breathless and silent.
It left me feeling that home and familiarity can be anywhere, circumstances permitting.
It left me feeling that distance (and proximity) is no object.
It is something I won't forget.
Berlin gives me this feeling too. Forgive me if I do keep going on, please.