The last time I was in Germany I was with Matt. It was 2008. I had just been laid-off from my job as a newspaper reporter in California. He was working as a journalist in France. We spent a few days exploring Paris and then drove into Germany to see the tiny towns of Bavaria, where Matt had lived during his Army years. On that trip we skirted the cities, moving quickly from spot to spot, hitting the historical locations, the tourist attractions, planning and unplanning and trying to see it all.
It was just barely autumn, and I remember that the weather was perfect. I remember the exhilaration I felt when Matt drove—fast—along the autobahn. I remember being anxious about money. I remember the beer. The beer in the tiny German town of Bamberg, in particular. It was a smoked beer, a rauchbier, and, as a result, it tasted kind of like bacon. It was an acquired taste. I acquired it pretty fast.
I landed in Berlin last Wednesday afternoon for my second attempt at Germany, this time alone. I went to be part of a symposium on the sense of smell, hosted by the Einstein Forum, in the charming town of Potsdam. There were seven of us speakers, all from different corners of the small and strange world of smell. We each gave a talk, one after the other, over the course of one day. It was a long day. A fascinating day. My mind is still buzzing, in fact.
After the symposium, I spent the weekend in Berlin by myself.
While there, I walked around the fancy boutiques and funky galleries of Mitte. I meandered through the gentrified streets of Prenzlauer Berg. I visited the Neues Museum, where I saw the bust of Nefertiti, which looked just like it did on the cover of my art history textbook years ago. A local friend gave me a tour of Kreuzberg, all parks and impromptu concerts and smoky cafes, wandering along the canal in a rainstorm.
It’s been a while since I’ve traveled alone. I’d forgotten the freedom of it. The in-the-moment-ness of it. The hours spanning out ahead, the hours in which anything could fill. I’d forgotten the pleasure of that. And a bit of the stress. But mainly I’d forgotten the possibility of being somewhere foreign, somewhere new, somewhere completely on my own. A lot has changed since I was last in Germany. And as I walked through the streets of Berlin—streets that burst with the musky scent of people, of brewing coffee, of car exhaust, of fresh fish and old trash and new rain—for the first time in a long time I thought: hey, okay, I can do this on my own.