I decided recently that travel is sort of like reading. It lifts you from the rutted tread of your usual footsteps, to float about in the skin of another self – one that is open to things in a way you are not always, unconstrained by the everyday. I am new to dipping my toe in the wider world – embarrassingly perhaps for someone who no longer needs glasses on to look into their thirties – hence why I think that actual travel is like reading and not the other way around.
Reading has been taking me places, dropping me into other lives, ever since I can remember. I am mad to know the alchemical secrets proper writers use to turn their words into a dream-real, because the writers that do it well have coloured my life, reached into me at cell-level. And I want to have a stab at wielding that magic, to know that I might one day transport someone else.
But I have not written much in a while. My PhD supervisor has been fairly patient. But I haven’t. Everything has been coming out flat: character’s playing dead on the page while I yell at them, kick at them with the pointed toe of a boot and wonder why they won’t get up for me. Fortunately, no matter how wary words have been of me lately, it turns out that the freedoms of travelwriting are irresistible. I find if I go hunting somewhere different, I stop having to hack at the air with a net and words actually come and settle on me.
Until recently I had only ventured out on one writing trip to the island of Alderney, delighting my granddad by heading off in search of long passed, lighthouse-dwelling, rebel relatives (with a vague hope of osmosing traces of their gusto, or awakening it from my DNA or something). During the trip, I lay in bed in the attic of a b&b with the curtains open and the rhythmic lull of the lighthouse beam across my face, haunted the museum and the library, and let my wobbly knees take me past Keep Out signs into the green ruins of crumbling buildings. I paced the island, whipped up by the wind and the never-ending swirl of the sea. I mainly wanted to meet my great, great, great, great, great aunt Amelia Houguez, who local legend tells fell in love with a carpenter when he came out to repair her lighthouse, and came to live on the island proper with him but couldn’t handle the bustle and so rowed herself back across the Race one night – an impossible stretch of shipwreck-strewn water. People don’t really believe she did it, but I know that she must have. I can feel it. One hundred and fifty-odd years later, I dozed there, propped against rocks, with a notebook on my knees and the sun on my face and woke to write again. And my own journal started to blend into hers, and her island started to stack itself up around me, the lines of old streets hovering on top of reality. That trip would form my first abandoned novel.
Last year I persuaded myself out to Japan to visit a friend and was rewarded with a notebook dancing with descriptions and character sketches. In February, restlessness shoved me out to Montmartre, where I snogged a street artist wearing a gold scarf in return for a rubbish caricature and stumbled on a tiny neo burlesque show in an alley behind the strip clubs and filled another pocketbook with potential. It started to occur to me that there was a trend here, and one that I was happy to pursue because it involved a holiday… And writing is dry, a-bloody-gain. And this time there’s a qualification at stake, which affords the angsty wails and wall-head-butting a bit of genuine urgency. So I took a sketchbook – a proper notebook, with lines and everything, was way too much pressure, you know – and a handsome man on holiday to Berlin in search of art and boat discos and new sights to distract my Writing Worries while I ran the other way.
I can’t keep a pen still on a flight. I get liberated by the giddiness of liminal space. Here, clouds sprawl up, not across, and you can see the ending of shadows. I challenge myself to describe the view from the plane window, discard patchwork maps and the idea that clouds are clumps of poorly-mixed icing sugar, as the clouds begin to thin and fields, roads and rivers begin to develop, muted, like pebbles under a wash of sea water.
My pen gets a second outing on reaching our hotel in Shöneberg – a dimly-lit, hall of mirrors where walkways disappear and the only other inhabitants we see walk towards and into us. The room is blacker than a teenage goth’s bedroom and watted at constant candlelight. All walls within that you would expect to be solid are merely tinted. The shower cubicle is one such barely-wall, conjuring a faint sepia red reflection in the mirror opposite the bed as my man nips in for a refresher. I watch a gently seedy, ghostly smoky version of him come to being in a darkroom, defined by shadow. Dive for my pen. (He said I was allowed to include this by the way).
The first morning, hunger drives us out towards Zoologischer Garten, where the animals ran amok when it was bombed in the war. We stumble out of the station clutching giant, sugar-clustered pastries and fizzing blood-streamed, amuse ourselves by anthropomorphising the animals – identifying the lone wolves, the ones sulking and waiting for others to notice, the ones pondering the meaning of existence. I try to snap as many animals consciously posing for other tourist’s pictures as possible. It occurs to me for the first time that most zoo animals must be conscious of being watched, even the ones that studiously ignore us. I start to wonder what that must be like. We watch the lions get fed: pacing anticipation, guttural vibrations, the lascivious drag of tongue on tendons. We speculate, without my really considering it until later, on the depression that ensues if everything you’re built to work for is handed to you.
We make the most of mistaken underground lines. Wander. Time lifts. Everything is novel, worth a story. Vignettes pause for me as I pass: a couple stretched against one another on a bench, a seated bald man nearby watching them, a tangle of toddler and bike to the side, caught in the moment between landing and crying. I am in a dream, and everything is real but strangely weightless, familiar but tinted with foreignness.
Berlin is full of purposeful creativity, collected in the many museums. Must try harder, make meaningful things. A desire to understand the world, how people respond to extreme situations, is rekindled in this place where much changes and the extraordinary is well documented. I’m fascinated by the archival footage of the wall, watch loops over and over, long to know people’s hearts and minds at that time, the hidden shivers in their bloodstreams. The zoo. The wall. The holiday feeling. The freedom from mental cages.
People side-eye my scribbling notes on the subway. I’m afraid to stop filtering, fixing, everything now that I’ve started. I realise, on the bus trip back to the airport – mid capture of a woman I’ve just seen, resting confidently on the sill of a fourth floor window, enjoying the view and the feel of the wind on her face – that these moments are always there for me to notice. That perhaps the problem with my writing lately is that I’ve stopped paying attention, allowed a numb ontological bubble to form around me, gently over the course of all the everydays, so that I’ve been living slightly outside of things. And maybe that same bubble is restricting my narrators too, leaving them floating with nothing to engage with, rail against, react to. I think I have to break us out – get stuck into the tangible detail of real things, anchored in it, to begin to create stories that readers can also find their feet in.
I think that people are a bit like fish, that we only grow as large as the space we inhabit. And new places to visit are beginning to beckon, lining themselves up like stories in a bookshop. Getting back on the plane affords the same sinking feeling as the sudden narrowing of unread pages in your right hand. Just as the pages must end, so must the trip, dumping you back in your own reality – but molecularly altered by the experience. At least temporarily anyway. I never did manage to find my way on to a boat disco, but it’s nice to think that I have something to return for, as soon as I begin to stop looking again.
Banner photograph Elefantentor Zoologischer Garten Festival of Lights – Photograph courtesy of andberlin.com
Photographer Claire Houguez