Illustration for Denizen by Lauren Pettapiece
For years, my family moved according to the whims of my father’s company. My parents had some say, of course, and there was always an electric charge in the air when such a “decision” was being made. Then came the news, delivered to my sister and me on various sofas in living rooms across the world.
Part of the thrill of the upcoming move always lay in how little I knew about where we were headed. The new country revealed itself with the unpredictability of weather, and our first months there were always characterized by uncertainty. Staring at the new culture around us, we might as well have been glancing up anxiously at the clear morning sky for signs of rain.
My relationships to each place were thus arranged marriages, sealed with my parents’ approval. I entered the union to each new locale with a devotion and patience that are the gifts of passivity—not having made the choice to live there, you do not hold yourself responsible for your happiness in that place. Nor do you hold the place itself responsible — after all, it didn’t choose you either — you just showed up.
In many ways Berlin, my current city, feels like the first that I’ve truly chosen: Boston for college was practically automatic, Shanghai afterwards was a sequel, Michigan was graduate school, and then, suddenly, Berlin: the outlier, the impracticality, the choice.
Ironically, my decision to move to Berlin for a summer and then to stay also felt passive, but in a different sense than in those arranged marriages beforehand — I felt chosen by the city, and moved to it like gravity, or like falling into bed, the fierce pull of the pillow when you’re exhausted.
My first summer in Berlin throbbed with the pleasure of living precisely where I wanted to. Every day, small details caught my breath — the island of wildflowers where any other city would have planted boring rows of petunias, leafy canopies that turned lake water clear green, cafes and bars with orange lighting and broken furniture. Something about Berlin felt both fresh and achingly familiar, like meeting a stranger whom you know — after an hour of speaking to them — will become a close friend.
But what are the consequences of choice? Eve’s exile from Eden was birthed by her choice, rather than choosing a home, she wound up choosing homelessness. Choice breeds an awful sense of culpability, of having selected, inadvertently, a painful place, of having made, God forbid, the wrong decision.
Choice is bound with the terror of choosing, of binding, of being trapped — losing the safety of a yet-unmade decision or the beyond-your-control. Berlin has terrified me in moments when I see, clearly, how I don’t belong; or what it lacks that I crave from other places. The places I lived as a child never bore such scrutiny from me. They were inevitable and inevitably shifting backdrops, nothing more. And most of the time the fact of choosing Berlin also fades, and it is simply where I am.
But every now and then I remember that I made a deliberate choice. Last night, walking to meet my friend for a drink, I heard voices rising from a nearby park, strains from a concert beginning, and I was flooded with feeling: the sense of choosing and being chosen. Do cities choose their inhabitants? They can’t, of course, but in a thousand corners, their details erupt before you, twining themselves into your consciousness. Surely that is some kind of crucial braiding. Had I not known, for so long, the other kind of home — not where you’re from but where you are taken — I never would have known the joy that arises when you choose.