There’s a strangeness in the ‘it-could-have-been-me’ feeling. A selfishness too. Or, rather, the acknowledgement of the selfishness inherent in the human impulse to relate events to your own experiences, even — and perhaps especially — when they don’t actually have much to do with you.
I remember being a college student abroad when the Boston marathon bombings happened. My roommate was a Boston native. My parents had just moved there for work. They were fine. So were my roommate’s parents. Her friends. Everyone we were worried about was totally unaffected. Yet, I watched my roommate tear up from 5,000 miles away. For days afterward, I observed her tense and watchful eyes as they darted fretfully through the veneer of her default exuberance. I didn’t understand it, then.
So a few weeks ago, I stumbled out of bed luxuriously late at 7 AM. No morning meetings. I pottered around in my winter pajamas – low-slung sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt. I made a few cups of coffee. Reheated leftover chicken masala and basmati rice for a very lunch-y breakfast. Knocked out a few pieces far before their deadlines.
I showered. Brushed my teeth. Shaved my legs, even, for no particular reason at all. Dithered about arriving early to an afternoon appointment. Snagged a last minute Uber when my dithering took too long. All normal. A typical Monday. Totally ordinary.
It stayed that way, for a while. My appointment was a breeze. The meeting after perfunctory. I snagged a latte with my afternoon babysitting gig (double chocolate cookie and hot cocoa for her, strong coffee and madeleines for me). As we sat there at the cafe counter, a peculiar notification popped up on my phone.
“Nathalie has marked herself safe in the Berlin Attack.”
I uselessly tried to scroll down. No New York Times pop-up. No message from the news app, or the Post, or die Zeitung, or the Globe.
The little one next to me chattered on. I nodded and hummed and smiled as I thumbed open my Facebook. Nothing on the sidebar. No more notifications. Maybe Nathalie had been hacked?
Another one. “Sabrine has marked herself safe.”
I was worried now. Could a hack be location specific?
Suddenly there were 3 notifications. 7. Twelve. I had lived in Berlin for almost 3 years. That’s a lot of friends and colleagues and acquaintances to check themselves in. I googled. I scrolled. Finally, a Reuters update.
“Truck drives into Berlin Christmas Market. 9 dead. 50 injured.”
The blood rushed from my face. I swallowed the gulping sort of swallow that tends to accompany things like this. The little one looked at me.
“Are you ok?”
We had a talk. That talk. The vague talk you have with seven-year-olds who aren’t yours when they ask you about this world we live in, the one that is sometimes a scary, terrible place.
“Remember how I used to live in Germany? Well, a bad person decided to do a bad thing there, and a lot of people were hurt.”
She wanted to know if people died.
She wanted to know what had happened.
“Someone drove a big truck into a group of people at a Christmas market. Like the place you went ice-skating downtown.”
She wanted to know if the people had been squished.
“I don’t know, darling.”
She wanted to know why. She asked if it was like what happened in France that one time. In New York. In Boston right down the street from her apartment when she was little (or at the very least, littler than she was now).
She wasn’t surprised. She wasn’t scared. She’s a seven-year-old living in America in 2016. This is all par for the course.
A few hours later, I went to the gym. On the way, I sent messages. One to a group of my closest friends. One to some former coworkers. One to an old boss, another to an old boyfriend. Responses trickled in.
“I’m ok, thanks for asking!”
“I’m scared, but alright.”
“I was there, but I’m fine.”
Of course, as people got back to me, the one message I was waiting for didn’t come. I slipped into the gym lobby, gave my name to the desk attendant. I walked down to the locker room. Wrestling with my snow boots, I felt the stares as I tripped getting them off. People were looking at me. I was manic, jittery. I couldn’t stop thinking about last year.
We had gone to that same market, the big one by the Gedächtniskirche, a couple of times. Once with a group of our friends. Once just the two of us when he met me after work. We had sipped mulled wine and shared spicy-sweet kisses between bites of buttered pretzels and chocolate-coated gingerbread cookies. He had held my hand, ostensibly to keep track of me in the crowd. We both knew better.
We had skipped from stall to stall, him indulging me as I grinned delightedly at various baubles I wouldn’t buy. We had debated, spirited and lively, over the merits and failings of that particular market “Too touristy,” he had said. I had grinned my wickedest grin – “But it’s the closest to H&M!”
I sat down heavily in the locker room, my snow boots forgotten. He hadn’t messaged me back. To be fair, we hadn’t spoken in months. Things hadn’t ended well, and those gingerbread kisses seemed very far away once I’d moved back stateside, so I’d let things be. I didn’t want to make things awkward.
Still, even if I was over him, I cared about him. I sent a private message to a mutual friend who had already assured me of her safety.
“Hey, have you heard from D? I know his apartment is in Charlottenburg.”
She hadn’t heard from him either. No one had. Of course, that didn’t mean anything. He wasn’t much for texting, anyway.
The thing about Berlin is that upon first glance, it doesn’t seem like much. It doesn’t try to impress people. Whole neighborhoods remain as unapologetic Aufbau scars, and the predominant color scheme across town is gray, dotted and striped with more gray. Most tourists are consistently underwhelmed. “So much history was destroyed,” they say. “It’s so generic,” they moan.
Living there, though? That’s another thing entirely. Around every corner is a secret splash of color, a graffiti tag or artist’s stall. Tiny plaques and cobblestones tell the quiet history of a loud and exciting people. The blandest looking rooms hold the most exciting secrets. Art abounds. Individuality is embraced, expressed, exposed. Uniqueness is so ordinary that the truly ordinary visitors barely notice it at all.
Still, every once in a while, Berlin spruces itself up. In the dark and dreary winters (which are rarely wonderlands, but often seas of unending gray slush designed to compliment seas of unending gray buildings), the Weinachtsmärkte are a beacon in the dark. Literally. Those dots of colored lights pop up all over town. Some are the Christmas card perfection the tourists expect — faux-wooden houses filled with treats and trinkets with music piped in. Others are a local’s pleasure of organic, flaxseed waffles and sculptures made with roadside finds. Berliners love them all. They’re sacred. No matter how cynical or creative or cool, you head to the Christmas markets at least once a season.
So, even though they knew they were a risk, everyone kept going. They had to. It’s part of them. It’s part of us. Most of the time, you move to Berlin if you’re too afraid to be yourself somewhere else. You move to Berlin because in a world filled with fear, Berlin is a place that’s safe. You live in Berlin so that you can live without being afraid. So living in fear? Not an option. Not ever.
I finally heard from our mutual friend. D had been at the market. He’d been there when it happened. They knew he was alive, but injured, at the hospital. They didn’t know how badly he’d been hurt. She’d heard from his dad — she was going to try to visit. She was sure he’d be glad to hear from me.
I knew I should get in touch with him, but the words didn’t come. I still didn’t know how to feel. What to say.
“Hey, D. Sorry we haven’t talked in a while. That time we brutally broke up was pretty terrible, huh? Sorry you got hurt in a suspected terrorist attack. Do you still like the chocolate-covered Lebkuchen, or did you just eat those for me? Hope you feel better.”
“Hi, D. I miss you. I’m still not in love with you but you’re a good person and I’m glad you’re not dead.”
“D. Oh my god. I’m glad you’re safe. You’re only 24. How did this happen? We were there last year.”
We were there last year.
I was there, once. A few weeks ago, I wasn’t.
It seems silly, somehow, to get so riled up over a place I wasn’t. To have so many feelings about a thing that didn’t happen to me. It’s so easy to be desensitized to this kind of violence. Nice and San Bernadino and Quetta and Orlando and Istanbul and Paris and God, it never ends. Some days, I see the news scroll in front of me and it seems like an old movie reel, fictional and fleeting.
It’s not though. It’s real.
It’s real, and it happened at the market where I ran around kissing a man I liked a whole lot and laughing and staining my teeth with sweet-spicy wine. It will undoubtedly happen again.
So what do we do? What do we say? I wish I had the answers, but I don’t. I don’t think they’re going to come anytime soon.
If I can say one thing, it’s this. What we don’t do is live in fear. Living in Berlin teaches you a lot, but mainly, it shows you that fear is worthless. Fear doesn’t help you. It doesn’t move you or shake you or let you grow. Fear is paralyzing, and overcoming it? That’s what makes art. That’s what makes a life that explodes in cacophonies of color when everything around it is gray. A city like Berlin came into its own because thousands of people got together and said fear is overrated. It doesn’t live up to the hype. Living in fear isn’t worth it.
The city of Berlin asked the hundreds of Christmas markets in the region to shut down for the day after the attacks, out of respect for the dead and injured. That was fine. But the next day? Berliners left their homes. They held someone’s hand and scarfed down pretzels and gingerbread as they sipped hot wine. They giggled at the baubles, and maybe this year, they actually bought a few. They kept on living, as we will all keep on living. It’s all any of us can do.
Day 2: January 2, 2017