Returning to the road in New Mexico in pursuit of making art.
“ARE YOU FROM New York?!” the man at the T-Mobile counter in the Galeria Karstadt said to me as I gently but frantically whispered entschuldigung (excuse me) while holding my dead iPhone in one hand. I had left behind the most important thing in Brooklyn: an outlet converter. “How’d you know?!” I replied, impressed by his accuracy and pace as he moved his body from behind the white counter to the front to speak with me. Learning to wait patiently on line until it is clearly your turn is probably one of the most important lessons I’ve received in visiting Berlin over the years. There’s calm and a sense of rule-following, and then there’s just respect. “I could see it in your eyes,” he responded with a laugh. I giggled under my disposable mask, unsure of the next steps in our conversational dance, admittedly made awkward by the surprise of small talk, something else I’m not used to as a newcomer to Berlin.
I remembered a few years back a friend had said that many Germans, specifically Berliners, are often eager to test their English on folks like me, folks who can barely pronounce “excuse me” in German without an awkwardly mixed Spanish–New York accent. Or maybe it was the style of dress that gave it away — a yellow jumper and a bright red thick cotton cardigan, sticking out like a sore thumb in the brown- and black-clad city. The sun was just starting to shine after a long gray season, and although I was familiar with where to go and what to do, the idea of not being able to use my phone if necessary spun my usual Berlin comfort on top of its head.
For a born-and-mostly-raised Brooklynite, Berlin has felt, for better and worse, eerily familiar. An initial visit with an ex-boyfriend turned quickly into a long-term love affair. I could easily spend hours at cafes doing absolutely nothing and everything — the way I so easily do in New York. The thing about Berlin is that it is a city of expats, like New York City in a sense. Within hours, I am able to build a community with one Black artist friend that led me to another woman of color who knows a friend who was having a dinner party that night, who knows two more friends (with kids!) who at once decided to leave New York City’s unyielding pace and ballooning rent for a similar yet different city, with its own rich history and a decidedly more sustainable way of life.
My friends in Berlin speak of making art, buying groceries, drinking beers in parks, wandering forests, going to readings, and child-rearing with such ease. And although it’s difficult for those who choose to stay and entrench themselves in the country’s customs, the offering for shorter visits and even longer ones (my children and I visited for three weeks in the summer) provides a necessary and intimate break for the many of us needing to lick our New York City wounds (or those of any similarly large city that isn’t Berlin).
I crave Berlin the way I crave Brooklyn. Its flavor is unique and ubiquitous among its people. I’ve heard this too from friends who visit for months at a time. Maybe it is the weird anonymity that I mostly expect (until, of course, I start speaking). It’s the thing I can only assume David Bowie found in the divided city in the late ’70s, and that Audre Lorde was called to in the mid-’80s to early ’90s. For all of that and so much more, Berlin is bigger than a place to visit. It is a city splitting at its seams with history, so often ready to take up various people and their art, desire for exploration, and love for community.
LaTonya Yvette is a contributing editor for Departures and a multi-media storyteller. She founded LY, a highly trafficked lifestyle blog, in 2011, and produced visual and written content for a decade. During that time, she published her first book, “Woman of Color” (Abrams, 2019). She also co-authored “The Hair Book” (Union Square, 2022), an illustrated children’s book, with Amanda Jane Jones. Her third book, “Stand In My Window” (Dial Press), hits shelves Spring 2024. LaTonya is the owner and steward of The Mae House, an upstate New York rental property and the home of Rest as Residency, which offers BIPOC (primarily geared towards families) a no-cost place for rest and focus. Yvette resides in Brooklyn with her two children, where she writes the newsletter “With Love, L.”
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