Time is ticking by so fast. I spent a few days huddled in bed with a horrible cold and before I knew it we are three weeks’ away from leaving Melbourne. I keep fluctuating between pure, unadulterated excitement and becoming overwhelmed by how much there is to be done before we leave. Our apartment is yet to see a single box arrive, there are services to cancel and insurance to be bought, all while we continue to rush to meet work deadlines before the holiday begins.
So often in life we seek solace between the covers of a book, and in the lead up to going away I’ve felt like a kid again, turning to reading to make me happy, excited or reassured. Goodbye to Berlin has been sitting next to my bed for months, but as the to-do list feels like it’s only ever growing, it was the perfect time to dive into Christopher Isherwood’s short stories.
Goodbye to Berlin is a collection of six stories which tell of Isherwood’s time living in Berlin during the 1930s—a heady yet tumultuous period of German history. An English ex-pat writing and teaching in Berlin, he dives in and out of the German experience. As the narration marks from page one, 'I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.’
The collection begins with ‘A Berlin Diary’, which acts as an introduction to Isherwood’s world and the characters that surround him. Though each of the stories to follow take different perspectives—either time, location or story—the characters remain the same, allowing the collection to flow together though still retaining the ability for the reader to dip in and out of the book without losing track of plot or development.
The early stories of Goodbye to Berlin explore the opulence, glamour and excess renowned from Cabaret, the musical based on John Van Druter’s adaptation of Goodbye to Berlin in his film I Am Camera. We meet Sally Bowles, who demonstrates perfectly the false ego that can be a by-product of traveling, and the smugness often misguidedly held towards those left behind. Speaking of her sister: ’She's an absolute angel, I adore her. She’s seventeen, but she’s still most terribly innocent. Mummy’s bringing her up to be very county.’
There are also some interesting observations of the nomadic lives of the restless in both ‘Sally Bowles’ and ‘On Ruegen Island (Summer 1931)’. The aimlessness that can return in an instant, the ill-thought through plans, the friends who so quickly dissolve and fade away.
What would become of us? Once we started, we should never go back. We could never leave him. Sally, of course, he would marry. I should occupy an ill-defined position: a kind of private secretary without duties. With a flash of vision, I saw myself ten years hence, in flannels and black-and-white shoes, gone heavier round the jowl and a bit glassy, pouring out a drink in the lounge of a Californian hotel.
As the collection continues, the dark clouds circling around Germany become unavoidable to both the reader and the characters alike. We begin to see the city outside of the inner circle of ex-pats who appear seemingly oblivious to the changes making their way through Germany. In ‘The Nowaks’ Isherwood shows the poverty and conditions which seem fertile for Nazism to grow, as he moves in with a family living in damp-ridden apartment, suffering from consumption while waiting for medical care, plunging into poverty.
'Perhaps Lothar's right,’ Frau Nowak would sometimes say: ‘When Hitler comes, he’ll show these Jews a thing or two. They won’t be so cheeky then.’ But when I suggested that Hitler, if he got his way, would remove the tailor altogether, then Frau Nowak would immediately change her tone: ‘Oh, I shouldn’t like that to happen. After all, he makes very good clothes. Besides, a Jew will always let you have time if you’re in difficulties. You wouldn’t catch a Christian giving credit like he does . . .You ask the people round here, Herr Christoph: they'd never turn out the Jews.'
As the reader moves to ‘The Landauers’, Isherwood shows us an increasing urgency in the politics of Germany, and by ‘A Berlin Diary (Winter 1932-3)’ Isherwood tells of a colder, harsher, more violent Berlin:
She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
Though I originally wanted to read this collection to allow me to luxuriate in the ex-pat experience, I instead found myself reminded of the pitfalls of the ex-pat life. That we can't just move our existing lives elsewhere—the language, the culture, the people and our surroundings matter and deserve our attention.
Goodbye to Berlin is an interesting collection of stories, thoughtfully curated to share a broader narrative. It is another example of fiction telling us just as much about the history of a place as non-fiction can (such as Barracuda or Anchor Point manage to do of Australia), but it is also a warning that the biggest changes come like a shadow creeping, until suddenly before we are ready to acknowledge our own culpability in ignoring the darkness, we find ourselves surrounded by a vaporous fog.
In order to create the world Christopher Isherwood moved to Berlin to make for himself, I have had to prioritise work over writing for the time being. But as I get closer to leaving I find myself thinking more and more about this ability to build ‘a room of my own’. Once my last big chunk of work finished a few weeks ago (which brought on a weird delirium I wrote about with The First Bad Man) the enormity of what I am about to do finally hit me. I have been pulling together documents to apply for my German Artist Visa and one of those includes a work plan for the twelve months I’ll be applying to stay in the country. And what has hit me most about this is what a privilege this is. For twelve months I’ll be living off my own savings and money coming in from copywriting work. I am mostly able to do this because I won’t be living in Australia where the cost of living is astronomical (particularly in Melbourne and Sydney). I am also aware of the fact that while I don’t directly rely on my partner’s income, I do rely on him as a safety net. It’s one thing to be solvent, it’s another thing entirely to be comfortable. This is something I know too well.
Now that we are three weeks’ away from leaving, I’m hit with an immense sense of pride that we’ve made this decision together to choose adventure over comfort. I’m excited for the travels ahead, for making new friends, for trying new things, for finding out more about ourselves and each other. And I’m proud of myself that despite the fact that I find myself working in often low-paying and non-secure jobs, that I’ve pushed myself to be able to create this opportunity for myself. I’m excited to see what can happen with my writing when I have time to play. I’m excited to come back to Melbourne with an increased confidence in my work, hopefully having more articles published and some concrete ideas down on the page for a longer work in the future. I’m excited to discover new authors, new book shops, new writers’ festivals, a new literary community. I’m excited to do all of this while improving my German language skills, experiencing a new city, and travelling as much as I can.
But what Goodbye to Berlin reminded me is that I will arrive in Berlin as just another in a long line of English speaking visitors. For a long time artists in particular have come to Berlin and to Germany to thrive off the energy of other artists and create new work, and Germany does a lot to help support artistic communities. But if all I wanted to do was surround myself with other artists and make new work, particularly in English, I could do this anywhere. I could rent a big, cheap house and fill it with people in Melbourne and not have to leave my family and friends and pack up my apartment and fill out all the paperwork it will take to move to Berlin. But I also know I couldn’t do it here. I need a blank slate, free from the distractions of home. So I need to remember the importance of the place and be thankful for it. To treat it with respect. To keep improving my German and try new foods and explore new neighbourhoods and meet new people. But maybe most of all, I need to stay in check with the reality outside of the room from which I will write.
So much of my everyday focus keeps coming back to money. Specifically, trying to leave Melbourne with as much of it as possible. As a freelancer and even more importantly someone who works in the arts, I am very used to life on a budget. One way I’ve always tried to save money is by bringing lunch to work. I also love that by spending a bit of time and care on making a meal in advance, you get to bring a little bit of home to your workplace. At the moment I am balancing work from a few different sources so I spend some time working from home and others from offices, which gives me a lovely balance. It also means that I can make a warm lunch from scratch on days where I’m home and make enough to take to work the next day. On a freezing cold day I wanted something warm and hearty for lunch at home, so turned to another My Darling Lemon Thyme recipe (after recently making Emma’s Fried Egg Tortillas with Cucumber Jalapeño Salsa with The First Bad Man and her Ginger Roasted Pumpkin and Quinoa Salad with The Life of Houses), this time for the Zucchini, Millet and Mint Salad. Millet is very similar in texture to cous-cous, and acts as a fantastic gluten free substitute. It works very well with curry (such as Emma’s Eggplant and Tomato version), but in this salad recipe you could easily substitute the millet for quinoa.
As is often the case when I work from home, I get stuck in a little bubble getting work done and often don’t remember to have lunch until suddenly it’s 2pm and I’m starving hungry. This salad came together quickly and filled me up in no time, but by skipping an important step. Rather than making the dressing (and therefore more washing up), I tossed the dressing ingredients through the chopped zucchini and served more coriander alongside the mint leaves in the finished salad. It made much less mess and still brought all the flavours of the dressing out. I cooked the marinated zucchini in a griddle pan while the millet was cooking, then threw all the ingredients together (plus some crumbled feta cheese as suggested) and ate it warm. It was hearty without making me too sleepy in the afternoon and the remaining salad made perfect leftovers to take to the office the next day. I’m not yet in a room of my own, but I’m one step closer every day.
The Atlantic recently published these photos, showing photos of iconic areas of Berlin side-by-side both immediately after the end of World War Two and today, seventy years later. Particularly interesting are the decisions made around what was chosen to be restored to it’s former self, what was redeveloped entirely, and what was deliberately left in ruins.