It’s 9am and my daughter has a high fever. It’s been three days since she’s been her normal sassy self and I’m worried. Without a second thought I pick up the phone and try to find her a doctor’s appointment. I make two phone calls before I realise that I have been conducting these conversations entirely in German. Despite these attempts I’m unsuccessful in booking my daughter an appointment, so I open up my email and fire off a note to the pediatrician. Without using Google Translate.
This is what living in Berlin feels like four years on.
I managed to get a doctor’s appointment, but not without reflecting on how terrifying these kinds of situations have been for me over the last four years. Without language proficiency these are the situations which make your heart race, and make you wish for living in an English speaking country – where getting shit done is easy. You sweat in these moments, because you know how to solve the problem but also that the way forward is hard, really hard. But you learn to preserve and find the confidence to cope with everyday situations in a new language-scape. Luckily, the enormous obstacles of misunderstanding, and severe anxiety of ignorance have started to fade and I have created a new sense of belonging.
Berlin is a broody bitch at the best of times. But I have grown to love her.
So, what has changed since I wrote of the painful dislocation of the first years of my migration to Berlin? What has collapsed the barbed edges of my experience and allowed me to feel like I have a community and live in a place where I can not just survive – but actually thrive? Has Berlin affected me so deeply that I might not be able to live anywhere else? Have I become too weird to live in Auckland? Could my next move possibly be, to not move?
Time is the most significant factor in shifting from a state of heartache to rootedness. Over time I’ve become confident in practicing and putting to practical use my ridiculously broken German. I’ve also become comfortable with just boldly speaking English and giving less fucks about the potential repercussions. I’ve also had time to build networks and start the new beginnings of a global career. As a migrant wife and mother, carving this employment space has becoming synonymous with finding my way in Europe. I’ve had enough time to adjust to the cultural nuances of German society, and I’ve started to celebrate the unique ways that Germans express their humanity. Most importantly, I’ve had time to form a diverse group of people to create my own community.
Migration takes patience, and it takes time to find and form a new village.
There’s been an internalised and emotional shift over these last four years as well. Psychologically, I’ve learnt ways to soothe the claustrophobia of an intense urban environment and I’ve stopped fighting the desire to imagine what our life would look like had we stayed in New Zealand. Saying goodbye to the bungalow backyard imaginary has been rough, but it is part of a decision to be more pragmatic about my life and accepting where I am right now. I’m consciously trying to look at the broad strokes of life and less at the micro detail.
“I’m trying to see my life as more of process, and less like a series of determined steps towards a particular outcome.”
Where you live might not seem like a micro detail, but I’ve come to realise that it really is tiny in the big scheme of my life. I’ve come to perceive security for myself and my family as a day-to-day challenge. Afterall, anything can happen in the 24 hours that separate one day from the next, so I’m trying to see my life as more of process, and less like a series of determined steps towards a particular outcome. I have access to income, a safe house, healthy relationships, and employment opportunities. My children go to a school where they feel accepted. I have a blessed, luxurious life.
Having the choice to move, or not to move is a privilege.
Within my writing and as part of my own migration experience I am aware of my agency in the process of migration. I am part of the privileged middle class who can move, without immense tragedy, and with only minimal social, financial, and emotional discomfort. I can choose to stay here, move somewhere else, or go back to New Zealand. There is no war, no refugee status, no racism nor stigmatisation in my trajectory. Where I was born, my first language, my level of education, my work experience, my criminal record, my health status, and my marital status all combine to create a smoother transition across nation state boundaries. My personal advantage in the world is not something I take for granted.
We need to unpack the differences between citizenship, residency, and ‘home’.
As life in Berlin becomes the new normal for me I’ve had to rethink how I conceptualise the ideas of citizenship, identity, residency, and ‘home’. I’ve begun to think about how I can continue to embrace my citizenship with New Zealand, assert my Cook Islands identity, thrive as a resident of Berlin, and create a new global sense of ‘home’. These threads are weaving together to form the foundation of my new way of life.
I believe I am an active New Zealand political citizen through my work and writing. And while my Cook Islands identity is tenuous at the best of times, I am using this time in Europe to advocate for Pacific issues and to acquire knowledge that can contribute to the new political futures of the Pacific region. I recognise now that to be resident in Berlin takes guts, and I need to continue to step outside my comfort zone and keep building my own village.
My concept of ‘home’ is no longer fixed to geographical place.
‘Home’ has now become a feeling of belonging with people whom I love and trust. Home is not the family house where I grew up, nor the long, traffic-congested drive from Auckland Airport. Home is a meal with my family and the other people that gather at my dining table. Home is the friend sleeping on my couch. Home is giving guests the spare keys to my house. Home is meeting friends at the park in the afternoon for a beer and staying out well past bedtime. Home is stopping in for a coffee with my neighbour and crawling up the stairs several hours later after too many wines. Home is seeing my parents hold the hands of my children.
Home is a conversation where I feel safe to share my thoughts, opinions, and anxieties.
Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland (NZ) and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.