There is one thing I found out about myself throughout the years: I am quite stubborn. There is something else I found out as “my” countries were experiencing terror: the more something annoys me, the closer I become to not let it affect me. Needless to say, January 7th, November 13th, July 14th, and now in Berlin, were strong blows and it deeply saddened me. But I was determined not to let it change the way I live. This is called resilience, and some people are born with a strong survival instinct, others not so much. Life makes you stronger sometimes and more able to deal with whatever shit is thrown at you. I suppose there is a breaking point for everyone, but first of, the 7th of January didn’t break me. Beforehand, I was aware of all the crisis going on in my country, I knew about radicalization, about the so-called IS, about the refugee crisis. But at that point I felt there was nothing I could do to change things anyway, and I was merely looking the other way. That’s also why I chose to do research on people dead three hundred years ago. The further away the trauma, the easier to deal with. And the more time spent with those people, the less you have to endure with your contemporaries. But living in a shell can’t go on forever and at some point I had to catch up with reality.
One of those defining moments was the 7th of January and Charlie Hebdo’s massacre. I talked about it extensively here and here, and here (I talk a lot). Afterwards, I just knew I could no longer look away. Several months passed during which I didn’t know how to become active and how to make changes happen in our society, until I randomly had to write about the refugee crisis for Libération. That was when I knew, that not only could I no longer look away, but even taking a deep hard look at our society wasn’t enough. Reporting on it wasn’t enough. Words were no longer enough. This was the time to roll up the sleeves.
On the day of Berlin’s attack, I had woken up with a heavy heart. I was thinking about a lost friend whose conversation I missed, one with whom I talked a lot about the state of the world. That afternoon, I got in touch, thinking life is too short, you never know what can happen, for all we know we could all die tomorrow so might better make the most of life now. Ironically, I was proven right a couple of hours later, twelve people lost their lives in a horrible, untimely way. Fortunately, I didn’t lose any loved ones during the attack, although I found out later that my best friend was due to spend the evening on that market. Earlier today, she shared an article on the attack, where the author deplored that Berlin would never be the same again. My friend and I discussed that postulate, and both agreed that we would necessarily all experience different emotions about the attack. She said that he was probably in a different position to deal with his when he wrote that post, while I was rushing around reporting on it with no time to actually think of what had happened. Incidentally, someone had asked me how I could process emotions after such an event. The truth is, I didn’t know how to answer that. So today I tried to figure it out. I went out, first taking the U-Bahn and observing everyone around me. Some look happy, some sad. I don’t see people looking worried. I take out the book I’m reading and can feel the stare of the man sitting next to me on the pages I begin to read. He’s so curious that he comes close enough for me to feel his chewing-gum breath on my neck. I try hard not to laugh. At last his curiosity seems satisfied since he pulls back and lets me read in peace. Two stations later, he gets off and a girl my age sits next to me. She has beautiful blonde hair falling around her scarf. I’m drawn away from my book by the smell of her shampoo, and that time it’s me who tries to sneak into her world: I look at what she is doing and through the golden curtain I see she’s texting “Lotte”. My mind wanders to Das doppelte Lottchen, the first of Erich Kästner’s novels that I read when I was 8. It’s the story of twins, Luise and Lotte, whose parents are separated and each keep one girl, who don’t know about each other’s existence. Anyway, it ends well, but I won’t ruin the plot here. Talk about being worried though, that’s where my mind wandered as I spied on my U-Bahn’s neighbor, so it shows that people are still interacting with each other even on the smallest levels.
I left the U-Bahn for the streets, those beautiful Berlin streets which heal any broken soul, and take the pulse of the city. It’s still dirty from all the fireworks. The cold air is brisk and the sky cloudy but there is a beautiful light. The pavement is slightly slippery and wet but no puddles I can take pictures of today. Instead I have to look up, it’s not bad either. People walking the streets are young, hipstery, there are a lot of prams. No, the Berlin I know hasn’t changed. People get on with their everyday things. A homeless disguised as Santa stops near me and tells me I’m pretty. I say ebenso. He laughs and I smell the distinct odor of alcohol and his toothless mouth is wide open. I recall that New Year’s Eve conversation I had with a friend on refugees and the state in which they arrived to us at the peak of the crisis in Germany. It is funny how in emergency situations our little germ-free lifestyle and prejudices become completely irrelevant. I can’t recall how many dirty bodies I carried and hugged and comforted but they didn’t make me feel dirty, on the contrary. That smell of unwashed bodies, the smell of misery and fear, is still vivid when I think back but it was the smell of the shame of Europe and I gladly ignored it at the time. A dirty human being is still just that, a human being.
So I keep watching fellow humans, as they walk down the streets, and I keep walking, as life goes on, oblivious to the turmoils our world experiences, with its share of good and bad surprises. Yesterday, I talked about that with that friend I had texted before the attack. I came to the conclusion that there was no solution and that the future of our civilization looked pretty gloomy. So what now? Well, it doesn’t help to dwell on the bad, does it? So life has to go on, and we have to see its many beauties and achievements, rather than its failures and shortcomings, it’s a matter of survival, for individuals and for our society. Perhaps that’s how I process emotions, and I hope Berlin, my beloved Berlin, will heal her wounds just the same.
Bonus: Some French words of wisdom I stumbled upon in the book I was reading in the U-Bahn:
” Il ne s’agirait pas de mépriser le monde, ni de manifester l’outrecuidance de le changer. Non ! Il suffirait de ne rien avoir en commun avec lui. L’évitement me paraissait le mariage de la force avec l’élégance. Orchestrer le repli me semblait une urgence. Les règles de cette dissimulation existentielle se réduisaient à de menus impératifs: ne pas tressaillir aux soubresauts de l’actualité, réserver ses colères, choisir ses levées d’armes, ses goûts, ses écœurements, demeurer entre les murs de livres, les haies forestières, les tables d’amis, se souvenir des morts chéris, s’entourer des siens, prêter secours aux êtres dont on avait connu le visage et pas uniquement étudié l’existence statistique.”
Les Chemins Noirs, Sylvain Tesson (Gallimard, 2016).