On the train to Berlin, I am thinking of the past week in Cologne.
Although I have seen very little of it, Cologne is a charming and enticing city: green, beautiful, open, relaxed, friendly, full of healhty buzz and good spirits (and I am not referring to its weak beer, which substitutes for water for most intents and purposes). I spent my days in Cologne so far working and walking its charming streets and squares, eating impossible to digest German food and drinking with colleagues and friends. Everything about it is lively and urban: from happy crowds to bicycles, from moody waiters in the Päffgen brewery to its café culture, from students to businesspeople, from Taschen to ethnic eateries, from churches to the Rhine — and so on.
I had the feeling I found a city I would happily settle in tomorrow, zero German language skills notwithstanding. If I have to start all over again, an increasingly onerous thought, it could be here. It should be here.
Then I realised this sense of finally having found a home is not an epiphany, it is a deja vu: same as in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Utrecht, New York, Padua, Barcelona, Stuttgart — even Athens. Although London, Padua, Stuttgart and (pehaps) Paris no longer populate the above list, here in Cologne I realised that what is happening to me is this: I know what I want and every time I come to a city like Cologne, I realise it exists, it’s out there, tempting and inviting me. I realise that I have spent seven years in the Outpost living in denial: pretending I can live there instead of surviving. I whore myself to every new city that remotely looks like an ideal spouse, knowing that I’m no good for them, really, knowing about all those practical reasons that keep me in the Outpost.
In Cologne this explosive mixture was sparked alight: that intense feeling that I am too old to start all over again and too young to satisfy myself with 3- and 5- and 7-day flings with beautiful cities mixed with the gnawing sense that I have wasted my youth trapped in a sombre, tedious, ugly, enclosed spot out there somewhere: an Outpost.
This then exploded into a mood of intense doom and gloom, into panic attacks of the expectedly hypochondriac nature and — finally — settled into a thin layer of deep and genuine sorrow: I’ll never be thirty again, I’ll never be twenty-three again, I’ll never be twenty-nine in Barcelona, I’ll never be thirty-four in Amsterdam. That’s it: the chances have been wasted, the window of opportunity is now closed. Five years in Market Town, penniless and destitute in an unromantic and non-bohemian way, seven years in the Outpost. That’s all folks. Next stop, obsessing with inane hobbies, becoming composed and sensible, with the occasional extramarital affair. Just like everybody else.
The existence of the Home City flat makes things harder. Home City is no big deal, really, and is probably good for holidays only. But it would be an alternative of a sort. Having the flat there makes the thought of spending time in the Outpost depressing and the expensive temptation to virtually commute to Home City almost unbearable.
So, well, in a few hours, another city: Berlin. Where Bowie made Low.