This Recording, March 2013. Original article here.
Berliner pretzel; Cornish pasty
The train terminal at Berlin Schönefeld Airport is just across the lawn of the terminal building. As the plane to London was set to take off in less than 25 minutes I was walking fast across the grass, but I figured there was no point in running. I mean, we were basically there, and no bears were chasing us. My boyfriend, on the other hand, was jogging up ahead, berating me for my lack of effort; he’d been stressing about the time for the entire train journey from the city. As if that would make the train move any faster, I’d muttered under my breath, as I slouched back in the train seat. I was eating the soft pretzel I’d bought from a little bakery stall after we missed the last train that would get us to the airport at a reasonable hour; it was still hot from the oven.
My boyfriend didn’t want a pretzel. What he wanted was to sit at the edge of his seat for the half-hour train ride and urge the engine forward with Jedi powers, before sprinting up to the terminal building. I caught up with him in the security line, where we scowled at each other, casting quiet blame for ending up in this predicament. It matters whose fault it was, you see, because foreign travel has cost me three relationships; four if you include the one I broke up with twice.
The first time it happened the guy wasn’t even there. I’d gone to Athens with a friend who was headed there on a business trip, which meant I often ended up on the roof after dinner, drinking beer alone while she prepared for the next day’s meetings. The night sky was black, the Acropolis was set in lights; I was bored and half-drunk and couldn’t stop thinking about some guy who wasn’t my boyfriend. Fast forward a year or so, past our resulting break-up and us geniously getting back together again, and we found ourselves going on three weekend trips together in a single month. Of course we never lived to tell the tale. Dubrovnik was the straw that broke the camel’s back; the walled city is on the World Heritage list and it was wonderfully sunny, but what I remember best is sitting outside some Renaissance church paying mobile roaming charges to call a friend, trying to put my finger of the feeling that nagged me. My parents went to Dubrovnik too later that year, and when they showed me their holiday photos I pretended I’d never been there.
Being a catalyst for a break-up doesn’t always result in negative feelings about a place though: I have pretty decent memories of Porto still. My boyfriend and I had been travelling around Portugal for two weeks by train, pulling into Porto as a couple and departing as free agents. This is a long time ago now, but I still remember a stand-off on a street corner where we wanted to go down different roads. I will refrain from making a lazy metaphor. I ended it in the airplane, up in the clouds, thinking maybe it would make it feel lighter. Somehow it worked. Something similar happened in the clouds over San Francisco, again starting in an airport, as I was headed back to London to see my boyfriend after a month apart. I was the last to board, forcing myself to keep walking down the retractable walkway while everyone else were already in their seats. Even when I think about this now, the prevailing memory is the sadness of leaving the foggy city, not the guy.
I’ve been told you’ll know everything you need about a person by how they’d behave if you got to the airport and realised you’d forgot your passport. I think about this every time I search for my passport at the security gate, because I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not the offending boyfriends that would have failed this test. The common link here is me. I’m the one who looks over at them, the only familiar element in a sea of foreignness, and think, do we fit, even when there’s nothing else tying us together? There’s something menacing about finding yourself in an alien environment with someone, manoeuvering coded transport maps, arbitrary tipping rituals and hunger-induced fights in cultures that like to have dinner at 10pm. Not to mention the feeling of watching the person you love and adore lose their cool and stamp their feet like a five-year-old, because no one understands them when they read French words in a clunky English accent. If the cracks are already there, it culminates in one central, bleak observation: ‘We don’t belong, not here, not together.’
Or possibly something more unkind comes to mind, judging from how my boyfriend was looking at me and my pretzel during the Schönefeld scuffle. I ignored him, licking the salt off my fingers. We reached the gate with a cool ten minutes to spare, and opted to sit separately for the hour-long flight home. We made up once we reached London, hunched over Cornish pasties on a freezing train station, a scenario familiar to us and one in which the two of us made sense. We laugh about it now, as it ended well. But we’ve decided to stay put in our own city for a while, just to be safe.