The Art of Being Alone


I’ve got what many of you might envy: a tonne of free time in Berlin.

Just imagine: I’m at leisure in one of the most exciting cities in the world. I’ve no one to answer to, no pressing business to attend to and no  miscreant alarm clock  ripping me from my slumbers.

Kate Katharina: a lady of leisure? image source: store.craftsbyveronica.com

Bliss?

Not so much. The exhilaration I felt the first time I arrived in the city has dissipated. I know my way around and though I’m still impressed by the public transport, travelling on the underground no longer gives me butterflies.

My days are clumsily punctuated by grocery shopping, small errands and the quest for personal improvement.

When I go grocery shopping, I invest a lot of energy into not falling  for any of the tricks I learnt about in the Psychology of Economics class I took at college. I evaluate the price of items per kilogram, I immediately avoid all products at eye level and cast my gaze downwards to where the discounted goods tend to be displayed. After all, if there’s one thing I remember from that course, it’s the mantra, “Eye level is buy level.”

Shortly before my life began to be defined by trips to my local discounters, I organised my days around navigating German bureaucracy. It was so horrifying that I considered dedicating a series of posts to it but I’ve since concluded that writing about it might trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress. In summary, German bureaucracy is a delightful contrivance, designed to test the upper limits of patience, sanity and cognition. Now that I am officially registered extant, have been issued with a tax number and opened a bank account, I feel equipped to take on any challenge.

If only one would present itself.

Since I am unemployed (happily only temporarily), and know very few people here, I am trying desperately to channel my social deficit into intellectual pursuit.

I’ve re-ignited my passion for Arabic.  I sit at my desk with a little notebook and take down the Arabic word of the day on Youtube and practise making guttural sounds when I am sure my flatmates aren’t within hearing distance. I’m getting better.

I’ve read a few books.

I’ve got out at underground stops I select on a whim to explore new parts of town.

I’ve even started running and enrolled in a yoga class. And the other day, I went on a picnic alone. I thought it would be idyllic.

My destination was a historical palace with beautiful gardens that border a colossal park. On the day of my picnic it was very warm. I packed my Pocahontas towel along with a lunch box full of grapes and a tofu sandwich.

I found a beautiful spot beside a little lake. I rolled up my hippy pants, took out my food and began to read my book. Beautiful solitude, I was thinking to myself. How lucky I am to be wedged between a palace and a lake, munching on a soggy but delicious tofu sandwich.

Suddenly I sensed a presence behind me.  “Good Afternoon” said a voice.

I turned around to find a self-important middle-aged man on a bicycle pointing at me. “Sie befinden sich jetzt im Barock Garten, junge Dame!” Since I find it amusing to translate German literally and will be fired if I do it when working in TV, I’ll do so now. What the man said was “You are now situated in the Baroque garden, young Madam.”

I lost a piece of tofu in my fright. He continued. “You are not permitted to lounge in such an area.”

Since I am by nature irrationally apologetic, I said I was terribly sorry. I gathered up my stuff and made my way through the park. He nodded at me grimly and cycled away.

I set up camp on a little patch of grass beside a bench and close to the river Spree. I was there for about half and hour and I was ripping through my book. The sun was making me sleepy.

My picnic spot. Image source: http://www.german-architecture-info.net

Tyres ground to a halt behind me. “Good Afternoon, young Madam.” Dread shot through me. I turned around. We recognised each other instantly. “You again!”

I nodded.

“You find yourself at this time in the Louisen Garten, officially attached to the palace of Charlottenburg. This is a restricted area, unsuited to lounging. You must move along.”

“Where to?” I asked. This time I was not as apologetic.

“Beyond that far bridge, you will find an area dedicated to the general public.”

I packed up my things and made my way to the bridge.

On the way I spotted several other people enjoying the sun. The park warden called over to me from his bicycle. “Don’t get any ideas from these loungers, young Madam. They are also in prohibited areas and will be moving along shortly.”

He cycled up to a mother feeding her baby. “Young mother, you find yourself in the Luisen Garten!”

She looked bewildered. As did the other people he approached. I was close enough to see him point at me and call out, “Follow that young lady, who will lead you to an acceptable lounging area.”

Suddenly I was leading a pack of transgressors. When I had crossed the bridge, I found the “lounging area.” The grass rose up to my knees. It was an unpromising destination for the pilgrims I was guiding but it was sanctioned by the park warden. I sighed and laid down my Pocahontas towel for a third time.

And then I thought that maybe what I’m learning here has nothing to do with Arabic, or fitness or journalism. With every empty day that passes, I’m being schooled in the art of being alone.

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13 thoughts on “The Art of Being Alone

  1. This makes me wish to wander around a closed Renaissance Faire, a ghost town in the off season. Of course, if anyone were around to say it, I’d, too, be told to move along.

  2. When I saw your title, I immediately thought of that video~ so glad you already know about it.
    German bureaucracy sounds very intimidating. The Dutch are also highly into red tape, I hear from my brother. I hope you can find places to “graze” and be comfortable!

  3. I love that video of Tanya Davis.
    Well everyone else is alone for most of the time, right, being alone just stands out when you go out of the house and go somewhere, like a cafe, or a library or a German city. At least you’re doing something with your alone time. I’m usually photographing, thats a fun thing to do by myself, but then it becomes weird when I’m doing it with someone else. Maybe thats the thing, once you get used to doing a thing by yourself it becomes your own thing and its hard to share it then?

    • I joined a library today and spent the whole day reading newspapers and trying to write a short story. I’m not bad at being alone. I quite enjoy it, but it’s sometimes hard when solitude is forced upon you. People say “oh go here,” “join that” and I have.. but friendships take time to grow and I haven’t yet found anyone looking for a new friend 🙂 I get really confused with my wordpress updates these days (I keep seeing the same posts and loads of my favourite blogs never show up) so now I’m going to pop by Manchester and see what you’ve been up to 🙂 Hoping there are some lovely photos waiting for me!

      • erm…I’m becoming rubbish though Kate. ;( my second year and I am starting to wonder what its all about. I post photos, and I’ve gotta write fiction for my MA thesis but I’m really flat on the creative side. Maybe I’ll morph it into a book blog or something as I’ve paid for a year of .com
        sorry if you’re disappointed.
        Short stories! can I read?

    • (This is in response to your comment below) Don’t beat yourself up over it! Creativity is horrible, it comes in bursts and then abandons you for ages. Blogs put a tonne of pressure on you. I’ve also been feeling very uncreative. I rack my brains for things to write about and it always just ends up being about something I’ve seen or about being alone. People must be getting very sick of those. You’re an incredible fiction writer (so jealous!) so I would just say ride the uncreative period out. Re: my short story. Oh, God no. But I promise that if I actually complete it and it’s not too hideous, I will let you read it!

  4. Hi,

    Excellent blog! Very much enjoy reading your posts. I think you very accurately describe both the plight of us young unemployed Irish (and Irish/German of course 🙂 and the trials and perhaps sometimes lonesome tribulations of creating a new life abroad. Very poignant and an enjoyable read! Keep up the good work 🙂

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment! What’s your own situation? Whereabouts in the world have you landed? I have to say I am so, so grateful to have the Internet. I don’t know how I’d cope if I didn’t have access to family and friends over email and on Skype. I think we’ve grown up in a pretty emigration-friendly time but that definitely doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games. I hope everything works out for you, wherever you are 🙂

      Kate

      • Hmmm I have only seen your comment now, apologies. For better or for worse I haven’t landed anywhere yet. I was a week away from going to Australia last January with a few friends but some minor wrist pain turned apparently out of nowhere into a situation that required surgical intervention. Currently still in Ireland and on the mend but the reasoning behind my last comment (besides commenting on your excellent blog ;-)) was that your musings above match some of my friends experiences who are (for better or for worse :-)) scattered across the globe.

        I must admit after reading many of your posts it has given me some motivation to begin writing my own blog (something I haven’t done since pre-college days… five years of psychology later…). If this new found motivation later transpires into action (I’m a woeful procrastinator) I’ll be sure to let you know. It would be nice to have it critiqued and ridiculed by a professional! 😛

  5. I’m sorry to hear about your wrist, that’s too bad. These things can be so debilitating. Time off is so much harder to enjoy when it’s enforced upon you! But if you’ve spare time, do check out coursera.org. It’s full of free courses by some of the best universities in the world.

    Do start a blog! I had so many failed attempts before I finally kept this one. It’s fun. and it’s nice when it becomes a habit. If you’re looking for someone to ridicule you though, I’m the wrong person 🙂

    Where did you study Psychology? I did three years of it myself but ended up majoring in English.

    • Thank you for the tip, But as luck would have it I’m in the midst of completing ‘Statistics One’ and ‘Computing for data analysis’ on Coursera at the minute as well as a rather maligned attempt at both ‘Biostatistics Bootcamp’ and ‘Introduction to Mathematical Thinking’. I was getting a little over ambitious me thinks 🙂 Another great source of free education for computer programming in particular is ‘EdX’. They have a promising Python course that just started last Monday and a few more coming online soon.

      Yes there is a good possibility I will start a blog. I had a LiveJournal blog YEARS ago but that was discontinued when college started. With regards my studies, I studied for my degree in Dun Laoghaire IADT (a great course if I may say!) and did my masters in NUIG (not as good an experience as Dun Laoghaire but not bad all the same).

      Yes the wrist thing is not ideal but I’m very fortunate with the afore mentioned free education just springing up at a time when I so happen to have lots of time. Incorporating a blog amongst a busy schedule of free education may be an idea worth considering 😉

      As for your choice to defer from Psychology. It’s a good call I would think. You have the ability and ambition (so it seems from your blog) for writing whereas the competition for Psych jobs is atrocious. So much so that I find myself redirecting myself towards a career in statistics. Planning to begin a HDip in Stats in UCD next year (hence the choice of coursera courses mentioned above :). Hmmm I seem to be filling in more detail about me than you asked for, best leave that to my as for now hypothetical blog 😉

      All the best,

      and keep writing!

      Mike

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