The Lure of the Foreign
on choosing cosmopolitanism over familiarity
I’m on the subway in Berlin, carrying all of my possessions, surrounded by commuters and rollerbladers, hunched-over grandparents and bright young mothers with strollers, loud groups of teenagers and throngs of kindergartners. I hear German, Arabic, English, Spanish, French. When I’m not people-watching, I am messaging with my friend in Argentina, the one helping me figure out how to cross an obscure border into Chile via ferry on Christmas Eve.
Earlier that day, I’m at a high school presentation about the Israel-Palestine conflict, learning about the “de-Nazification” of the Gaza Strip, here in the country where actual Nazis first emerged. School officials are debating whether Israel's perspective is sufficiently represented, switching back and forth both English and German. I have been invited to this discussion thanks to a friend who works at the school, who I met on a bike trip through Spain two years ago, via another friend I met at an alternative school in Amsterdam seven years before that.
Yet earlier, at 2am, I am dancing with women and men and others from Germany, Poland, France, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, the US, and the UK, the final night of a “microfusion” partner dance weekend. I reacquaint myself with dancers from previous weekends and befriend new ones. A crew from nearby Leipzig is especially warm. I’ve never been there before, and I make plans to visit them in three days.
Emerging from the subway, I check into my hostel and meet my bunkmate, an early-30s Chilean seeing the world through a series of “working holiday” visas in Australia, Germany, Sweden, and Canada. Another traveler from Mexico City arrives, on vacation from his receptionist job in Chamonix. Lounging in our beds, switching between Spanish and English, we laugh about how we’re going to bed at 9pm because of the destructive power of a weekend in Berlin.
A week ago I was in Belgium, peeling a pumpkin for dinner at a collective house of dance friends I first met in Poland. Then I was in the Netherlands, visiting a Couchsurfing friend (and her partner and child) from Amsterdam, freshly relocated to the suburbs. Then I migrated to another corner of the Netherlands to see someone I met dancing tango in Argentina, the one who spoke for my teen group and joined me for acroyoga in Buenos Aires. Now it is morning at a quiet café near my hostel, and I am watching the yellow leaves of Berlin perform their own, mesmerizing acrobatics to the autumn wind.
Sometime in my early twenties, I realized that I did not want too much familiarity in life. I did not want to be surrounded by the same faces, language, and culture. I craved a diversity of experiences, friends, and geographies. I did not want to stay in Bakersfield, Berkeley, or Tahoe. To dwell safely in one place, year after year, felt like a form of early death.
This craving has built relationships, and it has ruined relationships. It has opened doors and closed doors. I cannot say that it’s a better path than anyone else’s, only that it is my path.