It is July 2015.
I am in Berlin for my 28th birthday, crashing on a friend’s couch for the next 12 days. I’m on my own across the world from my parents, something I’ve never been allowed to do before now, but I’ve never really been allowed to do a good number of things by Millennial standards anyway, so it’s a gift I appreciate all the more. (I suppose getting your heart broken and your pride wrecked by someone who gave you the idea that he wanted to be more than a summer fling does have its perks.)
The feeling is like being underage and getting drunk for the first time: like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to, and it’s the best thing ever. Except this time, I’m doing it with a lot less guilt and no fear, because there will be no repercussions — no one is watching; I don’t know anyone here. I can do whatever I want, and there is no place for doing that quite like this city.
No one watches in Berlin. No, that is wrong. They glance, and then look away politely; they do not document, and they do not judge. There’s a respect for privacy and individuality here that I never thought possible, which is unsurprising because Manila is the polar opposite, and Manila is the only place I’ve ever truly known. In Manila, there are no strangers. There are whispers, and whispers spread like wildfire, so you tread carefully.
In Manila, you either disappear or do your best to fit in, which is essentially the same thing. There’s this homogeneity to it. Ironically, despite the need to blend into the wallpaper, there is also a need to be seen, but not necessarily for who you are, unless who you are fits into the preferred social mold. If it doesn’t, you trim bits of yourself off until you do. So many give up personalities to become Personalities. Go where everyone goes. Wear what everyone wears. Do what everyone does. So pretty, so clean, so #GOALS. But it is all surface, surface, surface.
I came from a time less policed, when people felt more comfortable baring their souls to strangers who would eventually become real friends, which is probably why I still sometimes do, although things have changed considerably since then. But I have no right to judge if those who came after that era choose not to make themselves vulnerable; that is their prerogative, as this is mine. And perhaps theirs is the better choice in the end; there is less of them available for scrutiny, for judgment, for the condemnation of strangers who will most certainly not be your friends. But almost everything is so thoroughly sanitized. We present only the best of ourselves, the idealized and aspirational, and it turns into a never-ending cycle of everyone else trying to do the same thing: bury our grit in the dirt and pretend at perfection. It’s safer that way.
Berlin is gritty, and it is dirty, and it is all the more breathtaking for it, and within 12 hours of landing exhausted at Berlin Tegel, taking a quick nap, grabbing a bite, and being dragged out by friends to two clubs thinking that not wearing a bra under my backless tank top might be the most scandalous thing I have ever publicly done — my God, it’s nothing here — I already know I will leave this place irrevocably changed, because for the first time in my life, I am going to be allowed to learn — or decide, or discover — who I am, what I really want, and what kind of person I am capable of becoming outside of Manila’s gilded limits, in a place where everyone is free. The cage is open; I am about to fly.
No, that is the wrong metaphor. The abyss is before me; I am about to jump.