Last week I joined my son’s preschool group on a trip to swim at Stadtbad Schöneberg. Like many Berlin swimming pools, Stadtbad Schöneberg is annoyingly crowded a lot of the time, but if you catch it at a quiet time – like on a Wednesday at 10 am – it’s amazing. It’s been recently renovated, with a big waterslide and an indoor-outdoor pool downstairs, where you can swim out through a sort of cat flap and do laps out in the fresh air amidst rising steam. Upstairs, the highlight is a salt-water hot tub. It all felt so spacious and airy, it reminded me of how Berlin is in part an experience of getting to live in a city without feeling crowded, a sense of expansive space I’ve never known in any other city.
About a year ago I decided I was going to leave Berlin. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a foreign country. My family and old friends were so far away. I felt held back in my career by living in a non-native-English-speaking country. The food here was so boring, and I would never ever get used to the six-month lightless winters. I began to imagine living in a quiet town somewhere in New England in a little house with a garden. I quit my job and started building up freelance work with the intention of bringing it with me when I moved back. Because this all lacked a set deadline – I could aim to move in time for my son to start first grade in America, or maybe second grade – the decision about when to move became a constantly shifting verdict on how I felt about Berlin at any given moment.
Soaking on a weekday morning in the uncrowded salt-water hot tub (sidenote: the salt water does really cool things to your hair) of the Stadtbad, I had this feeling of having it far better in life than a person like me – a single parent with student loans – would ever be able to get away with back in my own country. I thought about how when they left the lovely public swimming pool my son’s three dedicated, highly trained teachers would shepherd the six children back on the efficient bus system to the Kita to eat the home-cooked organic lunch the kids receive every day, for all of which which I pay about €100 a month while back home even my upper-middle-class double-income friends fret about applying for financial aid at their kids’ preschools. I would return to the pretty, centrally located apartment I can afford because this is Berlin. Sure, I would probably work for a few hours after my son went to bed that evening to make up for the morning’s lost work, but the freelance work that allows me the luxury of such schedule changes feels like a European privilege too: when I quit my job in May I never had to worry about how my or my son’s health insurance would be affected. And as always when I feel grateful for something in Berlin, the next thought was: what the hell am I thinking to leave this place for my troubled country?
Because that’s how it is when you live abroad and expect to go home at a yet-to-be-determined time: a good day is never just a good day, a bad day never just a bad day. Everything is a point either on the side of staying in Berlin or of leaving it. And it isn’t just days, it’s seasonal cycles: in late winter everyone is threatening to move back home, in late summer nobody is. On my bike ride home from the Stadtbad, the traffic was heavy and the feeling of breathing exhaust fumes was oppressive. I wished for clean country air: a tally mark in the column of leaving Berlin soon.
When I talk to friends in the States about the wonders of living in Europe, I sometimes worry that it sounds like bragging. I don’t mean to gloat about these things, it’s just that I’m always weighing them against the pull of home.