I take a seat by the emergency exit on a flight to Copenhagen. The flight attendant singles me out and begins giving very detailed instructions on how to open the emergency exit door in case of a crash landing. I nod along and smile. He asks me a question. I smile and nod. Somewhat confused, he decides to walk off while the couple next sat to my left strike up conversation with me. I smile and nod. They look at me, puzzled, clearly expecting me to say something. I nod some more and they shrug off the conversation.
Over the Baltic sea our plane suffers a catastrophic engine failure. It crash lands into the sea and the cabin fills with water. 100 people are now depending on me to open the door. I panic. In my panic I can’t think clearly and am unable to operate the door. The plane slowly sinks. Headlines read '100 People Drown In Airplane Crash Off German Coast’.
Thankfully, the second paragraph is fiction. But it might have been reality. And it’s not for the fact I can’t recall basic instructions in a panic. The truth is I didn't understand what the instructions were in the first place. Six months in Berlin and I still can’t speak a word of German. And it’s got to the point where I’m so ashamed I can’t bring myself to admit it when others talk to me in German.
Commitment. I’m petrified of it. I haven’t learnt German because I can’t decide whether to commit to my life here in Berlin.
Part of it is my upbringing. Berlin is the 8th time I’ve upped sticks and moved since I was born. Sociologists even have a term for folks like me - Third Culture Kids.
Normal folks struggle with the idea of saying goodbye to childhood friendships and streets infused with life memories. What gives normal people a feeling of belonging and identity makes me feel trapped.
FOMO. I need to be everywhere, at once, experiencing everything. And that’s why travelling and job-searching indefinitely is so alluring: it’s super easy to live any life you can imagine. There’s nothing stopping you. Fancy yourself as an independent journalist in Moscow? NGO worker in Ethiopia? Book a flight and it’s yours.
The paradox is that committing to any of these daydreams means you must accept the death of every other life fantasy, all at once.
To make it harder still, the reality you have to commit to is imperfect. Picture this: you’re high up in a plane, slowly circling the earth. You peer down into Nicaragua, a slither of land stretched taught holding two giant land masses from drifting apart. ‘What’s it like to live in Nicaragua?’ you asked yourself. I picture wonderful people working on coffee farms set against a backdrop of deep green volcanoes thrusting into the sky. I can’t wait to explore this beautiful, fascinating place. I land the plane in Managua, step out and I’m confronted with an ugly reality: grit, corruption, difficult problems.
This is life. It’s not ideal. And I don’t want it.
Before I know it I’m boarding a Noncommittal Transient Airways flight again and I’m back in the clouds.
As I continue to exist in the clouds of fantasy, I continue to neglect the life and places around me. Friendships slowly rust while romantic relationships fizzle out ad nauseam. These are the hidden costs, the sort you don't see on Instagram.
And what does it physically look like to live a life where you can’t commit to anything? Picture a stack of clothes on an ugly TV stand found on the streets outside your apartment. That’s my best attempt at a wardrobe.
I can’t spend a dime on furniture because I’m fixated on the idea that I can’t waste money on objects I can’t take on a plane as hand luggage.
It’s actually even worse than that: I can’t even bring myself to replace a €1 can opener that broke after seven uses.
If an outsider saw me make dinner, jabbing holes in tins half a centimetre at a time and eating in a room filled with discarded furniture, they’d be forgiven for calling mental health services.
Fortunately, there are two counterweight to all of this.
I’m tired. The thought of throwing it all up in the air and boarding that plane again is daunting. That would be the 3rd time I’ve packed up everything and moved in three years.
There’s been a promising development too: I like the idea of calling Berlin “home” (for a while). I’m really enjoying being in one place. Sure, life is never perfect. But dusting off old friendships is wonderful. And it’s nice not to need Google maps to tell me where I am anymore.
So, I guess the time is right to buy a real wardrobe and a €5 can opener. Who knows, maybe I could even learn a few words of German so I don’t put 100 people’s lives at risk again…