Where Have I Been?

In The Art of Travel, 1. Introductions, Berlin by Ashley Jankowski

Where have I been?

This is the single question that I whispered to myself as I began my solo wanderings through Germany. While the miles and the landscapes accrued behind me, this question remained in plain sight. I couldn’t pinpoint its purpose. What exactly was I trying to figure out?

I’d never been to Europe before, and upon my arrival I was instantly met with the euphoric urge to take snapshots of every cobblestone/cathedral/cool looking tree I came across. Everything was beautiful, everything was color, everything was alive – so very different from the filth, grey, metallic grind of New York City. Could this question then be rhetorical, one driven strictly by the awe felt by anyone traveling abroad, or experiencing great newness for the first time?

I pondered that solution for a bit, but it didn’t seem to satisfy the question. It patiently persisted, and once more, it knocked.

Where have I been?

As time pushed on, I started to take the question quite literally.  

Sure, I caught a plane to Berlin from New York, where I had been living for the past year. But in many ways, I’ve never been in New York. I worked there. I studied there. I walked from my apartment to the subway station to the library to the subway station to my apartment once more. I called home if I was lonely. I kept to myself even on days when I was not. In my attempts to develop some sort of mental highlight reel for my time in New York, I find most of the days to be mushed into an uninteresting smog. I don’t find myself in many of the memories.

But if I wasn’t there, where was I for all of that time?

Somewhere in between physical and the psychological – or in other words, nowhere at all. I think it is a commonality, especially when first moving to a new area, to find the body and mind in different legs of the caravan. Alain de Botton captured this tear quite gracefully:

“It is unfortunately hard to recall our quasi-permanent concern for the future, for on our return from a place, perhaps the first thing to disappear from memory is just how much of the past we spent dwelling on what was to come – how much of it, that is, we spent somewhere other than where we were.” – Alain de Botton

My loved ones are thousands of miles away. My sneaker is giving my pinky toe a blister. I’m obtaining a degree in order to get a job and make good one day in the future. The street artist is playing Simon and Garfunkel on his saxophone. I miss home. I am hungry.

As I calculate time zones of my family and the time zones of my life, I realize that I am trapped in somewhat of a revolving door of realities: my physical and sensory reality, dim realities that once were, idealized (or terrorized) realities that will never be. And if I’m not present in the moment, then I’m not really existing anywhere after all.

In the name of “Being Present”, I’ve started to train my nose to inhale the scents of the streets, as I strenuously change the channel of my thoughts to the symphony of my soles. I make eye contact with those around me, nodding when they speak, asking questions when they don’t. But the more I take on these minor physical adjustments, the more I realize that presence is something that humans struggle with on a much larger scale. Never more so have I observed this than in a place like Berlin, where history and memory ask absolution and destination to dance; where questions of the future are silently asked through the eyes of a refugee child; where, even on a good day, manifestations of pain and sorrow are memorialized along your route to class, and always in your language.  

And it is for this reason that I have full confidence in my choice to study at this location. As the city itself works to determine who it wants to be and when, I can work alongside Berlin to trace the intricate degrees of past, reality, and memory that have me feeling so tangled, and finally discover how it feels to Be Present.

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  • Where Have I Been?: Ashley Jankowski