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Notes from a Year Abroad - An Aperitivo with Strangers

October 16, 2019

As I walked back down Ackerstrasse after church on Sunday evening, I felt a little blue. Not blue enough to buy ice cream or sit and mope in a corner, but the kind of blue that compels you to do something outrageous or extraordinary. I thought perhaps I might take myself out to dinner and read my book, like a sophisticated person, but unfortunately Miranda Hart has destroyed that idea for the time being. Every restaurant I peeked into seemed like a cringe fest waiting to happen and so I kept walking and looking: looking for something, anything that would take me out of myself and let me participate. 

 

It was then I came across one of those spaces, that are very common in Berlin. It's very difficult to work out what they're actually supposed to be, but art-types flock to their empty window displays for pop-up exhibitions and nights out, that are advertised by word of mouth rather than conventional marketing ploys. I've walked past this place a number of times and the only thing that I could glean from it all, was that it had something to do with Polish artists because I saw the word Poland in tiny, white typography under the window and there always seemed to be someone playing the piano and painting on the window. All in all, a very bizarre yet incredibly fascinating space. The kind you feel the need to be invited too, rather than just allowing yourself to wander in.
 

That evening people were huddled around the tables outside with wine glasses filled with red liquid and paper bowls full of food. I peeped in the window and saw a buffet table and a make-shift bar on wheels that had been plonked in the middle of the corridor. Hungry and curious, I made my way in, walked up to the very trendy looking couple behind the bar and asked what was going on.

 

'It's a wandering aperitivo,' said the beautiful woman with silky hair and tartan leggings. Turns out there's an aperitif every month in different places all over the city, usually on Fridays, but perhaps just this once, especially for me, it was held on a Sunday. 

 

I looked around the bare room, at the Leonardo sketch graffitied onto the wall and the groups of friends hanging elegantly on the furniture, both inside and out, trying to decide whether to stay or not. They were Prenzlauerberg types and by that I mean young, hip professionals with careers and kids, some of whom were running around in their organic snoods and tiny converses. I felt very out of place;   a student, dressed in jersey black overalls from ASOS, accompanied by flip-flops and glasses from Specsavers, with very little intellectual knowledge of art and music, just the notion that it's supposed to mean something and provoke reactions. Yet before I could stop myself, I had ordered an Aperol Spritz and was heading to the buffet table to fill up my paper bowl with mini-mozzarella balls, rice and large, sumptuous cherry tomatoes.

 

Most of the seats had been taking, so I found myself a bench outside and sat, alone with my drink and my food. It was very satisfying, like inviting yourself to the coolest party in town and not having to justify being there. The woman next to me was showing her friend pictures of Diner en Blanc, so naturally I engaged her in conversation. She was Italian, but then everyone outside was Italian. I guess it was an aperitivo after all! After the generic questions exchanged in encounters with strangers - why are you in Berlin? Where do you come from? How do you speak Italian? - it suddenly became awkward and my bowl was empty. I politely excused myself and wandered inside to get more tomatoes.

 

 

This time I sat on the floor in the corner, where I had an excellent view of the whole space. It was comfortable, but I had an itch to make friends. A space opened up at the table next to me, from which I heard a refined American accent and I knew I had found my group. I hurried over and asked whether I could join them. They obliged me. 

 

Two Dutch, one American. One artist, one software engineer and a woman who works at the Tate Gallery in London. All a lot older than me. Still, we had things to talk about. What struck me most, was how thoughtful and unpretentious they were in their conversation. In comparison to the wild, sporadic, and eager energy of myself and my peers, these were people who had finely-tuned their tastes and their dreams. They knew themselves, what they wanted, what they thought, how they wanted to live. They treated me like an equal and didn't seem to mind that I had practically forced my way into their tete-a-tete. I felt safe and peaceful for the first time in months. Perhaps it was a result of being taken seriously, exactly as I was, right there in that moment. Perhaps it was because there were no social strings or pressures disrupting our discourse. Everything was spontaneous and natural, because there was no reason for it not to be: I didn't have to prove anything and they didn't have to entertain. 

 

The aperitif came to a natural conclusion and I felt that it was time for me to leave. I stood up, thanked them, wished them well and shook their hands. Then I left. I walked out of the door, down the steps and into the warm evening air and thought about how I would probably never see those people again. If you like, I had participated in a social one night stand, in which all I had offered was my presence and a few words, meekly articulated in my 'oh-so obvious' British accent. I felt strangely animated and not at all blue anymore. 

 

 

Then I thought about how often I have encountered strangers this year and how some of those strangers are now a few of my closest and favourite friends. Every friendship, every partnership, every meaningful encounter starts with the willingness to begin a conversation. Regardless of how how stupid that opening sentence or phrase might sound, there is so much worth in being open to new people and new relationships of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. Yet it hangs on such a split-second decision; that choice you made to buy a drink and sit down at that particular table, that courage to act on the intimation that the person in front of you is worth a conversation, that fearless moment when your hand extends to shake another. One decision can turn a stranger into a friend. Yet sometimes, these strangers remain unknown and that's okay too. You are left with a story. You were given a chance to participate in another world for a while and in that instant it was exactly what you needed. 

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