Last weekend my friend Benedetta, her boyfriend, and I planned a spontaneous weekend trip to Berlin. We spent most of the time walking, looking at street art, and eating vegan food (Benedetta’s boyfriend, Joaquim, is vegan). My third time visiting the city, it was the first time I didn’t get so completely drunk that I spent all day lazy and hungover. I finally saw the East Side Gallery and Checkpoint Charlie and actually went into some museums.
Bene is not what people expect. She’s Italian, and she looks it. She looks chic and poised in the way Italian women do, a way I’ve never been able to master (not that I ever really gave it a try). She talks with her emphasis on the first syllable, adding energy to even the dullest sentences. Despite her bubbly cadence and supermodel good looks, she is not so easy to peg down. Bene is an avid fan of rock music in all it’s derivations: heavy metal, 80s new wave, disco, even country western. (I told her about Cowboy Country, this line dancing bar in Long Beach and now she wants to go and also hear me say things in a Southern accent.) So our true motive in this Berlin trip was to find some goth clubs, which I honestly thought would be abundant in Berlin, but there are only 3, one of which closed down last week. It was pretty easy to narrow it down to one place, and all our other tourist-ing led up to this.
Now, I am also not the type you might peg as a goth. I am also peppy and outgoing, and I love to wear bright colors. Bene flatters me that I am able to talk about anything and everything to anyone. I also listen to a lot of hip hop and jazz and reggaeton and shitty pop music, the antithesis of goth culture. Yet that’s not always who I was.
Going to a goth/new wave club felt like something my high school self might do, the person who watched Donnie Darko for the first time and discovered Joy Division and the Cure and Depeche Mode. I was weird and anti-consumerist, but in that annoying way that stemmed from social awkwardness and lack of performative femininity, not any thoughtful political stance. I liked things passionately, but I also liked them more if most people my own age didn’t really know what those things were. I thought liking things outside the mainstream made me smarter than everyone else, and I was so sure I was always the smartest person in the room.
It’s not strictly who I am anymore, but it’s still a part of me. It felt liberating to be my old self, or a version of my old self who could still appreciate the music without the self-important pretense. I started to think about all the different versions of myself, how I’ve defined myself with or against others. How I patched together all those definitions to become the girl sitting in a goth club in Berlin, drinking vodka and sprite with an equally mutable Italian girl after meeting in Poland.
We also went to the Jewish History Museum, chronicling Jewish people in Germany over nearly 2000 years. Jewish history hangs heavy with me (I think most Jews would agree), and as I give Benedetta and Joaquim a series of mini-lectures (I took one German history course, in addition to my qualifications of being born into Judaism), I felt connected to another identity I haven’t used in many years. Sure, I talk about being Jewish, but the only time I’ve been inside a temple in the past ~10 years was when I went to a Purim party last March, and that holiday is mostly about getting drunk, which I did by drinking kosher wine and vodka with a Polish rabbi while I asked him why the Nar Tamid (everlasting light) was out (it’s not supposed to go out) (that’s why it’s the everlasting light).
As we moved through the museum, I elaborated on various rituals and teachings, which came back to me like old film I hadn’t played in a long time. I don’t practice Judaism or put much stock in religion, but I always feel possessive about our culture and history. It’s a history of struggle and survival, and hearing my grandmother’s numerous stories about the Holocaust make our history more urgent, the stakes higher. I think I define myself as Jewish in opposition to the Christian norm of Europe and the US, rather than in how it fills my life, spiritual or otherwise. Defining ourselves in opposition to what we don’t want, after all, can be powerful. After all, how do East and West Berlin define themselves if not opposition to each other? West Berlin was completely surrounded for almost 29 years: did it exist as anything other than the antithesis of the DDR? How I defined myself in high school was in opposition to the ‘frivolous’ or ‘annoying’ or ‘stupid’ interests of my peers, rather than what made me myself.
So who am I, anyway? Do I only exist as what I am not? Benedetta says I can adapt to anything and talk to anyone, find some common ground to unite us, even if only briefly. I was somewhat surprised by this observation, even though I usually travel alone and have no trouble meeting new people. For some reason, I still consider myself the awkward girl from high school who couldn’t even tell the guy she liked that she liked him. But you can be more than one thing at once; you can define yourself by what you wear, what you eat, what music you listen to. You can define yourself by what you’re not. And if someone thinks you can’t be all those things, that you must be a poser, who the fuck are they? Avril Lavigne in 2003? If you can be it in Berlin, you can be it anywhere.