4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort
Until today I’ve hardly had a moment to think back on the journey I’ve just left behind. It would have been one thing to arrive back on land after 16 days at sea and find myself in the familiarity of my own city. It’s another, it turns out, to arrive on foreign land.
Since coming ashore, I have navigated three cities’ maps, tackled three public transportation systems, and searched three times for a place to rest my head in two languages that are not my own. I’ve traveled by tram, bus, train, taxi, and foot, all dragging, pushing, and carrying far too much luggage. I’ve made countless wrong turns out of pure exhaustion, and relied on the goodness of dozens of strangers to get to my final destination. But I made it. Finally: Berlin.
And so it was only today, on my first walk through this brand new city that I will call home for the next several months, that I was able to really feel the effects of all I’ve learned in the context of real-time urban life.
I bought my berries, I drank my espresso, and I began to wander aimlessly through rows of bland apartment buildings and cheerful sunny parks full of lounging couples. I eventually found myself in Alexanderplatz, where an innocent-looking blond teenager in a too-tight fedora was playing a guitar under the Weltzeituhr (world clock), singing a sad love song in accented English. I sat down on the ground with my back against a wall, closed my eyes, lifted my face ever more slightly toward the sun, and let it all wash over me.
It was a delight to bask in the immediate and intense satiation of so many things I had missed, in the liveliness of the space, and the sheer publicness of it all. But despite this, there was a slight emptiness in my chest that I couldn’t seem to brush away.
At the best of times, a walk through a brand new city is one of the most exhilarating feelings on earth. At the worst of times, it is one of the most lonely and depressing. At their core, cities come truly to life in the relationships we have with the places and people within them. The unfamiliarity of a strange city, full of people going about their lives, holds a double-edged power over our emotions, and my first walk through Berlin trailed along a line somewhere in between.
It was, I thought wryly, the ultimate illustrative finale to the past few weeks of the Comfort Crash Course. Because if I were to try to distill what I learned into one umbrella lesson, it would go like this:
When the definition of comfort evolved a few centuries ago from an emotional or psychological state to a physical one, the result was the increasing privatization of our lives, which has caused us often to ignore public interests in the pursuit of a comfortable life. But despite the fact that so many of us have achieved a level of personal comfort so high that it would have been positively unthinkable in centuries, even decades, past, discomfort nonetheless pervades in ways that no material commodity, or environmental factor, can solace.
In other words, as much as the story of confronting comfort is about the tension between public and private comfort, it is also about the tension between our old definition of comfort and our new one—between the psychological and the physical.
It leaves a lot of food for thought. We’ll pick up on this in part 2 of the Comfort Crash Course. Until then, thank you so much to all of you who followed along. It’s been a true treat to go back and read the thoughtful comments and debate that happened in the comments section and social media as I plowed across the puddle, cut off from it all. I hope you’ll continue reading and writing along with us through the Lab’s run in Berlin.
And with that, this is Christine McLaren, closing the Comfort Crash Course binder for now, with a hearty sailor’s farewell.
The Comfort Crash Course is a two-week series by BMW Guggenheim Lab|Log blogger Christine McLaren as she journeys 15 days from New York to Berlin via containership, following the same cross-Atlantic route traveled by the Lab itself last fall. In the complete absence of city life, and armed with a library of diverse readings that helped inspire the theme for the Lab’s first cycle, Confronting Comfort, as well as others recommended by Lab|Log followers, she explores this theme at its core. The goal: to discover and understand the roots of the human quest for comfort—and why it needs to be confronted. More here.