How I Finished My Novel by Moving to Berlin, Playing Pokémon Go, and Walking a Dog Named Lenny

October 12, 2017 | 1 11 min read

In the summer of 2016, I decided to escape Montreal for six weeks to live in a makeshift room in a pantry at my friends’ apartment in Berlin. My only goal in traveling to Germany was to use this period of my life as a sort of pseudo-artist residency to finish the last draft of my second novel, which I had been working on for almost three years. I knew the book’s last chapter wasn’t working and needed to be rewritten, but I now felt a kind of nausea whenever I opened the Word document that contained my novel. I had, I knew, been staring at the same words for way too long. Shouldn’t I be done writing you by now? I thought, yelling at the Word document in my head. Why aren’t you done being written? Do I have to do everything around here?

Traveling to a foreign country to stare at the same words, I thought, might help make them feel new to me.

I arrived in the city late at night, and felt destroyed by jet lag. Since I don’t speak German, navigating the public transport system was confusing at first, as every word in German looked to me like a different misspelling of the word “skateboard.” Trying to figure out if the bus I was sitting on was heading in the right direction, I began to feel more empathy for my Anglophone friends in Montreal, who have to function in life without being able to read signs in French.

Looking out the window, I started wondering what kind of person I would become in Berlin, what effect this new environment would have on me. Then I noticed a completely normal Subway restaurant next to a Starbucks on a street corner and it felt like the brands were trying to communicate some sort of profoundly depressing message to me, something like, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to change anything, you can live here exactly like you would in North America, just give us your money, we’re familiar and safe.” No matter where I travelled, it always felt like capitalism was tracking me like the NSA.

An hour later, I sat in my friends’ living room and we chatted for a while, trying to catch up. I hadn’t seen them in almost a year. Pete was working an office job he didn’t like, while Sabrina was making money by running an online magazine and dogsitting strangers’ dogs via a website called Pawshake. They were married, partly for citizenship reasons and partly because they wanted to be, and had started thinking about moving back to America. This would cost money, so in theory, renting out their spare room to a friend for a few weeks made sense. In practice, I wasn’t sure how living together in close quarters for more than a month was going to go. Though Sabrina and I had been friends for about four years, we had never lived in the same city, and usually saw each other only once or twice per year, in short, intense bursts.

That night, I slept on an air mattress for 13 consecutive hours. Waking up, I was dizzy and had difficulty remembering how to walk. I felt like I had just stepped out of a time capsule, like I wasn’t even sure what year it was. I went to a laundromat with Sabrina and we walked by the Landwehr Canal, where people were sitting in the grass near the water, talking, drinking, and playing music. We talked about our lives and Sabrina mentioned that living near the canal kind of felt like “living inside a music festival.” Though we chatted online semi-regularly, I realized, listening to her, that I actually didn’t know much about her life anymore. Traveling here, my assumption had been that I was going to spend time with an old friend, but now that we were interacting face-to-face, I couldn’t help feeling as if something was off, as if we didn’t connect the same way we used to. Were we still friends? Or had we become, at some point, just strangers with an Internet connection?

Back at the apartment, I grabbed my laptop and went by myself to a café located nearby. I didn’t know how to say “thank you” in German, so when the employee gave me back my change, I just nodded like some sort of mysterious cowboy. Checking my email, I saw that I had received a message from an editor I had worked with in the past asking if I might be interested in writing an essay about Pokémon Go, which had just been released for smartphones and seemed to be everywhere that summer, like a collective hallucination. Even Pete had mentioned playing the game the night before. Writing a brand new essay from scratch sounded more promising than working on a seemingly doomed, seemingly unfixable novel, so I told the editor that I might have time for a mandate like this and that I would install the app on my phone and see if I could come up with a pitch for him. I knew that Pokémon Go used geolocation, so I thought that maybe the game could encourage me to explore Berlin by introducing an element of randomness into my thought process. One problem I often have in life is that I tend to function like some sort of risk-averse automaton. I’ll walk down the same streets a lot, develop a routine I like, and then follow it most days without bothering to consider new options. I wanted to see if Pokémon Go could work as a kind of therapy by sending me to obscure locations, rewarding me for doing the opposite of what my inner monologue would normally tell me to do.

Pokémon Go begins the same way the original Game Boy titles do, by asking the player to choose from one of three starting monsters. Since Pokémon Go, unlike the rest of the series, was technically set in the real world, I decided to select Bulbasaur, the plant monster, as he seemed to me like the one least likely to survive global warming. Playing, I immediately ran into an obvious problem, which was that I didn’t have data on my phone while in Europe, meaning I would only be able to catch monsters when a Wi-Fi signal was nearby. Though playing Pokémon Go in this manner didn’t make for a very smooth game experience, it was actually not a bad way to absorb my new surroundings. Instead of staring at my phone, I was constantly scanning the horizon, looking for any kind of business that offered free Wi-Fi. I would walk around, spot a McDonalds or something in the distance, take out my phone, stand outside the restaurant, accept the terms of service for the Wi-Fi, open the app, endure the ugly loading screen, catch a Rattata, leave, walk two blocks up to an independent café, log into their Wi-Fi, catch a Pidgey, etc. Moving from one corporate Wi-Fi signal to the next almost felt like a physical reenactment of what the Internet has become, the sensation of always being beholden to various corporate masters, of constantly having to enter blood pacts with suspicious companies like Google, Facebook, or Amazon in exchange for free services.

In the days that followed, I caught a few more monsters, tried and failed to become a gym leader, became best friends with a nearby Thai restaurant that had a surprisingly potent, entirely unprotected Wi-Fi signal. My sleep schedule was still all over the place, so one morning, I woke up at five and couldn’t fall back asleep. I decided to go out, walk somewhere random, hoping, maybe, to find new monsters. I didn’t capture anything, but I did discover weird streets, new architecture, different nooks and crannies of Berlin that I might have missed otherwise. It’s working, I thought. Pokémon Go is doing what I was hoping it would do, motivating me to explore and walk in random directions.

I felt entertained by my own disorientation, started loving getting lost.

Meanwhile, at Pete and Sabrina’s apartment, I quickly began to feel third wheel-like. While Pete and I were getting along well, the situation with Sabrina didn’t improve, but didn’t deteriorate either, just stayed at about the same level of awkward. When people are uncomfortable around me, I tend to want to make things better, but only end up being uncomfortable back, which doesn’t help anything. Well, if she wants to be alone, at least I am really good at that, leaving people alone, I thought.

Besides Sabrina and Pete, I didn’t know many people in Berlin, so I started spending my days away from the apartment, mostly by myself. I continued exploring the city by playing Pokémon Go, but my opinion of the game soured over the course of a few days. Pokémon Go, it turned out, wasn’t a video game carefully developed by Nintendo, but a dumb, greedy smartphone app rushed to market by a company named Niantic. While the 3-D monsters in Pokémon Go looked aesthetically pleasing, they also felt emotionally hollow, like seeing Mickey Mouse at Disney World and realizing that it’s not actually Mickey, it’s just some guy in a costume.

I didn’t like how the only way to play Pokémon Go, it seemed, was to capture everything in sight like some sort of megalomaniac trophy hunter. The monsters in the game didn’t even act like wild creatures. Instead, it was almost like they were deliberately trying to be captured. Playing, I would get a temporary high for capturing a new monster, then the feeling would go away and I would feel nothing again, so I would look for a new monster to capture. The game would praise me for it, then it would open my inventory to show me all the other monsters I still hadn’t caught. The app wanted me to feel good, but also incomplete. The more time I spent with Pokémon Go, the more I felt like I wasn’t really catching monsters, but capturing my own nostalgia instead. Why did I need to catch any of you again? Be free! Live your life! I already have enough problems as it is.

Though the marketing for the Pokémon series has always emphasized capturing as many monsters as possible, the original Game Boy games, for me, were never about ownership. Growing up, I didn’t like collecting for the sake of collecting, catching a creature just to store it in my inventory and then never taking it out for battle, forgetting that it even exists. What I liked instead was having a small group of monsters that I cared about and developed an emotional bond with through training. My goal wasn’t to “catch ’em all,” but to capture what I needed and leave the rest alone. This aspect of my personality, preferring simplicity, is still present in my adult self. In general, I tend to prefer to live with little and not get encumbered with things. I move around a lot, maybe twice per year on average, and everything I own could probably fit into a car. I’ve arranged my life like I am some sort of runaway bride, like I could decide at any time to set it on fire and randomly move to another country, like Japan. This aspect of my personality was probably what had allowed me to travel to Berlin in the first place.

After deciding that I didn’t want to write an essay about a morally bankrupt smartphone app, I deleted Pokémon Go from my phone, then immediately felt relieved to know it was gone from my life. Maybe happiness wasn’t capturing 151 Pokémon after all, I thought. Maybe happiness was giving up what you want.

With nothing better to do, I went back to my novel, tiptoeing around the real problems, replacing one word with a different synonym and hoping that would somehow mean I was done. No, still not done, I thought. Shit. Then I gave up again, started watching documentaries on YouTube about the Berlin Wall and people hiding inside secret compartments in cars to escape East Germany. I pictured myself hiding inside a secret compartment to escape my novel, relocating elsewhere, maybe starting a brand new book under a new pen name.

Since things weren’t getting better with Sabrina, I considered finding a room to sublet somewhere else for the rest of my stay in Berlin, but then I received an email from her letting me know that she and Pete would be leaving for about 10 days to go visit family and asking if I might be interested in dogsitting while they were gone. She had a Pawshake client who needed an emergency dogsitter while they were away and Sabrina had told her client that maybe I could do it. I said yes, as taking care of dogs is probably my second greatest skill in life, after leaving people alone.

While Sabrina and Pete were gone, I connected with Sabrina’s Pawshake client and started taking care of her dog, a 13-year-old, tired-looking rescue named Lenny, who was shy and apprehensive and didn’t like being petted on the head. “Don’t worry, we can be friends,” I said, trying to reassure him. “I am shy and sensitive, too.” I started to miss exploring Berlin through Pokémon Go, so I decided to use Lenny in the same way, letting the dog choose our destination when we went on walks. One afternoon, a dog being walked without a leash came up to Lenny and tried to say hi to him, which didn’t draw a positive response. Lenny barked, reacted angrily, then the other dog’s owner yelled at me in German because my dog had gotten into an argument with his. I tried to say something back, but couldn’t remember which language I was supposed to be speaking, so the first half of my sentence came out in English and the second half came out in French. Then I realized neither language would help. But my dog was on a leash, why are you yelling at me? I thought. Put your dog on a leash. Is there some sort of cultural context I don’t get here? Is this normal?

Getting yelled at was at least useful in that it provided a temporary jolt. Later that day, I went back to my novel, determined to make something happen. What would Lenny do? I thought. What would Pokémon Go do? Then it dawned on me that maybe the best thing that could happen would be for me to feel lost inside my novel again, just like I had felt lost at the very beginning. I went through the text and decided to deliberately break as many things as I could, including entire dialog exchanges and carefully constructed, house-of-cards-like sentences. I felt like I was using the Pokémon Charmander’s flamethrower ability, setting my paragraphs on fire to force my novel to react. In the span of two days, 7,000 words disappeared and were replaced by 2,500 new ones. What I knew about my novel became what I thought I knew about it. I only half-know what I am doing, I thought. It didn’t matter. I was enjoying the process of writing again.

Around the same time, my life in Berlin, just like that, began to pick up and became more social. I went to shows where Montreal bands were playing, met new people, discovered a park with a high ratio of weed dealers per square foot, kind of like walking around in Pokémon and encountering Rattatas every few steps, spent a day near a lake with a makeshift group of friends, visited bookstores and went to readings, where a lot of writers, like me, spoke and wrote in English as a second language. In Montreal, I was used to being surrounded by native English speakers, but here, in Berlin, my inability to pronounce various words properly didn’t stand out as much, which felt nice.

Pete and Sabrina returned from their travels around the same time as Lenny’s owner. A week later, with only six or so days left in Berlin, I managed to finish a new draft of my novel, then immediately started thinking about my life back in Montreal. Before leaving, I had surrendered my apartment, so I was going back with no place to stay, no job, and very little money in my bank account. I didn’t even have an essay about Pokémon Go to sell to an online magazine. I was looking for a new direction in life, and felt tempted to read my Facebook ads like they were tea leaves, interpreting an ad about a nice couch like some sort of prophecy telling me that the path forward was to move in with my girlfriend when I got back home. Even though I had finished my novel, it wouldn’t actually be published for at least another year or so, so what would I do in Montreal until then? Get a depressing full-time job? Start a YouTube channel where I rant about materialism and Pokémon Go? Launch a thriving dogsitting business hoping the universe would somehow reunite me with Lenny? I had no idea, but now feeling lost in my own life no longer seemed like a problem. It felt like a secret power.

Image Credit: Flickr/Farley Santos.

is the author of The Original Face (Véhicule Press, 2017) and New Tab (Véhicule Press, 2014), which was a finalist for the First Novel Award. He lives in Montreal. If you can, adopt a senior dog from a rescue center near you.

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