I left the wilderness of Orkney for a new life in Berlin. Could I find a lover – and a raccoon? | Amy Liptrot

Jone always has the impression of arriving in Berlin a little too late. Five years ago, people said: this was when it was really happening. I had visited once for a weekend, ten years ago. We had cycled and stayed up all night with friends of friends in their big, airy apartment, which they could afford to rent even though they only worked part-time, selling ice cream.

I wanted to come here because I’m not done with cities yet. I want another roll of the dice. The people back home seem so sure that our little island is the best place to live, when they haven’t tried anywhere else. I’m also here because a good way to overcome a hopeless crush is to move to another country, where there are new people to have hopeless crushes on.

I know a person here, an acquaintance from London, and he encouraged me to come. I booked a one-way flight and temporary accommodation. I made an online appeal for friends, asking on Twitter for contacts in Berlin, people I could follow, ask for advice or meet. I signed up for Duolingo.

You are free to invent your identity in a new city. I want to act like I’m 20 again, maybe get my nose pierced, start being polyamorous, do sculptures. I’m drawn to what I consider Berlin style: cabaret via the Cold War, bicycles, minimal techno, black clothes.

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I have enough money to survive for a few months before I have to find a job, a liberating position I’ve never been in before. But I have to be careful and live on the cheap. If you are poor, Berlin is a better place than most. I wear scruffy clothes because I’m a broke artist, not because I’m trying to look one.

I go online, trying to get a German bank account, a tax reference number and a boyfriend. There are a lot of singles in this city: perpetual teenagers, 40-year-old students, scenes and musicians jaded by London or New York.

Only on a Saturday night, I realize there’s a whole town there: rooms like this with other people who feel like me. I glanced at them passing on the S-Bahn. They won’t know I’m here too, unless I let them. I have a moment when I feel in control of my destiny. I signed up on a dating site but now I’m going to be bold. I type my requirements into the form: gender, location, age group. This site uses algorithms to decide which potential partners to show me, becoming more knowledgeable, knowing me better than I know myself.

I begin to call certain birds by their German names: Amsel, Rotmilan, Nachtigall. From my bedroom I hear magpies and great tits and sparrows and hooded crows. An animal subculture lives off the things we throw away. As humans urbanize, so do animals. There are mammals in the city: foxes and wild cats. There are rabbits and hedgehogs and martens. They live in sewers and roofs and shadows, the places where we don’t look.

People seem to have “plans” here. My plan is to find a raccoon and a lover. Raccoons aren’t native to Europe, but they’ve been living wild in Berlin for 50 years. There are thousands of them in the city.

I get more messages on a Friday night. Here we are, alone and lit by a screen, with an empty weekend ahead of us. I have received messages from married men, men who love tall women, people from Kreuzberg, Minnesota, Istanbul and the Cape Verde Islands. A stranger sent me some nude pics and it wasn’t totally unwanted. Sometimes I answer and even arrange meetings.

I head to our agreed meeting place feeling nervous, but when I meet my date, I realize he’s more scared than me. If I wanted to, I could bully him. In a Thai restaurant, he eagerly talks to me about his esoteric interests (Tajikistan, hot yoga). After he says goodbye to me, I’m exhausted from trying to present my whole self and kiss him whole. I realize that I will need more resilience and restraint.

I met someone who’s a DJ and works at a cool bar and has cool hair and would have hit me on in his twenties. He tells me he’s having trouble finishing things. But when he sits next to me, I realize how much I need physical affection. I would have kissed him if he wanted to. My body is so alone and has been for years.

I ask everyone I meet if they’ve seen a raccoon. A friend works in a bar, comes home late at night and saw them running under cars, near garbage cans. Someone saw them peeing at the end of a garden, someone else saw them on a 12th floor balcony. I want to see a raccoon, but to do that I’ll have to get up early and linger by the garbage cans, or stay out late and go rock climbing. Raccoons are nocturnal and particularly active at dusk and dawn. One way to find them is to listen for crows, which make a different noise when raccoons are in the area.

Interacting with German men makes me realize how much in conversation I constantly try to put the other person at ease: making little adjustments, laughing at things that aren’t funny. They don’t do that. Several times it takes him a moment to realize that his neutral tone isn’t judgmental, just neutral. It shows me that I can learn to be authentic in my enthusiasm, to save it.

“I take a step back and coldly try to analyze my desire. Why do I need a man? Photograph: Owen Richards/The Guardian

I’ve noticed that I can’t pick up class signifiers in German: the subtleties of accent difference due to upbringing or origin or region are inaudible to me. I can’t decode the fashion: raised collars or tucked-in trousers that could mean something at home have different connotations here. I go on a date with a political blogger, thinking he must be some kind of posh boy, but I find him to be a real working-class chatterbox, railing against the urban elite. We talk about privacy, anonymity, media bias and Etna.

At some point in my online dating, I get cocky, fast with the power of being young and female and working the algorithm. I know that if I change my profile picture, I will receive more messages. I count minutes until I get a response after viewing someone’s page. It is the gamification of human relationships. I shop for people, narrowing them down to a series of qualities, zooming in on my possible futures. I am aware, as a recovering alcoholic, of the dangers of cross-dependency. The buzz of sexual attention combined with internet apps is exhilarating.

I take a step back and coldly try to analyze my desire. Why do I need a man? I can support myself, move and live as I want. Is it biology or patriarchy that pushed me to put so much energy into this research? I decide I just want to connect with the animal in me.

These German men I met on the Internet. I’ve barely thought of them since I left, on the U-Bahn, in my stairwell, out of their beds. They had no connection with my own social circles. A few days later, I no longer remember their names or their faces. They fade like a dream. I walk into a corner store in Mitte when I come across, springs, a man I had gone out to dinner with a few months before, the guy I thought was too eager to please. He looks at me blankly and I’m deflated. This instant-access romance works both ways.

Raccoons have become a symbol of this brave and scrappy Kreuzberg region. The big May Day party in the courtyard of our building has raccoon hand stamps. Raccoons are known for their resilience and adaptability which I hope to emulate. I know they are out there on the rooftops, moving silently and unknown above the red tiles and graffiti. I know we produce enough waste to feed colonies, to build another city, to house a species.

Wild animals are wary, attentive to their confidence. These days, I always go home sober and alone. I don’t feel bad walking away from my Halloween date, past witches using the ATM and zombies queuing for a currywurst. I feel completely good, happy, in a new city, surrounded by a strange language, monsters and ghosts, remembering how far I’ve come, among all the Berliners in big scarves and thick jackets. I changed my life even though it was hard and scary. I feel proud. I came to a new country, made friends and found work. A small sum of euros arrives every week in my new German bank account. I’m learning the language, I’m almost busy, I have a life and a routine where the first month I was lost. As I return to the streets that are beginning to feel like home, the happy realization is that – no matter who I meet or not on the dating sites – I have already made it.

This is an edited extract from The Instant, published by Canongate at £14.99 on March 3. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. Amy Liptrot will be interviewed on 5×15.com on March 1.

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