Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Lausanne Calling

Late yesterday afternoon, the phone rang. It was Prof Dr Dr calling from Switzerland. "I need an investigative journalist!" he thundered. Being an actor and voice teacher, as well as a Prof Dr Dr, he thunders real damn good.

Now, if you were me, you'd figure that someone with a professorship and two doctorates achieved before his 40th birthday might be a bit out of touch with some of life's more mundane aspects, and such proved to be the case yesterday. Switzerland has not been good to Prof Dr Dr, and he's leaving, moving to Dublin to share a flat with a friend and start anew. I admit, I envy him. In order to achieve this, he asked his bank for a very modest loan, amounting to 1% of the value of his current flat, which he's selling, and on which they have the papers. They turned him down. Apparently, he'd "abused" his credit card a year ago, which I gather means he went over his limit. Hell, at least he's got one to abuse.

But, fair or not, this isn't the stuff of investigative journalism, and it fell to me to tell him so. It took him a while, but he did, in fact, calm down. The conversation got more general, settling on one of our common topics: why aren't either of us making any money or getting any work? He's got two doctorates, is a composer whose compositions have been recorded by reputable people, has acted in a few German films (once as a right-wing maniac American terrorist -- damn, I would have loved to have seen that one!) as well as on the stage (he did a perfect Texas accent, which blew me away, he being Welsh), has lectured on opera and written very amusingly on it for the magazine I edited, and is an expert on certain recherché aspects of Hinduism. Among other things. In the middle of his lament, he said something I found thought-provoking: "The only person in the arts I know who's doing well is a gay actor in Berlin."

No, he didn't go on to damn The Fag Cabal or anything; he's hardly like that. But this connected with my ignorance that Saturday was Christopher Street Day here. You see, probably the reason his friend was doing well was not because he was an actor, who'll chainsaw their grandmothers to get next to a gig if they have to, but because he's gay. And no, I'm not going to rant about The Fag Cabal, either. This is about community.

Berlin is the first place I've lived (after college, when I was far more naive) where I haven't had any gay people in my social circle. Actually, that's inaccurate: there are three. An English woman I never see any more, who worked on the magazine; a half-American woman who's a good friend but identifies as an American -- which is how I think of her; and another American who discovered his sexuality after moving here to be with a girlfriend. No Germans. I've been here almost 11 years. You'd think I'd have run into more gay people.

The other side of that, of course, is that segregation -- and we can assume theirs is a voluntary segregation -- promotes community and cohesion. Certainly this isn't a community forged through oppression, not here. And this brings me back to Prof Dr Dr's plaint: "Wasn't there once a group of us, a group of intellectuals, of writers, who helped each other out?" he bawled at one point. And the answer there is, yes, there was. And there isn't any more.

In the smaller sense, in Berlin, it's largely because most of those people have moved away. The arts withered, the ability to make money died, the interest of our home-town media turned elsewhere, and nearly everyone I knew began to wonder what the appeal of staying around a dying city was. I miss these people terribly, but I sure can't argue with their choices.

But I've noticed this in the larger world, too. There seems to be an unprecedented ferocity of competition these days among the community Prof Dr Dr alluded to, and this is, of course, linked to the diminishing number of opportunities. There's also more than a hint of ageism to this, too, I suspect, but that could just be my paranoia. There are fewer places to write for, and they pay worse than ever. Musicians are particularly unfortunate: just about anyone in the world can make a record, and it sure seems like just about anyone is, while at the same time the number of venues for live performance seems to shrink every day.

More and more, communities tend to be virtual: groups of isolated individuals meeting on-line. In many ways (and as a member of The Well , I'm by no means anti-virtual community) this seems to me to encourage solipsism and the wrong kind of individualism. There is nothing that beats like-minded people getting together in person and just shooting the shit together, particularly if beyond sharing friendships they are also focused on a project or idea. That, I think, is what Prof Dr Dr was talking about, and that's why his gay actor friend has an edge on both of us when it comes to getting work: there's a community for him to interact with that has one strong defining factor, and that's exactly what neither of us has.

Of course, if there were a woman in my life, that'd be a community of sorts, if only a community of two. But don't even get me going down that road today. And don't count me as one of those grumpy bachelors who says that people forming couples breaks up the Old Gang; all of the groups I've most enjoyed being in have included singles and couples. And, usually, straights and gays. And, here, Germans and Auslanders.

So I wish Prof Dr Dr a good re-start in Dublin, and solicit the wishes of you readers for my own re-start outside of this city sometime very soon. And if you have a couple of friends you haven't met for a beer in a while, pick up the damn phone and call them. I think you might like what happens.

1 comment:

Donna said...

Hi, Ed, it's donnasue500 from CGE. I'll marry you, too. Wait, I'm already married, but who knows how long it will last?

I was thinking of commenting on your expat post of a few days ago, but I'll just jump right in. I feel your expat pain. I lived in Brussels from January 1997 until late 1999, on hubby's job deal. Brussels has some charm, but the best thing about it is that you can quickly and easily get somewhere else in Europe. Having said that, I will admit the Belgians I met were inordinately friendly and helpful to me, but this may have been due to the fact that I sought out a neighborhood far from the American ghetto.

You said that living abroad is "not what you think". That's putting it very gently. I came to the conclusion that living as an expat is so difficult because once the long-vacation honeymoon is over, you suffer an endless, day to day onslaught against your American sense of the world in subconscious ways. Nothing is how you expect it to be and you don't know the rules. This is unpleasant and surprising, particularly if you consider yourself to be a fairly intelligent, participating member of the world community, apart from the rest of them rednecks.

I don't mean just social rules; most American law is based on English common law, while Belgian (and French) law is based on incomprehensible Napoleonic code. I was lucky, being married to an Englishman and therefore considered chattel of an E.U. member. We only had to register with our local commune (like a county in a state on a miniscule level), and then have the police visit to check that the correct number of people we claimed actually lived in the house. Some expats I knew had to report to their commune authorities monthly.

What the Belgians have down to a fine art is milking expats for all they are worth. The Belgians (and the Netherlands) have a relatively small population for their tax base. This creates a crippling tax burden on citizens, which in turn creates a thriving black market. Any household service, and many household purchases can be bought "with or without a receipt". This is just what it sounds like: on the books, with tax liability, or off the books, privately. The amazing thing is that such business is conducted matter of factly, not quietly, as if you were buying drugs or something. No one is under any illusions of secrecy. This is how we bought our illegal Sky TV satellite service from Britain, requiring only a billing address in the UK. The Belgian authorities did drive around and check for visible satellite dishes so they could levy a tax (as they did on the number of TVs or radios in one's house), but aside from that they cared not. The Belgians make up for their tax deficits by soaking the expats for all they are worth. They are so creative on taxation that they still charged taxes for god knows what to hubby's company up to and including our 2003 taxes (four years after we left!). This meant thousands of dollars paid by the company in taxes were reported as income to us, and we had to pay income tax on it. I'm still pissed off, though I do have a lingering affection for Chimay beer.

But Ed, 11 years in Germany, the most dour and humorless country in Europe. Jeez. Your post communicated a clear sense of the times they are a-changin', but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Online communities create solipsism and the wrong king of individualism? What does that mean? The concept of community is changing, but I think it's more like an evolution, and the promise and possibilities of the sort of communication we enjoy now are tantalizing.

Just get the fuck out of Germany.