Where was I, exactly 11 years ago? I can answer that. It's now 6:48pm as I start this, and I was probably just getting up, in my new apartment in Berlin, having arrived that morning and walked into a bunch of chaos. I was looking forward to what was ahead. Little did I know.
About a week ago, I met a friend for lunch at the cafe attached to the S-Bahn station in Friedenau, after picking up some confiscated promo CDs at the Postal Customs, who like to make me come down there every couple of months just because they know it pisses me off. She directed me to walk down Hauptstr. and then turn left into Sponholzstr., which ends at the cafe, and as I did, memories started coming back.
I'd made the decision to move here some time earlier, and at the beginning of 1993, I'd landed a job with Berlin Independence Days, a music conference/festival similar to, but much smaller than, South by Southwest, for whom I'd worked for years. BID represented SXSW in Europe, and SXSW represented BID in the States. It wasn't exactly a fair trade, given that nobody in the US wanted to go to Berlin, but it meant the channels of communication were open.
But with the job offer in hand, I took the money I'd made from that year's SXSW (I was a part-timer) and bought a ticket to Berlin in May. The idea was to stay at my friend Volker's apartment while looking for a place I could rent for the six months I thought I'd be staying. This isn't as hard as it sounds (renting a short-term apartment, not staying at Volker's): there are numerous Mitwohnzentrale here, agencies that rent either rooms or whole apartments by the day, week, or month -- or longer. I figured with a three-month lead, everything settled, I'd be able to step off the plane in August when I arrived and get right to work.
And sure enough, one of the places I'd registered at came up with a perfect apartment. It wasn't in the edgy east, like I'd wanted, but back then hardly any East Berlin apartments that even had indoor plumbing (it was in the hall). This was a huge place, late 19th century, and if I'm not mistaken it was on Sponholzstr. The couple were in their 40s, childless, and about to spend six months in Burgundy learning the Burgundy wine business, after which I think they were going to come back and open a restaurant or a high-end wine shop if their marriage was still intact. They liked me, they said my bringing my dog would be fine, we talked about food and wine and how envious I was of what they were doing, I left them Volker's phone number, and I walked back up the street noting that unlike October and January, when I had been here before, Berlin in May was a symphony of green. Plus, I'd worn a long-sleeved shirt and a t-shirt, and I was sweating like a pig. It was warm!
So all was well until 24 hours before I had to leave. Then I got a call from the couple on Sponholzstr. "We're very sorry, and we're very ashamed," they said. "Our landlord refuses to allow us to sublet to a foreigner. Not all Berliners are like this." I was surprised, but it was just the first of many, many incidences of this attitude I was to encounter in the next 11 years. Volker very reluctantly decided to rent me his apartment, a tiny, 30-square-meter box (if it was even that big) with a very low ceiling (I could palm the ceiling without standing on my toes). I realized I was going to have to leave my dog behind.
On August 11, 1993, I got on a plane, probably American Airlines, which in those days had an Austin-Chicago, Chicago-Berlin link that was amazingly convenient. (Nowadays you can't fly here directly from any city in America. It's only the capitol of Germany, after all). Volker was going to meet me at the airport and get me set up. I had the maximum allowable baggage, packed to the maximum amount of volume. Six months until I'd see Austin again.
It was a warm, sunny day, I remember that. And Volker wasn't there -- I definitely remember that. I waited and waited. I had no coins to use the phone with, only a bunch of bills. And I had all this luggage. He had a car, a big one, with which he hauled the records he imported for his record store, and I was hoping I could just load in and get going. Finally, I got a cab and gave the cabbie the address of the record store, which we got to in about 20 minutes. The cabbie was Iranian, and his German was as bad as mine. I remember shouts of "Shah war besser!" as we pulled up at the store, and I asked him to wait. With all my crap in the car, he knew I wasn't going to burn him.
I walked into the store, and Volker wasn't there. His assistant (soon to be partner, I think), Tim, was. And Tim told me that Volker's girlfriend had unexpectedly gone into labor early in the morning, something had gone wrong, she was in critical condition, that it was still touch and go, Volker was at the hospital conferring with the doctors, and Tim was waiting by the phone for news. Volker had, however, stopped in the shop on his way to the hospital and left the key. How cool was that?
And so I found myself on Melanchthonstr., a cobblestoned street named after a sparring partner of Martin Luther's, not far from the Spree River, Schloss Bellevue (where Queen Elizabeth would wave at me a few months later), the Tiergarten, and the House of World Cultures. I was in heaven: I'd actually moved to Europe, and was on the verge of a great adventure. Later that night, as the gas lights popped on along the street, I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next.
As bad as I want out, these days I still don't regret it. Many cool things happened in the next couple of years. Things that couldn't happen to someone moving here this afternoon. Things that are, like so many things here, gone.