Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fifteen Years

On the morning of August 12, 1993, an American Airlines jet landed at Tegel Airport in Berlin and I got out.

I was excited, or as excited as someone that tired could be. Something like three years of planning, saving, working, scheming, and, in the end, meticulously pulling details together had culminated in this moment. On the other side of the glass wall by the baggage claim was a guy with a key to an apartment, an apartment I'd be living in for the next six months as this experiment in expatriation progressed. After that, I'd see if I wanted to stay. But right now, I was here.

Which made me one up on the guy with the key. As the crowd outside thinned, I stood there with my densely-packed luggage, looking for him. Maybe there'd been a parking problem. Maybe he'd just gotten up late and was still on his way. I sure hoped so; I hadn't bought a lot of Deutsche Marks before I'd left Texas, since it was easier to get them from an ATM here as soon as I could access my Sparkasse account. I made a furtive check of the cash-on-hand. Would this be enough to take a cab? And, if so, where would I go? Since I'd bought the Marks at my bank, there were no coins, so I couldn't even make a phone call. Okay, I said, I'll take a cab to his record store and see what's up.

The cabbie was Iranian. His German was even worse than mine, but he insisted on talking all the way to Schöneberg. I remember his repeated assertion that "Shah war besser!" as we parked in front of the store. I hoped this wouldn't take long; the meter was still ticking. But it didn't: Tim the assistant was there, and whipped out the key.

He also filled me in on what had happened. The reason I was able to rent this flat in Moabit was that this guy had moved in with his girlfriend long ago, but, long programmed by the West Berlin scarcity mentality, never gave up the little student flat he'd rented when he and his former girlfriend -- now also my former girlfriend -- moved to Berlin some years earlier. And the reason I knew I wouldn't have to move out was that he and his current girlfriend were going to have a baby. Which, most unexpectedly early, had just happened, and not only that but there had been an all-night emergency when something had gone wrong and the mother was teetering between life and death. They seemed to be out of danger by now, Tim said, but the doctors weren't sure.

Well, that put the kibosh on the rising irritation I'd been feeling.

The Iranian whipped me through the Tiergarten and around the Grosser Stern, and pretty soon the familiar lawn of Schloss Bellevue went by and we turned into Melanchthonstr. I gave him nearly all the money I had, unpacked, and loaded my stuff into the tiny elevator. I wasn't going to walk two floors at this point. And, when I got into the apartment, the first thing I did was crash for a few hours.

Fortunately, I had stayed here quite a bit. I had first moved into the place on my first visit to Berlin, which is when I'd gotten the first intimations that the woman I'd fallen in love with was, perhaps, going to be a bit of a problem. Besides being with her, my reason for coming here in late 1988 was because of a music conference, Berlin Independence Days, which had been founded by journalist and radio personality Wolfgang Doebeling as a way of scamming some of the vast quantities of money the West German government was handing out on the supposed 750th anniversary of Berlin's founding. Among the uses that money had found was flying me in as a representative of South By Southwest. I was ecstatic: a free trip to Europe to stay with this amazing woman! Unfortunately, however, that same old West Berlin housing problem had caused a snarl. She'd long been broken up with her last boyfriend, but he was still in residence, since apartments were so hard to find. And, in order not to make trouble, she'd decided that all three of us were sleeping alone. Given that her apartment was huge -- well over 100 square meters, I think -- there was plenty of room, but I wasn't exactly pleased. After two nights, she came up with the solution: this flat not too far away that her business partner and ex-boyfriend had. So I was still sleeping alone, but in another apartment.

On subsequent visits, it became my pied a terre in Berlin. I'd come in, he'd meet me at the airport and drive me there, and I'd have my own place, for free. As for the girlfriend, we broke up not long after that first visit, as she got weirder and weirder, first getting into a smorgasbord of esoterica of which astrology seemed to be the nexus, and then announcing that she'd become a fully-committed lesbian: "This is me! This is who I am, and you must accept it!" she declaimed during one of our last marathon arguments at the Cafe Berio around the corner from the store where she still worked despite her feeling that it was more and more immoral to espouse such a worldly thing as popular music. "This is not a fashion you can put on and take off like this year's dress!" It's worth noting that this pagan wild-woman lesbian is now a happily-married mother of three (two her own, one who came with the husband) who goes to Mass twice a week.

But another of the side-effects of that first trip was that a second guy from SXSW went to BID (the boss -- rightly -- thought I'd be blinded by my own obvious agenda) and was dazzled by it, and when we returned with our report to the boss, he decided we had to form a partnership with them. BID represented SXSW in Europe, and SXSW represented BID in the U.S. It was a fairly lopsided proposal, since many more Europeans wanted to try their luck in the States than American bands wanted to try to crack the German independent label market (which was what the "Independence" in the title was about).

And so it was that every October we'd load up our propaganda, fly to Berlin, and enjoy BID. I'd come over early to help out on the program book attendees got, which always included a bunch of essays in English about the various issues being discussed on the panels. BID '89, in fact, had a lot of representatives of the East German pop press milling around. "Next year," one of them said to me in very good English, "you'll be doing this on our side of town." Preposterous! I managed to stay around afterwards -- I had a free apartment, after all -- and help with the post-conference cleanup, not to mention the post-conference partying at the Pinguin Club on Wartburgstr. in Schöneberg, which was home to a nicely odd collection of expats and Germans. I had my birthday party there in 1989, in fact, and stayed around a while longer, then headed back to Texas.

The day I landed, the Berlin Wall opened up. I'd missed one of the greatest stories of my life by 24 hours.

With a free apartment in Berlin, I came as often as possible. And with the Wall coming down, there were many, many great things to see and do. I befriended a young female taxi driver, a grad student, and in April, 1990, we drove to Czechoslovakia to see the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. She was an exception, though, to the prevailing attitude of the folks I knew in West Berlin. They wanted nothing to do with the East, and made no bones about it. There was nothing there! And, for a while, I bought into this. I'd been across on my first visit, and East Berlin was extremely depressing, especially the neighborhood where the guy who took me over and I went to meet a friend of his, a neighborhood called Prenzlauer Berg, where there were still loads of bombed buildings just laying there, weeds and small trees growing out of the wreckage, and people lined up in front of grocery stores because you had to use a basket and there were a limited number of them.

But eventually, some of the folks I knew around the Pinguin, including one of the owners, started spending more time over there. As the guy at BID had predicted, the next year there were BID showcases at a place called Tacheles (there was no electricity, so a generator had to be rented and installed, to Wolfgang's great chagrin), the Haus der Junge Talent, and a venue called Die Insel, which was so far away nobody really knew where it was.

I was curious to see all of this on an ongoing basis, because I thought there were stories to write that folks in the States would be interested in, although I'd already had a very chastening experience when I'd hurred back to Berlin in late January 1990 and researched a story on the changes West Berlin would be seeing as the city began to unify. I got a great story, great quotes, and even interviewed an East Berliner who'd been a dissident and had forced the government to expel him to West Berlin on the eve of the opening of the Wall. I'd written it up as soon as I got back, and was shot down by every magazine I submitted it to, none of whom lost the opportunity to explain, as to an idiot, that I'd missed the real story, which was how happy the East Germans were to be free of communism and how they were looking forward to freedom and a bright new day. Of course, this wasn't strictly true, but then, I'd been to Berlin and these editors hadn't.

Still, this European experience was beginning to open me up to some new possibilities, and they finally knit together into an insight one day when, on assignment from several magazines, I was in Antwerp, Belgium. I was wandering around the old harbor area, which hasn't been a working harbor in many years, but still has loads of picturesque buildings, all of which, I suddenly noticed, seemed to be for rent. Seriously: there were signs in just about every window above street-level, and it hit me -- what would it be like to live here? Why should I be doing these travel stories -- because that had become an increasing amount of the work I was getting -- by flying from Texas to Europe when I could be based right in Europe, getting the kind of knowledge only someone on the ground could get, and get to places a lot quicker and cheaper than someone who'd have to fly in?

This became even more urgent a question when, on my return, I was stripped of my last Austin-based gig for no particular reason. I spent the day this happened furious, and the fury wore me out. I slept like someone drugged that night and woke up in one of those states you have after a particularly memorable dream -- except that I didn't remember it. I did, however, have a solid revelation: you don't have to live in Austin any more. You can move to Europe.

And on that day, I started my planning. My idea was to save enough to survive for six months, get a job doing whatever I could, and see what it was like. As for the job, that would probably be no big deal: my brother-in-law's cousin edited the major English-language magazine in Brussels, an ideal location for me because my French was pretty good. I dashed off a letter to her and, by return post, she dashed my hopes: the publication had just been bought by a media conglomerate which was only keeping her on because her mother had founded it and she'd been editor for ages. "I couldn't live with myself if I got you a job with these people," she said.

Fair enough. What was Plan B? Um, Plan B was Berlin.

Not that I really wanted to move to Berlin, but it wasn't out of the question. I had friends here because of BID, expats and natives alike. I had an apartment, although not the one I wanted. (I'd responded to an ad in tip and talked to a nice couple with an immense place in Friedenau they were going to sublet while they took a year to educate themselves about French wine by spending the time going from one area of France to another. We loved each other, and I was happy to have found such a wonderful place. Then the landlord refused to let them sublet to a foreigner. Which, yes, is legal. I'd just learned my first lesson about Germany, although I refused to believe it at the time). I didn't really speak or read German, and, well, I wasn't sure I really liked the place. But there was no doubt that the whole post-1989 opening of eastern Europe was exciting -- my Czech trip had sure proven that -- and one heard there were very cool things happening in East Berlin. Job? There would be a BID, the fifth one, in 1993. Although I couldn't speak German, there were certainly things to do.

And I started doing them the morning after I arrived. That year, BID had joined together with some world music types who were going to put on a satellite event called WOMEX. (Wolfgang despised -- despises -- world music, but it was the only way he could get this thing funded again). There was an office on Köpenicker Str. near Schlesisches Tor ("Say that correctly," a German friend had said, "and you don't need to worry about your accent any more."), and an office full of people, some of whom I knew and some of whom I didn't. It was August, and we had an event to put on in October. We got to work.

That was 15 years ago tomorrow. A great education was about to begin, and the future would soon take some completely unpredictable twists. Somewhere in West Berlin there's a 15-year-old boy I've not seen since he was an infant. I don't see his parents any more, nor practically anyone I knew back then. And soon, I hope, I won't see much of Berlin anymore. I wouldn't trade the past 15 years for anything, but it's long since been time to move on.


Anonymous said...

Where to next?

Snooker said...

I enjoyed the story, thanks for putting it down.