Tuesday, June 01, 2004

The FAQs

Why Berlin?

As I usually say to people, it's a long story that begins with the words "There was a woman..." and rapidly gets boring. But it was a woman who first inveigled me to this city for a visit in 1988, and it was her involvement with a music conference called Berlin Independence Days, and my involvement with South By Southwest, and SXSW's subsequent involvement with BID, which got me coming back even after she'd left me for another woman.

Why did you move there?

I moved here because I'd been doing less and less music writing and more and more travel writing. There was a day in about 1990 when I found myself standing in the old harbor of Antwerp surrounded by gorgeous old buildings, all of which had FOR RENT signs in their windows, and I thought "Hmmm, wonder what it would be like to live in Europe for, say, six months?" My first choice was Brussels, because my brother-in-law's cousin edited the Bulletin, the bi-weekly English-language magazine there, but she refused to hire me because the magazine, which had been started by her late mother, was now in the hands of a conglomerate she hated working for, and she told me she could never live with herself if she hired me. The only other place I had connections was Berlin, so I asked Berlin Independence Days if they needed someone for the '93 show, and they offered me a job.

As I said, the original plan was to stay for six months, til SXSW came along, then re-assess things. It didn't work out that way. In December, three months into the experiment, my landlord in Austin woke up to divorce papers from his wife, along with a demand that he move out of the house he'd built for her. Since his only other property was my place, he asked me to leave, effective April 1, so that I could come back for SXSW and clear out. I had a place here, and I didn't have one there. Easy.

Why did you stay?

Poverty. After BID shut down and I was stiffed my last month's salary, I began to look around for work. There wasn't any. But, I reasoned, I had an advantage: I was an American journalist in Europe! Surely people back home would like to read about what goes on over here! And I had a head start: at MIDEM in Cannes in January 1994, I got a PowerBook 160, purchased from a friend in Oregon, and acquired a Compuserve account. This completely revolutionized my life. Well, as much as it could when Deutsche Telekom wasn't sabotaging Compuserve connectivity to try to get people to switch to their online service. There was no internet access through them yet, but the forums provided me with one stupendous adventure which I turned into a story nobody wanted to publish (it remains a wonderful snapshot of rural east Germany), and the ability to file a story within seconds was heaven to any lazy writer.

There was also the fact that I discovered something of an expat community here through a magazine called Checkpoint, which had been started with money from Time Out and Zitty (one of the local listings magazines) by an American named Kevin Cote. Kevin had been reluctant to let me write because I didn't have a journalism degree (obviously he'd spent too much time in Germany), but once he heard I'd worked at Rolling Stone, he became enthusiastic. Too enthusiastic: it's only been in the last couple of years that I've broken him of the habit of introducing me as "Ed Ward from Rolling Stone." But Checkpoint died briefly when Time Out pulled out, only to be reborn as a subsidiary of Zitty as Metropolis (a name a German friend of mine suggested), and, later, when Kevin was tapped to become editor of Zitty, I became editor of Metropolis. Which Zitty then killed, but that's another story.

By this time I was beginning to work a lot for the Wall Street Journal's weekend arts page, and I'd also had a job with JazzRadio here doing between two to five shows a week, so I was doing okay, if not great, financially.

I should also mention that at the time, Berlin was a very interesting place to be. The east and west were still feeling each other out, and it was like the early days of a love affair when you're constantly discovering something new about the other person. A lot of unresolved real estate issues meant that there were tons of illegal and underground spaces (sometimes literally, like Favela, the Brazilian bar in the basement of a bombed building which had been levelled, a bar visible at night only because you could see the candlelight coming from the hole in the middle of the empty field) and artists and other marginal types from around the world coming here because of cheap rents and squat possibilities and the chance to interact with others of their type. Even at my age, there were nights when I didn't make it home until well after the sun had come up in the summer because I'd been out with friends at one of these places.

But Berlin's not like that any more. That's why I want out.

So why don't you leave?

Poverty. JazzRadio collapsed first, firing me when I was out of town at SXSW, a trip they'd known for three months I'd be making. The new management was in thrall to a pear-shaped so-called consultant from New Jersey, who turned it into all-Diana-Krall-all-the-time, and managed to alienate the large, affluent, educated audience the brilliant Dutch woman who'd started it had found. Then, two years later, I lost my connections at both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times due to office politics in both places that had nothing to do with me. Unfortunately, I had also loaned a great deal of money on a 60-day agreement to a friend who needed to secure a lease for an American company which backed out on Sept. 12, 2001. If this person ever recovers from the financial shock that followed, as one after another German firm was approached (but...Germans don't invest!), I'll get paid back. But I can't sit on my butt and wait for that to happen, and the work just isn't coming in. Surely there are travel magazines who want good stories from Europe, and surely there are other magazines where my unique cultural reportage, the stuff Wall Street Journal readers used to like so much, could appear. I'm still trying to find them.

As soon as I have the war chest together, I'm out of here, moving to France. Berlin was once a vibrant, edgy, exciting place to live.

Today, Berlin bites.

1 comment:

Jimbo said...

Does Berlin really bite? I was thinking about moving there myself. You really want to move to France? I live in Lyon, I'm an American and I speak French fluently and can get along in German. Help me and my wife and daugther (they're French) move to Berlin and we'll do everything we can to help you move to France.