Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Meanwhile, Back In Berlin...

Owing to the PayPal debacle last time I was there, and the loss of $1500 worth of work due to one screw-up or another, it'll be some weeks before I can get back to Montpellier to continue looking for an apartment. Well, that and the fact that I've only had one offer since I've been back, and it was more than I could spend.

So that means staying in Berlin a bit longer. Not that, in glorious summer weather like we haven't seen in many a year, that's a completely horrible thing. Although, of course, Berlin remains Berlin.

For instance: Since there still isn't a decent public transportation link to where I live from the Hauptbahnhof -- Berlin's main train station is still working out its transportation kinks -- I take a cab there and back when I'm travelling. And, after a 16-hour train-ride, it's an excusable indulgence. After my first trip in June, I found myself welcomed back in typical Berlin style: I got in the cab, the guy tripped the meter, and then asked me where I was going. I told him, and he started arguing. He'd never heard of the street or the neighborhood: was I sure I was headed there? Yes, I said, I live there. Well, he'd never heard of it: could I point it out on his map? Of course I could. And I did. The meter now read €3.80 and we hadn't budged. He eventually got me there, all right, but wound up blaming it on my horrible accent. Which, not to be vain about it, was better than his, since German was clearly not his first language, either.

In contrast, the driver two weeks ago knew just where I was going, got me there via an ingenious short-cut, and, as the surroundings penetrated his brain, began to talk to me in English. After all, what other kind of foreigner lives in this 'hood? I kind of saw his point a couple of mornings later, when someone was noisily CLANK recycling bottles CLANK one at CLANK a time out in the courtyard. The prompted an angry response from someone -- perhaps the unemployed gentleman a half-floor above me in the Halbetreppe apartment who seems to spend his time inducing hangovers -- and there was a pause in the recycling noise. Finally, the recycler said "Um, can you speak English?" and, after a half second, there came the reply: "Yes. Kann you plizz do zat LAUTER?"

Of course, there's another stereotype for residents of this neighborhood, and it came to mind when we got plastered with small handbills with some photographs on them. What had happened was that, last September, a woman had met a man reading a history of the Holy Roman Empire while riding on the U-Bahn. They had chatted, and she had had a failure of nerve, because she was so attracted to him. Now, almost a year later, she'd decided to find him and had printed up these flyers and pasted them onto building fronts. There was a picture of the book he was reading, what looked like a police sketch of him, straight on and in profile (that's what attracted me to the flyer: I thought it was a police sketch and we were in the middle of a crime wave), a picture of her, and a picture of someone I guess is a movie star as "Doppelgänger." And, of course, her phone number. I almost sent her an SMS asking her if she'd considered the possiblity that the guy was batting for the other team, but figured the idiom would be beyond her.

Yes, ladies, and although I'm never spotted pushing a €10,000 baby buggy down the streets, I'm not one of them. But they're there, in my building, along with the Americans (and I suspect the two groups overlap, too). And to tell the truth, the guys who have been playing the same three ABBA songs day and night at ear-challenging volume ever since I came back would be bad enough even if they didn't get about 3/4 of the way through each one and then start it over again, which is at least as annoying as breaking bottles one by one. Maybe they'll stop when Mama Mia leaves the local movie theater. Naaah...

So it's back to the usual: reading breathless accounts of hip! edgy! Berlin in the media, most disappointingly Gary Shteyngart's breathless account of the city as observed from his cushy post at the American Academy earlier this year. Jeez, for someone who nailed trendy expats so neatly in his great first novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, ol' Gary sure drank the kool-aid on this one. At least it's not as bad as the more recent tour of Berlin music history the Guardian printed, filled with enough typos that you'd think the information was gleaned from a bad telephone connection.

Still, over dinner the other evening, someone posed a nice, barbed question: what if the current state of affairs is as good as it's ever going to get here? Excellent point: there are a lot of reasons to believe that things are going to get worse for most Berliners as the economic decline neatly pegged in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal progresses. The fact that the expats on what this same person has termed "the two-year Spring Break" here haven't been touched by this speaks only to their isolation from the native population and the fact that the problems haven't reached far enough into their daily lives. But it's not inconceivable that they will, especially as real estate values escalate in their neighborhoods and they're forced into daily propinquity with large masses of the hard-core unemployed with whom, as our bottle-breaker found out to his great embarrassment, they're unprepared to deal. As the arts subsidies decrease even further, and as the cheapness of living in Berlin gets to be outweighed by the increasing gloom of a city circling the drain, those who are here for fun are going to be faced with unpleasant choices if they wish to stay. Since my guess is that they'll choose to leave, and they'll have to find another Eurotopia in which to have their cheap holidays in other people's misery.

So it looks like in a week, I'll be passing my 15th year here, barring both an economic and a French real-estate miracle. Expect a post with some wry nostalgia and at least one very amusing link on that day.


Andrew "Drew Portnoy" Bulkeley said...

As soon as I find a moment I'm having a new t-shirt made:

Welcome to Berlin, now go back to Brooklyn.

Anonymous said...

Berlin has been all about economic doom and gloom since reunification. Except for a brief moment around 1998 when the New Economy was working its illusions. It'll be interesting when reality finally catches up with the real estate "boom" which has been going on.