Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Immer Ein Koffer

I left Berlin twice. It might seem like I couldn't let myself leave, but the answer is more prosaic than that: I missed a turnoff.

Actually, I hadn't meant to leave so late in the day, but the movers had decided, while I was picking up the rental station wagon that would take the more precious items, that their truck was full, although it was far from it. I returned to find them battening the load down, and went upstairs to my apartment to see how much remained: a lot.

So it was about 4:30 in the afternoon when I left, already dark, of course. I'd like to say there were bittersweet feelings coursing around my heart, but in fact that had been happening bit by bit over the past couple of weeks, and I was done with it by now: all I wanted was to get moving on to my new life in France.

One thing I can't recommend enough if you're driving anywhere in Europe is Mappy, a map-generating service which calculates your route with scary precision. Owned by France Telecom, it even has speed cameras marked on it, as well as accurate tolls and gasoline costs, and up-to-the-minute detour information. It doesn't, however, help you much when you can't see what it's talking about, and somewhere near the ICC, I missed a turnoff which was signposted on a temporary sign which was leaning at a crazy angle. Somehow instinct kept me on the Berliner Ring, and somewhere around Schönefeld, I started following signs for Schöneberg and next thing I knew, the Fernsehturm heaved into sight again, and eventually I found the bad road sign and Berlin was in my past.

It would be easy enough to say that I hadn't meant to spend 15 years in Berlin, but it would be more honest to say that I didn't have a plan at all, that the entire decade and a half was an improvisation. And, although the past four or five years weren't the most pleasant, as my disaffection with the city became stronger and my dislike for Germany and its culture began to grow, I'm certainly not about to disavow the experience. Pretty much up to the end, it was an adventure, one that, yes, I'd very likely handle differently if I had to do it again, but one which changed my life in profound ways, many of which have been detailed on this blog over the years of its existence.

For one thing, I learned how to live in a foreign country, one enough like the one I was raised in that the little details didn't show up quite as obviously. There were things like the bureaucracy I had to deal with, but there were other things that were more fun, from learning how to get around to learning how to swim against the current without overly disturbing the neighors. There were the customs, from odd holidays (Pfingsten? What's that?) to knocking on a table full of friends when you entered a bar, thereby saying hello to one and all.

For another, I was extraordinarily privileged on a couple of accounts. One is that I managed to witness the aftermath of the huge change in Germany that the locals call die Wende, the turning. As I've stated, I was here, visiting, before the Wall opened, and just missed the event by a couple of days (although, as someone noted, my math was bad in that last post, and I can only blame pre-moving distraction for that), and managed to move to Berlin four years later, when the Wiedervereinegung was far from a reality. Three years after that, I moved to east Berlin in time to see the street at the end of my block change from Wilhelm-Pieck-Str. to Torstr. And if the yuppification of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg was what grabbed the headlines, it was the bafflement of the man in the street and the freezing out of the arts communities which interested me. I managed to reside Berlin from the day the Allies left to the day Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were househunting across the street from me.

Another way I was privileged was in being a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal -- and to a lesser extent the New York Times -- from 1994 to about 2002. Once I became a regular with the Journal, I was allowed an expense account for travel, hotels, and meals to go all over my territory (which was basically Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe) writing stories about art and culture. Particularly towards the end of the last century, it was as likely as not that a lot of the stories would be right at home in Berlin, as the city waged an ultimately unsuccessful battle to position itself as a "world city," as if that was something achievable through clever marketing and just saying it was true. I also loved doing slyly subversive stories for the notoriously right-wing Journal, and covered the fight to retain the Ampelmann on crossing lights (which, from his ubiquity these days, you'd never know was something Siemens fought like hell to keep from happening) and the 30th anniversary of the Puhdys, East Germany's most successful rock band, as much because these stories were about communist icons as because they were newsworthy. On the occasions I travelled, I usually had plenty of spare time to take in museums or other notable sights, and of course I tried my best to research the food situation, which sometimes, as in the trip I made to Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, didn't pan out like I thought: the food there was much better than my research led me to expect, and I'd go back in a minute.

It was only when this ideal setup began to crumble -- first with the utter inability of the company I'd founded in 1997 to provide an English-language information service with a magazine and an online component to find a single investor, then with the radio shows I'd had at JazzRadio (which had been very popular and had connected me with people I'd otherwise never have met) suddenly falling to new management and bogus "consultants," then the post-9/11 changes in the New York media landscape which left me without any gigs, and, finally, my ill-advised loan to a friend which also went south on that notorious date -- that life in Berlin soured and, without any relief from my surroundings, I began to see it in another way. Much of that view has been reported in this blog, to the dismay of some of its more Germanophilic readers. (Weirdly, I'd never met a single Germanophile until I moved to Berlin. I'd met Anglophiles, Francophiles, Italophiles, Sinophiles, and so on, but everyone seemed to have a "yes, but" attitude towards Germany).

Ultimately, the city and I just didn't get along. I became unhappy with the picture Berlin was painting of itself to the world, emphasizing the negative, emphasizing death over life, always twisting the narrative to avoid mentioning things the city should have been proud of. The weather, of course, could be brutal in the winter, and the winter seemed to last for seven months. The food, for most of my stay, was awful, although I have to say that's one thing which was definitely on the upswing in my last couple of years there. The architecture was relentessly grim, and, with the city sprawled out over an area that seemed the size of Los Angeles, there was an awful lot of it: this past March I'd just returned from Texas and France when I agreed to meet friends at a recently-discovered Chinese restaurant in Neukölln and took the Ringbahn from Schönhauser Allee to get there. I was really demoralized by the time I arrived from the endlessly repetitive vistas of depressing buildings and squalid streets, and this just fuelled my need to get out even further. And I saw all of this reflected in the faces of the residents, so many of whom look either desperately unhappy or lobotomized. I couldn't see myself getting older there, and given that one of my not-so-unconscious goals in moving in the first place was to find female companionship, I'd long since given up on finding a German woman who wasn't consumed with self-loathing or incipient mental illness. Not to say that they don't exist, but the only one I found wasn't a romantic prospect, although it was encouraging after all those years to discover there were occasional nonconformists.

I'd been planning my escape since about 2004, when I was probably at the nadir of my fortunes. And now that I've been gone for three weeks, having spent nearly every cent I could scrape together over the past four years to make it happen, I find myself pondering the question, as I prepare to end this blog, of whether I miss Berlin. And, like some sort of Bill Clinton-ish figure, my response is that it depends what you mean when you say "Berlin." In the past year or two, "Berlin" has been, for me, a circle of friends with whom I've become very close. I miss the hell out of them, despite the fact that nearly all of them blog and I read them every day. "Berlin" has been meeting up with these people, eating and drinking and talking with them and going to events with them. But then, I remind myself, that had happened before, around the magazine project, and then, eventually nearly every one of those people had left. Indeed, in the current circle, there are a couple who have already left and others who are making plans to leave. Berlin, it seems, is a place which doesn't seem to hold people: even a large percentage of the Germans I've known over the years have moved on, unable to achieve what they wanted to do in the negative atmosphere the place exudes. Berlin is broke. Berlin is huge. Berlin is ugly. Individuals can try to spend a part of their energy in resisting that, or they can move on. I made my choice.

I'm not sure of this, but I believe it was Gen. Lucius Clay who said "Ich habe immer ein Koffer gepackt in Berlin," which was his way of saying that he could never completely leave the city behind. I've always thought the image strange: if I leave a suitcase in some place as a way to have a setup available to me when I visit, I'm going to be discovering bits of the past every time I open it, and more so with each subsequent visit. That's not how I revisit places. I tend to live in the here and now, eager to see how a place has adjusted to the present day. I do, of course, bring my knowledge of a place I've lived with me, making it easier to negotiate the streets and know where I am, but I generally take my luggage with me when I leave. I expect I will, in fact, be revisiting Berlin. I hope so. And I'll be bringing my luggage and, I hope, leaving my baggage behind.

* * *

There will be one more post here directing those who are interested to a new blog I'll be starting in Montpellier as soon as I can get telephone service in my apartment, something which is far more difficult than in Germany because one needs a bank-account first, and, from what I've discovered, foreigners don't seem to be allowed to have them in France. (Oh, yes, there's material for a new blog here, you can count on it.) But I'm putting this up from a bar/cafe some people I know own, and it's not the most conducive place to write (this post was carried on a memory stick). I hope to have telephone service after the first of the year, and we'll take it from there. See you elsewhere in cyberspace!