I not only love Berlin, but I'm
fascinated by it - its history, contradictions and conflicts, the way it's so
full of life and yet sometimes so downright nasty. Some of my fascination, in
fact, has to do with the fact that for the first six months I lived there, I
positively abhorred Berlin.
OK, so moving to Berlin in September
wasn't the greatest idea. Berlin is farther north than I'd realized - it's on
the same latitude as Moscow - and the days are already short in September and
only getting shorter. Some days, you don't see the sun at all, because the tall
buildings conspired with the cloud cover to deny us sunlight. And without the
sun, all you see are the shadows, the brown and dull of the houses and the dark
grey city slush slopping onto the sidewalks. Most people don't seem to wear
bright colors, either, and sometimes you get so desperate that yellow snow starts
And it's cold.
Damn, is it cold! It's a down-in-your-bones chill that makes it seem like your
joints have frozen stiff and the wind might crack your bones. No one wants to
spend more time outside than they have to, and it's a scurrying, nasty place
where everyone dreams of being somewhere else, somewhere warmer.
And even though I was at the university,
I wasn't making any friends, because nobody seems to bother with small talk.
You say, "Hi, how's it going, where are you from?" and the response
is generally a brief glance and a dismissive, one-word answer. "Hamburg."
"Here." "Brandenburg." And you can almost hear them thinking,
Now go away.
And then there was the bureaucracy.
I'd never realized how richly deserved the German reputation for being incurable
bureaucrats is. Moved somewhere new? You're required to go register with the
Einwohnermeldeamt - "inhabitant registration bureau" - within one
or two weeks. Of course, being from the U.S., where you don't even have to tell
your post office when you move, I had no idea. Not having an accent when I speak
German turned into a liability; I was clueless, they assumed I was stupid. When
they figured out I'd just moved there from the United States they were somewhat
more sympathetic, but refused to believe that we didn't have a similar registration
system. She either decided I was a liar, or she ended up thinking that the U.S.
is a nation of criminals, where everyone has something to hide - or it's still
really the Wild West.
So I hated Berlin. I hated Germany.
I hated being German, and often said to myself that if someone came up to me
and asked for my German passport back, I'd throw it at them with curses and
wish it good riddance, and head on home to America. It was the first time I'd
ever felt that America was unequivocally my home, because I finally realized
that even though I'd always thought of myself as German-American, belonging
to both places, I didn't belong in Germany.
But I stayed anyway. I'm not completely
sure why. In part, it was simply because I'd said I'd stay for a year, and I
didn't want the city to win and make me leave early. Nor did I have any idea
what I'd do if I went back to the States. But maybe part of it was the conviction
that things had to get better.
And they did. I have soccer
to thank for it, as well as the left-wing convictions and interests that kept
me involved in the student-run tutorial where I met my fellow soccer fans. I
met friendly people, who insisted I do social things with them, and through
them I met other friendly people. I started to have a rudimentary social life.
And the weather started getting
better. There was actual, real daylight, even if it still wasn't very warm.
And by the end of the semester,
the time I'd set for myself to head back to the U.S., I wanted to stay. For
another semester. Just because I felt I was finally getting on my feet and that
first semester didn't really count. And I ended up staying for a total of four
There were still moments when I
felt I didn't belong, or didn't want to belong - when the woman on the subway
snapped at me about chewing my nails, how nasty the saleslady at Karstadt was
when I asked where the soap was, or hearing someone else's relatives saying
that "whoever didn't vote for the Christian Social Union [conservatives]
should be taken out and shot." But I found many more moments when I did
belong - in classrooms, with friends, at demonstrations, or even sitting alone
in a theater, watching a play by Brecht. And I realized that, perhaps because
Germany is so contentious, and so contradictory, there is always a place for
me to belong. I just needed to find it.
And that's what made Berlin so important.
It's where I belong.
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