Love and Hate in Berlin

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 looking cheerful.

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 years.

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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