Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Only Town in Germany

I've been asking ex-pats in Berlin about what it is, exactly, that's special about this town. It's difficult to put a finger on it exactly, but Berlin has a funny way of wending its way into the hearts of those of us who don't belong anywhere, exactly. When I moved to Berlin, I will admit to something approaching outright prejudice against German culture and language. My move was completely expedient: I absolutely had to get the hell out of the U.S. and between professional contacts and funding opportunities, it pretty much had to be Germany. I hardly thought twice about Cologne (the other possibility); there was really only Berlin. When I arrived, my German vocabulary consisted of exactly six words: bitte, danke, Pfefferminztee and Mineralwasser mit gas, which was all I'd managed to learn in a 10-day visit in 2003. OK, make it ten words, as I'm sure I knew Mein Kampf, Blitzkrieg and Luftwaffe as well. They weren't going to be of much use to me, of course, particularly as I doubt I even knew what they meant other than Bad Things Germans Did. It wasn't until two years later that The Lively German pointed out to me Kampf is struggle; I'd simply never bothered to ask myself what it might mean. German was "that Nazi language" to me, and my clearly formulated intent my first year was to give the impression of a nice but linguistically-challenged woman who simply could not manage to learn it. This may be possibly the only example in my entire life when I've qualified as sufficiently incurious to border on bigoted.

So, that's how I ended up in Berlin, but after that first year, why did I stay on? The choice between more part-time work in Berlin or going back to Bush's U.S. was pretty clear. It was only a half-year later that I took off for Spain, convinced that I was through with Berlin. But I kept having to going back to Germany for visa matters, then was hired for another part-time gig, and somewhere in that time I realized I actually could speak some rudimentary German (how did that happen?) and also that Berlin was slowly seducing me. At that point the stage was set; all it took was a German as tenacious as he is whacked to break through to the side of me that is always there, voracious, insatiable, ready to gobble up knowledge. I am as discomfited by looking back at my petty close mindedness as I am amused by the fact that in the last four months I've progressed from little better than beginner to a solid intermediate level in German.

Back to Berlin, then. I shared this last sublet in Prenzlauerberg with the most perfectly uncomplicated Swiss guy one could imagine (he had all of one moving part). He's the reason I know that Berlin's charm only works with freaks and misfits. I asked him several times when he'd be back. He was always completely uninterested: "oh no, there are far too many other cities to see in this lifetime." I can't disagree with him about so many other cities, of course, but it was interesting to see Berlin was completely lost on him. And this despite the last four weeks of as close-to-perfect weather as can be.

As for me, Berlin was up to its usual tricks. In the last week she tossed out, of all things(!), another German man with energy and initiative. That means there are TWO in Deutschland; Mein Gott, what on earth am I supposed to make of that?!? I returned to Madrid yesterday with that old familiar what-the-hell-am-I-doing-moving-yet-again feeling. Have I gone from sexless Berlin to sexless Madrid?! It's 10°C (18°F) colder in Madrid than Berlin as I write, and I have not ventured out of my new sublet today. Berlin -- so hard to love, but so hard to leave -- ich vermisse Dich.

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