An American in Berlin
2 May, 2017
Who are we? That’s an easy one, right? Let me narrow that down. How do we define ourselves? As individuals, I mean. What makes you you? What makes me me? In our own eyes, I mean. It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. And I think – I hope – I’ve been drawing nearer to an answer; for myself at least. On more which shortly.
I was listening to an interview on NPR a while back, with an author – the name escapes me – who was talking about what he thought the economies of the future would be like. Specifically, what would happen when, due to ever-increasing mechanization, there simply won’t be enough jobs for everybody. In fact, I think we’re already entering that world. But it’s not yet reached a scale where we can’t overlook it; as many, nay most, governments still seem content to do. Ultimately, this led the author to the inevitable conclusion of Universal Basic Incomes.
In his mind, this would be a wonderful development as it would allow people to pursue their passions without the hindrance of being forced to work a job one dislikes, simply to pay the rent and put food on the table. But then a caller asked, what about those of us who have jobs we love? To which the author replied with something along the lines of, identifying yourself by your job is an outmoded way of thinking. In a future of UBIs, he argued, people will no longer say, “I am a sanitation worker,” or “I am an office clerk,” or whatever.
The caller, however, found this unsatisfactory. After all, some of us, she argued, do we what we do because that’s how we identify ourselves. Doctors, teachers, artists, were some of the examples she gave; or if not the specific examples, at least the sort of examples. Anyway, this got me thinking. Am I “a teacher”? Surely that’s my job. It may well be my career. But is it who I am? Certainly other people have said that about me. “Dave, you’re a natural teacher.” Meaning, there’s something in my nature that makes me “a teacher,” as opposed to simply that being the job I happen to have. And perhaps that’s true. I’ll come back to it.
I have a friend who keeps a really quite wonderful Instagram feed. The pictures are of course lovely, to be sure. But when I say “wonderful,” I mean more the comments she attaches to the pictures. For, there seems to be a tension – and I don’t mean the word negatively, but I can’t think of a better one – between two concurrently existing identities. One is that of an independent person who also happens to be an artist. The other is that of a mother and wife.
And what I read in the comments, is that she struggles to find time to be both. I also think she succeeds wildly at both. But it seems not to be easy, as I read it. One picture will be of her kids playing outside, and the caption will express the sheer joy of raising these children, at seeing them grow, and all the rest of it. And she seems to be saying, “This is who I am, I am a mother.”
And then she’ll post something as simple as a cup of coffee. And the caption will be something along the lines of, “It’s so nice to have a few quiet moments to myself, to be free to be me.” I paraphrase, of course. But my point is, in all of that, she seeks her own identity. A proud mother, who nevertheless must be a strong and independent individual. I hasten to add; this is how I interpret her Instagram. I’ve not yet had the chance to have this conversation with her; and gods know when I’ll next get home to do so. And so, obviously, I imprint my own experiences onto my reading of her timeline. Nevertheless, even if I may be wrong in some of the particulars, it helps me in my quest to answer this question for myself.
So then, who am I? Am I simply a teacher? I don’t seek to deny it. Yet neither do I think that this is a complete answer. What gets me a little bit closer to my answer is an examination of how I choose to spend my free time.
Until this month, all of my free (productive) time had been bound up in my efforts to complete my Hebrew course book. Now that I have, I find I have the freedom to apply myself to a broader range of interests. I continue, of course, with my Hebrew studies. But to this, I have added a (long-overdue) return to Greek. At the moment, I’ve undertaken to read Aristotle’s Περὶ Ποιητικἢϲ (Poetics). And I’m already thinking I’d like to move on to Sophocles when I finish this, to read Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone; I’ve already read Oedipus Tyrannus twice.
If that’s not enough, I’ve finally got to work on my Federalist Project, which I explained in my last post. And I’ve started reading Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social (On the Social Contract). All that to say nothing of keeping this blogue a going concern while trying to find the time to write creatively, i.e. the odd bit of silly fiction.
And so, most days look something like this. Go to work and read French on the subway. Teach. Come home and nap. Ease back into life with a bit of Netflix before cooking something for dinner. But after dinner, it’s down to work. An hour or two of Hebrew followed by an hour or two of Greek. Lesson planning, if necessary. Do up a blogue post of there’s time. Some days I’ll switch out the Greek or the Hebrew to work on the Federalist. Oh, and squeeze in some time for the guitar if nobody’s home.
But lately, when I climb into bed at the end of it all, I’ve been feeling rather good about myself. Something along the lines of, “Yes, I’m (finally) doing the things I want to do. This feels right.” Or, at least, most of the things I want to do. Because I’m still not finding any time to actively improve my German. Though lately, I’m thinking, if I can find the time for all these other things, I ought to be able to schedule in 20-30 minutes a day to do the hard work of reading some German.
And it is hard work, I say by way of a slight detour. The problem with German, for me, is not one of difficulty, per se, nor is it one of grammar. It is, quite simply, a question of vocabulary. There are just…so…many…fucking…words. The French lexicon is a fraction of the size, which is why I actually can simply read it on the subway. But with German, I find I must constantly be looking up words. And I know that if I would simply do a little bit every day, my Wortschatz would grow of its own accord. But to try and read something and have to look up every third word is, not to put too fine a point on it, frustrating as all hell. But if I’m ever going to get beyond my present level, I shall simply have to do the hard work.
And yet, I’m working hard already, I say by way of brining it back around. I make the time every day to study Hebrew and/or Greek and/or to write. Surely I can make the time – a mere 20-30 minutes – to grind through a bit of German; until it stops being a grind at all.
So who am I? I ask again. And I find that “teacher” is too narrow, even if it fits seamlessly into all of the other things I’ve just touched on. “Academic” sounds nice to my ear, but I don’t have a PhD, much less a University position, much less do I publish academic articles. So that’s out. “Intellectual” sounds pretty good to my ear too. But I think calling oneself an “intellectual” sounds a touch arrogant; though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t facny the idea of other people seeing me that way. But two steps down from “academic” and one down from “intellectual” we find “dilettante.” Which, let’s face it, sounds a bit foppish.
Nevertheless, dictionary.com defines dilettante this way: “1) a person who takes up an art, activity, or subject merely for amusement, especially in a desultory or superficial way; dabbler. 2) a lover of an art or science, especially of fine art.” Foppish though it may sound, that does seem to fit the bill.
It also seems to match up pretty well with who my friends are here. And we must add, that however much time I spend on these pursuits when I’m alone, I am also a social creature. Or, at least, as social a creature as a misanthropic sonofabitch like myself can reasonably be expected to be. But as I say, look at my friends here.
There’s Zibs & Jan, who all along I’ve been referring to as my “intellectual” friends. And Annett and Jan, my “artist” friends. Also an artist, my friend/conversation partner/stranger-in-a-strange-land comrade, Anne. And Joschka – who, along with Dale, is one of the most effortlessly brilliant people I know – is a computer programmer by trade (which is both an art and a science), but also a music lover. And I don’t know how you classify the person you can drunkenly talk politics with over a game of chess at 3:30 in the morning, but “intellectual” has to come pretty close.
Now, admittedly, who my friends are here in Berlin owes as much to accident as anything. And yet, you’re always going to be friends with the sort of people you’re going to be friends with. Which, I grant you, is tautological. But I have to admit, I’ve really lucked out in that department. My friends match up really quite well with the person I think I am, the person I’m trying to be.
So, finally, to answer the question, “Who am I?”, well, I guess “dilettante” is the best I’m going to do for now. Maybe one day I will have the good fortune to be able to add “father” to that. But that’s a question for Κλωθώ, Λάχεϲιϲ καὶ ¨Ατροποϲ, who are the Fates, for you lay-people.
So much for that bit of self-indulgent solipsism. I’ve been wanting to put down some thoughts about living in “the East” for a while now. So let me hit on that for a bit.
The thing that strikes you about East Berlin in 2017 – or that strikes me, anyway – is that there’s a certain degree of romanticization with the whole thing. In fact, German even has a word for it. Because of course it does. The word is Ostalgie, which is a portmanteau of Ost and Nostalgie – ‘East’ & ‘nostalgia.’ It’s not a just a vibe, it’s something that’s actively marketed. As a transplant who’s only been here a scant ten months, I surely can’t cover the full semantic range of this word. But it seems to be a fondness for a bygone time, a bygone way of life, when (and obviously where) things were simpler.
For example, we still have the tram here; which was torn up in West Berlin after the war. And trams/trollies/street cars are romanticized everywhere: Brooklyn, Roger Rabbit, etc. They’re seen – I think – as symbols of a time from before Big Auto remade our cities for the worse. But anyway, my first impression of the tram was a positive one. I like having the tram around. And the fact that it’s only in the East, well, that’s kinda cool. And while it would be silly for me to self-identify as an East-Berliner – whatever that even means in 2017 – it’s nevertheless where I live. And so I want to find things I can like about living here, things I can be proud of, even. The tram, generally, is one of those things.
Hell, even the pickles have been made into…well, if not a big deal, then, at least, kind of a big deal…or, at the very least, a deal. If you go to the right shops, you can find Spreewaldgurken, which – to my understanding – are held to be a holdover product, one of the few consumer goods that was born in, and subsequently survived, the DDR. Like, “Whoa, actual communist German pickles! That’s so oldschool!”
Ugh, fucking hipsters ruin everything. But that’s what it is, though. It’s the hipsters that have created this cool “vibe” around The East. Because here’s a thing I’ve learned. (Or, at least, an observation I’ve made in my limited and self-selecting experiences). There’s three kinds of people, when it comes to The East.1
First, there’s the hipsters, just mentioned. Either transplants like myself,2 or else just people who, even if they were born before the wall fell, are nevertheless too young to have any meaningful memories of what life was like in the DDR. These people can cherry-pick all the nice things and dither around in rose-colored nostalgia.
Then there’s the people who actually lived in the DDR, and hated it. Hated the oppression, the spying, the economic stagnation and lack of opportunity.3 With them, go the people from The West. Though obviously they don’t have the same emotional investment going on. I’ll give the example of two former students: one grew up in the East, one in the West.
The one who grew up in the East, man did she hate it. Any time I’d ask her about it, she’d make a face and say it was terrible and immediately try and change the subject. In fact, I was able to learn very little of substance from her on the topic, so unwilling was she to speak of it, so bitter (apparently) were her memories. But that’s not nothing. Her visceral, emotional reaction to the subject of “East Germany” spoke for itself.
My student from the West comes at it from a totally different perspective. I’ve written about her before. This is the one who gave me a map of the city and a list of things to check out in West Berlin; the one who gave me a book before I left for New York. Apparently she had family in the DDR. She told me stories of how difficult it was to travel between West & East, how you’d have to change your money at bend-you-over-a-barrel rates. And she told me that when her relatives would visit, they would give them oranges as gifts. This struck me.
It struck me, but apparently I gleaned the wrong impression from it. I understood this as, “Shit, how bad must life be in The East when something as simple as a fucking orange becomes a meaningful gift?” However, when I mentioned this to Joschka, he told me that I’d had it all wrong. It wasn’t a question of life being bad, he said. It was simply that you couldn’t get oranges in The East; it was a novelty. No different than a uniquely Chinese food product that you can’t find in America. It doesn’t mean life is bad in America. It just means you don’t have access to that particular product.4
I mention this thing about the oranges to illustrate the point that my impressions are, per se, superficial. I don’t have – I can’t have – the full picture. When I report my impressions here, that’s all they are: impressions. It doesn’t mean they’re invalid. But we – I the writer, and you the reader – should always be aware that there may be more to the picture than I can see.
Anyway, I asked her once – my West German student – if, growing up, she thought of the DDR as a different country, the same way she might think of France, or Italy or China; or if she conceived of one Germany that had had a division forced upon it from the outside. After all, as an American, born in 1981; as a metic living in Berlin but not a proper Berliner (and certainly not a German); after all of this, I say, I’ve only ever thought of Germany.
Germany as an idea, as a country, was always, for me, a simple fact. America was a country. France was a country. China was a country. And Germany was a country. It was just that, after the war, we split them up for a while, as a precaution. A unified Germany always seemed to me to be a fait accompli. Nevermind the fact that I actually remember my father sitting me down in front of the TV and making me watch the wall come down, because it was “important.”
All to say, that’s what I was bringing to the table when I asked my student how she saw things. And her answer surprised me. For she told me that, to her, the DDR was a foreign country, just as surely as China was a foreign country. Yes, she happened to have family there. Yes, they also spoke German. But they speak German in Switzerland and Austria too. Fine. The point is, you had Germans in the DDR who hated it. And you had Germans in The West who thought it was sufficiently different as to be a genuinely different country.
Then there’s the third group. These are the people who genuinely liked the DDR. Some of them even want it back. And that’s a whole different sort of Ostalgie. To them, life was better. You were guaranteed a job, even if it wasn’t something you wanted to do. You were guaranteed a home, even if it was a boilerplate Plattenbau. You were guaranteed a car, even if it was a shitty Trabi5– which you might have to wait years for, not for nothing.
I’ve never met any of these people. But I’ve read about them. I’ve written previously about a former student who was studying “memory and the DDR.” We read many articles together about people who miss the “good old days,” as improbable as that may seem. Most of them missed the DDR for the reasons given above. But we also read about people who were part of the system. People who were either outright Stasi informants; others who would simply benefit from an anonymous tip at their neighbor’s expense. Look, I won’t split hairs. To my mind, it was a twisted system, and good riddance to it.
But there were people who profited by it. Well, there’s people who profit by any system. More troubling to me, there were people who did perfectly alright by it. And many of these people are not doing alright by the current system. At the risk of injecting my own politics into this – which as I rule, I try to avoid – we’re all getting screwed by the current system. But to me, that means, fix the current system in accordance with the ideals of free speech and economic mobility. I’m troubled by people who recognize that they’re getting screwed but who then think that the answer is totalitarian government enforcing a minimum baseline of survivability hand-in-hand with a secret police that promotes neighbor-on-neighbor, even family-on-family, surveillance.
So no, I don’t personally know any people like that. But I know they’re out there. And more to the point, they’re out here. In East Berlin, where I live. In Köpenick, where I live. Hell, apparently the NPD – the current day Nazi party – has their headquarters in Köpenick. And no, I’ve never seen it. I’ve never seen any public displays of rightwing activity here. But it is here, all the same. And in a broader sense, the right-wing nationalist stuff tends to be concentrated in the East. AfD, for example, is big in Dresden.
And so, fairly or not, I do walk around my neighborhood with a bit of a skeptical eye. Especially when I look at older folk. I do wonder, “Have you lived here your whole life? Do you miss the DDR? How do you see the world?”
I also wonder, why is it that nationalism takes deeper root in the East. I mean, sometimes I wonder, “What does 60 years of Gestapo and Stasi do to a people?” And I know it’s not fair to paint with that kind of broad brush, to look at old people on the street and just start wondering. But sometimes it’s hard not too. It’s got to warp people, doesn’t it?
But then I look at people my age. I have students, my age or younger, who’ve lived their whole lives in Berlin. Some were born in East Berlin before the wall came down. And they seem to be entirely unaffected by it. For them, Germany is Germany and they don’t know anything about the DDR; don’t care to, even. So even if it has somehow warped the older generations, young people seem to be remarkably free from it all. And that, I think, is a great cause for optimism.
I surely have more to say on the subject. But what’s the rush. I’ll no doubt return to this in a later post. This, at least, gets down some of the impressions I’ve formed of the whole East/West divide, to the extent that it exists at all; which, as I hope I’ve shown, is no sure thing. But politics is a shitty note to end on.
So I’ll close with this. Of the six tomato seeds I’ve planted, five of them have sprouted. Not much, so far. Just tiny little sprigs of green with two tiny little leaves at the ends. And I know that for people who normally do this shit, it’s totes nbd. But to me, it’s amazing. You see them stretching towards the window during the day, leaves wide open. But at night, those little tiny wings fold up and their stalks straighten out. Nature is incredible. They’re actually growing, right before my very eyes. They’re alive!!!6
I showed them to Marco and he was quite pleased. But also cautious. It’s a good start, he was saying. But it’s far too soon to tell if we’ll actually get tomatoes from them. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Nevertheless, it’s 10,000 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean a good start.
It’s still a bit chilly here. Spring hasn’t quite sprung yet. But maybe my tomatoes have. So here’s to finding out what you’re going to grow up to be. Here’s to growth.
- Three kinds of people? That’s a nice break from the usual, “There’s two kinds of people” duality that we construct around every blessed issue. [↩]
- Though, “No hipster am I,” I say defiantly behind my overgrown beard and stupid hat, disproving myself in the very act. [↩]
- As they see it. [↩]
- This, btw, is why I loved living in Chinatown. [↩]
- The Trabant, as I understand it, was basically communism in car-form. Ugly and underpowered, yet practical and utilitarian. There was only one model. Everybody got the same damned car. I once passingly insulted the Trabi to another student of mine (roughly my age), and she chastised me for it. If I understood her correctly – and I’m not at all sure that I did – what I derided as nothing more than a jalopy was, for generations of Germans, something to aspire to. [↩]
- Where’s Colin Clive when you need him? [↩]