An American in Berlin
The Overdue Edition
Disclaimer: I’m somewhat ambivalent about posting this piece. My family is dealing with some things right now, and it’s brought me to some emotions that are a bit raw. I struggle with the question of making them public. I can only hope that the people I love will find something, well, not comforting, but at least worthwhile.
Shit. How long has it been? November was an interesting month. Which, I suppose, is something the whole world can fucking say. Hashtag Trump.1 But for me personally, November was an interesting month, to say the least. Much has happened since my last post, which apparently was published on October 20th.
On October 20th, I was still living at the Airbnb in Neukölln. Maybe that’s where I ought to start this post. I probably should put a bow on that whole experience. Well of course I’ve never had anything but good to say about my time with Anja and Mischa. I stayed with them for two months last year. And this year I stayed with them for something like three and a half months. And they’re hands down the best hosts you could ever ask for.
But if I’m being honest, it was starting to feel a little tired by the end. Or maybe the better way to say it is, I was feeling a little tired at the end. What I mean is, that’s not a reflection on them in any way. It’s just that after so long a stay, I was getting tired of feeling like a guest. And that’s what I was there. A guest. And my life changed quite a bit over that time, right? When I re-arrived in mid July, I was still on vacation. I wasn’t working. Not as an inhabitant of Berlin, anyway, though I was still collecting the last of my paychecks from New York.
But by the end, I had already started teaching my first class as English teacher in Berlin. It was time to get my own place. It was time to make my own way. Time not to be a guest anymore. So I thank them with all my heart for every kindness they showed me. And I love them, I really do. I hope they will be a part of my life in Berlin going forward. But I’m glad now to be out of there. Glad to finally be making it on my own.
The only thing is, there was a whole month between leaving them and getting set up here, in my own place. I’ll come to this latter point soon enough. But I need to say something about the last month, how it all played out.
Towards the end of October, I interviewed for a room in an apartment in Köpenick, which is in the east of Berlin. The interview went well. They liked me and I liked them. The only hang up – well, there were two hang ups – but the big hang up was that the room wouldn’t be available until December 1st. This meant I’d need to find a place for the intervening month. And the truth is, I would have stayed on with A&M were that an option. But in fact, they’d already booked the room to someone else.
Fortunately, Joschka was going to the States for most of November. So I wound up crashing at his place for something like 2.5 weeks. Before that, though, I had book a few nights at an Airbnb. Whereupon did I find a very nice room in Moabit, north Berlin.
Everything about this place was great, except for there was no Wifi. In 2016. Who does that? But the apartment was lovely anyway, and I had it to myself. And I’ll always remember this place, if for no other reason than this is where I was living when I finally got my visa.
Oh yeah, I finally got my visa. That was a nerve-wracking experience. I was fairly certain that I’d got all my papers in order. But I was fairly certain of this the first time as well, and we all know how that worked out. But in theory, all I had to do was show up with the new documents they’d requested and I’d be alright. Emphasis on “all I had to do was show up.”
What I mean is, I got the address for the visa office wrong. My plan was to show up a solid half-hour early, just to be safe. The apartment was walking distance to the address I’d found, and so I planned my walk accordingly. Only thing was, when I got there, it wasn’t there. Fuck me. OK, I thought, OK, let’s look at the map. Good, it wasn’t all that far. Or, it wouldn’t have been, if I’d had more time. It was maybe a 35 minute walk. Problem was, I only had 30 minutes.
Welp, I thought, much as I hate to do it, I guess I’ll have to call an Uber.2 Which would have been easy if I hadn’t run out of data. But since the apartment didn’t have Wifi – did I mention that? – I’d burned through all my data. So I had to rush in to a supermarket and buy some credit. Great. Then I had to wait for the credit to be activated. Also great. In the end, the data kicked in, I ordered the Uber and I got to the visa office in time. Not with the half hour cushion I was hoping for, but I wasn’t late.
The appointment itself passed without incident. But only just. She – the lady who would decide whether or not I would get the visa – asked for my proof of residency.3 I didn’t have this. It wasn’t even on the list of documents I was told to bring. They only told me to bring my sublease. Fortunately, I at least had the email showing I’d booked an appointment to register my address. It was good enough, thank the gods.4
Then she asked for my health insurance. Only the insurance I had wasn’t good enough either. But thanks to the lady who was helping me with my papers, I had a letter from the state insurance agency saying they would insure me on the condition of my getting a visa. This also turned out to be good enough, thank the gods again.5 And thanks to Anke, the woman who was helping me.6 For without this letter, I might have been screwed.
I guess I must have appeared a bit overeager. Every time the visa lady asked me for a document, I half got out of my chair and pushed a piece of paper in front of her, using my finger to underline a relevant passage. At one point she told me to relax. And I was like, “How can I relax, this is so stressful.” To which she replied, “It shouldn’t be. Everything is fine.”7 Which I took to mean she’d already decided to give me the visa, so long as there weren’t any truly serious problems.
In the end, that’s exactly what happened. She gave me the visa, good for two years.8 The only conditions attached were that I registered with the state insurance and that I was only allowed to work as an English teacher. Whatever. I got my visa. Huge fucking relief. Berlin achievement unlocked.
But that was just the beginning. I had the visa, but I still didn’t have my proof of residency. And here’s the thing about Germany. You can’t do a godsdamned thing without this Anmeldung, this proof of address. Most critically, you can’t get a bank account without it. And the thing about a proof address is, you need to have an actual address. Your buddy’s floor, or an Airbnb doesn’t cut it. You need an actual landlord – or at least, the person on the lease – to sign it. So I had to wait.
Somewhere around November 20th, I got Lucie – my new roommate/the person on the lease – to give me the appropriate papers. In other words, it was only last week that I was finally able to open a bank account. In other other words, it was only on Friday that I was finally able to collect my pay.
So I got my visa on the 2nd. I opened my bank account on the 22nd. In between, there were some doings back home. #Trump.9 And just as I’ll always remember where I was when I got my visa, I’ll always remember where I was for election night 2016; namely, Joschka’s flat. That was a Tuesday night. The next day I was scheduled to teach my first class for a new language school.
So I was already nervous about this. I would have had trouble sleeping anyway. But this was election night. The best I could do was to sleep for an hour or two, wake up, check the results. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. How was this happening?
Finally, my alarm went off. The day was a blur. The only thing I could think was, I can’t wait to get home and just get drunk. Which I did. But it was grosser even than that. Now look, I’m not normally the kind of person that eats when depressed. I’ll drink, sure. But I won’t sit down with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s just cos I’m said.10 But these were extenuating circumstances.
So I went to the supermarket and bought a bottle of whiskey. I also bought a box of chicken nuggets. And a box of frozen pizza. And a bag of chips. And I ate and drank all of it. And I felt gross. But also, I felt gross anyway. It seemed like the thing to do.
So that was that. I’ll save the politics for a different post, cos I’ve got a lot to say about that. I finished up my stay at chez Joschka and moved on to an Airbnb/hostel for the last 10 days of the month. The place was nice, and the lady who ran it was a doll. She even moved me to a bigger room, free of charge, after my second night. So it was OK. But I was still living out of a suitcase.
I tried to take the point of view that it was all part of the adventure. And I do feel that way. In one moth, I got to experience three very different neighborhoods in Berlin. But I was ready to move into my own room.
Which I finally did, on a rainy Thursday night. I schlepped my suitcase and a few smaller bags in shit weather over half the city to get where I was going. I waited 45 minutes for a tram that never showed. I arrived an hour and a half later than I expected. But I got there. And here I am. But I’ll come back to this later.
In the in-between time, I hung out with my girl Ziba and her husband, Jan. Zibs I’ve mentioned a few times before. But her husband is great, and the more I get to know him, the more I like him. Similar tastes in music, also a guitar player. Not just interested, but actually active, in politics. We’ve had now several in depth and very interesting discussions. I fancy them as my “intellectual” friends.
It’s a strange thing. My grandpa died in 1999. I still think about him all the damn time. By now – in our mid 30’s – most of us have lost our grandparents. But for me, not having my grandfather around, it only grows more and more poignant. The reason, or part of the reason, is, my grandpa wasn’t made to be a child’s grandparent. Don’t get me wrong, he was amazing with me. As a child, I adored him.
But he wasn’t the take-you-to-the-park, bounce-you-on-his-knee, made-for-TV grandfather. He was an intellectual. He was the patriarch of my father’s side of the family, and he set the tone which exists to this day. Namely that we value smarts, we value wordplay, we value science. He would take you to the park because you were an idiot child, but he’d rather play chess with you. When you’re seven, it’s maybe not so easy to appreciate this. When you’re 35, you wish you had the man around to bounce ideas off of.
But he was also a world traveler. And this I can only experience second hand, through other people’s stories. We all know he moved his family to the Philippines for work. But I’m also told that they – him and my grandma – would go on cruises and meet people from other countries and stay friends with these people forever.
Well what the fuck am I doing? I moved my ass to Berlin, I’m making it here – or trying to – as an English teacher. And it’s never far from my mind that maybe I’m walking in his footsteps. Ask me who I want to talk about my experiences with, and I’m gonna tell you it’s him. And I’m never not sad that I don’t get to do that.
If this seems a bit self-indulgent and tangential, well, it might be. But bear with me. I’m going somewhere with this. One of the stories that my dad has told about grandpa is that in his younger days he was probably a bit “pinker” than we might have guessed. That he had some communist leanings. I’m fuzzy on this. I expect my dad is fuzzy on this. I think his understanding is somewhat ex post facto. In other words, I think it’s more to do with things he learned after the fact rather than things he remembered from childhood.
And certainly from my point of view, from my memories, he didn’t strike me as a political person. He always struck me as a science guy. But ever since hearing such stories, I’ve not been able to shake this image of my grandfather as a young(er) man, holding quasi-clandestine meetings with like-minded lefties; debating issues of importance with an idealism that I can only match with cynicism bordering on nihilism.
Anyway. So there I am, sitting in a living room in Berlin talking politics with a left-leaning German. But I’ve always talked politics with my friends. What’s different is, this guy is a registered member of his party. He goes to meetings. And he’s idealistic. He wants to make a difference. He sees the world – and to some extent his country – going to shit, and he wants to do something about it.
And I listen to him talk, and it’s infectious. I’m cynical, bordering on nihilistic at this point, as I’ve said. I’m ready to throw my hands up and just accept that we’re all fucked. But not Jan. He thinks we can change things if we just get off our asses. And I want to go along for this ride. I even asked him to bring me to his next meeting. I’m starting to feel like, even if all I do is observe, I want to come back to America – whenever I come back – with something to offer, with something learned, with something experienced.
And this is where I’m going with this. As we’re sitting there in this living room in Berlin, not just talking about politics, but talking about how we can change shit, I can only think of my grandfather. Where was he when he was my age? What would he think of all this? Would he be proud of me? I mean, that last question is a funny one.
Ever since he died, all through college, and in everything I’ve ever done afterwards, I’ve always asked that question. At his funeral, my grandmother – unsolicited – told me he was only ever proud of me. But it’s not the same thing. From your parents you get unconditional love and pride. I could live under a bridge and my parents would find a way to be proud of me. They’d worry about me, but they’d be proud.
With my grandfather, though, that’s not quite enough. He was – and still is somehow – the intellectual giant of the family. It’s not enough to know he’d be proud of me because I’m his grandson. I want him to be proud of me on the merits.
So when I sit in a foreign country and debate politics and try to find a way in, I want to believe that I’m doing something he might have done. I so want to believe that this thing Dave is doing in 2016 isn’t just something Herb would have approved of, but that it’s something Herb himself might have done.
OK, I guess I’m taking this in a different direction than I’d originally anticipated. My goal was to just sort of capture the highlights of the last month, on which I’d till now written nothing. But this has come to a different place. Before I close, I want to talk about voice; a person’s voice and how it sticks in our memory.
All this talk about my grandpa, so much of it has to do with the stories we tell, the things we choose to remember, and how we choose to interpret those memories. But there’s one thing that sticks, one thing that is not so subjective. And that’s the person’s voice, how they sounded.
You can say a lot of things about the Starr family. We don’t do a good job of holding on to our hair. We have a propensity for toilet humor, possibly related to weak stomachs and an abundance of time reading in the bathroom. We value rationality over – even at the expense of – emotion, making us not the most demonstrative of folk. But one thing that stands out, one thing that sticks not just in the memory, but in the ears, is the voice. Big fucking voices.
Carol, who was as sweet and loving and caring a person as I ever knew, had this booming voice. The walls would ring with her smile when she greeted you. Gail, who I mostly knew as I child, had it also. Herb, my grandfather, was the father of these resounding hellos, and his rang deeper than all of them. And it’s not a question of volume. I don’t mean that they were loud people. Just that it rang through you like the tolling of a bell. And there was a melody to it. It would start high and cascade down over you like a waterfall.
Ida, my grandmother, was softer. But not less. And now Michael. I’m doing everything I can to hear his voice, to never forget the sound of it. I might never hear it again. But all of this is an emotional response. The actual sound – and I say this as a person with an overriding interest in language – is just as important.
There’s a nasal quality to it. It’s very a much a Brooklyn honk, though not the caricatured variety you find in movies. And the accent. Ida had this wonderful way of glottal-stopping, the likes of which you don’t hear so much anymore. Of course, the New York accent still has a strong glottal stop, right? I mean, nobody lives in ManhaTTan. We live in Manhattan.11 But if she needed her teeth checked, she wouldn’t talk about going to the dentist, nor even the dennist – as I might say – but rather the de’ist.
This way of speaking, it’s harder and harder to find. And nearly all the people I knew who spoke this way are gone or leaving. It makes the memories of those who spoke like that all the more precious. I don’t just remember my grandmother, I remember how she sounded. It’s as important as any other memory I have.
It makes me pay special attention to my dad when he speaks. He’s carrying something special that won’t be around much longer. I mean, people who live in Brooklyn now, they don’t sound like they’re from Brooklyn. Mostly because they’re not. I could easily name you ten people I know who live in Kings county; twenty even. None of them are from Brooklyn.
And maybe that’s what’s sticking with me the most right now. We can pass on stories and we can pass on photos. We can even pass on videos. But none of that captures the way a person sounded, the way their voice made you feel. If I ever have kids, I can tell them about grandpa. I can’t give them the sound of his voice.
I wrote earlier that I wish I could I talk to him and tell him about my experiences. I said I wished I could know what he thought of my life, to know if he was proud of me. But it may be that, most of all, I just wish I could hear him…
- Does it work, writing “hashtag”? Or should I write “#hashtag”? What’s the Dave Guide to Style have to say about this? [↩]
- There was no direct route by mass transit. [↩]
- In Germany, any time you move anywhere, you need to register your new address with the Bürgeramt – the “citizen’s office” for lack of a better translation. [↩]
- I say “gods” plural, but in this case, it’s most surely Ζεύϲ Ξενία. [↩]
- In this case, probably Ἀπόλλων and/or Ὑγίεια. [↩]
- A quick note on Anke, whom I can’t thank enough. She was recommended to me by Lisa, my roommate from last year. Her charge was €50 for our first meeting. More than I wanted to pay, but money well spent, considering I didn’t know a thing about health insurance in this country. After our first meeting, however, she was always happy to answer an email or talk on the phone, and she’s since helped me apply for the state insurance. She was even on standby during my visa appointment in case anything was to go wrong. In all that time, she’s never asked me for another dime. I can’t thank her enough. [↩]
- All of this was conducted in German, btw, which only added to the stress. [↩]
- I applied for three, and she just as easily could have given me one year or all three. Or, you know, none. [↩]
- This time I opted for the actual hashtag. I’m still not sure which I think functions better in “formal” written text. [↩]
- I won’t sit down with a tub of ice cream period, because lactose intolerance. But you get the point. [↩]
- Though the people that speak this way would hardly ever bother with the name of the island, referring instead to the city, or rather the ci’y. [↩]