Whether people voice the question precisely that way or not, it’s a question almost everyone asks me. Not just my family and friends, but complete strangers here in Berlin, almost anyone I talk to who finds out I’m an American, people next to me in line, waiters and waitresses (sorry, ‘server’ sounds too much like ‘servant’), the guy renovating our hallway, the young lady working at the bakery down the street, everybody.
I especially feel like I need to explain this to Berliners. The big debate right now is about Gentrifizierung: all the cool kids, young professionals, graphic/fashion/computer game/everything designers, all the government workers and whathaveyou, not to mention the foreigners: the Russians, Polish, Balkan, Vietnamese, Nigerian, Turkish, North African, and worse, the British, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Americans, and even the worst of all: the Schwabian, Bavarian, Rhinelandian, Westphalian and whatever other ‘Wessis’ pouring in the city.
I am not one of these hated Latte drinking “Gentrifizierer.” I drink normal coffee anyway.
I didn’t come here because I got a great job, because I wanted to be a part of the cool scene, the art scene or the kinky sex scene, nor did I come to Berlin to work as a spy or diplomat. I didn’t come here to establish a mafia, sell cigarettes, drugs or life insurance, or to buy up the city’s water, telecom, power or real-estate. I didn’t come to star in a film, play in band, or to design dresses, hats, or a new building. I didn’t come here to apply for asylum, social welfare, a bank bailout or state agriculture subvention. I didn’t come to throw Molotov cocktails at police, march with Nazi’s, or to chain myself to the railroad tracks to stop radioactive waste transport, and did I come to lower your taxes, raise or lower school fees, save health care, or to nationalize Opel. I didn’t come to help Guttenberg write his doctorate, to travel with Westerwelle, to give Gerhard Schröder a job, or to help Frau Loetzsch establish Communism.
The answer to the question what I am doing here is a long story…but, basically, with the bizarre result that, as odd as it sounds, I studied Germany, the Germans, and the German language. I know this is odd.
I know because each and every time I have told someone this it immediately demands they ask the question “why German?” Do people who study Spanish, French or Italian get asked “Why French?” No, they do not (I have asked).
The fact is, while I have long regretted I didn’t interest myself in a country where the weather was a bit warmer, my interest in this once history-fucked, now modern melting pot, crazy country is based firmly in my life-long interest in the subjects of politics, history and why humans are flawed and stupid basically. At touch nihilistic, perhaps, but I still think“one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Er…yea. Let’s just save that philosophical debate for later.
Back to my point, I was Interested in human flaw, our penchant for self-sabotage, greed and violence, dictators, willing executioners, torture and I naturally bumped into Germany in my studies (See almost every century since written history began). So as anyone who studies German (and German majors are a wierd bunch), eventually I had to take sides between Prussia and the Hapsburgs and I went with Bismarck and Martin Luther, instead of Sauerkraut, Sausage and Catholics. (Sorry, beer drinkers and cliché lovers. Bavaria does have better beer and plenty of warm and fresh cliché, but who in their right mind would want to live there? ) I chose Prussia, and the capital of Prussia is Berlin. Simple enough logic, right? I came here because I fucking know about Germany. I studied it in college. I care.
Ok, I admit this is not quite the whole truth. It is the reason I like to tell myself. Honestly, I came to study German out of random chance.
For the record: It’s not that Germans are so cool. Germans are as stupid, or as swell as any other nationality. The long story is as stupid simple as I was touring Europe in a crappy rock and roll band and I fell in love with the Europe. Dutch women and Amsterdam, to be precise, but what I really fell in love with is cities. Big, fat, nasty, ugly, beautiful, skinny, twisted and wonderful cities. Europe was really my first time away from home alone, and I fell in love with how nuts Amsterdam. Frankfurt, Munich (of all places) and the few other cities we visited on a mostly backwoods tour of U.S. military installations for the USO.
I scored hashish right on the street, and unlike my experience in New York City, I actually got good hash. The Guitarist (I was on bass) got prostitutes and cocaine until he had spent all his money. Not that I was into cocaine and prostitutes, but it was the romantic idea of it all that had me. We went to museums and saw real Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso. The buildings were pockmarked with bulletholes. You could take the train anywhere. They let you drink in public. Piss on the street. A real city, man, like Henry Miller’s Paris. Rock and Roll.
After the tour, I was so taken with Europe I convince a bunch of friends to take a three month trip there with me the next year.
So when I came to Berlin on that trip the first time in 1996, not knowing a word of German other than for some reason the word “Fenster,” or ‘window’, I was blown away. I shit my pants, really…out of fear. It was winter and cold. The city stank, the people were unemployed and mean on the street, half the city was empty and in ruins, for example, the historical Potsdammer Platz was a field of rabbits, fifty years as a no-man’s land where the wall ran, there was a trailer set up with plans of re-building the famous intersection famous for having the world’s first traffic light. I didn’t even experience the nightlife or any of the “cool” side of Berlin, the first time I was here. The endless ruins, the Palace of the Republic, Alex, the Karl Marx Allee, The fucking Berlin Wall, Tiergarten and the canals, the Pergamon and Checkpoint Charlie, the skyline of endless cranes and the (for Germany) multi-cultural and cosmopolitan, New York City like, no nonsense assholes populating the city all captured my imagination…but then, on that trip, so did London, Dublin, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Venice, and Rome. Each of these places had their own madness and I loved each one.
The trip had sealed my love with Europe. With Holland specifically, as I said. Upon our return home I swore to myself I would somehow someday find a way to live in Amsterdam. I was a hippy with dreams! I wanted to own a coffee shop next door to Rembrandt’s house, weighing out hashish for a living, breaking off black hash with a shiny butcher knife in a some hole in the wall as the snow came down outside and the rolling base of the dub step shook the rafters and my Dutch wife would argue politics with the regulars, a mixture of old revolutionary fighters, French lawyers, African diplomats and American writers as I rolled one cigarette after another and kept everyone’s rum full, and they lived happily ever after.
A person has to have goals in life. This was my goal.
The first problem was I didn’t speak a word of any language other than English. I needed a language. At this pre-functional-internet time (1995) and unable to find any Dutch language learning tapes when I returned home, in Denver’s main Public Library, I settled for learning German, a close relative of Dutch in the language family.
Anyway, I was sick of rock and roll and thought of nothing better to do than start studying German, so I did what I at 18-years-old hippy had sworn I never would: I went back to school. Metro State College, to be precise, as a German major.
That’s why I studied German: because it’s vaguely related to Dutch, and I wanted to learn Dutch. And that’s just how random life is. In a nutshell.
Alas, apropos random life, at some point I went a bit girl crazy and dropped out of college, that went sour pretty quickly and in fit of madness I booked a ticket to Europe to get back to the life I had abruptly derailed six months before, but this time out of school and just trying to find something, anything. Amsterdam was like Kryptonite to me…I couldn’t understand a friggin’ word of Dutch; they even spoke English faster than I did…and after seven days there a voice deep inside of me convinced me to get on a train out of town. Perhaps saving my life. After visiting a friend in Florence and clearing my head in the Tuscan sunlight, I chose to give things a try in Frankfurt. Within two months I had a job and had moved into a basement apartment below a flat mate who would become my present wife.
Random life. But I still haven’t explained what led me then to Berlin? Right.
Frankfurt was nice, but we both wanted something crazier. We came to Berlin because we find Germans and Germany interesting, but don’t want to really live full-time in Germany. German’s are interesting…but actually living with them can drive you nuts. Make your hair turn gray prematurely.
Luckily, more than 25 percent of Berlin’s population is of immigrant background. But that doesn’t even reveal the truth of it. Berlin wouldn’t exist were it not for foreigners. A thousand years ago this valley, the Berliner Urstomtal, was a sparsly settled marsh. Indeed, anyone claiming to be a Berliner native is a liar. Be they imported workers since the City’s relatively late founding for Europe , around the mid 1400’s, or refugees from one of the endless wars in Europe, hardly a family has been in the city for long, and if they have been here long, at some point, at least one of their ancestors was raped by a Hun, a soldier of Napoleon, a Soviet tank driver, a KGB or CIA man. Indeed, no matter how deep their cellar, no one who spent time in Berlin since its founding can claim to have pure blood. To the point that Berliners, linguistically, don’t even have a dialect, they speak a “metrolect,” a mix of regional dialects and metropolitan language brought to Berlin from every city of the world.
Berlinerisch is the language I always wanted to speak. Humorously Berlinerisch actually is influenced by Dutch per the thousands of workers brought here to build things in the 1600’s. I finally did learn some Dutch. In any case, I have found my romantic ideal, my cesspool of whirling life.“With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else,” said Polo. “I have neither desires nor fears,” the Khan declared, “and my dreams are composed either by my mind or by chance.” “Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” –Italo Calvino p44 , Invisible cities
So what the fuck am I doing in Berlin?
Considering Calvino vis a vie Polo’s idea there, that cities answer a question, I’m trying to figure out what Berlin gives me for a response…and for that matter, what I want to know from Berlin. I’m not sure yet what the answer there is, that’s the excitement of the whole deal.
I have begun to analyse the environment first. Like Hippocrates said…“When one comes into a city to which he is a stranger, he ought to consider its situation, how it lies as to the winds and the rising of the sun; for its influence is not the same whether it lies to the north or to the south, to the rising or to the setting sun. These things one ought to consider most attentively, and concerning the waters which the inhabitance use, whether they be marshy and soft, or hard and running from elevated and rocky situations, and then if saltish and unfit for cooking; and the ground, whether it be naked and deficient in water, or wooded and well-watered, and whether it lies in a hollow, confined situation, or is elevated and cold… “From these things he must proceed to investigate everything else. For if one knows all these things well, or at least the greater part of them, he cannot miss knowing, when he comes into a strange city, either the diseases peculiar to the place, or the particular nature of the common diseases, or commit mistakes, as is likely to be the case provided one had not previously considered these matters. And in particular, as the season and year advances, he can tell what epidemic disease will attack the city, either in the summer or the winter, and what each individual will be in danger of experiencing from the change of regimen. –Hippocrates, On Airs, Waters, and Places, c. 400 B.C.
Considering Berlin, appraising its situation and how it lies as to the winds and the rising of the sun, that is what I am doing here. I am here for science.
Don’t hate me or fear me, Dear Berliner, I am here to study you, because you are a unique, special snowflake.
Here’s a few pictures from the last week of my work.