Berlin #1

Just after my plane touched down at Berlin-Tegel airport, I wrote something embarrassingly trite in the leather-bound journal which I bought for this trip and have since used all of two times, mentioning that although I had never actually been to Berlin, my arrival somehow felt like “a return.” It was nothing more than an attempt to remind myself that my German roots really do exist – a literary bid to escape the discomfort of entering life in a foreign country. Needless to say, this vague romantic notion did not pan out. All plane landings feel like returns, as I would have remembered if I’d thought about my own with more composure. After nine hours suspended in a chilly box thousands of feet above the earth, setting foot on hard pavement and feeling the wind in your face will of course fill anyone with nostalgia. But that initial feeling of post-flight comfort, which I think can be called relief (relief to stand up straight without fear of reprimand or turbulence, relief to breathe real air, relief to escape the odor of the person sitting beside you), wears off in a matter of minutes. All too soon, the traveler must confront the fact that not all cities are the same, despite their shared virtue of resting firmly on solid ground. Relief is replaced by a grasping sense of uncertainty, however cultured or well-traveled one may be. In European cities, every-day phenomena can be shocking to middle-class American sensibilities: there is little air conditioning, cash is used more commonly than card, ruins and graffiti are everywhere, many people smoke cigarettes, water must be purchased in bottles, and dogs are not always kept on leashes. Americans struggle to feel at home in European cities; even as we are put off by their apparent shortcomings, we find ourselves unable to discern whether these shortcomings are indications of backwardness or refinement. Is sparkling water silly, or is it better? Our insecurity lends itself to a measure of self-doubt which at times borders on resentment. Attempting to explain your liberal arts degree to a German, for example, is like trying to advertise guided tours of Versailles to a Marxist. Are we permitted to sneer at the fact that European children must determine their career paths before finishing puberty, or should we instead laugh at ourselves for cleaving to such fanciful academic ideals, for embracing our cult of ambitious individualism? I should mention here that “fanciful” is, without a doubt, a word that describes me well. This is something I have been unable to ignore since setting foot in the decidedly un-fanciful city of Berlin. An admission: I listened to David Bowie’s “Heroes” – a song conceived in the artist’s pairing of Cold War Berlin and countless cocaine binges – on repeat for what seemed like the entirety of my flight here. How’s that for a level-headed beginning? By way of explanation, let it suffice to say that as a person of restless energy and a prodigiously short attention span, I am required to motivate myself to stay alive during long flights in the way I imagine other people have to motivate themselves to continue moving their legs during ultra-marathons. Eye on the prize, eye on the prize, and for God’s sake turn up the music: I allowed David Bowie to convince me that youthful romance, boundless creative energy, and very little else, awaited me in Berlin. When the captain announced our landing, I started “Heroes” over from the beginning, so that our plane would touch the pavement right at the song’s lyrical climax, when Bowie begins to scream: “I…I WILL BE KING. AND YOU…YOU WILL BE QUEEN. AND NOTHING…WILL DRIVE THEM AWAY. WE CAN BE HEROES…JUST FOR ONE DAY…” This obsessive listening ritual, along with my general disposition, prevented me from cultivating for myself any semblance of that bitch-slap realist attitude for which Berlin is so well-known (before I got here, at least). My own imagined kinship with this city came into being long before I flew in, taking its substance from the countless stories I grew up hearing about Berlin: dark tales from my German grandmother about her time as a refugee child in the devastated post-War capital. This long-standing connection with my Oma’s Berlin – a city which in truth no longer exists – did nothing useful for my arrival here, except to prevent me from reading any guidebooks about this place before I explored it for myself. All’s the better for that, I say; in my experience, bumpy beginnings make for a smoother ride in the end. And bumpy indeed have my Berlin beginnings been. I’d imagined myself walzing through the airport, leaping into a Trabant-turned-taxi, and jetting into the neon sunset, filled with currywurst and “Ostalgie.” Instead, I stood sheepishly on the sidewalk outside the arrivals gate, waving my hands with the other confused tourists while hordes of aggressive Germans attracted cabs like magnets, leaving us repeatedly in their dust. After several minutes of this indignity, I drew myself up and made sustained eye contact with a driver through the glass of her windshield, beckoning with my free hand while striding confidently forward, luggage in tow, hoping against hope that she would believe I deserved a ride in her taxi. She pulled up to the sidewalk and gave me an “okay” nod – my first triumph in Berlin. Little did I suspect that my newfound success was in peril. As the driver got out to stow my luggage in the trunk, a short blond woman descended upon us in a mysterious wrath, seething with indignance. It was as if we’d been caught stealing her car. The woman attempted to wedge herself between my body and the cab’s door; evidently, she had not yet secured a ride for herself. “Ich bin schwanger!” she screamed, her eyes widening with each heaving breath. “Ich bin schwanger!” At this point my German was practically nonexistent – her words evoked no meaning, sounding to me as fearsome and alien as the shrieks of Rome’s barbarian raiders of old, or perhaps the climax of a German-language World War II film. The driver rebuked our assailant in rapid, Turkish-tinted Deutsch, pushing me into the car and slamming the door behind me. I twisted around to glare through the window as we sped off, but the woman had already turned away. She bustled down the sidewalk with spartan haste, presumably having no time to waste before her next attack. The driver turned to shoot me a look as we slowed to a halt in the post-airport traffic, giggling as if we had shared a particularly juicy inside joke. “Taxi-Krieg!” she muttered under her breath. “These Germans, I tell you!” We began to move forward again, passing by the low buildings of glass and concrete that squat on the outskirts of the city. Curious, I opened Google Translate on my phone and typed in what I could remember from the words of my conquered enemy: “Ich… bin… schwanger.” A moment passed, her shrill voice ringing in my head, and then the translation: “I am pregnant.” The driver caught my eye in the mirror and gave a roguish wink – and off to Berlin we went.


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