Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A letter

"Dear Mr. Martigan,

"In the 17 months since we acknowledged receipt of your application for the open position in Beirut working as an English editor, we have decided instead to fill that position by hiring Nobody.  We were very impressed with your credentials and are sure that you will find much success with another organization, but we simply could not overlook the opportunity to instead hire Nobody. 

"Although we don't want to point fingers, we do want to note the rushed timing of only having seventeen months to consider the application of multiple highly qualified individuals, including Nobody, so while we understand you may be disappointed, we trust you will reach the same conclusion we did, that as impressive as your qualifications are, you ain't better than Nobody.

"Very truly yours,


"The U.N."

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The political situation in Bangkok: A Thai-meline (oh gawd I'm so sorry)

... with a timely assist from The Talking Heads.

2001: Thaksin Chinawatra is elected Prime Minister on a populist platform, promising to help the poor, particularly in rural areas.

(The Bangkok middle class loathes him personally and thinks he's the devil. That is literally the only fact you need to understand this country's stupid politics entirely. Imagine the Republican party vis a vis Barack Obama, or Bill Clinton in the nineties, and multiply by---well, actually, it's probably about the same. There's posters of Thaksin committing incest with his sister, but nobody's accused him of murdering Vince Foster or anything. Mark it equal.)

2006:  Chinawatra wins reelection.  The country's constitutional court throws out the election results and installs a caretaker government.  The army completes a military coup while Chinawatra is out of the country.
2008:  Chinawatra's party wins the first election held since the coup.  The military junta declines to observe the election results and stays in power.
2010:  Chinawatra's supporters stage protests in Bangkok demanding elections. 
2011:  Chinawatra's party wins the new elections; Chinawatra's sister takes power as PM.
2013:  Chinawatra opponents begin protests of the government.  Resignations of opposition MPs turn the government into a caretaker gov't.  Protesters occupy several government ministry buildings. 


January 13, 2014:  Chinawatra opponents begin their "Shutdown Bangkok" protest, designed to obstruct traffic and commerce in the capital and interfere with polling places during the upcoming election.  PM Yingluck Chinawatra is expected to be favored in the results.
February 2: 


In a victory for PM Yingluck Chinawatra, her (and her brother's) party wins the election, although results are not released for three weeks. 
March 21:  The constitutional court throws out the election results.  Sound familiar?

This week:
Monday, May 19:



Tuesday, May 20:



Wednesday, May 21:
 



Thursday, May 22:


 

 
 

 


[not featured:  easy jokes about Bangkok accompanying "City of Dreams," "(Sex and Sin) Sax and Violins," and "Love for Sale"]

Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Life During Wartime: Year-End in Berlin

New Year's Eve, or Sylvester in the local, comes but once a year, and as usual I really have no idea what I'm in for. Since I've come here, my most frequent observation has been of the traditions shared by Americans and Germans that differ not in scope but in tone. Buying groceries at a frosty open-aired hawk-market, getting a late Friday drink that eases lazily into Saturday morning—these things exist in America, but the essential character of the thing feels unmistakably, yet unvoiceably, foreign, as something I can nearly feel but can't hardly express. It's maddening that I've been here six months already and still can't put it quite into words, or never quite the right words.

Classes at the language school have been canceled more days than not this last week, as the year-end holidays approach, and my circadian rhythms have settled lazily into my new schedule of staying up for too much of the day to end and sleeping too far into the one to be begun. I excuse my own lateness for the few remaining lessons by telling myself that the shortened daylight hours must have a psychosomnological effect. This excuse is pretext in its entirety. But then the weather is cold, and a yule tree if we even had one would loom over no packages in shiny wrapping paper and cheerful ribbons, and the holiday spirit has seized me mostly in a fit of forgiving my own faults. I told the course instructor that I wouldn't be returning in January, using as an excuse possibility of work in Frankfurt, although I know by now that I'm not going to get it. I feel as though I'm being dishonest and even know enough by now that I could have begun, ich wünsche..., I wish I could come back next month, I wish I could be more certain about my plans at least, that I loved the class and never learned a language so quickly as I had here, but to pile on with sociable excuses and prayers would only compound the fraud. Ich wünsche für nichts.

Three months of these classes, and I still don't know whether that's the proper idiom. Like I said: Never quite in the right words.

The Roommate has plans to meet friends at a restaurant or club. I don't bother to pretend to be excited and ask lots of questions about it, and she doesn't bother to make up an excuse why she can't ask me along. She'd sent me an invitation to her Christmas party a few weeks earlier, which is I'm pretty sure her annual quota of Making An Effort. A few nights earlier I'd gotten told to drop by Marian's after midnight, once the fireworks have died down; the bartender was clear on coming by after midnight, and I got the impression that prior to that time the place was reserved for a private event. Everyone else whom I'd call a friend or even an acquaintance close enough for a party is out of town, many back in the States. Somehow this utter and entire lack of sociable options doesn't make me feel depressed or left out or even slightly constrained. I wonder if it's because I've always hated New Year's Eve, but there's really no way to tell.

It's been another sleep-late sort of day, and if my red wine hangover weren't enough to keep me indoors all day the wind outside is bitter enough to make up the difference. Fortunately, I have eggs and butter, rolls and mustard and cheese, and leftover stir fry and rice, so I don't need to go to the grocery before eating. Half a bottle of the dog that bit me is chilling on the balcony, too, so I don't need to leave even for that. I'm behind schedule all day, although since I don't really have anywhere to be or anything to do, I don't seem to notice it. Days like this it's easy to argue myself into rewatching Wire episodes and having a second microwaved cheese sandwich instead of going for a run and being prompt when stepping out to meet the night.

It's ten at night before I finally start running a shower, perhaps almost eleven when I've dressed in my first three layers. (Tshirt, collared shirt, turtleneck; the outer coat, scarf, and gloves would feel overdramatic before I actually leave the apartment. I've gotten a knit cap that comes down over my ears a bit, but from the cold I've taken to wearing the enormous DJ headphones, too, although I'm vaguely suspicious it's a bad idea when cycling through traffic.) The neck of the sweater gives off a comforting, unmistakable scent of winter, the subtle aroma that my mind tricks me into believing wool somehow gets when it's gotten wet from snowflakes instead of raindrops, faux-redolent with the imaginary whispers of cedar chips and coal smoke and pine needles; in my mind it smells the way the crunch of snow under boots sounds. I open the billfold before stuffing it into a pocket of thick-stitched black denim (ten euros), then look to the stashing place at the back of my sock drawer (nothing). I shall have to make it to the bank, it seems.

The Roommate's left long before I finally get around to it, so the apartment is impenetrably dark when I step out into the stairwell. If there's a moon, it's well hidden behind the clouds. Downstairs, the door to the back yard has blown shut, and I have to remove a glove to get my keys. I hoist myself onto the bike, which promptly slides under my weight and forces me into a halfways approximation of the splits. A week earlier a heavy snow had fallen on Berlin, the first of the year that managed more than a spare flurry, and for a weekend beneath freezing it seemed that there might be a white Christmas in the cards, but on Monday it warmed up again and the lovely drifts turned immediately to trickles of icy water and mounds of ugly slush. The snow fell even heavier the following weekend, though, and this time did not stop, nor did the temperature ever get back to zero. I looked at the weather report and thought I was looking at the wrong column of numbers, since the expected highs read minus four, minus seven, minus six. No, those were the highs; at night it fell to twelve or fifteen below many of the nights. And it kept snowing. By the fourth day it's piled up enough to cover every trace of green and gives the city a soft, pillowy feel everywhere except where regular foot or wheeled traffic has packed it down. When I turn onto the street, I'm nervous for the first time about traffic and manage to turn off my iPod without removing my heavy gloves.

I take the side streets, the smaller thoroughfares I expect to have fewer cars and pedestrians. It's a faulty strategy; there are no cars anywhere, or practically none, but Berliners have clustered on nearly every street in order to light off fireworks. For the first few blocks I imagine it's just a quirk of my own neighborhood, and not until the sixth huddle of pyromaniacs do I suspect that the entire city is like this tonight. There were fireworks perhaps most nights in the summertime, the final darkening of sundown in the west fought against by a defiant burst of fire on the eastern front, somewhere in Neukölln. At first I had probably thought them an officially sanctioned or organized display by the city itself, but by July it became apparent that they were mostly or all the work of wildcatters. Berlin is in this as in all social distractions a tolerant city. In America (I can't can't stop myself from making the comparison) such a display would require advance notice and a lengthy process of review, comment and appeal of an application to which no result was ever intended except to be bottled up bureaucratically until the elapse of the date of the requested permit. Here there wasn't even acknowledgment that it went on, no outward sign that a major municipal government might have some interest in making sure that its citizens are burned to death in a conflagration owing to negligent exuberance. Of course, Berlin's not been made of wood and paper for a century, so benign neglect is perfectly sensible. But so is New York City constructed of stone, concrete, and steel, yet anyone who's lived there knows the NYPD would drop you at Riker's even without a charge, simply because such a bare-faced offense necessarily strikes the orderly American mind as calling for--no: demanding an object lesson in the wages of stupidity.

That all, though, that nightly fireworks display over Neukölln, that was in the summertime. Then one saw fireworks explode only above the horizon of city buildings in the remote darkness. Now they're fired from all around. If not literally from every angle, they are erupting from street corners in so many directions that it makes as much as no difference. The first street past my grocery store—oh, charming neighborhood grocery store!—has become a free-fire zone, and immediately all my pleasant associations—fresh produce and warm dinner rolls being tallied by the women from the Kiez who never fail to respond "und auch Ihnen" to my mispronounced thanks—are rudely forced aside to make room for an imagined 'Nam flashback. I veer left to a smaller side street, hoping to find it comparatively emptier. Instead, I encounter a crowd of twenty-year-olds forming a battery of roman candles out of a snow bank. One of them drops a newly lit cannon—I'm convinced intentionally—and the first round whistles across the street and passes overhead, missing me by no more than a few yards. Grinning madly, he doesn't even wave or nod to signify that it was unintentional. I'm more unnerved than frightened, but I can't keep the image out of my head of a bottle rocket blazing in a perfect arc across the street and into my gaping mouth. I'm possessed by the sudden image of living out my days with tonsils scorched black and forever tasting of gunpowder, and I resolve to keep my mouth closed the rest of the way. This winds up being rather difficult when trying to pedal through five inches of slush, and I spend the rest of the trip breathing heavily through my nose to keep pumping my legs, carving narrow trails through street lanes covered with thick, wet, sticky snow.

I run out of narrow side streets and turn onto slightly broader thoroughfares, each lined on both sides with clusters of amateur arsonists. Groups of college students alternately handling roman candles and half-liter bottles of Tegernseer less-than-sternly face down Turkish families, the father instructing his pink-coated daughter how to aim a row of bottle rockets all at once while his wife barely tolerates his poor example. When I get to a neighborhood of taller buildings, say six stories or more of rough-hewn stone, with heavy imposing rooftops looming in the dim moonlight, the crowds have adopted a new game of aiming for an explosion over the tops of the buildings opposite. The fireworks do not explode above the buildings, but instead arc over and down behind them. I wonder what's behind those rooftops and how likely it is that none of them are made of wood or something else flammable.

Finally I reach Karl-Marxstrasse, the major road through Neukölln, and shit gets real. Crowds have assembled everywhere, and fire is leaping across the street in dozens of directions at any given time. Some arc their missiles over the opposing buildings, and some shoot theirs much lower. Still others seem to have no particular philosophy at all and simply point wherever it strikes them in the moment. The final hundred meters to the bank building is chaotic and senseless and bewildering and even though the air is cold enough that my glasses fog when I breathe out my nose the air itself is on fire.

I'm clumsy removing my scarf and gloves and retrieving my ATM card, and when I get out of the bank it's eleven fifty-eight. The street has grown so much more excited between five minutes before midnight and two minutes 'til that I expect some orgy of explosions when the clocks finally strike. But no clocks strike at all, or at least not here; instead the firefight merely continues. The crowd seems to have a sense of when midnight occurred and redouble their fireworks accordingly. I don't see anyone checking their cell phones or iPods, rather seemingly sensing the moment, perhaps from circadian rhythms or else from the unspoken wisdom of the herd. Either way, the night is crackling and bursting every other second; some of the larger groups have saved the best for last, or at least the biggest for last. I'm actually really impressed with some of them. Medium-rare terrified, too, of course, but impressed as well.

I wait on Karl-Marxstrasse perhaps twenty minutes after midnight before heading north again. The party shows no sign of slowing as I leave it. People see me peddling almost impotently as my tires slip in the snow, and they point and laugh, or else shout something I can't make out, or else shoot fireworks at me. Each time a missile cruises past my head I find I can't even tell if it was intentional or not. Neither answer would surprise me, I conclude, before catching myself and realizing that neither answer makes even the slightest bit of sense, or at least wouldn't in any context but this. Traffic has reappeared and it becomes slightly perilous to navigate in the narrower streets. I'm wearing my huge deejay headphones to serve as ear warmers, and before I make it out of Neukölln I have a minor catastrophe as the headphones slip down over my eyes; I try to return them to their place but start to lose control of the bicycle instead. Eventually I manage to get them back around my neck and suffer earlobes that quickly freeze red. With my ears finally uncovered, the city becomes a swirling river of sound; the cracks of exploding fireworks continue but now feel imminent, intense, almost sharp. There's something that could be singing off in the distance, or it could be shouting, or it could be the whistle of festive ballistics.

I approach Kotbusser Brücke certain the night can't get any more surreal. And perhaps it doesn't, not exactly, but I still have no idea what I'm in for. Along the Spree, more fireworks going off from both sides. The river is partly frozen, but not enough to stand on (as it will be in another week). The cannoneers on both sides ricochet their rockets along the frozen surface; skipping stones as painted by fire. When I get to the bridge, an enormous crowd has massed, clogging the sidewalks and eventually annexing one of the traffic lanes as well. Right as I arrive, a burning globe escapes into the air, going straight up. At first I can't make sense of what I'm seeing; a large paper lamp, or perhaps it's a kite of a wintry sort, has been released into the air, a fire burning on the inside heating the air enough to loft it farther and farther upwards, sending it listing breezily over the city skyline until I lose track of it, and it merely twinkles somewhere forever away, the most recent addition to a sky full of stars. Minutes later another kite swoops slowly over the river; this one is shaped like a goose and is even more beautiful than the last. I wonder whether this one is self-propelled somehow, like the paper lamp, or else merely gliding, when it flaps its wings and I realize that it's one of the real geese who live in the Spree. The crowd mostly abates their fireworks as the bird passes, terrified and uncomprehending, giving proper perspective to my own out-of-place nervousness.

A gaggle of Russians seem to have reserved Kirk Royale on the corner. From where I'm standing, I can't see much of their faces, but every glimpse suggests that they're all unbearably gorgeous. An earlobe like that couldn't possibly belong to an ordinary-looking woman. Such a minor arc of a chin in profile of course is attached to a face like a diamond. But she never turns and the fruits of my imagination is all I have. Over my shoulder I hear someone approaching, and as I turn to see a trim, muscular man in a well-tailored suit, I make out a few words in Russian. <<Mui khotim,>> he says into his phone, and as he passed farther I can't make out any more of what he's saying. It seems appropriate, his syntax amputated into barely articulated, intransitive desire. "We want." They want. Still talking on his cell phone, he crosses the street without looking for oncoming traffic and puts his other hand onto the small of a back of one of the gorgeous blondes. She smiles at him, and after they watch a little while later they return to the bar shivering. <<Ya khochu,>> I think. I want.

Kreuzberg used to be a working class neighborhood, or at least that's my understanding, but it became hip since the Wall came down and now is predominated by young people of means. It's also largely Turkish, as is Neukölln, and the Turkish Germans seem to regard the fireworks as a family event. This is not like Fourth of July in America, however, or not like any of them that I remember, with stern-faced patriarchs keeping a nervous eye on the preadolescents fumbling with sparklers. In the U.S., every family event retained its common, domestic theme, no matter what the event actually concerned. Among the Turkish families, however, the domesticity gets subsumed under a manic urge to blow shit up---an urge desperately shared by the members of the older generations who really ought to know better. The rest of the city addresses the holiday in typical, orderly German fashion; in Schöneberg, for instance, the law imposes no restrictions and the only limit one one's celebration is adult supervision. Here adult supervision is furiously egging the whole spectacle on. It's not the first time I've become sentimental about my neighborhood, but I have to say it out loud: I really, really love it here.

Both sides of Kotbusser Brücke have run out of fireworks and are becoming antsier. A snowball starts between those assembled on the two sides of the bridge. Taxis roll and slide slowly past and are spattered with snowballs. I don't know if they hit the car windows because they missed their targets, or because they hit them. Beyond the geese seem to have settled down as the fireworks have quieted, now swimming in the few unfrozen portions of the Spree. (The next week while running I will see one that seems to have lingered too long and became frozen-in.)

A Späti is open and I grab two more bottles of beer; on the way back down the block I see my friend the bartender. He gives me a hug and tells me to come inside, which I do. I spend the rest of the evening among friends, comfortably tipsy as befits New Year's Eve, and even get to chat with a pretty blonde friend of the bartender. (My embarrassingly bad German seems to pique her curiosity, like I'm a restoration project. It isn't until much later that this strikes me as an essentially German attitude to have.)

I don't really have a way of winding this up, so forgive me if I ramble. I've just read the Harry Potter books and have been thinking about children's fiction, fantasy stories like The Black Cauldron and The Hobbit and the like. I've never been entirely comfortable with that kind of children's book, as it's always seemed impossibly cruel to me in some way. You know a kid exposed to Hogwarts or Middle Earth or Prydain is going to compare his own stultifying reality to the fantastical alternative in his new best-friend-in-multiple-volumes. Real life isn't just going to be a letdown after that; it's going to be a minor-league existential crisis, and one at the age of nine or ten. When I was a teenager I thought this way, and then I grew up and I learned that becoming an adult means this impossible cruelty happens no matter what you read, that the beliefs of childhood are more or less all lovely dreams that, for your own good, are necessary to be punctured by the continued education of early adulthood. I can still remember what it is to believe in magic (this is of course a theme I've been thinking of recently), but such recollections come dressed in mournful tones, with the precedent knowledge that such belief is all childish delusion.

And yet tonight I saw a papier-mache flyer sent over the River Spree turn into a real living goose before my eyes, on a night when the skies above all the streets of the city sparkled with the light of one hundred-thousand shooting stars. All of this is perfectly predictable to my new neighbors, and also those people who live up north and shut in early and frankly consider this night something to be endured. And twice or more I had to remind myself to keep my mouth from falling open in wonderment. I had stopped gawking at open air markets and parties held in unattended city parks by the end of summer, but Berlin kept finding it in herself to amaze me in tiny new ways. Tonight was the newest, and by far least tiny of such ways. It was perhaps an exceptionally well-timed reminder, as funds draw low and job opportunities disappear and I wonder if this was all such a good idea after all, that what I've discovered to be the real reason for my coming here was one I didn't discover until after I'd come.

(Approximate route.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bauhaus

On Sunday a friend suggested a day at the museum, prompting the recollection that the Bauhaus exhibit[link] had come highly recommended, spurring me to look it up online, all of which was precedent to my discovery that Sunday was, in fact, the last day the exhibit would be viewable. I already missed Bar 25, which closed in between IMs and whiny demurrals to the effect of "let's go next week," and I'd come close to repeating the error with this one, too. (I don't think I'm really getting the hang of this thing, whaddya call it, "being a grownup.") We arranged to meet at the front stairs (I'd never been there before but she assured me there's only one set of stairs, so there'd be no possibility of us waiting on the other at different locations) or, failing that, in the bookshop.

The conspiracy of a dozen little emergency meant I ran late, really to the point of inexcusably late. When I got there, there was indeed only one entrance visible, but I was hard pressed to call a staircase, instead (as you'd expect for what is, after all, the Bauhaus museum) a long winding ramp that seemed to approximate a mobius strip as much as a staircase. She was, natch, nowhere to be seen, so I entered and looked for the bookshop, hoping as I descended and got an impression of how vast the place actually was (and therefore how hard it'd be to find her if she'd already bought her ticket) that she had put up with my inexcusable tardiness and waited in the bookshop.

(She hadn't waited in the bookshop.)

Hoping against hope I checked the entrance again, then the bookshop again, then decided to take my chances that I'd find her on the inside. I asked the woman selling tickets if she'd perhaps seen a woman fitting the description of my friend.  

She looks at me like I'm putting her on.  No, she assured me; she hadn't seen anyone come in today.  I tried to get my surprise across in rudimentary German---I had been told this was such a great exhibition.  But then, I realized, looking around at the large, empty white walls that formed the entrance hall, perhaps this was one of those things that was quite cool for architecture buffs but dreary for everyone else.  I myself found the initial glimpses rather uninspiring; for a museum, there just was a bizarre lack of anything to look at.  I realized this might have played into the philosophy of functionality rather than ostentation that was really all I knew about the intellectual motives behind the architecture movement, but it just seemed a disappointingly restrained spectacle.  

After minutes of pursed-lipped confusion, the ticket-seller's face lit up with realization.  "Your friend; did she say she wanted to see the Bauhaus exhibit?"

As if there were a stupider question, I said to myself.  Yes, I told her, trying not to let on my irritation. That's why I came here. I asked, since I wasn't sure but had heard, whether it was really the last day the exhibit was open.

"This is the Bauhaus archives," she told me, speaking very slowly so I understood. "The special exhibit is in the Gropius building."  I stared blankly until she showed me on a map; I had come to the entirely wrong building, about 5 kilometers away by bicycle.  The special exhibit was in a much larger museum; the building I'd come to was the Bauhaus Archiv, more analogous to a library than a museum.  And today it was more analogous to an empty library, since nearly all of the interesting pieces had been removed in order to be displayed at the Gropius exhibition.  

I'm sure I looked very much like a man so mortified that courtesy demands a false show of reassurance, but it was evidently beyond her to disguise her amazement at my stupidity. I'm not blaming her, mind; it would have taken superhuman restraint, or at least natural acting talent on the level of a young Brando. Fortunately, the friend I was overdue to meet was evidently a special ed teacher in a former life, as she was able to say, in deliberately paced speech, that "You. Should. Not. Be. Embarrassed. That. Was. A. Mistake. Anyone. Could. Make."  Yes, I told myself, anyone could have made this mistake.  Except anyone who had bothered to find out where the exhibition was being held---a group that included perhaps a thousand people crowding into the museum on the exhibition's last day, in contrast to the utter desolation at the Archiv.  

Yeah. Not feeling too bright about this whole thing.   The exhibit was really, really fantastic, as expected, but I've really an inadequate background to summarize it.  One more of those things I'd somehow gone through life unbelievably ignorant of.  

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Rich List

I don't do politics here, but this is an interesting living-abroad crossover courtesy of Matt Yglesias.  I've gone from the 107,565th richest person in the world to 729,114,447th, and all I had to do was quit being a New York lawyer.

Wait... wow.  I'm suspicious of that first number, definitely.  

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Down and Out in DC and Berlin

I've never read that Orwell book, actually, but the title's been imitated so many times before that I may as well rip it off—er, show it homage yet one more time.

So an account of how I wound up here may deserve to be told, at overlong last, because although Miss XYZ may think it's a cliché, I find my own story endlessly fascinating. No, wait, unbearably depressing, I mean.

Berlin's the second world capital I chose to make home. I left New York a year before my arrival here. Well, a little bit less, between that great city and this one, I was bound to a one-year lease in a cut-rate backwater of a shithole named Washington, DC. The reason I moved there was to follow a woman. I quit my job in New York, found an apartment, looked for work in DC to no avail, and resigned myself to the situation. I got furniture and an upright vacuum and a ton of new kitchen appliances, learned some new recipes and started writing the novel, volunteered for last five weeks of the Obama campaign and applied for a job in the administration (along with 300,000 of my new best friends). But such are the things one does for love, I suppose. Anyway, love (for which such things one does) lasted a shorter time than the lease. And although I didn't have a job in the administration, I did get great tickets to Inauguration, and my newly far-too-spacious apartment was a convenient spot for campaign friends to crash, and we spent the extended weekend in the house parties of A-list political bloggers, reunions from Kerry '04 staffers, and of course the various inaugural balls. Somewhere along this line, I mentioned to one of the perhaps thousand people I met or was reintroduced to that I'd been thinking of moving abroad. Not for any particular reason, only that I hadn't done it when I was younger, I couldn't find a job here and had some money saved up, and I wasn't tied to New York anymore and once the lease ran out in May wouldn't be tied to here, either. [ed.n.: I almost said "tied hither," just there. Just in case any of you feels the urge to lodge complaints about the style and/or length of these posts, you know... could be worse. – x.p.m]

"Berlin," said the first, a woman with whom I'd actually gone to college, who responded without a moment's hesitation or indeed even letting me finish my sentence. "Go to Berlin. It's cheap, and you can make art." I don't believe I'd told her about the barely-started novel, but somehow it seemed more like she could sense something about me than that she'd had a lucky guess. I asked others, especially those who had lived in Europe, and the agreement was eerily unanimous; if I had loved New York, particularly the LES, I would love Berlin as much or more. And that was that, it seemed.

Berlin has a seemingly active Craigslist page, and as my German had faded quite a bit since high school to the point where job postings in the vernacular were positively impenetrable, I started looking for jobs there. Immediately I came away nervous, even distressed. Each of the offerings was directed to any local handyman willing to move furniture in his own van, or else for gigs writing and testing video game software. The video game postings were particularly curious, but I came to understand (or at least suppose; I never was able to confirm this) that Berlin's young-persons reputation had come alongside a burgeoning industry in young-persons' technology. I'd given up on video games shortly after the second or third Mario Bros. Edition and hadn't played so much as a single game of World of Warcraft, Myst, Halo, Portal, or any of the approximately twenty groundbreaking-slash-revolutionary-slash-inaugurating-a-new-era-of-gaming products that had been released between now and when I'd hung up my NES paddles. Either Craigslist presented an unrepresentative selection of jobs (not an unreasonable conclusion, given the likely user base), or I was going to be in trouble finding work.

My sister had lived here before, in another German city when she took a year away from college. She came, found an apartment, learned the language, got a job, all without trying or at least without seeming to. I'd asked her for advice on how to line up a gig before I got here, explaining my troubles with the Craigslist page, and she blew off the question. Not rudely, mind, but with the air that everyone adopts when asked questions about the secrets of special experience that can't be explained but only learned. (Pregnant women get the same tone. And Vietnam veterans, I suppose. Probably this should have been my first clue.) "Just go," she said. "You'll meet people, and they'll clue you into jobs. If you're American, you find work." Relieved, I decided to follow her advice. I got a particularly cheap ticket, limited my Craigslist searches to posters looking for roommates, and learned to stop worrying and love the potentially disastrous uncertainty of it all.

Much of the rest I've already told you. I felt absolutely no urge to find work when I arrived; summertime's too lovely in Berlin to feel much angst about anything. I had been astonished to find how cheap everything was here, and work would have gotten in the way of Freiluftfeiern and long afternoons biking through Trip't-over Park. I had enough money saved up not to worry for some time, so for some time, I didn't worry.

After summer came to its (temporarily abated) end, I started looking for work. I had met a lot of ex-pats through The Roommate, but they all worked for American companies doing internet-based work, and their companies didn't seem to have a lot of openings for more of the same. Miss XYZ and The Roommate's other friends had all assured me, though, that even though they couldn't recommend me specific places, that finding work in Berlin was nothing to get worked up over. "If you're American," they all said, echoing my sister's earlier advice, "there's work." In the meantime, I'd need to meet more Germans in order to find local offerings, so I determined that my first obstacle was the lack of German suitable to meeting a lot of Berliners, to say nothing of what I'd need to get by in a Berlin workplace.

The Roommate had recommended the language school where she'd studied, which would also support a student visa. You already know die Sprachschule from some of my earlier posts. They offer sections in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings; I signed up for the afternoon session, hoping soon to make a switch to the evening session once I found a daytime job. It's odd; I hadn't earned a paycheck for more than a year at this point, and while I enjoyed the time off, I was starting to miss the feeling of leaving the office after a productive day, the sort of vaguely tired warmth that settles into a man's shoulders when he locks a door behind him having finished something that was challenging but is now done, and which mattered. Without getting into it, the corporate law job yielded few such moments, but I wasn't totally unfamiliar with the feeling.

As I've said, a summer in Berlin makes it impossible to worry; work will come, friends are everywhere, and anyway it's 8:30 and the sun hasn't fallen yet. Fall, especially as it turns to winter, brings different feelings. The air was brisk, even chilly some days, and grew positively inhospitable on the particularly cold nights, which happened to be increasing in frequency. Sundown no longer came at nine, and then not even at eight, and it was hard not to observe the shortening days as some sort of comment on the narrowing window of sunshine on my darkening prospects.

Language courses had been fruitful. The classes were small-ish, at least, and I got plenty of opportunities to respond in spoken German that was getting rather capable; if I was clearly a foreigner who hadn't mastered all the complexities of the grammar and still had a limited vocabulary, I at least came off as someone capable of carrying on a conversation. Reading-wise, I'd been improving at least to the point where I could get through German language job-search sites with the aid of a dictionary (it's not necessarily as easy as it sounds). I had been checking job sites more frequently, once a day at least and often more, trying to find different googleable combinations of arbeit, American, rechtsanwalt, academic editing, schriftsteller, u.s.w.

The Roommate actually brought it up, asking one day how long I was planning on staying. She'd asked me before, when we met for the first time, because she didn't want to have to post the apartment again after only a few months. I understood her reasons immediately, but it still put me on the edge of self-doubt. The second time she brought it up, I had found a lead. I'd put my name in with a European recruiter who had just sent me a short email; an American company needed lawyers in Frankfurt to perform corporate due diligence on an acquisition target, which happened to be the only marketable skill I'd acquired in four years at the firm and also proved to be remarkably remunerative. Doing the math in my head, even after I paid for a two month sublet and my own meals, the six weeks of the gig would pay for six months of continued unemployment; by that time, I would have finished the German course and perhaps another hundred pages of the novel and in any event would have had six more months of chances to find an office job somewhere in Berlin. Plus, it would be summertime again; you all know my feelings on that subject. There was no guarantee I would get it, of course, but how many American lawyers could there be in Germany looking to relocate for six weeks in the dead of winter? One thing that did bother me was that the recruiter hadn't specified the level of German I needed, but since he asked in English and the target was an international concern, I supposed it was almost certain that it would involve enough English-language documents to support my hire, at least.

Miss XYZ was excited for me, too. I had gotten the feeling she'd started to think of me as a fix-up project, her bewildered and clueless countryman, arrived in the city she'd called home for years and which she knew like the back of one's hand. As funds drew ever-lower, I'd taken to spending more evenings sharing a couple bottles of wine at her place, a two-bedroom apartment that she shared with a Spanish twenty-something, who programmed computer games, and was far more impressively located and decorated than the one I shared with The Roommate. "Pat," she had sighed more than once, in the same tone as my sister had brushed off my question nearly a year earlier, "it's easy to find a job in Berlin." Odd, I found it, that having spent six months here, I still hadn't made it inside the club of expatriate Americans, that I still invited and deserved the kid-glove treatment of a novice.

But now I had the job opening to look forward to. It meant not renewing my class at the Sprachschule, since the job would start in January, and the current term ran out in December. "Ich hab vielleicht eine Arbeit gefunden," I explained to my teacher on the last day of the term, whose disappointed look I couldn't tell was in response to my poor speech or else because she genuinely wanted to see me back. It wasn't the whole truth, but I didn't want to say the rest; either I wouldn't be back because I would be working in Frankfurt, or I wouldn't be back because I couldn't afford to stay. Classes these days still ended before the sun had sunk beneath the horizon, but only just, and it was properly night by the time I made it home on my bicycle.

Holidays had meant an early end to classes for the month. The recruiter had put me off a few times already; the client wasn't sure about the start date and hadn't committed to the size of the team, so he was being dangled somewhat, but he gave me the phone number of his associate, with a Washington, DC, area code, whom I was to call the following week to see if new information was available. Before I called, I wrote a short list of points to discuss; I knew it wasn't likely she had any confirmation on when the job would be staffed, but I wanted to know if she expected that to become known soon. Also, I still hadn't found out whether German fluency would be required; I'd gotten better, a lot, in my short time of regular study, but no one would call me an expert, by any means.

I caught her when it seemed she had her hands well full with a pair of stay-at-home children, and the conversation was distracted for the first ten minutes. (This was my dime, and long-distance, but I kept my frustration to myself.) She directed the conversation most of the time, leaving me few chances to ask my questions, but out of deference to someone whose opinion of me was directly related to my economic situation, I followed along patiently. When it finally came up, the question of language skills was out of her question. I told her I wasn't fluent yet, but that I'd been studying and getting swiftly better, and I could probably get along in most office situations, but that I was concerned about reading documents in technical legal language.

"So, what you're saying is..." she said, unsure of the words that wouldn't sound too insulting but still elicit the necessary information.

"I'm not fluent," I repeated. "If I have to be fluent to do this job..." I wanted to leave off, as she had, but decided it would be cowardly. "In that case," I said, "I can't."

"Well," she said, pausing for breath, "do you mind if we speak German, so I can tell for myself?"

What followed was … well, humiliating might be the word. For three months, five days a week, I'd been able to follow along in spoken conversation with classmates and instructor, to the point where I'd thought of myself as among the top two or three students in the class, and here I was, incapable of speaking. She hardly conducted a thorough interrogation, going on for whole paragraphs auf Deutsch, explaining the job and her expectations of my language abilities, demanding nothing more from me than the occasional "Ja" to continue, and only occasionally pausing to ask me questions. When she did, I found myself unable to answer in German, horrified that although I'd understood everything she had said, I mysteriously was without any ability to respond in kind. I tried to remember whatever mental state I'd taken up in my German class and found nothing but trace ancient memories of terrifying childhood dreams of wanting to flee some unseen danger yet being frozen in place, as if trying to swim through amber.

"I'm sorry," I finally stammered. "I don't think our connection is that good, and I'm having a hard time understanding you." I cursed myself; I know the words to say that. Es tut mir leid, ich glaube dass unsere Verbindung vielleicht ein bisschen schwach ist. Konnen Sie sich langsamer wiederholen?

"The connection isn't so..." she sighed. "Also, ich glaub', dass du sollst noch etwas dein Deutsch verbessern—"

"Ja ja, ich auch," I said. It was the last word I remember saying; she went on in German, explaining that I should keep studying German, and perhaps the job would involve enough English-language documents that they could carve out that part of the job for me. I don't remember the last thing she said, or what I did, only that when I hung up the phone my head was buzzing and I couldn't think straight. What it meant for whether I could afford to stay, I didn't know and couldn't work out; I couldn't even think of how much money I had left in my bank account, and doing the math was for the moment something well beyond me. I set out for a short walk and midway through decided to make it a long one; on the way back I stopped at the grocery store for a handful of fresh rolls and some vegetables and cheese, plus a new pot of mustard. For reasons beyond explaining, even to myself, times like this I just want a sandwich.

When I got home, Miss XYZ had sent me an email asking if I wanted to come over that night. She suggested I bring a bottle of wine to share with her and the self-styled Oracle, a friend of hers I'd known precisely as long as I'd known XYZ herself (they arrived together at Volkerball, which is where we had met). The Oracle had run into problems at work and just had been let go. She'd been looking for work, but even with her comparatively broad network, she had found no success in her own job search. "It's just impossible to find work in Berlin," XYZ said when The Oracle was away in another room, putting down her wine glass in order to retrieve a smoldering cigarette from an ashtray as we sat in her imposing apartment's living room. "No one can find a job, these days." I said nothing, only nodded, and reached across the table to pour myself another glass. I don't remember how that night ended. Not well, I don't think.


Monday, September 13, 2010

It appears I wasn't nearly as original as I thought I was

Well, I didn't really ever think I was being original, but still.

Have no fear that this is an update in lieu of a real post; I have a larger post coming up hopefully in the next 24 hours.  The last one was the massive obstruction to all that comes after, so if I'm at all diligent, you should expect a new post once a week, maybe even more, while I catch up to present events.  Thanks for your patience, folks.