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.

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