Capture the Flag

Being an expat isn’t all sunshine and croissants. It’s a lot of work.

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Tasks and errands that were easy back home are suddenly hard, and those that were hard are now even harder. And this doesn’t just apply to the big things, like doing your taxes (my current nightmare). It applies equally to the small stuff, like making a dentist appointment, or having your super come over to take a look at your faulty radiators, or asking for meds at a pharmacy because you’ve got the sniffles.

And it’s often not just a language gap (although I dare you to pronounce a single prescription label in a German apotheke), it’s a culture gap. You often bring your home culture to even the most miniscule, rote social exchanges, and it takes time and effort to master the smallest pleasantries of another culture. My girlfriend and I often get a kick out of the singsong melody that supermarket cashiers here use when wishing you a nice rest of your day. It’s almost exactly the same cadence and rhythm every time, and you could just about play it on a flute. (Tschüssi! Schönen Abend noch! Ciao!)

Stumbling through those dozens, hundreds of tiny social exchanges we as humans share everyday is tiresome and draining. The awkward, mis-timed cues and gestures; the stuttering and mumbling as you search for that foreign word to express your feeling, need, or intention; the internal shame spiral as your brain finally grasps that word and sends it deep into the end zone with the clock running out, but your butter-fingered tongue fumbles the reception and the word comes crashing down in a mangled heap. Trust me, this stuff really takes it out of you and sometimes makes you want to just write off the day and go to bed early.

Even when you’re operating in the comfort of your own language, which native English speakers are pretty much afforded the chance to do here in urbane, progressive Berlin (I guess actually learning akkusativ, dativ and genetiv is for the olds), you’re often bridging other gaps as an expat. Will your pop culture references and sense of humor land well with the group you just met at the bar? What about the cultural touchpoints that underpin your style of communication in the workplace? And, for those brave enough to forge a romance that transcends languages and cultures, do you have the stamina and wherewithal to continue bridging these gaps, big and small, with your partner on a daily basis?

Navigating these questions takes bravery, and I write from the perspective of a straight white American guy in a cosmopolitan European city, working at a very internationally-oriented company, with a considerable degree of fluency in the local language. When I think of expats and immigrants for whom any of the preceding conditions differ, I can’t even imagine how much bigger these gaps must seem.

But I firmly believe that the juice is worth the squeeze.

Just like in yoga, which uses meditative breathing and physical stretches and poses to create space and build strength in the body, I believe the very experience of being a foreigner, when you approach it with openness and curiosity, is a sort of cultural yoga. Through constantly reaching and bending and stretching, you create space and build a resilient and flexible psyche. (The key is to just keep breathing.)

Do you know what I mean?

Maybe not, but maybe that’s the whole point: making peace with culturally-induced ambiguity, and maybe even taking pleasure in it.

In my expat experience so far, my workplace is the best example I’ve got to illustrate what I mean. The startup I work at here in Berlin counts around 400 people in its ranks; a considerable size, but not so big that you don’t know most names or recognize most faces at our proverbial water cooler (it dispenses sparkling water, because #Germany). What’s much harder to keep track of, though, is where everyone’s from: our workforce of 400 is drawn from 50 nationalities. Five - Zero. That’s a lot of hometowns and accents I guarantee you’ve never heard before.

At previous jobs, Friday drinks were usually an awkward, stilted half-hour of uncomfortably sipping half an IPA and making small talk with coworkers, while everyone engaged in a covert race to dream up (or make up) a reason to slip out and get on with the weekend. It was, pretty invariably, a let-down. But when Friday evening rolls around at my current gig, and we meet in the kitchen for our weekly unwinding, people actually stick around, and I’ve found that I do, too.

Sure, yes, because the beer is free and German. 

But because the cultural exchange is as well. 

The Yankees’ playoff hopes don’t tend to come up, but I never leave work hoping they would have. Fridays here are a United Nations summit conducted over pizza boxes, with various delegations comparing notes, holding forth and telling tales from back home, wherever home is.

(Even the pizza preferences themselves bear observation. You can rely on the Brits and Americans to move decisively toward the meats. Germans have an inexplicable soft spot for tunafish and onions. The Italians will usually pick at some Parma ham and rucola slices, looking rather resigned in their decision to have settled in this northern, Teutonic food wasteland.)

The extra energy you have to contribute as a foreigner pays off in another way, too: it’s proven to make you better at putting yourself in others’ shoes, and imagining outlandish experiences and points of view with fewer reference points (or perhaps none at all). 

In a seminal study released in 2015, researchers from the University of Chicago showed that children who are raised in multilingual environments develop empathy earlier and more fully. As a proxy for emotional understanding, the study tested spatial reasoning: the kids who participated were asked to envision and manipulate objects hidden from their view, but visible to the researchers. Children who had been raised with exposure to multiple languages passed this reasoning test far more frequently than those who hadn’t. 

And take note of this minor distinction: These results applied to all children who had grown up around multiple languages, not just those who spoke those languages fluently. 

(Those kids also probably make more money. So, American parents back home, here's your takeaway: next time you’ve got the kids strapped in on the way to soccer practice, if you want to watch that sensible Honda Odyssey turn into a svelte, early-retirement Maserati before your very eyes, just fire up some Duolingo on the sound system. Or Muzzy the Bear. Does that still exist? I don’t know. My mom used to play us Yanni’s seminal Live at the Acropolis album on cassette tape, which I think came complimentary if you bought a green Eddie Bauer edition Ford Explorer between the years of 1992-1996…)

...Sorry, where were we? Right, benefits of expat-ness. The way I see it, there’s an ultimate benefit of all this uncertainty, a psychological participation trophy for still picking yourself up and dusting yourself off after years of awkward encounters at the bank or the supermarket or the post office. It’s a greater sense of yourself.

If society reflects your personality and essence back to you, then you’ll never see yourself so clearly as when you’re reflected in the surface of some foreign, unfamiliar pond. You’ll notice the ripples, the blemishes and what lies beneath the surface. You’ll learn how your reflection behaves when rocks are skipped off it, when strong winds warp and distort it for days at a time, and you’ll know that your essence remains the same beneath cultural turbulence. 

So if you’re thinking about making a leap of faith and becoming an expat, don’t be afraid. The gap between your present state and your ideal future might seem daunting, perhaps insurmountable. It’s more of a headfirst dive than a leap of faith anyway, and the water’s cold and bracing at first. But when you rise to the surface and calm comes again, you’ll be rewarded with a clearer view of yourself than ever.

Weekend Trip: Zürich

I knew my way through the airport, instinctively making my way down into the tunnels beneath to catch the express ride to the city centre.

I was immediately greeted by familiar sights:  the Mondale clock faces humming in perfect synchronous unison, the pint-sized Sprüngli shops serving even smaller-sized delights like Luxemburgerli from the confectionery geniuses better known for Lindt chocolate bars (the proper name of the company is Lindt & Sprüngli, but the latter brand seems to be something the Swiss keep to themselves), the sounds of station announcements calling for passengers to “Zürich Hauptbahnhof” in singsong Swiss German.

Big clock. Zurich, November 2017

Big clock. Zurich, November 2017

After a quick ride with my colleagues, we spilled off the train and on to one of Zurich Main Station’s aboveground platforms. My mental map of Zurich sprang to life, like some long-forgotten instinct: over here and to the right to the kebap place my friends and I would frequent after nights at local pubs once we were properly teenagers; just down the stairs to the only place you could get Ben & Jerry’s in town 10 years ago.

Passing through the main hall of the station, where the Big Clock stands vigilant guard over friends, relatives, and colleagues meeting up, I was reminded of the many times I met my own friends here so long ago: excursions in the city, movie outings, longboard rides, billiard nights, trips to the river or the lakeside.

I managed to find time for a walk around sundown, just before the party got going. The sunset over the Limmat River across the backdrop of the Alps looked as spectacular as I remembered.

Bridge over the Limmatquai. Zurich, November 2017

Bridge over the Limmatquai. Zurich, November 2017

Met Jules, her cousin and her cousin's husband in Oepfelchammer, a quintessentially Swiss old place with a name that translates roughly to “apple closet”. They were just wrapping up a meal served by Boris, the dutiful Kellner whose age seemed only to be surpassed by the wooden beams above our heads. These beams weren’t just a feature of the building; they were a feature of the dining experience: they presented a traditional and very strange challenge called the Balkenprobe (beam test).

To conquer the Balkenprobe, diners must lift themselves up and through a small space above the first beam, haul themselves with varying degrees of acrobatics across to a similar space above the second beam, then dangle from the second beam and drink an entire glass of white wine while upside down. The prize for successfully doing so? You get to carve your name into the wood within the room (the tables, the benches, the walls, the beams themselves if you choose) and be forever enshrined among the pantheon of idiots who have also done so.

We then went for a drink at the Widder Bar, with live music from an imitation Elton John entertainer. He was incredibly adept at manipulating multiple keys, synths, drum machines at once to play the classics, so effortlessly that we actually had to double-check that he was really playing and not just lip-synching.

Then, a short drive to the small, sleepy, Swiss town of Würenlos in the neighboring Canton of Aargau. Jules’ cousin’s place was spacious, comfortable and had a spectacular view to the south and east, toward Zürich, the Uetliberg and an eastern part of the Alps which could be seen in the far distance on a clear morning. 

Which we had the following day. We hopped a midmorning train back into the city, and set out on our way toward the Bahnhofstrasse, the toniest of Zurich’s many tony boulevards. My feet assumed a muscle memory that I hadn’t felt since my last visit to Zurich, five years before. Up this staircase, across these tram tracks, Davidoff cigar store to the left, Hotel Schweizerhof to the right. 

I took Jules past the twin department stores of Globus and Jelmoli, each with windows adorned with mannequins in svelte Euro-wear. A quick left, across the street and up a side street, and we began the upward climb through narrow cobblestoned alleyways and stairways to the Lindenhof, a hill that rises above the River Limmat. It was here that the Romans declared conquest over the local Celtic tribe, the Helvetii. (It’s this tribal name that Switzerland derives its official “CH” initials from: Confederatio Helvetica.) 

On top of the Lindenhof. Zurich, November 2017

On top of the Lindenhof. Zurich, November 2017

A sip of water from the fountain in the old square that sits atop the hill — the Swiss will proudly tell you that you can drink out of every fountain in the city, unless it’s specifically marked otherwise — and we were heading back down the other side of the Lindenhof and over to a bar I frequented (legally) as a teenager, Paddy Reilly’s. The pub, which used to be called Dubliners or Dubs when I knew it best, remains a haven for Zurich’s expat community, and and clearly hasn’t changed much over the years. Jules and I enjoyed a quick refreshment, watched the trams pass by from an outdoor table, and continued on our way.

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Back on the southern stretch of the Bahnhofstrasse, we passed several watch galleries of increasing opulence before making it to this small stand just outside Cantinetta Antinori, a nosebleedingly expensive restaurant even by Zurich standards. Tended by waitstaff in shirtsleeves, the small stand was serving oysters and prosecco, and we availed ourselves of each. 

(In Berlin, they have döner stands; in Zurich, they have oyster and prosecco stands. This blog post could pretty much end here.)

Feeling considerably lighter on our feet and in our wallets after our decadent pit stop, we reached the day’s final destination, the Zürcher Weinaustellung or as it’s known by the city’s expat crowd, the Wine Ships. At the lakeside dock of Bürkliplatz for two weeks every November, no fewer than seven (7) ships of wine sit moored to one another, each with rows and rows of wine traders eager to give out as many samples as necessary to sell their wares, and locals eager to try as many samples as possible without buying anything.

Jules, being from California wine country herself, immediately got her sea legs and stepped up to the first open piece of counter real estate she saw, at a stand serving Beringer’s latest from her neck of the woods. She led the inquiry into the day’s offerings with a jolly, bearded Swiss man named Andreas. Andreas did not look unlike Santa Claus and his cheeks were accordingly rosy, though perhaps for non-Christmas reasons. Andreas led us in a tasting of progressively drier reds as we took batting practice with our adjectives. Fruit-forward. Earthy. Tannic. Velvety. Robust. And so on. And so forth. 

The wine ships remained firmly at anchor, but our journey aboard sailed forth from there for several hours, until the light began to get low in the sky and we declared a bit of fuel for the tank was in order if we were to continue our odyssey across regions, terroirs, vintages and synonymous adjectives. It was time for a cervelat, and there’s only one place to go when you need the real deal. Over the bridge across the Limmat we went, in search of Sternen Grill. We took this picture to mark our pilgrimage.

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The cervelat is a Swiss sausage delicacy, somewhat similar to a German “bockwurst” but fatter in size and flavor. They say the more you like sausage, the less you should know about how it’s made, so I’ll stop there. It’s best consumed with a crusty bread roll (“bürli”), very sharp mustard, and an ice cold beer. I remember eating them with my dad on adventures to the Zurich Hauptbahnhof in our earliest days of living in Switzerland. The one I had at Sternen Grill was just as I had remembered it, and I know it made some brand new memories for Jules. It hit the spot. Nuff said. 

After Sternen, a quick walk around the Niederdorf (old town) was in order. We wandered past the towering Grossmünster, the elegant Fraumünster and through the quiet side streets between them, enjoying the peace and serenity of a Saturday night in Zurich. Diners chatted quietly over flickering candles in lowlit bistros. 

Feeling like a bit more wine was in order, and remembering that our tickets were valid all day, we decided on Round 2 at the Wine Ships. We picked a few different boats we hadn’t boarded yet, and found what seemed to be the “local specialties” area on the dockside level of one. We sampled various regions of Switzerland, from Schaffhausen to the South Tyrol, before making our way through Portugal and upstairs across Greek islands and Italian villas. Suffice to say, by the end of our Mediterranean vino cruise, we’d covered a lot of territory, and elected to close down the evening at an Italian stand with a friendly trader who shared the remnants of an open bottle or two with us - you know, least he could do for our generous offer to help him clean up...

Upcoming programming at Cabaret Voltaire. Zurich, November 2017

Upcoming programming at Cabaret Voltaire. Zurich, November 2017

Closing time was upon us onboard, but there was one more place I wanted to show Jules before we called it a night: the Cabaret Voltaire. Originally founded around a century ago, this art cafe holds the distinction of being the birthplace of Dadaism, an absurdist art form with strong ties to political dissidence. It’s played host to many famous artists over the years, and still does today. And, it’s a hell of a bar.

As we walked in through the nondescript front door and up the stairs, our ears were met with the sounds of Latin-inflected percussion rhythms and abrasively strummed guitar chords. A traveling band from Mexico City was the evening’s entertainment, and we settled in on an errant piano bench for a few tunes. Some guests talked quietly among themselves, others just swayed softly as they listened to the music, but no one seemed the slightest bit discontented or out of place. A perfect conclusion to a perfect day. 

Sunday was quiet and peaceful - a lazy morning with Jules’ relatives, a healthy spread of breakfast enjoyed around midday, and a late afternoon ride back into Zurich to pay a visit to the Landesmuseum, Switzerland’s national history museum. 

One of Zurich's many guilds. November 2017

One of Zurich's many guilds. November 2017

The Swiss are as proud of their history as they are their watches, chocolate and cheese. You’d be excused for thinking not much else has happened in Swiss history aside from the gradual development of better and better versions of these 3 exports. In reality, the country actually has a pretty fascinating past that weaves in and out of every major world event without ever really colliding with any of them: here’s what was going on in Switzerland while Napoleon tore through the rest of Europe; here’s what was going on in Switzerland during its time as an island of tranquility in a sea of Nazism. The Swiss are very proud of their military, but nothing makes them prouder than the degree to which it’s basically stayed out of every conflict ever. Their most revered general of the 20th century has many public spaces named after him for the brilliance of a military plan he came up with that never had to be used. They just really liked the plan. (It was a good plan. It involved the Alps.)

So we stuck around the Landesmuseum until closing, and then it was time for me to catch my train. I couldn’t resist one more quick Cervelat for the trip to the airport. 

As I chewed mightily on the thick Bürli it came with, I also chewed on my latest impressions of my old home. It was amazing to see how little had changed, but like staring into Lake Zurich on a clear day, I could see my own reflection in the calm surface of the place. I saw someone who was thankful to have spent formative years in this idyllic city, but who had grown up a lot since then, and who now thrived on a different energy than the one Zurich had to offer. 

That said, though, as my plane home took flight into the darkness toward Berlin, I found that Zurich had left a great lingering taste in my mouth: wine and cervelat, specifically. 

The Numbers

I have a confession to make.

I was going to write a detailed review of a trip I took to Leipzig. And I had written it, actually, from start to finish. I was just editing and adding links, and by the misfortune of an errant keystroke, I deleted the entire thing in Squarespace, irretrievably. 

Evidence of a lost blog. Ivy Cafe, Berlin-Neukölln. August 2017.

Evidence of a lost blog. Ivy Cafe, Berlin-Neukölln. August 2017.

Yep, honest to God. In a split second, all text deleted. No salvation offered by any number of Ctrl-Z-mashing. (okay, "Command-Z". I have a Mac. Whatever.)  Hours of transcribing my life into pristine digital content, lost to the void. Major fail. 

Not going to lie, the prospect of rewriting the whole thing from scratch was discouraging. These things take a fair amount of time and effort to make, even on a blog as casual, simplistic and downright rudderless as mine. I thought about giving up; about abolishing my obligation to write stuff down in favor of just enjoying my experience over here for what it is, and hosting my memories locally on my own mental servers, securely encrypted and backed up for posterity. 

But, a few days later, I remembered something.

This is supposed to be a fun, rewarding creative outlet, not some deadlined homework assignment or stress-inducing professional obligation. There are no rules on Gluckin Around Dot Com, except those that I feel like following. 

So, readers, there is no Leipzig review. There won't be a Leipzig review. I'm moving on. (And I'm not writing my blog posts in Squarespace anymore. Evernote for the win.)

Trust me, Leipzig's a cool city. I recommend it. There's a photo gallery under "Galleries" if you want to find out what it looks like. Drop me a line if you need tips. There, done.

Instead, I’m feeling like it’s time for an update on all things Berlin, and a review of sorts of what’s happened so far. It’s been a little over three months since I’ve been here, a not-insignificant chunk of chronological change. Long enough, to be sure, to lose count of all the things that have happened. But it’s my goal (especially in writing on this site) not to lose count, or let time pass me by here without taking stock now and then. 

So without further ado, I present to you Berlin By The Numbers, my best attempt at tallying up the most important numerical milestones of my time here so far. 

Days I’ve been here: 113.

First impressions. Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. May 2017/.

First impressions. Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. May 2017/.

Feels crazy when I spell it out like that — usually it takes the form of a much smaller, more inexact number, like “a few months”, or “earlier in 2017”. But when I think about my time here in the context of individual days, it makes me consider how a seemingly short while can be broken down into near infinite derivative moments, and it reminds me how critical it is to be mindful of the flow of those moments (even if many of them slip through my fingers).

Cities other than Berlin that I’ve visited (or have plans to visit) since moving here: 5. Leipzig, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Killarney, London. I honestly think I expected this number to be a little higher by now — that I’d immediately hit the road without trepidation and recapture the continent I first conquered as a teenager. But I think I failed to account for two things: first, that Berlin in the summer is so much fun that even a single weekend away is enough to induce paralyzing bouts of FOMO; second, that I needed to give myself a moment to take a breath and settle down before venturing beyond Berlin’s borders. 

But in the end, this isn’t study abroad. There is no time limit, there is no rush. I’m an expat now; I live here. I’ll make it everywhere I want to see, eventually, in my own time.

Times I’ve seen the sunrise here: At least 10.

Sunrise over the Spree. Berlin-Friedrichshain, August 2017

Sunrise over the Spree. Berlin-Friedrichshain, August 2017

And no, not from waking up early. People say New York is the city that never sleeps; that’s a lie. New York just stays up late and eats pizza until it falls asleep. Berlin is the city that seems to forego sleep entirely. One of the great mysteries of living here so far is how frequently this seems to happen - it was so uncommon to stay out in New York past 5am at the latest, on even the lengthiest of nights. Here, I seem to blink and it’s 7am and broad daylight. How am I not absolutely exhausted? Especially on Friday nights, when I’ve been up for nearly 24 hours (or more)? 

And I know I’m not alone here, it’s not just me — a lot of my expat friends have remarked on this sunrise phenomenon. Must be something in the beer.

Money I’ve earned from recycling: €3.47.

Hell yeah. That’s worth 7 beers at the right supermarket. Recycling here is more than a moral high ground, it’s economically incentivized. The idea is genius: similar to the “deposit” system in some US states, but the bottles are worth far more. It’s even become a way for the city’s homeless to feed themselves — by collecting bottles (sometimes conveniently left on specialized trays on top of outdoor trash bins) and ridding the city of needless waste, anyone can redeem a receipt for a hot meal’s worth of straight cash.

Books I've read: 2.

“Kafka on the Shore” by Haruki Murakami and “The Broom of the System” by David Foster Wallace. Both great. “Purity” by Jonathan Franzen is probably next.

Number of times I’ve been rejected from entering a club for reasons unknown: Also at least 10

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(Somewhat of a paradox with the above sunrise number…) This is a thing that happens here. You’ll be getting all geared up for a night out with your friends. Discussions of where to go, what to wear, how to act, how much to drink beforehand, who’s playing, whose name to say at the door, how many guestlist spots the aforementioned name is worth, and so on. 

And then, in a split-second, your best laid plans are laid to waste. “Leider nicht."

Maybe the bouncer didn’t like how you were looking at him. Maybe he didn’t care for your hat. You were supposed to wear it backwards, not forwards. (Or forwards, not backwards.) Or maybe it was your shirt. You were supposed to wear mostly black, but not all black. Or all white. Or carry a wizard staff. You were supposed to be in a group of people whose size represented a number in the Fibonacci series. You were supposed to be alone.

Rejection can be maddening, mostly because it's so inscrutable and seemingly superficial. (Okay, it is superficial.) That’s the whole point. Exclusivity looks great on everyone else, and envy doesn’t look so good on you, my friend.

Number of errands I haven't been able to run on a Sunday: all of them.

Everything's closed, for it is the Lord’s day. But the German Lord is a merciful one, and smiles upon those who choose the path of righteousness. Or at least the path that heads to the local biergarten.

Number of first dates I’ve been on: 2.

With the same girl. And no, this isn’t some “50 First Dates” nonsense. I just happened to get lucky enough to meet someone incredible over here. I had to chase her, but she finally let me date her. And when at long last she did, I thought it’d be only fitting to take her out on a proper date, just like we were meeting for the first time. So we went on a first date; not once, but twice. I’m a lucky guy.

Times I’ve regretted moving to Germany: Zero.

Truly. 

There have been days here when nothing seemed to make sense or go right. 

When I asked myself why I’d left everything I knew behind in NYC in search of something different, when I was really quite happy with what I had. 

(Nice apartment, stable job, amazing city, all my friends.)

But I still believe now what I believed then, 113 days ago: you only get to be young once. 

You read your own book from left to right, and there’s no turning back the pages. It's the only one you’ll turn over and over, in your hands and in your head, when you get to the end.

And I’m enjoying this book so far. It's not the easiest read, but I can’t put it down. 

I think I’ll keep reading.

Home sweet home.

Hello there. It's been a minute. Back from a trip to Leipzig, and re-dedicating myself to this whole blogging thing.

I snuck away from Berlin for the weekend to this “mini-Berlin” to the south and east, about 2 hours away by bus. Felt like it was time to hit the road and start living the traveler’s dream I’ve been preaching since I got here. I’m not taking any vacations yet while I still get settled at work, so, baby steps. (Leipzig is kickass, and a full recap is on the way. I’ve been less than diligent about making time for this blog in the past 2-3 weeks, so I’m aiming to bang out two posts in the next week to get back on track. Let’s go.)

So, dear reader, O intrepid devourer of blog content, what’s been keeping me busy? Rather a lot. Settling into my new long-term digs in my new neighborhood, mostly. Let's take a jaunt through Friedrichshain together, why don't we.

Waiting. Frankfurter Tor, Berlin-Friedrichshain. July 2017

Waiting. Frankfurter Tor, Berlin-Friedrichshain. July 2017

Friedrichshain was where I was hoping to land all along, and I'm very excited I made it happen. It’s in East Berlin, and retains a lot of DDR flavor mixed in with a buzzing, cultural currency that would not be unfamiliar to acolytes of all things Brooklyn. (If you know me, you are probably rolling your eyes right now. Of course Will moved to that neighborhood. Yeah, I did. Come visit when your eyes re-assume neutral positions in their sockets.) It’s such a happening area, and I’ve just barely scratched the surface of what’s going on nearby. Two early favorites, however, are the Saturday and Sunday outdoor markets in nearby Box-Hagener Platz. Saturday is killer food stalls from all over the world, and Sunday is antique memorabilia, paraphernalia, detritus et cetera from the inexhaustible depths of Brandenburg’s DDR cellars and storerooms. AKA like weird old upholstered chairs and cringe-inducing lamps and shit.

My apartment’s located on a leafy side street just north of Box-Hagener (“Boxi”) and the central bar stretch of the neighborhood, Simon-Dach Straße. I’m also just south of Frankfurter Allee, East Germany’s former Communist promenade that could easily fit Soviet tanks 5 abreast and is probably wider than an LA freeway. My own block eschews pure bar density for diversity, with interesting-looking cafes, vintage shops, really good spätis (NY friends, read: German bodegas), specialty food spots and quite a few Vietnamese and Indian restaurants within literal throwing distance of one another. 

Socialist grandeur. Frankfurter Allee, Berlin-Friedrichshain. July 2017

Socialist grandeur. Frankfurter Allee, Berlin-Friedrichshain. July 2017

(The close proximity of multiple iterations of the same ethnic restaurant in Berlin is something that seems to occur a lot, and something I don’t quite understand. However, I'm reminded of the saturation of pizza in the Lower East Side, and then it somehow makes more sense. Also, when I lived in Hell’s Kitchen a few years ago, there were 3 Thai restaurants named Yum Yum, Yum Yum Too and Yum Yum 3 all right next to each other, so I don’t know, I guess this is just something that happens sometimes. Shout out to Yum Yum.)

My apartment came furnished, and with actual cool furniture, not a given by any means in Berlin. So after a few IKEA trips to get kitchen stuff and a few extra furnishings, it's been ready to go. I’ve also scored a few interesting things off eBay Kleinanzeigen, Germany’s Craigslist equivalent, after an introductory tutorial from a friend who is the undisputed Kleinanzeigen dark lord. It is an art, and a dark one at that. I have much to learn.

Living space. Berlin-Friedrichshain. July 2017

Living space. Berlin-Friedrichshain. July 2017

So living in the new place has been not unlike coasting on a dream so far... except for the presence of an unfortunate downstairs neighbor. Two weeks back, on a Monday evening after work, I had two friends over to check out the new digs and polish off a bottle of wine or two. We had some music going and the windows open, but nothing crazy, and as aforementioned, I live in the nightlife district. So it was very much to my surprise when my doorbell rang at 10:30pm that evening, and I was greeted by another building resident I’d seen a few times, a female, whom I’d guess is in her late 30s, with a shaven head, save for a sort of off-center topknot (frontal rat tail?) near her front right temple. I immediately figured she'd come up to complain about the music and extended a hand and a sharp apology in German. Hand and apology were both handily slapped down, and my neighbor said she was ready to call the cops if I didn't cut the shit.

(It would be relevant to mention at this point that in Germany, there are laws around quiet time. Officially, during the week, “Ruhezeit” is between 10pm and 8am, and you have to keep the noise down. Also officially, these laws are enforced by police. But officialness, and officiousness, for that matter, are not qualities that are widely subscribed to in Berlin. And the police don’t really enforce this one anyway, they have much bigger fish to judicially fry in a city with over 10% unemployment and a fair amount of crime.)

Anyway, I knew I was in the wrong, officially, and said hey, please don’t call the police, there is no need, I will turn the music off, let’s generally de-escalate ourselves shall we, and so on. That seemed to do the trick, until I got another visit 2 nights later, this time at 10:15pm, when I was quite literally just cooking dinner for a guest and listening to music. Same routine, please don’t call the police, oh God no not the police, heaven forbid the police come over here right now and survey the crime scene and take my pasta and freshly opened Malbec as evidence samples back to HQ for processing, etc etc. She eventually went away again and since then I have been trying to stick to this 10pm thing with my music.

I don't know what her name is, but I feel like it might be Helga. I’m going to write a longer blog post about her at some point. Maybe from her perspective.

Local bear makes good. Berlin-Friedrichshain. July 2017

Local bear makes good. Berlin-Friedrichshain. July 2017

So I’m in for the long haul. Neighborhood’s great, social life is fun, work is great, and so on. It feels like real life has properly started in Berlin. This is no longer just a trip; I repeat, this is no longer just some sort of extended trip. 

With that in mind, I think the biggest thing I’m working toward at the moment is maintaining presence in the moment and staying mindful. I left New York because I felt the rhythms of my life were rocking me to sleep, and in Berlin, I’ve now got a rhythm going, but I plan to keep it as upbeat and syncopated as possible. And change up the tempo now and then, just to keep myself sharp. I’m already so glad I took a trip to Leipzig — it was good to get out of town for a second and take stock of everything that’s going on in the place that is now officially home. 

Glux

June 18, 2017: the here-and-now.

I promise I won't be opening every post with literary excerpts and philosophical musings.

Starting right now. It's a gorgeous Sunday in Berlin, I'm sitting at Intimes Cafe, an outdoor spot on a street corner in my soon-to-be new hood of Friedrichshain, and I'm in much more of a mood to write about the here-and-now than anything abstract or philosophical. I figured that might make for a nice change of pace for anyone reading this blog, too. You might be wondering what's actually happening in my life, outside of what's going on in my head (for a fuller discussion of Self and Other, I refer you to my previous post). 

I'm thinking I might make this a series: posts where I just sort of report what's going on without too much editorializing. Thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

To set the here-and-now mood, here's a picture I just took of some cool graffiti about 20 yards from where I'm sitting:

Right, so real-life stuff. Real life is nice right now. The summer weather in Berlin has been absolutely outstanding so far, with the exception of a few summer storms (and those have actually been pretty nice too, in their own way). Since Berlin is far north geographically — it's on the same latitude as Calgary, Canada — the sun rises ridiculously early and sets ridiculously late at this time of year, which makes the days feel decadently, sometimes psychedelically long.

After going to bed around 2am last night, I awoke this morning to find my bedroom drenched with sunlight. The brightness and richness of the light at that time of day had such a disorienting effect that, after quickly glancing at my iPhone to see what time it was (5:15), I jumped out of a bed with a start, thinking I'd somehow slept for 13 hours and missed an entire Sunday. It took me a good 30 seconds to realize it was actually 5:15 a.m., and happily went back to sleep for another 5 hours.

Then, to start Sunday properly, I had a mindblowing Japanese breakfast at Markthalle Neun, a cavernous international food hall in Kreuzberg with a wide variety of vendors that attracts a hip, multilingual and may I say extraordinarily good looking crowd on the weekends. (DC friends, think Union Market. NYC friends, think Smorgasburg but indoors and not basic or overrated.)

Speaking of long days, the longest one of the year is this Wednesday, and there's a big one-day summer solstice festival in the city called Fete de la Musique. As part of this year's proceedings, Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Dorian Concept are playing a free show in the Mauerpark in the neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. Formerly a section of the death strip on the northern reaches of the Berlin Wall ("Mauerpark" = "wall park"), the space was reclaimed after the fall of the Wall and now serves as a sort of all-purpose green space. My office is somewhat nearby, and I'm looking forward to heading over with a few new friends from work. Dorian Concept is a particular favorite of mine.

The past weekend has been filled with music, too: 

On Friday night, I caught Motor City Drum Ensemble at Prince Charles. MCDE is a DJ's DJ, spinning a killer all-vinyl mix of rare '70s funk, disco, house and soul. It was my first time catching him, but it won't be my last. 

Last night, I saw French Kiwi Juice, a multitalented producer who makes a sort of slowed-down, jazzed-up version of MCDE's style. He writes all his own tunes, and performs them, too — by himself. The guy had about a dozen different instruments onstage last night, and he's a sort of one-man band: his live show comprises a constant melange of various snippets of basslines, horn leads, piano fills and drum patterns that he performs, loops and manipulates in sync. 

Other good stuff: work is going well. I'm feeling more comfortable and confident in my role with every passing day, and things are heating up in an exciting way. On Tuesday, I accompanied our CEO to London for a tech conference. Exciting to get to hit the road for work so early, and I'd take a one-day marathon trip to another country over a one-day marathon trip from New York to Boston every time. Looking forward to finding out where this job brings me.

Next weekend is 48 Stunden Neukölln, a weekend-long art festival in the neighborhood of Neukölln — Berlin's current hipster Mecca. Don't really know a lot about the festival itself, except that there's a lot of programming coming up in my Facebook feed all of a sudden, and one of my friends is displaying some of her photography in one of the weekend's many events and exhibitions. When I first lived here in 2012, Neukölln was still considered very raw and fairly dangerous, so I'm looking forward to better acquainting myself with an area of the city that's suddenly become such a crowd favorite.

So, those are really the latest highlights. There's plenty more that's happened, but it's a beautiful Sunday evening and I'm going to go enjoy the rest of the weekend by the water with a good book (yes, the David Foster Wallace one I quoted in my last post). So, friends, if you want the rest of the story so far, let's Skype soon. I might even share a few things that are best shared face-to-face, too...

I also just revamped the images section of this site, and I'll be uploading more heavily and more frequently now that I've got that sorted.

Thanks for reading y'all.

Glux

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    A little goes a long way (away).

    "Now, Weight Watchers perceives the problem as one involving the need to have as much Other around as possible, so that the relation is one of minimum Self to maximum Other. This is a valid, though, as I've seen by this afternoon, no means exclusive way to attack the problem."

    - Norman Bombardini in David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System

    Never mind the Weight Watchers reference. This is not a blog about Weight Watchers, nor is it a blog about why David Foster Wallace used Weight Watchers as a Hegelian metaphor in his first novel. I don't have much to offer on either front. I sincerely hope you'll keep reading nonetheless, but I wouldn't blame you if you didn't.

    The point that Wallace's character, the repulsively gluttonous Norman Bombardini, is trying to make is that harmony in life comes from striking a balance between the lives we live inside ourselves, and the lives we live in objectively real physical environments filled with other people. (Bombardini takes this to the literal extreme by trying to become so fat that he'll no longer have to put up with other humans, but never mind that.)

    IMG_5611.JPG

    Over the past week or two, as I settle into patterns and routines here in Berlin, I've been thinking a lot about balance, and how to strike it. I've found that moving to a new city is a chance to evaluate the balance you'd struck wherever you'd lived last, and really ask yourself, with clarity and objectivity, what was working for you and what wasn't. And then, all of a sudden, it becomes easier to see what a balanced life might look like in your new home and environment.

    I think the reason for this is that moving to a new city, especially one abroad, is an act of consciously unbalancing yourself. Deliberately nudging the pendulum to find a new equilibrium.

    I certainly feel like I've done that to myself, and I have to say, it's a good feeling. Back home in New York, I felt like I had achieved a sort of stasis: after getting my career going and generally figuring out how to be an adult human being with a job, I was coasting through my 20s with a relative ease and bonhomie that was not unlike sleepwalking. Don't get me wrong; it's where all of my best friends life, and where I'll someday return for the long haul. But as the weeks, months, seasons and years started to blur and blend together, the rhythm started to lull me to sleep, and I felt the need to wake up.

    And now I'm awake, and I feel unbalanced. For the moment, it's invigorating. A friend put it to me well this past weekend: as an expat in a foreign country, even the smallest, most rote tasks require just a little bit of extra effort to complete.

    There is a language barrier.

    The money is different. 

    Email etiquette is different, sometimes terrifyingly so.

    The stuff in the supermarket is different, and arranged differently.

    The announcements on public transportation are different (but also similar in their unintelligibility)

    And so on. Et cetera. Und so weiter.

    Don't even get me started on tasks that do take a lot of conscious effort, even back home. 

    Like signing an apartment lease, for example. I got through that one (woop) in German today, and good Lord. My new landlord was instructing me on the finer points of how a balcony will be affixed to the outside of my apartment building at some undefined time in 2018 for some undefined cost, and did I understand the implications of this and how it would impact me personally as a tenant, and was I prepared to sign this document of German legalese saying that yes I understood all implications and was comfortable with them, even those that are not yet known to aforementioned landlord or even the builders themselves of aforementioned balcony, and that in conclusion in summary alles ist in Ordnung. (I signed the document, because fuck it, I got the gist of what's going to happen, and ya boy needs a place to live, fam.)

    IMG_5611.JPG

    Anyway, the point is that this little bit of extra effort that you have to put in on every last task goes a long way, when you're away from home.

    It reminds you of the value of a meal you cooked yourself, without having to negotiate pleasantries and payment auf Deutsch. It reminds you of the importance of keeping your eyes and ears open at all times when you're navigating the city, and of writing down that interesting bar, cafe, shop or restaurant you saw or heard about, because you'll want to find your way back to it at some point. And most importantly, the extra effort required for the smallest tasks as an expat reminds you of the importance of sleeping and exercise, and being generally sharp and well-rested whenever possible, because all the shit I listed above sucks tenfold when you're hungover.

    For now, I'll enjoy the fact that the challenge of living abroad is keeping me awake and present, and I'll keep working toward a balance of myself and my surroundings that feels right. And then, when it doesn't feel right anymore, I'll shake the snowglobe again.

    Fluctuations are aching my soul/
    Expectation is taking it's toll

     

     

    A light turns out and we are older.

    “When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” - Haruki Murakami

    Just finished the first book I've read on this adventure, Kafka on the Shore by the always excellent Haruki Murakami. A key theme the story explores is nostalgia: what role do our memories play in defining who we are as people? Are our memories really what we perceive them to be? Does time move in the linear way we think it does? And if we found out it didn't, how would that change the way we look at our past, present and future selves?

    Coming back to a city I used to live in, and have frequently been nostalgic for, has made me think about these questions a lot. Now that I've returned, I've been noticing how the city itself has changed, but I've also been keenly aware of how I've changed myself. It's a bit of a reciprocal loop, our selves and our surroundings: the former informs how we perceive the latter, and in turn, the latter slowly, deliberately, permanently changes the former. 

    One thing about this adventure I've realized is important: it has to be conscious experienced as a step forward into a new chapter of my life, and not as some return to a former reality that indulges nostalgia. There's no other choice, because even if I could go back to the Berlin I knew in 2012, exactly as I'd left it, I wouldn't want to go back to being the version of myself I was then. (Not that there was anything wrong with that guy.)

    But I'm older now, and I have different priorities. I have a job. I know the importance of balance. I know when to give myself a day off to recharge. I take better care of myself physically and mentally (most of the time). I have a different self-image, and I'm more comfortable in my own skin. I don't get FOMO much anymore. I've developed an appreciation for high-quality coffee, and for olives.

    So it's been that guy experiencing Berlin, not the guy who was here in 2012. And it's been great. Gotten started at my job, which has been challenging and rewarding so far. It's a huge change of pace: unlike the companies I've worked at previously, where everyone did exactly what I did (PR), and everything was very structured and organized, I'm the only full-time PR employee at this company, and I've got a piece of paper in front of me that is largely blank, except for the words at the top: "do PR". I've been working with my new colleagues to first define exactly what that means, and I think it's going to be a lot of fun when things really get moving.

    Outside of work, things are good too. I've been thinking a lot about how I can use this change of scenery to also make changes to my lifestyle, but it's a little hard to be in any kind of routine so far, especially since I'm still living in temporary housing. I'll admit I'm looking forward to having a place I can call my own, and to getting in a "groove" with work, life, and so on. (That's definitely another big change from the experience I was looking for here in 2012.) But that will come with time.

    But for the moment, I'm trying to enjoy going with the flow, and staying open to meeting all kinds of new people (which has been happening a lot). The past few days, I've been a little under the weather, which has been frustrating - I've had to control my urge to leave the house every chance I get, and give myself permission to lay low and recuperate. There's plenty of time to do everything I want to do here. Berlin isn't going anywhere, and neither am I.

    So for the moment, I'll enjoy the low-key afternoon I'm having in this excellent Prenzlauer Berg cafe called Kaffe. Later tonight, I might go catch Captain Fantastic at an open-air movie theater, the Freiluftkino Hasenheide.

    On deck for the week ahead:

    • Lots of Skype dates after work with 
    • Moving into a slightly more permanent housing situation (sublet for the month of June with my friend Jesse's girlfriend)
    • Hopefully confirming an apartment for the long-haul... I found the perfect place in Friedrichshain. Fingers crossed. 
    • Next weekend's a long weekend in Germany, and in Berlin, it's the Karneval der Kulturen (Carnival of Cultures, a fairly obvious translation). Party time.

    That's it for now. Here's a song I've been feeling lately. Lyrics inspired the title of this post.

    -Glux

    Reacquaintance.

    Alexanderplatz at sundown, May 2017

    Alexanderplatz at sundown, May 2017

    Officially back in Berlin for the long haul.

    I was a college student for my last real stint in this city, six months in 2012. Five long, consequential years have since passed, and aside from a handful of visits, my relationship with Berlin has been long-distance. I've been eager to catch up on what I've missed.

    On the flight over, I had my fair share of doubts, concerns and second thoughts. Just like that feeling you get right before you meet up with a friend (or an ex) you haven't seen in years, coming back to a city you once knew—or thought you knew, anyway—can be anxiety-inducing.

    Would I be able to navigate the subways, trams and buses as effortlessly as I used to? Will I recognize the street signs, the parks, the bridges over the river? Will the energy in the air feel the same? What about my old favorite döner shop, is that still there? Will the gritty rawness of the city that my younger self fell in love with still appeal to the present-day me?

    Once upon a time, June 2012

    Once upon a time, June 2012

    It's too soon to answer any of these definitively (even the one about the döner shop, still need to check...) but my first few days back in town have been encouraging, and left me with an impression of "yes".

    That's not to say I'm picking up right where I left off. The city has changed, and so have I. I don't have the U-Bahn map memorized the same way I used to, and my please-and-thank-yous auf Deutsch aren't rolling off the tongue with their former ease (brb, beer will help with that). And the city feels a little more clean-cut. Its rougher edges have at least been sanded down, even if they're still largely unpolished.

    And I'm hearing a lot more English on the streets than I used to. It used to be that Munich and Frankfurt were Germany's truly global cities (it's no coincidence that they're both in former West Germany), while post-DDR Berlin remained largely the preserve of the Berliners. That had already changed substantially when I was last here, but it's obvious that the rate of change has accelerated.

    Alright, so what have I actually been doing since I got here Tuesday morning? Honestly, nothing too terribly exciting. Getting a phone number, setting up a bank account, signing employment contracts, and so on. Getting your life set up as an expatriate is less than glamorous stuff, and especially in Germany, it all needs to happen in a certain order — it can't be done all at once. I won't bore you with the details.

    But I've gotten to reconnect with a few old friends along the way, which has been great, and today, I dropped by the offices of my new employer, GetYourGuide. Having conducted my entire interview process over Skype, I hadn't seen the workspace itself yet, ad it was satisfying to get a feel for the vibe of the company in person — I'll be spending a lot of time there, after all.

    It was an absolutely gorgeous day today, so after lunch, I headed for Neukölln, a neighborhood in the southeast of the city, to check out an outdoor spot I'd heard about called Klunkerkranich. This was 100% not a thing when I was last here, but man, am I happy it's a thing now. An indoor/outdoor, sun-dappled biergarten/chillout lounge on the roof of a parking garage next to a shopping mall, this is the sort of place that only Berlin could conjure up. It has to be seen to be believed, but here's a taste:

    Hard at work or hardly working at Klunkerkranich, May 2017

    Hard at work or hardly working at Klunkerkranich, May 2017

    I showed up around 2pm on a Thursday and it was already nearly full, with a hip-looking crowd basking in the May sunshine, drinking, smoking, listening to music and making what looked like halfhearted attempts at doing some work on their laptops. I can't blame them one bit, and I'll be spending a lot of time on that roof this summer myself, that is for sure. 

    Anyway, tomorrow marks the start of my first weekend in Berlin. I'm looking forward to reacquainting myself with the after-dark vibe here, when the wolves come out and the city transforms itself into a Matrix Reloaded-esque post-apocalyptic playground. More on that next time.

    Glux

    Path by the Landwehrkanal at sunset, May 2017

    Path by the Landwehrkanal at sunset, May 2017

    Preparing for takeoff.

    Hello world.

    Final preparations — Bethel, CT, May 2017

    Final preparations — Bethel, CT, May 2017

    Home at my parents' house in Connecticut for the weekend, getting ready for final departure to Berlin. Still familiarizing myself with all things Squarespace; bear with me as I figure out all the bells and whistles here. I'm already excited about the potential of this site — and I'm ready to get out there and start making memories to be captured here.