Saturday, August 11, 2012

The First Commandment

Tomorrow, Sunday, sometime in the morning, it will be 19 years since I landed at Berlin Tegel Airport looking for the guy whose apartment I was planning to live in for the next six months. He never showed (and I had no idea that his girlfriend was, at that moment, trying not to bleed to death after delivering their son), and it was the first thing that went wrong after I arrived in Europe to live. Oh, I got into the apartment okay, Christine lived, and all of that, but I always get introspective and moody around August 12.

Bet you'd be surprised to know it was raining when this was shot! Photo by wiggly.

In Berlin, I jumped right into a job -- literally the day after I arrived, I found myself setting up an office with some other folks to get an event called Berlin Independence Days started. I was too busy to think about stuff, and there was, indeed, some stuff I should have been thinking about. In September, I jumped on a train for a weekend and went to Munich for Oktoberfest (because Oktoberfest happens in September), and came back realizing that that was one more thing I didn't ever need to do again. I ate out a lot because I could never get it through my head that all the stores -- all of them -- closed at 5:55 sharp, and at 1:55 on Saturday afternoon, except for the third Saturday of the month when they closed at 3:55.

Suddenly one day Berlin Independence Days was over, the guy who'd emerged as the head of it during a power struggle that had co-existed with the planning told the three Americans working there that because Americans had done nothing to stop the Vietnam War and had, as a consequence, destroyed Vietnamese culture, he wasn't going to pay us because he hated Americans (he was German, just for reference) and there went a month's salary.

And at last I was alone, in a tiny apartment, with no work and a German winter coming on, and my 45th birthday coming on, too. I didn't know it, but I was just beginning to learn stuff. In December, my landlord in Texas told me he needed my house (which I'd sublet to an employee of a friend of mine and a couple of her friends) back because his wife was divorcing him. The decision, which I'd anticipated making in March, of whether to stay in Berlin or go back to Austin, had been made for me. One way of looking at it was that I was stranded. Another was that I'd just been handed a great adventure. Both of those statements were true.

Somehow I survived the adventure, the highs and lows, fame (but not fortune) and frustration, and the growing realization that I really, really didn't like living in Germany, although by now I knew how to do it. I started writing a book, The Accidental German: How Not to Expatriate, hoping that by getting an advance for it, I might be able to move away from Berlin, but the literary agent who was going to sell it for me turned out not to actually be an agent after all. And then, in November, 2008, a ghostwriting gig came my way and I was able to pile stuff into a car, hire some movers, and move to the place I'd found that I really wanted to live: Montpellier.

If you've been reading this blog, you've pretty much got the picture on how that's gone. It's like anything else: it's got its good points and its bad points, and neither is exactly where you'd predict them to be. I was hobbled by getting burned for $20,000 of the ghostwriting money right off the bat. I had horrendous problems with various phone companies. My apartment was far smaller than advertised, and I still haven't unpacked. The movers destroyed my almost-new washing machine. I got horrible advice from a guy who, it turns out, just makes shit up. French people were seriously unhelpful. I lost my sense of taste and smell for a year. But I also regained it, mostly. I got to know the surrounding countryside and loved it. I learned a lot about food and started learning about the local wines, and fell into the rhythm of the seasons and their output. I learned a lot about the history and culture of the area: who knew that France had bullfighting? But that's what's happening in Béziers this weekend.

And becasue it was something I did in Berlin, I hooked up with a bunch of expat websites and organizations to help others, and that's been very interesting.

We get tourists here in the summertime, which, in France, basically means August.

Le Petit Train
We get [Le Petit] Trainloads of 'em. They go to the Fountain of the Three Graces.

I have no idea why it's our symbol and most famous tourist attraction, but there you go. And they take pictures of each other.

Umm, guys? The fountain's in the other direction...
And we even got written up in the New York Times the other day (although it's a severely eccentric list of stuff to do, promoting a now-closed opera production and a dance festival that happens in June and July, as well as favoring a very small Sunday market over the huge one on Saturday).  And people (British people, mostly: Americans almost never come here) look around and like it. Hell, I did, and on a weekend where it was colder here than in Berlin. So they move here.

From time to time, people tell me they want to leave the States an move to France. Before that, I'd hear from people who wanted to move to Berlin. Why? They'd visited and liked it. They ask for advice. And, both for that book I wanted to write and for the advice I give, I realized that there's one thing anyone contemplating a move like this has to internalize. The first commandment of expatriation is that you must realize you're not on vacation any more, ever.

That may seem so obvious. It's not. I don't know how many British people I've read about or read comments from who've moved to France (or Spain or Portugal) and who say "We always had so much fun on holiday, but this is so disappointing." When I was hanging out at the late, great English Corner Shop, I marvelled at the products people asked for -- and bought! Bread! White bread! I mean it: frozen loaves of English bread flew out of that place. I'm happy about that because my friends made a lot of money off of it, but seriously, folks, if there's one thing the French know how to do it's bread. Maybe not the dense, dark, seed-and-nut-bearing breads of Germany (but on the other hand, have you ever had a German baguette? Don't.), but not only the familiar French breads, but also sliced sandwich loaf. Really: it's called pain de mie, and if your corner baker doesn't have it, the supermarket will. I've certainly got nothing against slipping into one's native cuisine from time to time (and I'm planning to have breakfast tacos tomorrow morning), but this smacks of the Dutch tourists who come down here in caravans loaded with food from Holland and never pay a cent for anything in France. Except, of course, that the Dutch go home. (Usually: one of the forums I read had a tale the other day about a Dutch couple who'd built a house in a local village, bringing both the building supplies and the bulders from Holland. Bet they have problems with the neighbors.)

I was complaining about something on Facebook the other day, and someone commented "That's okay, Ed, you're living the dream for the rest of us," and I thought, hmm: grass, fence. To me, the dream would be either a regular income that covered the rent and food and bills and then some or a huge hunk of money in the bank from which I could draw those funds; a place to live where I had enough room to move around; enough work of the kind I like to do to keep me busy; the opportunity to travel from time to time; and (just in case there's a God and he's reading this) maybe a brilliant, spirited woman to hang out and share all of that with. I would be happy to live that dream here, but after 19 years, I've realized that I'd also be happy to live it just about anywhere. Will I celebrate my 20th anniversary in Europe next year? Probably: even the best-case scenario doesn't see me turning this situation around that quickly. How about the 21st?

Well, as the alcoholics say, one day at a time. The furthest-off plans I have just at the moment involve breakfast tacos.


  1. I think Germany is a living Hell. Don't get it at all.

  2. @Anonymous: only Berlin, in the Faddaland, is do-able. I've learned that the trick is to live here five years, go off in a huff, come back a few bored years later with redefined goals and five years' worth of internalized Berlin-smarts. Yes, the natives can be a pain, but it's easy to create a bubble of preferred (cultural) attributes, especially now. As they say: no pain, no gain. After 22 years, I'm deep in the gain part. London was once my favorite city... not any more!

    I have a wacky theory that you can gauge a city's hostility toward the non-wealthy by how often you see its pretty girls on public transport. Berlin passes that test with flying colors and then some.

  3. Oh yes, we are living the dream. Anyone who has said that to me has never actually lived in France. But, when they do say it to me, it does help me to take a step back, ignore all the inconvenient red tape (and almost everything else) for a second, and try to be thankful for all of the wonderful things about living here... like the bread.

  4. If German drivers on French roads represent the norm, I don't want to live there...or at least ride my bike on its roads.

  5. They paid a great deal for that car, and you, sir, are just collateral damage if you don't get out of the way.

    That said, I hope it wasn't the car my friends from Berlin are driving down here!

  6. I loved this, Ed, as I sit here planning where oh where I can afford to move to. My three and a half years in Bulgaria were short compared to what you have done in your last 19 years. Dare I say an old curmudgeon like you is giving an old optimist like me hope that I can just do it again??
    And the Berlin Independence Days reference- Bebe wears a t-shirt brought back from there by her father before she was ever even thought of :)

  7. I just found you blog. Wow, what a start. It looks like I've got a lot of catching up to do.

  8. Ed! I was just thinking about you the other day, wondering how you were getting along. Good to see you're still alive & griping. And If you've been keeping up with news from along the Spree you'll know the situation here is still degrading...


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