Monday, August 12, 2013

When An Anniversary Is A Milestone

I had a pretty great day yesterday. My old friend Judy (well, she's not that old) and her new husband Lou (again, not that new, nor are they that newly wed) came to town and I showed them around and then we had dinner. Judy and I hadn't seen each other in at least a decade, and in the intervening time not only had she remarried (her first husband was a guy I'd helped get started as a journalist and almost did a book with once, and he's now something of a superstar, not that he talks to me any more) but three years ago she and Lou had gotten parallel jobs in France, in Nantes, to be exact, way up north where the Loire flows into the Atlantic, a place I've been meaning to visit since they got there. Now they were in their car, exploring bits of France they hadn't seen yet, and Montpellier was on the list.

After we caught up with each other and with old friends, the talk turned to what they were going to do next. Probably, sometime in the next year, before their fourth anniversary in France was over, they'd go back to the States, because after five years, your legal status here changes and even if you're working for a French company, as Lou is (Judy's teaching marketing, in which she has a PhD), the taxes you pay increase significantly and various other things change, too, not necessarily to your benefit. So they were resigned to going back to Washington DC.

"The thing is, there are so many things we've gotten used to here," Lou said as we dawdled over dessert, "that it's going to be hard getting used to the U.S. again."

Tell me about it.

Today, August 12, is the day I almost invariably write a blog post about arriving at Berlin-Tegel Airport with all my stuff, ready to move into the grey building with the red awning

just off this corner

in Berlin. That was in 1993, and yes, it was twenty years ago.

Lou and Judy and I talked about the learning curve. They had the benefit of a professional relocation service, and I only had friends who had a limited time to help and only a dim idea of what I was finding so odd. Of course the stores are supposed to stay open untiil 7, but everyone knows they close at 6. No, they close at 2 on Saturdays, but that really means 1. And there's Long Saturday, when they stay open until 4, and some really do, but mostly they close at 3. That comes once a month and you're supposed to know when it is. What, you didn't know you can buy a half-loaf of bread at the bakery so it doesn't go bad? And that was just Germany; there were other things to learn about France, not least that a lot of restaurants are closed on Sunday, a lot of other places are closed on Monday, and a lot of places in general are closed for most of August.

But eventually they, and I, learned to get in the groove. Not all of it was comfortable, and it still isn't. But there are other areas of comfort that we never enjoy in the U.S., like the fact that we occupied a table for three hours sipping wine and slowly enjoying our meal without our waitress coming up to us and asking if everything was okay and if she could get us anything else. Hell, it was hard enough to get her attention when we wanted it. Not that we were complaining.

We had all, I believe, turned into beings that I call American-Europeans. The term is based on terms like Italian-Americans: if you are among them, as I was, growing up, you think of them as Italians, because they spoke Italian among themselves and ate Italian food, but if you go to Italy, you'll appreciate how much American is in them. Among other things, their cooking, adapted for a world where some things were, initially, just not available, is subtly different. We identify as Americans, and our hosts also identify us that way. But we've adapted to things that aren't like they were in our previous country. I mentioned that, on my trips to the States where I drive a car and fly there in a jet, I'm still maintaining a carbon footprint way smaller than most Americans because the rest of the year I take the train (for long distance travel), public transportation (to get to the more farflung parts of town), or walk (what's the damn hurry?). Most places in America -- Austin, Texas, for instance, where I go each year -- you can't do that.

The other day, poking around in my computer, I found a stash of photographs I'd thought long lost. I have no idea how they managed to survive the crash of my hard disc in 2007, and to be honest a whole bunch of pictures were, in fact, lost there. But these date from 2005, which may be when I got my first digital camera. There are a lot of photos of my old neighborhood, like the two above, and these:

There were four of these bears on this bridge over the Spree River near my first Berlin apartment.

The bridge over the Spree near my house that I'd cross several times a day to use the subway.

In the Tiergarten, Berlin's Central Park, one end of which was two blocks from my place, there was a sculpture group of WWI German generals, Roon, Moltke, and Hindenburg in the center. Roon here was rumored to wear women's panties into battle -- and that was the least of it.
There was more: there was a picture of a woman I dated on and off (mostly off) for seven years who was finally forced to retire from her job teaching art and English to first graders (and there's another thing they don't do in the US: teach foreign languages to young kids) after a diagnosis of schizophrenia, which, I realized after looking at the picture at the right size for the first time, clearly burns in her lovely blue eyes. My only question was what took them so long, since, unlike me, they were in daily contact with her. There were pictures of the parking lot behind my third apartment, covered with a sudden snow. There were pictures of my first trip to Languedoc, when we drove to Montpellier in her Smart and then drove out each day for the five days we were here, destination unknown. And there are just a few from the graffiti walks I'd take to check out the street art and hope to come upon a Nike, naive paintings of female nudes in oil on board posted by a very mysterious artist nobody seemed to know anything about.

Didn't have to go far for this one: it was across the street from me.
After I moved here, she was revealed to be a 70-something-year-old Danish woman who had switched to yarn-bombing. Recently, though, a friend found a new painting of hers in the subway. The legend continues.

Sorry for going all awash in nostalgia here, but I was as surprised as I could be to find these. There are  more, but I'll spare you. One shows me and Bob Marley, shot on the Wailers' first tour of America by a photographer friend who had been in the Peace Corps in Jamaica in the '60s and helped me discover reggae and write some of the first articles to appear in the US on the topic. And, of course, packed away where I actually know where they are, I have my pictures from here, many of which have appeared on this blog over the last 4 1/2 years, as well as others from my last blog in Berlin.

I've spent a third of my life in Europe now, and if there is such a thing as an American-European -- and I know there is -- I've become one. But change is coming: for a variety of reasons I don't want to stay in France any longer than I have to. Some of this is, of course, life in The Slum, where, I discovered last night, I pay almost as much as Lou and Judy do for nearly 2 1/2 times the space in Nantes. That's not cost-effective. Some if it is due to the reason why I talked their ears off, which had far more to do with the pervasive loneliness that's been gathering here in Montpellier -- to the point where I can't tolerate it much longer -- than it has to do with the amount of time Judy and I have known each other.

So even before this anniversary/milestone trundled into view, I'd started formulating a plan. Some of you -- the ones who actually know me personally -- have some idea what I'm talking about. For the rest of you, please hold on. There will be an announcement here sometime in the next three months, I estimate. Meanwhile, I have some short-term goals: to go to Paris to see the Roy Lichtenstein show, to go to Nantes to visit Lou and Judy before they split, to go to Marseillan to tour the Noilly Prat factory, and to go back to Barcelona at least once, and maybe twice, more. And, well, who knows what else?

There'll be no shortage of material here as long as I can do those things, believe me. I mean, after twenty years, there's still tons of stuff I haven't seen and done. Don't go away.


  1. not to worry, Ed, not going anywhere.

  2. Ed,

    I understand how you feel. Been in Chicago for three years (you'll love the Lichtenstein exhibit, which I saw here) but am feeling isolated and not sure I made the right decision. However, too broke to move and just entrenched enough that I'm stuck.

  3. Twenty years is a whole lot of time. My ten year anniversary was two years ago, almost a third of my life in Europe... and like you, change is a foot! Best of luck with your plans :)

  4. I'm looking forward to reading the next chapter...

  5. good luck with the next change. Let me know what you're doing!

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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