3 minutes, 3 hours, 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months, 3 years, 3 decades, 3 cities, 3 men, 3 friends, 3 lives…
There is a constant theme of trifecta in my life that sways between the desires of want versus need and remains a source for the establishment of a battleground for my id and ego. There are choices, decisions, and demands – all of which add up to a seeming ultimatum.
Three months ago I was flying over Philadelphia by way of Frankfurt by way of the Wonderland that is Berlin. I was poised to start everything all over again in a new or old place that would be the asylum from my last tumultuous yet prosperous adventure. My stomach was rife with taut knots of ambivalence as I saw the azure shaded, metallic colored, neo-modern skyline of the place of my homecoming with those ever-present reminiscent nuances of art deco that I grew to love to hate and hate to love after so long. What was so familiar looked foreign and then again familiar all after a few augmented heartbeats. I felt that feeling of home that I hadn’t realized since I left it.
I had three minutes to decide if I was leaving Berlin. Three of my friends rallied to build a safety net for me with which to jump, though admittedly, there was a very wobbly and crooked tightrope that I had to walk in order to secure the trip back to Philadelphia. They knew the intimate details of my strife and knew the hardheaded nature of my resilience and steadfastly urged me to get the hell out of the Hell I was enduring. My eyes strained to look at the blurry details of flight numbers and departure and arrival times and all of those fussy things that would give me the wings to fly off and away as soon as possible, but for so long I deemed it impossible not knowing it was a possibility at all.
Three weeks I was given to complete the last chapter of my sojourn. I had until December 13th to gather all of my belongings, to tie up loose ends, to finalize all contracts, to notify my brigades, to settle all debts, to remove all traces of me, to give three thousand kisses goodbye, to say so long to my friends, to conceive a new ruse to trick myself into wanting to go back to the USA…
I didn’t have to worry so much about any sort of emotional outcries from the Germans (obviously) but I knew that there would be an onslaught of uncomfortable tears cascading down the forlorn faces of many of my artist brethren. I pondered the guilt and the regret, but they as well as I knew very well that I too would one day become one of those Berliner transients who needed to take his story somewhere else and start a new one altogether. I had survived somehow amongst the meek and the tattered - those who came for the same reasons as everyone else and fueled by penance retreated back to their homeland unwillingly. I had earned that dubious prize of making it to an entire three years, a glorious feat in the same breath, and to take that accomplishment to heart and then all-of-a-sudden start listening to your brain seemed to be quite an anathema to the other semi-permanent denizens I came to know. It was a sort of unexpected expectation for we all had taught ourselves how to live in the moment – and when forced to acknowledge the insecurity of the future, we were plagued with the barring of the unknown.
I had considered Paris and Amsterdam and somewhere in Italy, but I was always possessed by the strong arms of Berlin and its ability to wipe out any source of capital in which to bring yourself to another one. I thought being there was a vehicle to propel myself to where I really wanted to be, and if I was going back “home” I would end up in Chicago or San Francisco or in my true and undying love: New York City.
It was not at all a loss to be in “poor but sexy” Berlin because I learned the valuable lesson that Europeans have been teaching for centuries and that is the enriching pedagogy involving the adage “make art not money” – and I was afforded this luxury in abundance. The only work anyone ever talked about was the work of artists, and to be polarized so respectfully by a socialist society all of whom attend the theater and opera and galleries without the confines or segregation of class or sociopolitical status was a glorious opportunity for professional development; every artist deserves to experience this firsthand.
As much as I hate to admit it, three men made a huge impact on my life while I was in Germany, and as history has shown, triads are a common theme in my life considering my typical serial mistress proclivity.
The first was my Woody Allen.
I met my Woody Allen before I visited Berlin for the second time in 2010 when I stayed for three months. Enamored with the city due to my holiday visit a year prior, I had scoped out potential mates and/or friends on some dating sites and he popped up – spritely, worldly, inviting, hairy, and very German. We got to chatting and he basically coerced (not convinced, hence the German in him) me to take the leap and move to Deutschland, as speculation would not prove anything. The logic made sense to me.
Mesmerized by his disarming and authoritative nature, I fell under his spell and we engaged in a very heated platonic affair that spawned a point of indecision on my behalf after three weeks. I learned that Europeans don’t have these strict rules and regulations when it comes to dating like the Americans do. There is no:
1. Dinner and a Movie Incessantly
2. Meet the Parents
3. Move in Together
4. Get Married
5. Have a Baby
6. Avoid Divorce if at all Possible
Instead, I was being treated to lavish non-materialistic ventures into parks and landmarks and gardens, hours long retrospectives, museum tours, picturesque bike rides, private home art exhibitions (elegantly called “vernissage” in Europe), tours of the wakes of Nazi horrors not found on double-decker bus rides, and impeccable coffee conversations. This was what I had been missing in America while I was working three jobs, I had three houses, and I had three lives (none of which I was actually living).
Woody Allen and I never amounted to anything seriously romantic despite how romantic everything was between us, including the work that we did together that was sprawled out next to picnic fare on the socially fertile grasses of Görlitzer Park on those rare Berlin days when the heavy, low hanging gray sky made way for a few hours of sunshine.
For the so long procession we met at the first place we first met, a bustling and large living room style café called Bilder Buch, translated as Picture Book, that resembles what much of my life felt like when I was with Woody. We sat in the front window and reminisced about what had transpired and he was not at all surprised that I was leaving, but he was shocked that I was going – it is hard to explain. I felt as though my time with him wasn’t up, and though we hadn’t wasted time, perhaps we could have made better of it – but he had surely established himself in my future and we reiterated that we would soon see each other again.
I didn’t tell The Second Man in my Life that I was leaving because frankly, he was the main reason I was leaving. On top of the fact that there were looming legal circumstances involving my communication with him, his entrance into my life was the catalyst for my exit.
While Woody Allen gave me all of those fairytale like experiences we go looking for in Europe, Mr. Doom (for intents and purposes) doled out those tumultuous and bad boy damages that many artists crave in the most masochistic way in the proclamation that it is good for their art. Unabashedly, Mr. Doom gave me a tremendous boost in reinventing myself as an artist and a person, and without him I would have not been as successful as I was while I was in Berlin. Furthermore, nor would I have failed at anything without him.
If you know me for a little while, you may become familiar with my 3 Strikes You’re Out Method. It’s self-explanatory really, and I use this tried and true formula to tolerate, expiate and eradicate problems in my life to the best of my extent. With Mr. Doom, there were three very strong points of contention for us:
1. He was a jealous/possessive lover already in a committed relationship.
2. He had severe substance abuse issues.
3. He was German.
The third time he tried to strangle me to death – with his firm hands that once drew me in with a deceptive loving touch just three weeks after my arrival in Berlin in 2011 – the game was over.
I said goodbye to him with a restraining order, something that took all of my patience and perseverance to get. The last three months of my stay in Berlin was riddled with ridicule from the German government including the police, the district attorney and the family court in my trying to explain to them the circumstances. It was then that I learned again (as expatriates do over and over and over) that it is never a good thing to point out any (nonexistent) flaws in their culture, and I was punished mercilessly for even mentioning it to them.
Needless to say, his psychosis, dependence and genetics made for a phenomenal lay.
“Be happy,” The Third Man to Make me Different said sternly in his deep robotic voice – his naked body pressed against my shielded one. I was layered with as much clothing as I could adorn my body with in order to supplement the three pieces of luggage I was taking on the trip back to where I came from. Teddy Bear (his nickname) made it a point to be there when I was leaving despite my request for him not to be. He was to drive me to the airport but I refused, vehemently. Still, he was there to see the very end.
In foresight, I thought he would be the one to make me cry and have me kicking and screaming (perhaps in public, could you imagine!?) because he represented all that I wanted and actually needed in Berlin. He was the hunter/gatherer, the intellect, the supporter, the amazing lover, the arguer, the jester, the teacher, the learner, the blond hair blue eyed wonder that represents that fabled ambassador to German culture.
There he was standing before me with that body of his, about to be behind me – and it was not sexual, as much as it always made me want to jump his bones. At that moment I realized how much I would miss that discomfort of the German habit of being allergic to clothes. His masculine visage speckled with wise grayish hairs and curtains of fine lines and fine lips that were always frowning even when he was laughing or smiling and the big brooding brow and the wispy effortless handsomeness of his mane and the detached and adorable lobes of his oversized ears that somehow made me think he was good for breeding and his strong broad shoulders and his heaping fuzzy pectorals with the pinkish brown tiny nib nipples that are the target of his want and could always render him powerless and his belly that I had filled so many times with rich and buttery Southern meals that would make him sick and give him heartburn but he was always a hedonist and loved the love I put into my food and he could not as a German admit his health ails anyway and his plump buttocks and appetizing manness and sturdy haunches and firm legs with the sculpted calves and his meaty arms and perfect looking feet even though I’m not into feet and his ridged back like an animal of sorts that gives him such a regal gate and those soft but robust fingers that I would massage when he was stressed out and the one little finger that was injured when he was robbed in Turkey and the part of his back that was sensitive to the touch because of this and the scar on his knee because of that and all the other stories of his body…
I could have been happy with him but I refused. His propensity for what he says are “American Librarians,” was the blessing and the curse that matched my desire for just plain Germans. He was a just plain German in the most explicable way and that was what brought me to and away from him. His overbearing lack of emotion was something that he admitted to readily and reproached his upbringing (a post-war baby boomer) and he could not un-teach himself to be a just plain German who does not emote or cry or show any signs of weakness. Instead, he would play me operas and songs with telling content of how he could possibly feel under different nature/nurture circumstances (one aria in particular involved a woman who was dying of cancer and was happy that she met a beautiful young boy who smoked cigarettes so they could die together and in love simultaneously). It was this kind of subtle behavior that enraptured me, but I too could not deny my heritage. Americans are obnoxious when it comes to most anything – and there is a certain point where the polarity of opposites attracting can have a negative impact with all those wants and needs that fall within the chasm between two individuals.
The Teddy Bear taught me how to cuddle. His wordless actions of intimacy were much revered by me. Before I went to Berlin I was considered to be cold and distant by many of my lovers and friends and family – and I took pride in it (get over it). I thought that I was protecting myself and whomever I was with from the dark side of being an artist and an opportunistic businessman, for I’ve always put my work first. When I told my friends back home what was going on they thought I had become someone else. They never knew me to be so emotional, but when surrounded by Germans, it is hard not to have that element magnified.
Many times over he disrobed in front of me and gave me a nonchalant look – that threat of the logical German way to solve all problems. I closed the laptop, put the books away, returned the paperwork to its folders, turned out the lights, finished my wine, reluctantly removed my clothes, and made it to bed with him. He would throw my body into a position without much retort from me, and we would become this seamless spoon of one rather than two. He taught me how to appreciate time and to appreciate things that are not so readily seen by the eyes.
“There is ice cream in the freezer,” he would tell me when I was myself at my most American, bitching and complaining about everything, hysterical and craving hard alcohol. Nothing was right, everything was wrong, and all I wanted to do was jump out of the window. Perhaps it was a cry for help, not in the mainstream way, but to get him to actually open up, to for once show some emotion (other than anger, which Germans are impeccable at distributing).
“The fucking dishwasher is fucking broken what did you do to it!” he yelled at me in complete deception. The dishwasher was fine. What was wrong was that I had again wrote one of my epic letters (this time with little signature drawings inspired by a French friend of mine) latently explaining to him how much I loved him. He was frothing about the mouth and it was scary. Why couldn’t he embrace me with unhidden words instead? I am a writer, it’s not that hard to please me. I’m lying.
It was then that we both knew that it (whatever that means) would never work. He did finally take the time to explain to me (again) that he cannot emote and I had to explain to him that it was something that I wanted and needed and I would not compromise in this regard.
Several uncomfortable dinner parties, excursions, cuddling rendezvous and the like later, I was still torn to pieces. Woody Allen had shown me the romance, Mr. Doom was a fuckhead who was the best fuck of my life, and Teddy Bear had wooed me with psychological intimacy. I bid them all adieu.
There were three of my closest friends in Berlin I did not want to part with – and if it was not such an impossibility for them or me or in reality, I would have carried one in my checked suitcase, the other in my carry-on luggage, and the other in my other carry-on bag, because the thought of leaving them behind was too much to bear.
Knowing me, they knew I wouldn’t cry – and admittedly I wanted to, desperately, though the coldness of the Teutonic way that I had become accustomed to did not allow my cheeks to become wetted with that salty and sanctimonious fluid, at least not until my final three minutes in Berlin when I was at the gate and it all became true.
“DeVo,” I heard my best friend, Carrie, call out as I was frantically meandering about, my eyes darting in my dizzy head looking for one last trace of familiarity in Tegel Airport, a place I’ve come and gone to so many times and once fornicated in (coincidentally the last time I had a real cry was in one of the airline’s offices where I cried Mr. Doom back into my arms). When I saw Carrie, my rock and beautiful weeping willow, with her characteristic passion red lipstick and bohemian chic style and traces of that southern genteel charm and her delicate grace – I collapsed into a toddler-like fit of sobbing, unstoppable and unclogging so much of my repressed feelings.
“Don’t you ever tell anyone about this,” I laughed while quickly hiding the evidence in a handkerchief. She knew me too well to ever mention those pivotal waterworks to anyone else, as to her it was a secret gift that she had been longing for since we first met and she found out about all the addendum and appendixes to my open book existence. She handed me a wooden heart as a memento.
There would be no more texts or emails or facebook messages or phone calls with the simple statement of “meet at our place” (a Mediterranean-owned smoker’s café in the center of one of many gay districts that boasted a French bistro style, high art photography, a cute and cunning spicy brown staff, strong Turkish coffee, and ever-lit taper candles that gave the whole place a welcoming glow). There would be no more meetings at the fountain that was adjacent to her house – where we would foolishly try to roll our own cigarettes while we pondered the meaning of our lives in the rabbit hole and talked about our fears and our dreams and our nightmares as bits of decipherable German ran in and out of our ears from a plethora of native and foreign passerby. There would be no more walks through the timeless and amorphous city where we learned how to stand still for a while and to appreciate our craft and calling more so than we ever could anywhere else.
The other two friends had the same non-reaction reaction as Carrie when I told them I was heading back to Philadelphia: the eyes swept down to the floor, the look of nausea on their faces, the pensive posture…
“You’re leaving,” more of a statement than a question.
“Ja, schatzi,” I returned, solemnly.
It took three officials to get me onto the plane expeditiously. The first to greet and stop me was a man of charming and loose authority, with the inherent blond hair and blue eyes that I realized I would soon be loathing to long before long. I was impressed with myself that I could place his accent, and when he told me “Please do not think I am angry, I am just frustrated because my English ist not so gut,” I was seduced all over again by the German way.
He led me back to a room where all the other refugees were waiting to hear the decision of whether or not they could or could not leave the country and the repercussions therein. I was starting to feel American again, and less like a Berliner – for I was being treated with this kind of grandiose respect that I always found jarring considering our bipartisan ways. My flight from Frankfurt was leaving in three hours and the young, beautiful officer vowed that he would get me to the plane on time.
The head officer was full of malaise and not so concerned with what was on and/or missing from my passport. He was even more discontented with the enormous stack of paperwork that I had given him in regards to my in-hiding stint initiated by my troubles with Mr. Doom (and mandated by the police). If I learned anything (though I think I’ve learned everything) about Germans it’s that they love love love paperwork, and it is the only acceptable means of even attempting to get through any sort of jurisdiction and you can never give them more than enough.
He gave me a once over through the top brim of his glasses, made some copies and waved to his colleague to continue on with me to another room. On the way, the handsome young officer explained to me every detail of what was to happen next – and reassured me that I would be on the flight on time (Germans with their timeliness!).
He went through my belongings, looking for contraband or whatever and when he started to go through one bag – I started to cry in spite of myself. I apologized profusely, but there it was – all of my life in three little bags, and I thought of all three months and all three years in which I went on this trip to find myself, after losing three close colleagues to death, after three botched attempts at relationships ended, after three Germans wreaked havoc on my desire, after three friends became my family…
Naturally, he did not understand these liquid things coming out of my eyes and instead of attempting to console me, like a good German, he expedited the process in an alarming pace. He threw my clothes back into the three bags without so much as looking at me. His co-worker entered with paperwork and a camera and the camera was broken and they couldn’t translate the German to English on the form and the fingerprinting paper was missing and the whole thing was a debacle. I laughed for a moment; my life was a spectacle.
The other officer was cute and typische deutcher too and I felt goose bumps with every finger that he took in both of his hands and pushed onto the black ink and then the little squares of my carbon footprint recorder – I was aroused. I am disgusting.
Anyway, the young officer finished up the proceedings, urged me to contact this jurisdiction and that, summed up what happened and what might possibly happen and then escorted me to the smoking lounge. “I want to give you one last good luck cigarette before you leave Germany,” he started, smirking at me with his gorgeous, blue-eyed smile.
“I am very sorry about what ist happen heres to you,” he started, careful not to make me cry like a good American again, “but you should haves a good future and I wish the bestest for you.” I didn’t cry.
Always inquisitive (and flirtatious), I asked him about his life and he told me he grew up wanting to be an official at football games. He comes from a family of police from a small town and he was stationed in the airport against his choice. When he started working at the airport he was disappointed but quickly learned that he loved helping people and wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.
He walked me to the gate and asked about the departure time. I was early. There I stood in line just before the flight started boarding and it was actually happening. I looked at my fellow passengers, many of whom were looking at me with skeptical eyes considering I was being escorted by a policeman. He shook my hand and I felt important, almost superior – or at least I tried to tell myself that to avoid embarrassment. And then I was on and off back to America.
I was scared shitless that the Americans were going to give me hell for the discrepancies involved with my visa issues. I didn’t think it would be the Germans that would address my problem but rather those dramatic Americans. After seeing the Philly skyline I felt relieved, but not relaxed and I thought that it wouldn’t take a long time to find my footing again. The last time I came back to the USA it took me three weeks to find three jobs.
“Are you with the military?” the customs agent asked. I laughed and told him no, I was an artist – and I said it confidently (for the first time in America) and he let me through.
I saw my friends and I was enveloped in the feeling of home. So many things have changed, but the overall vibe has stayed the same. Still haunted by memories of those I have lost (and those who have lost me), I succumb every once and again to nostalgia and longing. There are buildings where I made firsts and lasts, there are locales that have distinctive smells that remind me of so many things, there are certain places I go where I feel uncertain. I took the other three cities off the list and decided to stay in Philly, my first true love of a city, and in some way I had a lot of reconciling to do.
I’ve been here three months now and like a good first, true love – Philly is starting to act like that old ex-boyfriend who you’ve been hooking up with again. He’s starting to show his old annoying habits again, he is unruly, and takes much more than he gives, leaving me in a state of regret. Sure there are all those underlying love nuggets, but generally I am starting to remember why I left him in the first place.
The reverse culture shock doesn’t help, and the reality of that shows in the superficial, wasteful culture here that I didn’t realize was so grating until I made my first trip out of the country. I don’t fit in anywhere, and I don’t have the desire to do so, it just seems as though that is the M.O. of this society.
I’m actually keeping a running list of culture shock instances:
1. The lights and/or TV are always on. There is no inclination to save electricity.
2. The subway doors open on their own.
3. No regards for personal space and everyone will talk to anyone.
4. Working (on the phone) and eating while walking down the street.
5. Not a lot of public clocks and most are broken anyway.
6. People don’t smoke everywhere.
7. Ill-fitting jeans and long shorts.
8. Hold wine glasses by the cup rather than the stem.
9. Commercialism/Consumerism/Capitalism is ever-present.
10. Acronyms for everything.
11. TV bleeping, overall censorship.
12. Pets on leashes.
13. Gamers and video game culture.
14. Cheese in advertising literally/figuratively. Lots of cheese.
15. Vertical versus Horizontal living.
16. Masculinity of German gays versus American gays (latter less prevalent).
17. Jobs pay a lot of money.
18. More southpaws.
19. Sports culture – people judge you by sports/teams you like.
20. Tinted windows in cars.
21. Dented/damaged cars.
22. Married with Children obsession – in an unnatural way.
23. Immediate and constant customer service.
24. Superficiality and emotions i.e. saying “I love you” effortlessly.
25. Dirty toilets (from men not sitting when peeing).
26. Everyone is medicated.
27. Excessive alcohol and shot drinking.
28. Credit cards as preferred method of payment.
29. Lack of bookstores.
30. Security everywhere.
31. Prices of goods: healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food.
32. Yoga obsession.
33. Plastic surgery.
For thirty years I’ve lived in over thirty different homes and now I find myself back in the tri-state area next to the peninsula of my upbringing. I stayed too long almost against my will in Berlin, and every second I feel like I am staying too long here in Philly. It’s been so long since I’ve been to New York - who knows if there’s a place for me to stay there, if I am welcomed. Is there a snooze button for the city that never sleeps?