To this day, when, in a fit of panic or bonhomie or sheer sentimentality, I am trying to convince someone that I am cooler than I seem, I mention my semester abroad in Berlin.
I was pretty broke in Berlin. I'm not exactly sure why; I was well-funded by my family and I paid maybe 220 DM (a now defunct currency) a month for my one bedroom apartment. That comes out to somewhere a little above $100, is my recollection. The apartment had unfinished wood floorboards, a plug-in shower, coal ovens for heating. The guy I was subletting from left me some coal, also a space heater because I worried I would asphyxiate myself with the coal. A friend christened it the Commie Hut.
I don't know how to describe Berlin, or the Berlin I lived in. In many ways, it's more like Los Angeles than any other city I know, or it was then. I lived in Friedrichshain (10 Samariter Str.). Around me were those tiled buildings put up during the communist years; they were always dropping their tiles. Everything was either very new or a little seedy in an inoffensive way. The streets around my house were full of dog shit; there was more dogshit per square foot than anywhere else I've ever seen. In my recollection there weren't that many people on the street; I don't think that's correct.
I locked myself out of my apartment once. In the end, after being plied by my bathrobe clad next-door neighbor with liquor and cigarettes (Gitanes) and coffee I made my way in by climbing over the wall separating our shared balcony and kicking in the french door that led to my bedroom. Before that, the guy working at the restaurant downstairs told me he didn't know how to get in touch with the landlord, but (after some discussion in a language I didn't know) told me I could move in with the guy at the end of the bar.
I slept on a filthy futon on the floor. I had one bowl, one plate, one fork, etc. Cigarettes were cheap in those days. I didn't have a drug habit. And yet I was always broke.
Because the thing was, I longed and longed for bourgeois comfort. Not instead of, just in addition to. I was going to school at the Humboldt. It was also in former East Berlin, but in Mitte. Mitte, I think, was refurbished in an antique private train-car kind of way. One of my classes was near this place called Hackescher Hof. Hackescher Hof served fresh-squeezed orange juice with its continental breakfast.
One of the things I could never adjust to in Germany, even in Berlin, was the generalized discomfort. I had never realized until then the extent to which my country prized comfort. If a capitalist good can be made more comfortable, more pleasant, the United States will spare no effort to make it so. I didn't know how admirable this was until I got to Germany. There was very little fresh-squeezed orange juice in Germany.
I spent my money on orange juice and opera tickets and the complete works of Heinrich Heine. I bought a fake gilt mirror for the Commie Hut. I didn't take any pictures. I took the longest tram ride imaginable out to the planetarium to see Jackie Brown undubbed. I went down to a gentrified district I can no longer remember the name of and got tuna rolls to go and walked along the banks of the Spree Canal and imagined what it would be like to have an enormous apartment with a balcony. I was obsessed with milch-kaffee and marzipan rolls coated with chocolate.
I don't know. It all seems like a pretty standard response to ego-depletion, in retrospect.
I was wandering around Hollywood this morning, thinking about ego depletion, eating a breakfast burrito, letting my neighbor, of whom I am fond, take my picture for a t-shirt he's making for his Landmark Forum course, and somehow it made all that come back to me.