David fished a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it for me. "Of course you're having a crisis. Look, everybody is having a crisis all of the time. You either feel like you're too tied up and thus prevented from doing what you want to do, or you feel like you're not tied up enough and have no idea what you want to do. The only thing that allows any relief is what we tend to call purpose, or what I think about in terms of direction." ... The main problem with desires, Berlin made clear, is that they're not nearly as authoritative as we wish they were.
One year ago I flew to Berlin for the first time to check out my escape route. I was 23 and had become both unsure of and terrified by the seemingly stable life that had emerged in New York after college. When I graduated, I wanted nothing more than a job writing for a newspaper. When I got one I realized I wanted to get out of New York.
I sent off applications for research grants in Germany. I'd heard it was fairly easy to get one if you could just focus long enough to put all the pieces together. You'd need, for instance, to figure out a plausible project. Enter: "German Print Media and the Challenges of the Digital Century." I got funding for a year to move to Berlin with little to no requirements from my financiers besides the expectation that I would be productive somehow.
I had never been, but apparently like a lot of people my age I felt something pulling me to Berlin, pulling me towards the Germans. I had a German last name that I rarely used: it's hard to say and spell, and I was always entertained by the idea of being able to control how much I was broadcasting my Judaism.
I also just wanted to be around Germans ever since one afternoon in college when my Roman history professor stared me down in a parking lot behind her office and told me with great intensity that no people on earth has had to come to terms with doing something as horrible as the Germans. There was something to be gained from living among them. I also knew from traveling with her through Italy to look at ruins in college that she had a fellowship in Germany during graduate school and had a German boyfriend. She spoke the language quite well, and one afternoon in Sicily used it to ask other tourists where we could go swimming. I don't think I'd ever heard German spoken before, but the words sounded totally goofy and beautiful.
To hedge my instincts, I told myself that, as far as flights of fancy go, moving to Berlin for a year to research German newspapers would be something I could explain pretty easily (if and) when stability became attractive again and I turned up in New York after a year to find jobs. Growing up in the city and going to a college where everyone ends up in law school or working in finance, those are the type-A reasons you learn to govern your life around. What is the most prudent and rational adventure I can squander a year of my 20s on?
I flew over for a week on Air Berlin to stay with my friend Tomas and see if any of my excuses to leave my job and my city could hold water. Tomas had a research grant of his own — something about Turkish women and the veil in Germany. What we did that week is hard to say. We definitely sat outside a lot. I remember finishing Tom Scocca's Beijing Welcomes You in the Tiergarten, and thinking about how having the chance to live abroad and...read more