Wednesday, July 15, 2009
"Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin." Marlene Dietrich
It's not so surprising in retrospect that a decision made in the past affects the course of the future. Nevertheless, at the time a choice is made, one may have little, if any, idea of the end result. Call me a Libra but I never excelled at decision-making, an act I liken to dropping a twig from a bridge and watching it float down stream, sometimes adhering to a rock and other times sailing out of sight.
One day, some time ago, I spied a tattered posting on a bus shelter near the Gates of Columbia University in New York. These glass enclosures have long served the community as billboards for residents to rent apartments, sell household items, advertise services and announce events. The notice announced a six week, black/white film photography course at Barnard College. I enrolled, and soon found myself shoulder to shoulder in a cramped darkroom with the women of Barnard. For the next few years, I was like a rabbit down a hole, ensconced in my cubby illuminated by a red safe light, making prints of what I'd observed in the world outside.
So too, it was with German. At fifteen, upon entering my sophomore year of High School in Kentucky, I had the opportunity to learn a language. The options were three: Spanish, French or German. The popular students chose French, the practical and foresighted ones took Spanish while the odd kids--the intellectuals, geeks, artists and romantics opted for German. For me, I joined the eccentrics, a club of which I still count myself a member.
Had it not been for German, I would never have spent my nineteenth summer as a Gastarbeit, Guest Worker at a Hotel on the Island of Sylt in the North Sea, where I developed my first crush on a boy called Hanti, a seventeen year old motorcyclist who died in a mishap the following summer; I would never have met Andreas, a blond haired young man I found perched on the back of a park bench, bathed in lamp light, one summer evening in the Hofgarten of Duesseldorf, nor would I have been befriended by a Anja, a beautiful young photographer who impressed me with her impressive black/white images of lesbian friends and lovers. And I would never have gone to Berlin, a city that I have returned to time and time again, and still consider moving back to.
Berlin is like the former lover who still wanders in and out of your day dreams and surprises you upon awakening in the middle of the night. Not to be there is a sweet loss, the taste of which you never want to entirely expunge from your tongue. There's a German slang word called Geil. In English geil means horned or horny, but it also means exciting, and Berlin is a geile Stadt. It exudes history, and sex, an act which once committed compels you to commit again and again.
Often I hear Berlin compared to New York, but I do not find it like New York, unless you mean the New York that existed in the sixties or seventies. But Berlin is nothing like New York today. In America one can carry a gun but not drink a beer on the street; in Berlin it is illegal to carry a gun, but one can join friends out doors and consume as much Beer or Wine as you want without fear of penalty.
The cost of living in New York crushes the artist's impulse. The demand of one's time to earn income entire off sets the time to be spent on creating art or just joining friends to exchange ideas over a glass of wine. Who but a millionaire can afford a space in NYC large enough to accommodate large groups or make big paintings or direct performance pieces, while in Berlin such space can still be had.
Sex can also be had in Berlin. Assuredly, sex is still available in New York City, but it also comes with a price. First off, who has any privacy in New York? Who can afford privacy? Everyone lives with someone else. A big question, at least among gay men, is "Can you host?" And how few can answer that question affirmatively. It stops a relationship even before it has had the chance to begin.
There's definitely a German attitude toward sex that differs from the American. Americans are like the teenagers who talk about sex all the time but don't have it, whereas the Germans, actually, do have it. New York gay men are looking for the perfect lay, almost a "trophy lay", you might call it, that they can show off to friends. It's almost as if the Americans measure themselves by how perfect the guy is with whom they engage in sex. But, mind you, I am discussing this from a gay male perspective.
When I've been in Germany, in Berlin, I have had encounters with men that I never would have had in New York. Not to count on my fingers, but I've met men who I found attractive who were quite different from myself: albeit, taller, shorter, more muscled, tattooed, or edgy. What I'm saying is that my observation was that the German or Berliner was not looking for their twin, or their perfect idea, or their trophy, but rather looked for a genuine encounter in the present.
I want to return to Berlin, not to escape New York, but to step into a stimulating environment that encourages creativity, adventure and risk.