Ich spreche kein Deutsch

Coming to You From the Depths of a Sunday Hangover

Indeed, I have a hangover and indeed, I have not ventured from my apartment today. The hangover is born of the fact that last night, one of my friends here had a dinner for her 30th birthday at a (shockingly very good!) Mexican restaurant and arranged for this to involve bottomless margaritas. I drank mine slowly enough that at no point was I particularly drunk, but let me tell you that even when drunk slowly, Margaritas are a) VERY sugary and b) full of tequila.

I’ve had a bit of a week. I’ve been sleeping poorly, my shower is busted and wrangling the plumbers is of course taking longer than it should, I’ve been absorbed in chasing down a promising freelance project, and there have been various other things that while not bad, have simply made my day-to-day feel a little skewed. I was very much looking forward to having a weekend of doing essentially nothing, for the first time in a while. And I was tired enough yesterday that part of me wanted to bow out of this dinner, which I knew would be comprised almost entirely of German strangers.

But while New York City Tania is very adept at flaking on plans when I’m not “in the mood,” Berlin Tania is trying very hard not to be that person. Berlin Tania needs people who invite her to do things on Saturday nights. And when you’re new in a city, let alone country, these rather ordinary social things - like being invited to a German friend’s birthday dinner in your favorite part of town - take on a sort of milestone quality. You’re not simply socializing, you’re succeeding at the greater project of being here - doubly so because most of the people at the party will be actual Germans, and not the transient Anglophones who populate the younger expat circles.

One of the things I’ve noticed about moving to a foreign country is that it has the rather amusing side-effect of making you interesting. I say amusing because very little about my daily life, my job, or me, has actually changed in the six months (!!) since I’ve moved here. But suddenly, you’re not just that girl who has lived in the same city almost her whole life and has had the same freelance gig more-or-less unbroken for the last six years. You’re the girl who moved to a foreign country by herself. And now everyone - your old friends from home, your new friends in Berlin, the Germans you meet at a birthday dinner - wants to know why you decided to do this thing and how you’re making it all work, and to tell you how brave and adventurous you are. It’s all very fun and flattering, even if I mostly have a hard time seeing it that way.

The moral of the story is that despite my initial ambivalence about dragging myself out of the house to get hungover, I had a very lovely time last night. It’s nice to walk into a social situation that has a high potential for awkwardness, and have several people make a point of being nice to you, and seem genuinely interested in learning what you’re about. One of the things that was appealing to me about being an “expat” is that moving abroad fosters a community in which people are very open and helpful, and in which a more reserved person like myself is rewarded for taking certain kinds of social risks. Choosing to live abroad is a fairly powerful uniting factor, in that it’s a significant lifestyle/worldview thing you automatically have “in common” with everyone else who is doing it. And it puts everyone in the same boat of needing friends and resources.

That I already knew going in, but I’ve generally been surprised at how friendly and helpful German people - or to be specific, Germans who live in left-leaning urban areas - have been overall. Openness to outsiders is another way in which Berlin echoes a lot of the things I value about New York City. And I’ve noticed that a lot of Berliners seem to really value the city’s heavy international component as integral to its identity and appeal, similar to how New Yorkers do. It’s a nice point of commonality.

And let’s be honest, it’s fun to be the “exotic” one for a minute, and to have people find your presence at a social gathering inherently interesting.

This, by the way, is where I should insert the explanatory note that Berlin-dwelling Germans, and/or younger Germans who work in any sort of business or cultural sector, overwhelmingly speak excellent English. Non-Anglophone foreigners are also more likely to arrive in the city knowing English than German. This makes Berlin a notoriously difficult city in which to actually learn German, because you don’t get to practice - Germans are generally delighted to flex their near-perfect English by talking to you, while apologizing for how bad their near-perfect English is. And you’re like helloooo I live in *your* country and go full deer-in-the-headlights whenever anyone speaks German in my general direction, please accept my immeasurable gratitude that you’re willing to bother with me at all, let alone making an effort to make me feel included.

I will admit is that the project of learning German is less inherently appealing to me than the project of learning, say, French or Spanish would be - that’s the drawback of having chosen this particular country to experience foreign living. But not speaking any German is becoming more annoying by the day, and despite the fact that the city is essentially bilingual my total ineptitude beyond “please” and “thank you” does meet with the occasional look. I’ve gotten a few of them in the past week… a couple from people whom, rather strangely, work at stores near my flat and are used to seeing my English-speaking self around. It felt, in my vulnerable ausländer state, like an admonishment, like “you still can’t do this?”

And then last night, at a dinner where I was surrounded mostly by women (and a couple of men) in their 30s who work in film/media/etc - i.e., my immediate peer group - I had an explicitly emotional reaction to not being able to participate in the general conversation, and to be the person whom everyone had to make an exception for. Being able to speak German suddenly seemed like this fun thing I was missing out on.

I am planning to start language classes in January - later than I’d initially hoped, but I’m feeling soothed by the idea that I’ll be less helpless in a few months’ time. Last night I very optimistically stated that by my friend’s next birthday party, I’d be able to converse all in German. The Germans at the table were politely dubious. I’ll keep you posted.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen,

P.S. I’m sort of low on new photos for this one. Since I got my new camera two weeks ago, I have accumulated a backlog of 250+ new images on my hard drive to sort through, and I’m playing around with some new color grading tools, which is slowing down the process a bit. Here’s the autumnal view from my bedroom window:

Tania Strauss
IG: @taniastrauss

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