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,
T

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
www.tlstrauss.com
IG: @taniastrauss

Still the One Pool Where I'd Happily Drown... Sort Of?

Plus some photos with a decentered lens.

Hello! I’m not sure whether I owe a bigger apology to the LCD admirers or the LCD ignoramuses, but I probably owe an apology somewhere for that subject line.

It’s been well over a month, hasn’t it? I know, I’m awful. I was using my trip to New York as an excuse, but I got back to Berlin a week ago, so that excuse has run out. So here I am, summoning the self-discipline to spin my guilt into prose.

ANYWAY.

The New York trip was wonderful, and clarifying in ways that I didn’t anticipate but that make sense in retrospect. Within mere hours of my arrival, I began to experience a sort creeping unease. There was disorientation at finding myself at “home,” which almost immediately gave way to guilt that it didn’t quite feel like “home,” which then gave way to relief that it’s not, entirely, “home.” And though those feelings softened and became more textured, they didn’t exactly change over the next three weeks.

Miraculously these feelings were not brought on by the experience of emerging, jetlagged and disoriented, at Penn Station at rush hour after getting off the plane. OMG who are all these people and why are they in such a hurry is an actual text message I sent multiple people at the time, because Penn Station at rush hour is not a mode of human behavior that exists in Germany and apparently I’ve gotten soft.

But I did grow up in Manhattan, and a certain level of day-to-day chaos seems to be encoded into my vibrational frequency. Within a couple of days of being back I started to feel this familiar thing inside me, getting sharper and faster and brighter. And when I would ride the subway or walk below 14th Street or see the buildings rise around Central Park, an internal voice would start to hum that this place, New York, is the only real place in the whole world and I don’t understand how anyone lives anywhere else.

I love New York City, in a way that I never will and never could love any other place on earth. It’s home, after all, and that voice and the particular energy that produces it is a very real thing - my childhood best friend and I talk about it constantly. But my best friend has lived somewhere else for many years now, and I have also heard her talk about a complicated sense of relief that, as much as she thrives on being home, she doesn’t actually have to stay there.

Up until this year, I had never lived any place other than New York that I actually liked. So I had no idea what that strange mixture cellular-level love, and relief at not living here, actually was. But now I think I’m starting to.

You guys, New York stresses me out.

I’m not talking about Penn-Station-at-rush-hour stress - I thrive on that nonsense and probably always will. I’m talking about Why have all these 26-year-olds published a novel and I haven’t? stress. What does it mean that I’m 34 and can’t afford both an apartment and health insurance? stress. Why don't I have a partner and how do I find one even though I’m not sure I actually care about this at all? stress. 

Why do I feel confused and bad about my life even though I actually mostly like my life? stress.

A lot of people who aren’t from New York City come to it with the idea that it will turn them into whatever it is they’re meant to be, or at least allow them to experiment with what they might be. But if you grow up in New York City, you don’t have that relationship with it - it’s just the place that you’ve always been you. You have no frame of reference that isn’t built on an entire lifetime’s worth of ideas about who you are and where you fit, within a very extreme set of cultural standards for achievement. And for all of its supposed freedom New York is actually a very difficult place to take stock of your life in a way that’s healthy - it’s so expensive, and so competitive, and so performative, and much more judgmental than outsiders often realize. You can’t just be, you have to keep up with it, all the time. 

While I have plenty of Berlin-related anxieties, they’re currently more logistical than existential. And logistical anxieties are solvable, even if you have some hair-tearing moments in the process. Why just today, I went to the Bürgeramt (Germany’s version of the DMV-slash-Purgatory) and FINALLY sorted out this bullshit that’s been making my mail go missing since August. If I spoke German I would probably have figured all this out in August, but… such is the tradeoff for living in a place that, I suddenly realize, makes me rather stupidly happy.

Last week I was actually shocked by how absolutely, purely happy I was to be back - even that first afternoon, when I was so jetlagged that I nearly stepped in front of a car on my way to the hardware store. Sunday I took one of my favorite walks, along the Landwehr Kanal en route to a meeting in Kreuzberg, and the sight of the last orange leaves clinging to the trees in front of those terraced European-style buildings literally made my heart swell in my chest.

I am here. My clothes, and some of my books, are also now here. I’m making more plans with more people, and lining up volunteer work, and thinking more seriously about next year’s travel, and looking for my own apartment in 6-12 months no longer feels like an abstraction obscured by a cloud of “what ifs.” I’m weirdly relaxed, not counting this morning’s debacle where I lost my keys on the way to bureaucratic Purgatory and then had to take a cab. I somehow, crazily, did this thing where I moved to a foreign country and it’s working.

I swear, my heart physically swelled.

I know there will be times when things in Berlin are lacking and wrong. Odds are I won’t stay here forever. And there’s an important thing Germany does not have: my family, and access to a circle friends I’ve cultivated over literal decades. Hellooooo guys I know I’ve told you this like a million times but PLEASE COME VISIT ME. Berlin is awesome. I like it and you will too.

All the love,
T


Tania Strauss
www.tlstrauss.com
IG: @taniastrauss

Home We Roam, and Other Stupid Rhymes on a Sunday.

Hello friends!

I promised myself I'd keep to an every-other-week-ish schedule with these, and it's now been a month. Le sigh. How totally predictable of me.

I did have "reasons" for delaying. I caught one of those interminable non-severe colds that gives you just enough leeway to function, but digs its chilly fingers into your lungs and ensures you're a little extra grumpy about having to function for like a full two weeks. Then that ended and the impeachment drama began to unfold, and I got trapped refreshing my feeds nonstop from 2pm - 12am CET instead of doing something worthwhile with my evenings.

It was all rather insular and confining, and it put me in a bit of a funk. I wrote last time that I'm somewhat apprehensive about the long cold dark of winter here, and that apprehension was quite tangible for a couple weeks. I was feeling isolated, a decent amount of it was self-imposed, and as I mentioned fall is much further along than I'm used to in September. It's full-on chilly, to the point where not having my warm clothes has proved to be a problem, and the incremental loss of daylight is very pronounced here due to the higher latitude.


On the other hand, fall is beautiful in Berlin. The trees have been quite golden for a couple of weeks now, and light is a clear pale yellow and slanted even at the top of the afternoon. On nice days it blends with the foliage to create a sort of perpetual golden hour, and autumn rain has a particular sort of charm anywhere - it's fresh and bracing but not frigid, and it leaves orange leafdrifts on the pavement.

It feels like a transitional time, and not just seasonally. The summer honeymoon is giving way to an ever-increasing sense of reality: I've been here for 5(!!) months, and the fact that I've moved - not taken a jaunt, but actually moved - is making itself felt in all kinds of ways.

I wrote a couple of months back that I somewhat deliberately orchestrated all this so that it didn't feel like I was making a decision, with all the weight that decision-making implies. But the truth is that it very much was one, and the fact that I'm about to go to NYC for a few weeks seems to underscore this. I have to cram in a lot of people and activities and purchases and Mexican food, because I don't live there anymore and it might be another 6-12 months before the next opportunity. And I'll be hauling at least two suitcases of clothes and books back to Berlin, because if this is now where I live, I need to be prepared for things like snow and hiking trips and wedding invitations, and the desperate need to look up a line from some random Louise Glück poem 2am. Pray for me on this book-selecting thing, because it's going to be HELL.

If/when I return to the USA for good, it will no longer be possible to just throw my shit in a suitcase or two and fly home. I'll have to sell stuff, ship stuff, and deregister with about five different government agencies. Of course it's all totally doable, but not in little non-threatening bits, the way the move here played out. In addition to the logistical and financial annoyances, I'd be giving up my laboriously-acquired legal right to live in an EU country with comprehensive public healthcare. That would, in fact, be a serious choice. I don't think I would make it lightly. Rather tellingly, I have said several times that "I'm going home for October" and "l'll be home in November" in a single breath, because both statements feel true.


So now there's suddenly this question of what it means that I have, truly, "chosen" Berlin for the foreseeable future. It will probably take a while to figure out, but it's already clear that the answer won't come from simply wandering around with a camera in my hand. And realistically, I can't spend the whole winter just working on my book in isolation without completely losing my mind and becoming extremely alienated from my new environs.

So... it suddenly feels urgent that I do things and meet people, basically. Last week I went to a meeting of the Berlin chapter of Democrats Abroad, and was delighted (and not entirely surprised) to find it was full mainly of sharp-looking women under 40. I literally *grabbed* the sign-up sheet for 2020 GOTV volunteers, partly because I genuinely feel this work is urgent but also because I just want to make some smart, progressive ladyfriends. I'm planning to sign up for German language classes this winter, am thinking of finding some literary and/or photography groups, and am just generally racking my brain for shit to join.

I cannot even begin to tell you how fundamentally un-Tania-like this is. I am a lot of things, but a "joiner" has never been one of them. But one of the most fascinating things about traveling, let alone moving, by yourself is how quickly it throws into relief that some traits are fundamental, others are habitual, and most are somewhere in between. And it suddenly becomes very necessary to your happiness and survival to rethink the traits that don't serve you -- and often, much easier to let go of them. I have thought about this a lot ever since I started traveling alone when I was 30; I've written about it in private an enormous amount, and I'm sure more of it will find it's way into this newsletter in the coming months.

But now it's getting late, and I'm nearing my self-imposed cutoff of 1000 words. So...some more pictures. And bittersweet ones, as they are from the last set I will ever take with my trusty Canon before I trade it for one of those silver Fujis like a total fucking hipster.


Love,
T


*
Tania Strauss
www.tlstrauss.com
IG: @taniastrauss

just when you think you've sworn off ikea forever


Once again, I meant to write a couple of days ago and found myself distracted by other things. In the spirit of actually living here, about two weeks ago I very abruptly and very definitively reached the end of my tolerance for living out of a suitcase and semi-organized piles of shit on the floor. So I bought myself some basic shelves and storage boxes, and spent Friday evening assembling and rearranging while listening to the new Lana Del Rey album. Then I went to the flea market to gather some little dishes and cups to organize my jewelry and cosmetics. And then I ordered a ton of bedding and one of those 100-packs of tealights so that I can stop using my flatmate's old guest linens and ready my nest for the long, grey Berlin winter that is suddenly round the bend.

Winter is indeed coming, because fall is already here. I didn't expect it quite so soon, but we are further north than I'm used to. On exactly September first, the season changed: a week-long heatwave broke and the air that replaced it was distinctly autumnal - not simply chilly but thin and sharp and vast, with an internal silence that enlarges the sounds of the street and gives an echo to the rain. The light is paler and has more slant to it, even at noon, and it's very obvious that the dark comes earlier. And the cafes are suddenly playing a different kind of music, slower and with a lilt of melancholy. (Case in point: the Sinéad O'Connor version of "nothing compares 2 u" blasting at my neighborhood bar as I write this. Yes, I am audibly singing along.)

Fall has been, without question, my absolute favorite time of year for as long as I can remember. When I was living in Los Angeles I would get so homesick come October that I couldn't see my life in terms of anything other than its distance from New York. Here it's a bit different, because Berlin has real seasons, but I've been surprised by how much this weather makes me long for home - for the specific fact of the New York Autumn, with its brisk winds and pumpkin everything and the vainglorious technicolor of the parks, and the sharp human energy that surges when work gets real and the cultural calendar starts to peak, and everyone can finally wear their favorite clothes. I'm suddenly very glad I booked a trip home for October, because missing this entirely seems like more than I should ever subject myself to.

(Yes this is Central Park in November and yes, it is perfect.)

This isn't to say I suddenly don't want to be here, because that's not what this is. The early onset fall is giving me all the sweet feels, and the indoor spaces are cozy and bustling as people begin to retreat from the chill. It's ideal weather for something as golden and mournful as the new Lana Del Rey album. But there is a gentler, underlying homesickness beginning to creep in, rather than the totalizing sort that would attack and retreat this summer. And I see it as both a cause and effect of the fact that I finally made my living space feel like an actual home, and the unexpected emotional hugeness of this. I spent an unanticipated 18 months at my parents' before moving here, so I haven't had a space that is mine -- full of my own things, assembled to my own taste -- in nearly two years. The room is still a work in progress: it needs some more decoration, and the candles and bedding, and the additional books and clothes that I will bring from NYC in October. But it feels like mine and that is, honestly, fucking wonderful. On Saturday, after The Redecoration, simply sitting inside while the rain pattered felt so soothing that I didn't go outside for the entire day -- the first time I've done this in the four (!!) months I've been living here.

But there is also a wariness to the feeling, to the realization that simply by decorating my room and buying my own sheets (incidentally, the same flowered grey set I had in Brooklyn) I'm digging myself in deeper. Perhaps revealingly, I chose to spend my lazy weekend getting into Succession, which I realized is essentially a darker, more grown-up version of Gossip Girl - the satirical New York fantasy I used to soothe myself during my most homesick phases in L.A. And I would be lying if I said I'm not a bit nervous for the winter: for Berlin's near-legendary lack of sunlight and the emptiness of those double-wide sidewalks, and for the shapeless isolation of hibernating in a city where I have so few anchors. Because I am a hibernator, even when I don't entirely intend to be. My flatmate will mostly be gone, and I live on top floor of my building, and I've got this mental image that once the winter comes, the city beneath me will vanish and I'll be adrift in this box in a dark, featureless grey sky.

But at least the box will have tealights?


Forever and always,
T


*
Tania Strauss
www.tlstrauss.com
IG: @taniastrauss

Moving to a Foreign Country is Not the Same as a Vacation


Sometime last week I started to realize that I'm actually living here, and that the idea of this as a low-stakes temporary experiment is more of a psychological safety valve than a reality. I am, rather literally, integrating myself into the machinery of the German state: I've registered as a business, as freelancers must do here; I've applied for government benefits, a stupidly complicated process that will take several months to complete; I've hired an accountant so I can figure out my monthly tax declarations, because freelancers have to pay estimated tax every fucking month. I've filled out forms and paid people to fill out forms on my behalf, I've hired translators for appearances at government offices, I've received identification numbers and gone to stupid lengths to chase down pieces of mail. Those forms and identification numbers? They are many, and they are important, and they come in the mail, and... I'm not gonna explain about the mail thing. But it's a thing, in a way that mail should not have to be a thing.

Then there's the other stuff. I keep accumulating books, to the point where I finally had to buy a shelf to put them on. I have an acupuncturist. I go to the movies.



I found the acupuncturist just in time, because last week I also had an anxiety attack, the first on I've had since long before I moved. It was the kind that isn't acute but ongoing, that fucks with your body for a couple of days and makes linear, rational thought nearly impossible.

So I did what I always do when I'm anxious about everything-slash-nothing: I started to count my money. By any objective standard my money and I are doing just fine (have I mentioned that Berlin is cheaper than New York?). But there I was, staring at my bank statement and my other bank statement and my invoice spreadsheet and my anticipated expenses for September, doing a whole lot of circular arithmetic, convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that it somehow wasn't going to be enough.

So of course the next logical step in this illogical process is to conclude that I should take on more work, despite the fact that I am already working more than I want to be in these late golden days of summer. There have been weekend picnics and occasional free afternoons spent wandering new neighborhoods with my camera, but I haven't gone more than four consecutive days (including Saturday and Sunday) without working for the entirety of 2019. For the first four months of the year, I was working full time while drafting a novel on the evenings and weekends. Then I moved to a foreign country, and worked full time while dealing with the logistics of moving to a foreign country. And back before all of this, my life was in an ongoing state of crisis - physical or emotional or both - for about 14 months.

My brain is TIRED people. In the past two weeks there have been a fair number of things I've started to write about; I have two more of these letters sitting in my drafts folder because after about four paragraphs, I forgot what I meant to be getting at. I still don't have an actual vacation planned until the holidays.


I have spent the last two weeks going in and out of Jia Tolentino's much-hyped (but not at all over-hyped) essay collection Trick Mirror, and in and out of The New York Times's 1619 Project. Both deal very heavily, though in very different ways, with the corrosive American obsession with productivity and "optimization" at all times, at all costs.

As a basic fact of my profession, I spend a lot of time thinking about the pressure to be working, earning, and producing, and to define your life in terms of some quantifiable output. The connection between your time and your money is particularly literal when you're a freelancer. But in the last few years I have increasingly become someone who defines my life not by how I make money, but by what that money allows me to do with my time: write, travel, move to Europe, stuff. In other words, my job is mostly just a job, and right now I mostly like it that way. This is not very New York, or very Stuyvesant High School (hi Nat), but it's very Berlin. One of the major appeals of moving here was to spend some time in a culture that wasn't forged by such an aggressive capitalist ethic, and where my cost of living would be cheaper. Cheaper = less pressure to work = more time to write, travel... stuff.

I know that it can take a lot of time to adjust to new circumstances, and I know that your brain latches on to familiar patterns of worry and reassurance during times of transition. I also know that the sudden and extreme nature of my injury, and the complex circumstances surrounding it, fucked with my ability to make long-term decisions or feel safe living more than a subway ride from my immediate family. All the shit news of 2018 made it worse. Climate apocalypse, yada yada yada.

So I decided to finally move to Berlin in a way that was, rather deliberately, constructed not to feel like an actual decision, with decision-like implications. Then I started filling out a lot of very official paperwork, and then I had to take sleeping pills for two straight nights because I somehow convinced myself I couldn't afford to pay my accountant to do my taxes. (Spoiler alert: I can.)

Do you see where I'm going with this? I'm not sure I do anymore, honestly. But I'm going to mail this out anyway, because discipline. Also complaining. Also typos, probably. Sorry.

The truth is that none of these anxieties are as acute as they were even six months ago. I got here, after all, and it's generally been going great. And in the last few days I've mostly chilled out about everything again, despite the tone this letter is starting to take. But I'm still tired, and I'm still really overdue for a vacation.

I did have a picnic at a national park a couple of weeks ago, though. Here are some pictures of creepy abandoned buildings partially hidden by trees:


Peace out,
T


*
Tania Strauss
www.tlstrauss.com
IG: @taniastrauss

Loading more posts…