Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Exactly one week ago, I was on my way back to NYC from Berlin where I had gone to visit Big Babe who has embarked upon the life of a Starving Expatriate American Writer only a few short months following his graduation from Columbia University.

My trip to Berlin was less about sightseeing and more a one-woman Red Cross mission. Meeting Big Babe at Alexanderplatz, I was horrified but not really surprised to note his resemblance to Franz Kafka...all sunken cheeks and haunted eyes. Plus, he was shivering in his thin jacket. My maternal radar had told me (even as Big Babe kept denying) that my beloved firstborn had run out of money, oh, about two weeks earlier and I came prepared to stock his pantry, supplement his inadequate wardrobe and bring him the books he simply could not live without.

The second of my suitcases was so laden with wares that I had to pay a $50 overage fee at JFK. Contained therein were not only coats and jackets and jeans and socks and blankets and sheets and books but also a bag of bagels, a tub of scallion cream cheese, a tub of smoked salmon spread and a pound of French Italian Roast from Zabar's -- soul food for a homesick and broke Manhattanite.

With a surplus of work and back-load of projects, I had come for an extended weekend visit, leaving NYC Thursday night and returning by Tuesday. I spent the last minutes before boarding on the phone with a NY Times reporter and sat whispering in my seat into my Blackberry in the seconds before take-off, terrified that I was going to be thrown off the plane for the security breach by the German flight crew.

My time in Berlin was a magical blur of museums and opera (Carmen) and classical music (a Brahms program at the Philharmonie) and bars (most notably, Hairy Mary's) and cheap restaurants and rides on the S-Bahn and U-Bahn and counting Arab kaffiyehs wrapped rattily around the necks of Berliners (27 in four days) -- evidently, this season's must-have accessory. I logged untold kilometers walking on Berlin's cobblestoned streets and untold hours of Skype conversations and Blackberry conversations and innumerable e-mails and Sh'mas whispered over the phone to Little Babe back in New York.

Berlin always hits me like something familiar and alien all at once. I thought I was so bloody original to frame it as "New York in the Seventies," until I saw this very phrase pop up in an article in this past Sunday's Home magazine supplement to the NY Times. With its cheap rent, preponderance of graffiti, ubiquitous smoking, restless youth culture, dangerous undercurrent and fluid economy, Berlin does zap me back to my days as a teen navigating my way from the nondescript streets of my native Douglaston and Forest Hills to the thrilling landscape of Manhattan, finding stories on every street corner, falling in love with the unknowable yet endlessly fascinating people I would pass hurrying down West End Avenue or up Madison Avenue, scripting screenplays and melodramas, hoping to rewrite the story of my life any minute now.

Berlin is the blond and blue-eyed Irish-Italian boy I used to make out with on the floor of his Corona, Queens living room with a black velvet Jesus -- complete with bleeding heart and a crown of thorns -- watching pitying from a nearby wall.

Dangerous, forbidden, repellent yet undeniably sexy.

Berlin is a lure for young Americans, particularly of the artistic bent. Big Babe loves it; this is his fourth visit there and he is conversant in German, has written and published articles about the culture and life in this city. This trip, I met his friends, a loosely-connected group of semi-and underemployed smart kids in their Odyssey Years as David Brooks so memorably put it. Many of them look like Big Babe -- undernourished and ill-clad. They share large multi-room apartments with each other or sublet rooms from Germans. Rental for a large room in a decent neighborhood is low...about 150 to 250 Euro per month.

So, here too, is a throwback to New York in the late seventies when studio apartments on the Upper West Side could be had for $300 a month and a rented room could cost as little as $200.

Because of the famously difficult task of getting employment as a non-German, Big Babe and his friends often face cash flow issues, starving while they wait for payment from the States for articles written, trying to find internships with visiting American academics or teaching at English language institutes or doing babysitting for American families or having some kind of steady gig from abroad, like website design or another skill that travels well through cyberspace.

If you ever need your maternal instincts reawakened, go to visit your kid in a foreign country about two weeks after they have run out of money.

My time with Big Babe was filled with hilarious dysfunctional moments. One day we came back to his room in Kreutzberg to find half the furniture missing...including the couch I was sleeping on. His friend, who sublet the room before him, had come to reclaim his furniture. The following day he claimed his down comforter. (I will spare the reader any discomfort by refraining from describing the sleeping arrangements minus the couch and blanket.)

And Big Babe showed me a hand-drawing made by his depressive roommate Helena that is so bizarre as to be a potential Exhibit A in her forthcoming trial for insanity. Evidently, Helena has an issue with men peeing while standing up. She has spoken about this repeatedly with Big Babe but not even on the level of "please do not leave the seat up."

Instead, Helena has told Big Babe that it is unnatural for men to pee standing up and has waged a campaign against this.

Her latest salvo is this drawing that features a standing man urinating with a big diagonal line drawn through it, Ghostbusters-style. If memory serves me correctly, there are droplets of pee coming out of a downward-pointing ween.

Penis-hating German roommates aside, the trip contained numerous discussions about making money and solvency and the viability of Big Babe staying on in Berlin. And while I was zapped back to my own adolescence and post-college experiences where I, too, never had enough money and often starved between dates with men I didn't really like and trips home for Shabbat where my mother picked fights with me because I had broken some kind of parent-child contract by moving out of the house before marriage, I nevertheless was able to toss off the memories of myself in the New York of the 1970's and embrace the reality of being an adult in the 21st century and pass onto my son some critical advice:

Money is essential.

And whatever you think is your bottom line is probably too low.

While it's great to opt for a life of meaning and art and adventure over affluence, poverty sucks.

Besides, you are too much of a bon vivant.

On Tuesday morning of last week, I left my bon vivant in Berlin and caught a flight back to Kennedy. Once back, I hit the ground running, attending Little Babe's orchestra practice, starting him on homework and then running out to a client meeting which lasted until 10 pm.

Berlin is an experience I need to process. Though I have an aversion to the city, it is fascinating to bear witness to its reinvented life in the 21st century. It is especially fascinating to see Berlin through Big Babe's eyes and to add my commentary to his observations. I fully understand his kinship with the city even as I find it personally repellent.

And then, there is the matter of being an American Jew in the Berlin of the 21st Century.

Coming from Manhattan, it all seems so pathetic. There are well-meaning but futile attempts to revive Jewish life in Berlin, but the synagogues remain largely empty, the community largely uneducated and the glorious Jewish museum preserves the memory of a community that was completely destroyed.

Leaving the Jewish museum on Saturday afternoon with Big Babe, I felt my insides scooped out. While it had reminded me somewhat of the new Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, there was hardly the triumphant emergence through the halls of despair into the sunshine of the present-day Jewish holy land.

Outside the doors of the Berlin Jewish museum resides no such hopeful view. Instead, there are the paved-over ashes of the Jewish life that had once thrived in this city -- bone shards of the countless Jewish artists, musicians, writers, teachers, doctors, rabbis, radicals, business people, politicians and young intellectuals like Big Babe who found themselves seduced by Berlin, believing in it even unto death.

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