A Verb Vacation

The last time I was away was Thanksgiving, but the last time I felt really away, when I was using foreign currency and didn’t have a cellphone, was in 2011.

That was the year between my New York life and my Denver one. That summer, I spent a week in the Adirondacks, another one in Bulgaria, hopped through Istanbul and Berlin, and then spent three weeks driving across the country. My time in Germany was brief, maybe four days. But I’ve probably thought about that trip for more hours than I was actually on it. Berlin is a great city for a lot of reasons, but what I loved about being there was feeling very aware of the verbs—reading, writing, and running—that made me happy, and making time to do them all.

For the past four years, I’ve integrated all those verbs into my life. Even without the subway, I still manage to read a lot. I’ve woken up at 6:03 every day to write. After this blog post, I’ll go on a four-mile run in the park near my house. But after four years of such good habits, I’m starting to worry that I’ve duped myself. It’s not that being so verb-responsible hasn’t made me content. But always worrying about when I’m going to write or run, or choosing to read over spending time with people—it’s closed me off from some experiences. I have a feeling there’s more to life than doing the things I’m supposed to be doing.

A friend is meeting me in Seoul, and while I’m packing the addresses of three dozen friends to write postcards to, many books, and running shoes, I’m hoping not to get anything productive done. I’m hoping I’ll be present in Korea, instead of worrying about getting my reading, writing or running in.

No one needs a vacation, least of all me, who just went to New York last month. But I’m looking forward to taking a break from my verbs, if not myself, for a week.

Practical and Good.

Along with tap water and free toilets, before this trip, I didn’t appreciate how in America, you can pay to eat any fruit you want any time of year. But in Sofia, Istanbul and Berlin, there is only seasonal fruit. In Bulgaria, my friend was canning cherries before I came, and in Germany, white asparagus season, which I missed, is a big deal because when it’s over, there’s no more white asparagus.

Out of season fruit and vegetables don’t add much to my life. Generally, people in Sofia, Istanbul and Berlin seem to enjoy the same conveniences, save for nectarines in the winter, that Americans have, like indoor plumbing, the internet and fashion scarves. And since individuals have less money in those places, there are less private cars, and more public infrastructure. There was no need for a car in any of the places I visited, which to me is the ultimate amenity of living in New York.

In the case of Berlin, there is some pride that basic luxuries come cheap. The city’s unofficial slogan is “poor, but sexy.” And Berlin, which was sexy to me, is kind of broke. It’s possible to live very well on a bad job in Berlin, but there are few good jobs to be had. This is especially true for people without EU passports. I met a few ex-ex-pats whose hearts belong to Berlin, but whose wallets demand they work elsewhere. But still, it wasn’t like people in Berlin had bad teeth, which was sometimes the case in Sofia and Istanbul. (Also, isn’t it funny how if you have good teeth, no one thinks you’re rich, but having bad teeth means you’re poor?)

Back to the title of this post, which is a play on the “Square. Practical. Good.“ slogan of Ritter Sport, a German chocolate bar which can be found out of season at many New York bodegas. An ex-pat friend said that slogan is so German: direct, not exactly wrong, and without the same kind of consumer wish fulfillment that is so common in American ads. She also says Germans identify themselves less with the products they own. And like buying fruit only when it’s in season, that seems practical and good.

Just Some Things I've Been Thinking As I Approach Hour 70 in Berlin

  • Berlin seems like a city that was built for more people than it contains. There is no crowding on the sidewalks, bike lanes, streets, trams, buses or subways.
  • Which is an odd feeling. Berlin is evenly distributed, and never dense. Even the ceilings are high.
  • An American Berlin friend I have said it’s a city built for about five million people with only 3.5 million inhabitants, which is maybe why it’s so cheap. Another friend said there’s stringent rent control at work as well.
  • And its cheapness seems to be a trap for some people. It’s affordable and lovely here, but there aren’t a lot of jobs, which could be why there aren’t more people around.
  • One thing that is particularly lovely are the parks. There are a ton of them!
  • None is as well tended as New York’s grass museum, Central Park, but it doesn’t matter. Public space can still work with uneven hedges.
  • The smaller parks are about the size of Fort Greene Park, but level with the street, so they are more integrated with the city.
  • And seeing people interact with these spaces, Jane Jacobs may have been wrong about parks always being dangerous.
  • Of course, it gets dark here around 10 pm in the summer.   
  • So it’s easy to stay up late, and wake up with the feeling of not being tired exactly, but feeling poorly rested.
  • Good thing, like many Berliners, I don’t have anywhere to be.

Mehr Von Einer Amerikanischen Auslanderin

One thing I didn’t appreciate about America until this trip: that tap water is always free, as are bathrooms. It makes my whole “Stay Hydrated” lifestyle much more affordable.

I’m in Berlin now, which is the first place I’ve been where I’ve been mistaken as a local. Seems like everyone here shares my not-quite blond hair and light eyes. (Tasteless joke: I guess that was the point.)

Every time I go abroad, it takes me a while to remember that not everyone speaks English. I guess this an obvious thing, but one that is easy to forget in the States, a place where it’s ok that I nearly failed Spanish for three years in high school and then again for three semesters in college. With my linguistic limits and hypocrisy acknowledged, it always surprises me to hear children talking to their parents in another language. Like, don’t those parents know that to talk to me, their kids are going to need to speak English?

Still in Germany, or from my one day of walking around Berlin, most people speak a bit of English and haven’t minded helping me out with maps or taking my food order. The only exception was the guy at the TV Tower, who sounded like he was being called on in English class and just wanted to go home and die, which is something I can relate to. This is all to say that for the past two weeks, any time a local has answered my question in English, I want to thank them for paying attention in high school.