The muse has been quiet for a spell, arrested (as so many of us have been) by the results of the American election this past November. As we all begin to make our way forward in the new reality, my strategy is two-fold. First, I am trying to monitor and bear witness to the convolutions of the new administration, taking such actions as are focused and feasible for me. And second, I am moving ahead with my own life and plans, fortunate that in this stage of my life I have many more options and greater flexibility than most.
This flexibility brings me back to Berlin for the spring. Thanks to friends of friends, I am renting a lovely flat in a safe and quiet neighborhood near people I know and convenient to transportation hubs. Here’s a shot of the charming combined living/dining room space:
But what made setting into this flat even more delightful was meeting M, one of the flat’s owners and thus my current landlord. Roughly my age, a retired engineer who had grown up in East Germany, M has now found his soul home….in Barcelona….where he works part time as a tour guide and spends the rest of his days on the beach and in the mountains that surround that lovely city. We spent a long time over dinner talking about the curious similarities of our lives, both ardent travelers (he going to Eastern Europe during much of his life, me West), both having shed our professions relatively early, both taking this time in our lives to travel and find places places that speak to us more than the places of our birth and upbringing. On the walk home from dinner, we agreed that it was ironic and just a touch too bad that our soul cities…were not closer. And so the next day, off he flew to Barca, and in I moved to his lovely abode. Here’s M in Barca with the beach behind him:
The “birds of a feather” title, as you can see, speaks to the fact that I often meet other people who have, like me, stepped out of life’s more traditional paths and found themselves in places far from “home” in an effort to find their spiritual “Archimedean Point,” the geographic observation deck from which everything else can make sense.
When I lived in Copenhagen, I only saw two types of birds, seagulls and pigeons. In my mind, these two species perfectly mirrored the types of Danes I met (and, by extension, the people who populate most places). Seagulls Danes are the birds that fly far and wide; never far from water, the long distance travelers. Scandinavians have sailed the seas since Viking times; I myself come from a family of shipbuilders and captains, relatives buried around the world and at sea. Pigeon Danes, in the words of a friend, want to stay “hygge” (cozy) at home with their rugbrod and snaps.
Seagulls heavily populate my English Language Fellow (ELF) community, both the cohort from my year overseas in Georgia and now extending to all the applicants I have interviewed over the past four years as part of the selection committee. I interview people who are teaching English in the US but also all over the world…people for whom the itch to see what was on the other side of the mountain has taken them far from friends and family “back home,” and now they’re applying…to do it again. All of us, I believe, have taken those steps, made those voyages, experienced that separation and novelty as a way to trying to find and be our most authentic selves. And, as so often happens, I found a version of this wisdom in a commercial venue here in Berlin:
So this urge to be ours truest selves drives us far afield, hither and yon, seeking the solace of the right space and place, language and culture notwithstanding. Today I had lunch with D, an expat American I met through German friends here. Originally from Nebraska, she has been abroad most of her adult life, living variously long periods in Japan, Nepal, and Ethiopia and traveling to dozens of other spots as well. Her English is curiously accented now, the deliberate pronunciation of someone who has been teaching language mixed with bits of the more prominent features of other expat speech patterns. We spoke today of many things – of our coming to terms with our age, what that means in continuing to travel as aggressively as we have so far. We spoke of our close personal relationships, interested to note that both of us are drawn to men from other cultures. And of course, we spoke of politics, of trying to understand the choices our homeland is making. (“The people in Nebraska like that he is speaking directly to them, not filtering his ideas through politicians or the media.”) Another seagull, another person making deliberate non-traditional choices to find a nest that is not the original nest, one that perhaps makes little sense from the outside.
And the last reason that I was inspired to return to Europe at this moment – the transformation of the American social and political landscape under the forces of the new administration. This is not to say I am ignoring the situation – far from it – I am as glued to the media reports as I was in the US, and Rachel Maddow remains my beacon of sanity. Rather, my goal is not to spend a dime in the American economy as long as the forces of regression and repression hold forth in that land. I was happy to learn that because of my relatively modest income and lifestyle, I was obliged to pay (net) only $1.50 in taxes for 2016, between my federal (+$109) and state (-$107.50) returns. So take that, Republicans. Secure your borders with that.
Speaking of which, here’s a little sign of the times from yet another commercial establishment in the neighborhood:
I walked by this same window a day or so later and saw it besmirched by some pointed profanity directed at the current occupant of the oval office, but I felt it deserved to be seen in its original state, so here it is. And the Berliners should know about walls already.
But from my vantage point of Away, and from my feathery friends and associates who share my search for home and itch for adventure, there is another commonality, and that is a deep understanding that in large measure, “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met.” (Yeats). And this is the message that we seagulls most want to share with our pigeon colleagues, those who feel afraid now, those who are thinking of carrying guns, those who are falling victim to the victim mentality being sold as national security: Fly a little. Look beyond your walls. Find a new friend who you just never met before.