Bright and early tomorrow, I hit the skies. Sometime in the late morning EDT, I’ll reach American airspace. The air will be warmer, brighter, and filled with more car exhaust and factory emissions but less cigarette smoke than what I’m accustomed to, as I’ll surely notice through the double-paned airplane window in seat 39a. After 2 hours and 20 minutes in the Newark airport, riffling through magazines and maybe eating a crappy burger somewhere, I’ll board a little shuttle plane and touch down on the west bank of the Potomac at precisely 4:14 p.m.
It was fun being a Berliner for two months. But of course I wasn’t really a Berliner, was I? Several Americans I talked to in Berlin, who have lived here for at least eights years each, told me that no matter how much you immerse yourself in the culture, no matter how fluent your German gets, no matter how German your spouse is, you can never really become German. It’s just not that kind of culture. In America, as long as you speak fluent English and live somewhere within the 50 states, no one really questions your American-ness (OK, maybe Lindsey Graham does, but still). But German-ness, by all accounts, is more impenetrable. Sure, the Germans were crazy enough to give me a red passport with my face in it, but did that really make me German? Anyone who hears me speak or sees me struggle to figure out how many grams of Rinderfleisch to order at the supermarket meat counter would tell you that there’s still a healthy chasm separating me and Deutschheit.
And yet there were so many moments when I truly did feel like a Berliner — when I moved into my Wohngemeinschaft (group apartment) in a gritty section of Kreuzberg; when I bought a bike that practically became an extension of my body; when I hit the clubs, first the small ones and then the king of them all; when I set foot in the august Berlin bureau of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung; when I got my German press credentials and attended federal press conferences and a hearing at the Bundestag; when I got my taste of the German medical system; and even when I made an abortive attempt to urinate sitting down.
So how much of Berlin will I take back with me to DC? Will I balk at the crowded bars and overpriced beers? Will I search high and low for the döner stands I’m destined never to find? Or will my old forgotten friend the sun melt away that Berlin piece of me and relegate it to the same historical file that holds my former identities as a New Yorker, a New Jerseyite, a Limeño, and a Münchner?
Hard to say. Whatever’s lost, though, will surely be re-Kindl-ed if and when I set foot on Berlin soil again.
Enough. When I start making puns on Berlin beers I don’t even like, it’s time to move on. Back to the U S of A, then. Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin.