Diary of an Expat, Part 4
Apartments redux, a plethora of stores, living in the moment.
Today has been an excellent week for three primary reasons.
  1. Really good week at work.
  2. Found an apartment.
  3. Tabasco sauce at local supermarket.
This latter was an unexpected discovery, and came from wandering. This is one problem with moving to a country that lacks a strong tradition of "do-everything" stores like Wal-Mart or Target, and it's something you don't really think about until it's something you need. A hairbrush and some makeup, sure, try the drugstore; strawberries and butter, well, the grocery is there to help.

What about an air mattress? A suitcase? What about an umbrella? What about a flashlight?

If you don't know the names of stores and, like me, you suffer from terrifying social anxiety, then you find these things by wandering. This is how you discover the store that sells old books, the store that sells maps, the store that sells keychains of what appear to be Hello Kitty in the process of being lynched. And this is how you discover the Tabasco sauce.

It's the other things that worry me, because I'll need them in short order. The umbrella is self-explanatory; the weather has been tending towards the cold and grey. The flashlight is for the apartment; German apartments don't come with lights, and there's a brisk market in secondhand lamps. The air mattress is for the apartment, too; even if I could understand Ikea's website well enough to pick up a mattress, it won't be there until after I've already moved in, and I have no great desire to sleep on the floor.

But about this place. For me, it's perfect. It's located close to a tram station that takes me directly to work. It's small and well-furnished, and it seems like it will be nice and quiet, despite the ongoing construction and nearby city streets. It also has a balcony, where I can sit and enjoy the growing cold that slides inexorably down to blanket the city.

Oh, yes, and they want $6,000 to sign the lease. Well, what can you do?

One month on, Berlin occupies a strange and uncomfortable middle ground in my consciousness these days. I know the walk from home to work and to the store; I know the train stations to use to get to important places, I know how to withdraw money from the ATM, and I know a few local restaurants.

In short, it is starting to feel like home. Then I leave the apartment and realise that, as if woken from a sudden dream, I am profoundly unable to comprehend what is going on around me. Thus far my life in Berlin has been, essentially, predicated on the notion that nothing ever goes wrong. The thing is, when things go right nobody really needs or wants to talk to you, and you can glide through life without issue.

How do you explain that you don't have enough cash, and need to stop at the ATM? How do you tell your landlord that the Internet has stopped working? How do you complain to the authorities when some violation of your civil rights occurs? How do you find the goddamned table salt in the store?

That one, fortunately, is easy enough because it describes an ongoing dilemma.

The first thing to go, when you start learning a new language, is your sense of time. Vocabulary is rough, but in a pinch most things can be pantomimed or inferred from the words that you already know. Although this presents certain issues in, say, buying condoms or administering nuclear power plants, respectively, most of the time you can get by.

With time, it's different. Newcomers to a language are trapped forever in the present, and this lends a peculiar sort of hedonism to their lives. You are compelled to live in the moment — lacking the ability to plan to visit the café tomorrow, you suggest it be visited right the hell now. And without such concepts as "the past tense" or "ago," phrases like "I attended the university" escape you, and you become a lifelong scholar who perennially studies English and is constantly reading the works of Jean Baudrillard and Jack Kerouac.

All the accomplishments and milestones of your life stack together. "I have a car when I am in college," you volunteer in reference to your other life as a student, when someone tells you they're into automobiles. "But it doesn't drive, so I sell it. Then, I have another car, which is wonderful, but I must sell it also, for I live not in America, but live in Berlin now."

Apart from the samsara of car ownership, this tenseless life also has the effect of reducing the shops to an errand of charity. Stripped of the ability to form conditional phrases, and with nose pressed plaintively to the window of a bakery, you find yourself pointing to a sandwich, hidden behind glass.

"I like the sandwich of tomato with mozzarella," you murmur to the clerk, your voice wistful, like a hungry tramp. "It is delicious."
"You want it?" she says — and your eyes light up. "If you like it so much, you can have it."
"Oh, thank you," you cry. Lacking the mechanism for superlatives, you couch your happiness in exuberance instead. "Thank you."

Then she asks for payment, and you're compelled to hand over a €50 note to avoid the awkwardness of providing an insufficient amount of money — but the sandwich of tomato with mozzarella is indeed delicious. Not that this comes as any surprise.

After all, it is delicious when you eat it yesterday, too.
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