Diary of an Expat, Part 44
Geographic confusion, I can't get no relief
While I wasn't looking, summer came and went, apparently. It may have been in that period of time that was labelled as "summer," but when we opened the box a rainstorm flew out.

The last few days the cloud cover has lifted, and it has magically become fall. It is cool, and crisp, and the light has that wonderfully golden tinge that the light has on fall mornings and evenings. This is not something that I am arguing with or expressing any displeasure in at all — just noting it, for the record.

Because this was the first weekend in awhile that it's been nice out, I biked down to meet a friend on the far end of downtown, which plunged me headfirst into a couple of less-nice things about Berlin, one of which is that, at the moment, there appear to be very few ways to get across the Spree River. Berlin is, as I have said, a city that is constantly under construction, and at the moment this is manifesting itself in roads being completely shut down. Such roads as remain are not in terribly good shape.

They are not in terribly good shape, and they are packed. Because, as it happens, everyone else has realized that it is nice outside, and good biking weather, and so they have descended on the city like zombies. So downtown Berlin is a lot like Critical Mass, except far more drunk.

That having been said, it's nice to be able to get back into the Berlin spirit of things, where by "Berlin spirit of things" I mean extremely long meals taken outside, enjoying good company. I distinctly remember a few spots of time during which Berlin was quite hot, last September, and I'm sure that a proper hot, sticky summer will be reasserting itself in the near future. But I'm enjoying this while it lasts.


One of the points of this diary is not specifically "telling you about Berlin," but about reflecting on what it is like to be an expatriate, and so I will now reflect on this a bit. Specifically, although we probably know that it's true objectively, I'm not sure we realize just how strongly our sense of distance and geographic space becomes compressed the further away from it you are.

As I said in my blog post yesterday, to the extent that I'm a "native" of anywhere, I've spent the longest part of my life in Aurora, Colorado, which until yesterday was known for literally completely friggin' nothing and after yesterday is known for a mass murder that took place there.

A number of people know that I used to live in Aurora (in fairness: I have been to that movie theater on numerous occasions, and that mall dozens of times in the last fifteen years) (also in fairness if you told me "there was a shooting in Aurora" I would say "wait what really?!" and if you then said "it was at the Aurora Mall" I would say "oh, yeah, okay that makes sense"). So people assume that I have a geographic connection to that area, and they expect that I have some perspective or visceral reaction to what has transpired.

Conversely, during the depths of the Euro crisis a lot of my American friends asked me "what was going on" or "what do the Germans think?" which presumes that a) I can read the German newspapers to know what Fritz Six-Pack is saying and b) that Herr Six-Pack even cares at all, which of course he does not.

The dirty secret of Europe is that as ignorant and insular as you probably stereotypically consider Americans to be, Germans and pretty much every other group of people I've met are more or less the same way. You know how much it irritates you that there are big news stories and the media just dismisses it whenever the latest bit of celebrity gossip comes up, and you think "gosh come on report the real news"? Because you, unlike the average proletarian, totally cares? Well, in Germany they not only have awesome celebrity gossip they have awesome political gossip, and that's what dominates the headlines.

Oh, right, and football, which is something Americans don't really have an equivalent to. The official metric unit of "concern for the wellbeing of the Eurozone" is of course the Merkel, with the average German managing about 30 centimerkels on a good day, if there aren't any juicy political scandals about. During the Euro Cup official surveys measured this in fractions of a picomerkel. Scanning electron microscopes were required to detect the average German level of concern. If you polled Berlin and offered a close, exciting victory vs Spain in the finals in exchange for dissolving the EU, Berlin's first response would be the sound of a million horns honking gaily, and their second response would be a run on illegal fireworks involving so many Germans swarming in unison the Polish Army would immediately surrender.

And of course, as amusing as it is when Americans can't place Kyrgyzstan on a map, everyone else is in the same boat. This is what I mean when I say that the sense of geography is compressed: in the same way as my American friends ask me about things happening in Munich as though I might've just popped over on the tram to investigate, my German acquaintances view "the United States" as a cluster of cities called Washington, New York and Boston (sometimes Chicago), a cluster of cities called San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, and an amorphous blob in the middle called "Texas."

Twice now I have had completely different people say that they had friends who were either visiting or from "Texas," which in one case was Florida and in one case was North Carolina. One of my British friends, knowing I was from Denver, asked about Yellowstone as though it was a weekend trip and I, in fairness, really have no idea how close Edinburgh and Glasgow actually are, because they are both part of Scotland and, knowing vaguely a Glaswegian, I'm like as not to mention their existence if I meet someone from Edinburgh, as though they would know, or care.

I'm not, actually, passing judgment on this or saying that people need to shape up. Everyone has encountered this, even if you've just moved across the country. By the time that you're half a world away, the granularity of the pushpin that marks your origin can be measured in the hundreds of miles; for anyone at one of the ends, the other end is essentially a meaningless word of limitless space.

But yeah I'll see if one of my friends wants to bike to Dusseldorf tomorrow; I hear it's pretty cool.
James Bell
21.07.2012 - 3h12
Comrade Alex
22.07.2012 - 11h57

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