When the interior and the exterior are the same
Last Spring, while studying abroad in Berlin, Germany, I realized one night-- alone, eating a mess of a dinner concocted from the few products I had grown to trust at the lone grocery store, a good 25 minute hike from my cold, almost medical East German studio apartment-- that I had lost my Passport. This shouldn't be too surprising-- I am habitually forgetful. In fact, this may be the only regular thing about me. I had lost my Driver's License some weeks (maybe even months, as I'd been in the country for about 3 and a half of them) earlier, and had taken to going out at night with my passport in my pocket, should I need to prove that I was, in fact, two whole years above the legal drinking age. (I may or may not be important to note that my almost daily alcohol consumption at this time was not exactly the picture of healthy or balanced living-- this was a time, in fact, when many thing-- just usually not government issued things of grave importance-- went missing.)
I tore up my already rather messy apartment, but to no avail. I was set to leave Berlin and return home to New York-- something that felt of the utmost importance, like Dorothy Gale finding her way back to Kansas-- in less than two weeks, and the thought of extending my stay by even a few days waiting for a replacement passport to go through put hives all over my body. I spent the next 16-or-so hours, as I forced (read: drank) myself into a fitful sleep right up until I awoke at 7 am sharp to make my way to the American Consulate for an emergency temporary replacement passport, as a complete and total nervous wreck. The 3 and a half months I'd spent in Berlin had been trying, to say the least. A challenge to myself an attempt to pull myself out of a deep enuui (if enuui can, in fact, be deep) that had crept it's way into my Brooklyn apartment-- it was like a bed bug infestation, only with a lot more Liz Phair albums playing-- earlier that fall. I had felt displaced before-- attempting to buy a cell phone, get a hair cut, buy vegeterian food (before I, with an enormous "fuck it," broke my six year pledge to the animal kindgom and indulged in wurst after wurst after wurst) -- but largely I had sat pretty on a rather plush saftey net. I was, after all, studying with an Americna University, i had American friends and enough lacking of inter-cultural respect to simply speak english and point fervently to any service person, hoping they would help me. It was only now-- facing the fact that a week from now my friends might fly home without me while I wait through a few more (probably silent) days before this little very big international mess I'd gotten myself into sorts itself out-- that I faced the true ramifications of being alone in a foreign country, of being displaced.
I am thinking all of this as I ride the U-Bahn from Schöneberg, the largely Turkish but slightly trendy neighborhood I live in (about 30 minutes away from Mitte) to the far reaches of the city, a train station I've never been before with the suspicious name of "Onkle Tom's Hutte" (yes, that's Uncle Tom's Cabin auf Deutsch.) As the train pulls further and further away from the city, it feels as though we are sinking deeper and deeper into jungle territory. Soon, the views out of the windows no longer display warehouses, tall buildings or construction sites, but lush green trees that seem to go on forever. This is not the dirty, industrial Berlin I have come to loathe these past few months.
In the introduction to his book The Road: In Search Of America,
Nathan Asch describes his desire to travel the country by bus as not simply an economic decision, but an aesthetic one:
"I had found that riding in a car is as if your own home were moving. The view is different but the interior is the same, and the only ones you get to talk to are filling station men and traffic cops. I had found that train travel is formal. You reserve your seat, and you put on your best clothes, and you ride to a big terminal, and you ge into a huge train, and as it starts and goes to your destination you get into a certain chugging rhythm;you become a special, strained person, thinking only special, formal thoughts. If you get to talk to a stranger, you're not yourself with him, you're likely to put on airs and to lie. You don't relax in a train."
I find this passage particularly moving both because I totally agree and fully disagree with Asch. The faux-anonimity of a train was something I found, in the States, to be exhilirating. Not only on the commercial trains which Asch describes, but commuter trains, too. When I travel home to my native Baltimore-- or really anywhere on the East Coast-- I find there to be something so intrinsically American to taking the Amtrak Northeastern Regional line. You get on the train, you sit under the air-conditioning, you put your headphones in and fall asleep in a podcast-induced haze and arrive in whichever Non-New York location it is you are traveling to that day. And they're all the same-- that is, at least, the way we've tailored all of our second (and third)-tier cities (as well aslarge chunks of our first tier cities, such as Midtown Manhattan, where one gets on and off the Amtrak) There is a Starbucks and one of five fast food chains and a gas station and you can, essentially, pick up anything you need in the cab ride to your final destination. All of that time you've spent getting from point A to this particular Point B is incidental as you're in neither a space of your own invention (the car) nor a vehicle that makes you deeply aware of the road (a large honking bus-- a whale that usually feels to large for the road it's driving on.) The New York City Subway brings this beauty to even greater heights-- talking is discouraged (lest you be mistaken for a homeless person asking for money or a drunken teenager.) and you are, for the most part, in a dark underground-- sometimes below the Ocean without even knowing it. You go between Brooklyn and Midtown and Queens and the Lower East Side with only so many blinks, your own music in your head and perhaps the latest copy of The New Yorker.
But in this above-ground train, hurdling through the forrest and taking me to what I could only anticipate would be a diplomatic nightmare, I felt scared. I could see where I was and I didn't know what it was.The train was populated by a people who spoke my language only marginally better than I spoke theirs-- and not many of them, to boot. There was no way I was going to the right address, and there was no way I could confirm or deny that fact without simply exiting the train and wandering down the strasse.
And so exit I did.
And on that street-- a large, flat intersection which just as easily looked like it might have been in Omaha, Nebraska-- I saw two giant, golden arches forming an "M"-- the only business in sight for what looked like miles.
This was certainly not the first McDonald's I had seen in Berlin-- I'd even come to be quite the afficionado, by this point, of the European McFlurry (far superior to it's American counterpart) and yet in this moment-- maybe it was my hangover or sleep deprivation or general temporary insanity-- it seems as though the arches has appeared just for me. As if to say "You're never really
that far from home."
Of course this, like most of what McDonald's schills, is a lie-- but at the time I found it at least somewhat comforting.