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I have created my own website, along with a blog component, and all future posts will be there. It is still Baedeker-less, but it can now be read at www.giuliapines.com

WM-Fieber

Question: What does it take to get me—an avowed anti-sports fanatic—to sit down in front of a TV screen and actually watch not one, not two, but more than several games of soccer (from here on out called football, as it is to the rest of the world)?

Answer: The 2010 World Cup (from here on out called WM, which stands for Weltmeisterschaft, as it known to the rest of Germany).

Four years ago, in the summer of 2006, I had just broken up with my first boyfriend and was feeling pretty low about life in general. The only thing to do, as I sat at home for a good portion of the summer feeling sorry for myself, was to watch the WM (at that point known to me only as the World Cup as I had never been to Germany). Suddenly, the WM was more exhilarating than any mini-series of TV show on DVD my friends had recommended to get my mind off the break up. I put the entirety of my fried heart and battered soul into those games, and it got so serious that, when I finally went back to the office I had been working at earlier that year as a summer job, my boss often walked past my computer screen to find me frantically clicking refresh on the New York Times blog and the Google scoring window in order to see the results of the games in real time. I was a veritable football fanatic, and it almost cost me my job.

Flash-forward to 2010: I now live in a country where the words “football fanatic” describe everyone in the general population (especially during those very special Junes and Julys spaced every four years apart) and many businesses actually close early in order to allow its employees sufficient time to watch the games. Although we were lucky with the time difference this year (since the WM took place in South Africa, this meant that games were actually in the early-and mid-afternoons and then evenings, instead of at inconveniently early breakfasts and lunch times, as they were four years ago with the time difference when the WM actually took place in Germany but I was still in New York). So getting off work at 3 meant rushing to meet friends to see a game by 4. Dinners suddenly became harried affairs, as everyone struggled to eat quickly enough to find a seat for the 8:30 games.

Many of the central things I have learned about my adopted country I have learned by doing, and the WM taught me a few. Apparently before the games took place in Germany four years ago, the mood about the Germany team and the games in general was somewhat more subdued than it is now. Even nearly 60 years after the war, the Germans were overly cautious about exhibiting any amount of national pride, no matter if it was only connected to football. In 2006, with the games in Germany, that all changed. Spontaneous displays of patriotism and flag waving were acceptable and even encouraged, and watching the games turned into a raucous and joyful community activity: everyone, even those who might have had televisions at home, turned up at pubs, restaurants, beer gardens, and beach bars to watch the games and cheer on the teams in big groups. Coming from a country where football means men in tight pants with helmets and ridiculous shoulder pads diving on top of each other in an effort to get their hands on a strangely shaped object (not really a sport so much as a laughing stock), I embraced this atmosphere wholeheartedly. My first game may have been between the age-old rivals England and America, but really, the German team was my team.

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Two things have happened in the last month that for a while seemed practically impossible. The first is that, after the longest, hardest winter imaginable and virtually no spring to speak of (see previous post) we are finally blessed with the warm breezes, sun and blue sky, and languidly long nights that can only mean one thing: it is finally summer. The other was that, after a year doing freelance work and worrying constantly that I might end up being one of those people who stayed here for years and never had anything to show for it, I finally got not one but two jobs. Granted neither of them is full-time, but that’s how I (along with my fellow Berliners) like to work: short, efficient, to-the-point, and leaving in time for a late lunch. Things may not always be this way, but I’m trying to enjoy it and appreciate it as much as possible, which I never really felt I did enough when I didn’t have any work at all to wake up for in the morning.

But this sudden life change has also meant something else: a sudden and abrupt end to my free time, to my lazy mornings of sleeping in until 11, my afternoons of eating lunch with friends and going to the gym, my nights of staying out past midnight. I admit it; it was bound to happen: I have become boring. And I love it. Last week, for example, was probably the busiest week I have experienced in my nearly two years in Berlin, and it left me exhausted but quite satisfied.

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We had the coldest winter that Berlin has seen in ten years (it’s true—several people who have been here that long told me so) and our reward for surviving it is the coldest, grayest summer I’ve seen in my life. Each day I wake up with the hope of seeing the orange-pink burst of sun shining through our dark red window drapes. Each day I see only haze. It is three days until June and what we have is haze. And rain—quite a bit of rain. I would need all my fingers and toes (and probably someone else’s) to count the things I was planning on doing when it got warm in Berlin, and strangely enough, all of them have to do with sitting places—simply sitting out in the sun—sitting places and drinking with friends, sitting places and reading, sitting places and applying sunblock, because of course that would be necessary.

As it is now, I console myself with trickery: our apartment is festooned with flowers, I baked cupcakes with rhubarb from the garden two days ago, and Spargelzeit (asparagus time—the only definitive harvest in Berlin, it seems) has come and shows no signs of abetting (although I doubt a colorless ground vegetable—is it a vegetable or an alien life form?—has much use for sunlight, whether it’s there or not).

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Yesterday after a hearty brunch in Kreuzberg, I went with friends to the self-proclaimed (and a bit too self-satisfied) Heldenmarkt (“Heroes’ Market”) in an old performance and event space cutely titled Postbahnhof am Ostbahnhof. It was one of these bizarre Berlin experimental markets that I characterize as “Save the world and drink good coffee at the same time!” There was hemp clothing. There were belts made out of tires and earrings made out of playing cards (full disclosure: I bought a pair) and fair trade coffee and pink Himalaya salt. The atmosphere was a distinctly yuppie Prenzlauer Berg crowd, even though the location was alternative Kreuzberg. Parents with kids wheeled SUV strollers around. Hipsters munched on what was sure to be vegan, gluten-free food. It was all a bit too Brooklynesque, which basically means it was really all a bit too Berlinisch.

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I took a trip way back in October 2008 (which seems like far longer than a mere year and a half ago) with my friend Meredith (and fellow blogger) to the wilds of Southern Germany and Austria, stopping first in Munich, and then continuing on to Salzburg and Vienna. I didn’t know enough German to really do much of the talking (and my traveling companion’s superiority in the language meant I really didn’t have to) but I remember the sounds getting stranger and stranger the farther South we went. Maybe I couldn’t understand every word, but I knew the language was different and so were the people. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. Since then I’ve been to Dresden twice, but that’s been about the extent of my knowledge of the rest of my adopted country (besides the now bi- or tri-monthly trips up to the country house in Brandenburg). Berlin has become like New York to me, a city very much apart from its country, to the point where I would sometimes forget I was living in Germany at all (if not for the language I most certainly would). I believe it is like that for many others who live there: a haven from tradition and a terrarium for the new and different, even as history seeps out of every crack. Well this week I was plucked out of my comfortable existence in the Hauptstadt and reminded that yes, indeed, I do live in Germany, this is my life now, and it’s alternately more weird and more normal than I ever could have imagined.

The week started with an epic six—no eight—no maybe nine—hour drive arching across the Northern half of Germany and ending in Trier, the oldest German city, home to Romans, Gauls, Germans, and a certain lovable jazz musician I might have mentioned a few times on this blog before. What a change a few hundred kilometers makes. Sometimes living in Berlin makes you forget you’re in Europe at all, but suddenly there I was in a town with cobblestone streets and Roman ruins, right in the center of the main shopping thoroughfare in a three-level town house with a bakery on the ground floor. Colorful, gabled buildings were everywhere, like an extended version of the Bergen waterfront in Norway, or Copenhagen or Malmø—any one of a number of Scandinavians towns I have visited or wish to visit. Yet there we were on the border with Luxembourg, only a few hours from Paris, and we hadn’t even gotten on a plane to make it there (that still gets to me, that living in Berlin, I can go basically anywhere without air travel). It immediately felt like I was entering another existence, inducted into a family not so unlike my own, complete with its own history and pictures hanging on the walls.

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The hardest thing about moving to another country is the distance. That may seem obvious, but I’ll explain. When you’ve made the decision to spend such a big portion of your life so far away from your family, there’s always the possibility that something serious will happen and you’ll be called back. Or that you won’t make it in time. I write these words as I sit at my old desk, in my old room in good old New York City. Friday I was on an airplane for nine hours. Three days before that I didn’t even know I was coming. One phone call, a hastily booked flight, and a couple of stressful days later, here I am.

What am I doing here? Well that’s hard to talk about. My beloved grandmother—the one we thought would outlive us all with the sheer force of her strong opinions, embarrassing questions, and astonishing loudness—is dying of lung cancer. Even writing the word “dying” is difficult, and I realize I’ve avoided saying it for fear of sounding dramatic. Or perhaps for fear of having to deal with the sympathy of others. I never knew how to respond to a simple “I’m sorry” or “our thoughts are with you,” and with the few people I’ve told and heard that from, I haven’t known how to reply. When they say “I’m sorry” I almost want to say “what for?” After all, my grandmother is about to turn 90. (She may make it another two months until she does, but my parents wanted to be sure I got to see her just in case—a decision I fully agree with.) She is not lucky to be dying, but she is lucky to have lived. I think she knows this, hope she knows this, and it is a sentiment I share with her in ways that become more and more apparent: How lucky to have lived. How lucky to be alive.

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