Lazy Winter, Busy June

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.

It all started with a plan to go to Bonn, a small city in West Germany near Cologne I had never been to and never really had any intention of visiting. It is home to one of Germany’s biggest and most well-known radio and broadcasting companies Deutsche Welle, who would be hosting a three-day conference on climate change and how the media handles it. An interesting topic, I figured, and one I would be happy to learn about, but even more exciting would be the chance to attend my first real conference (ever) and hobnob with a lot of industry people I would no doubt never come into contact with otherwise. I applied for press accreditation, and spend several weeks frantically looking for friends of friends to stay with there, until at the last minute the website I was working for, a project called Future Challenges sponsored by the Bertelsmann Stiftung (Foundation), up and told me they were going to pay for my hotel room—and it would be in one of the nicest hotels in town. I was ready for my very first conference. But first, I needed to go visit someone very important.

The conference wasn’t until Monday, June 21, but on Friday, June 18, right after watching the World Cup game between Serbia and Germany (and of course the Weltmeisterschaft is important enough as to deserve an extensive post of its very own), I hopped on a train down to Prague (oh how wonderful to be able to use the word “hopped” when discussing a trip to another country—oh the speed and ease of movement it connotes!) to visit my old and dear friend—and freshman year roommate—“Ashley”:

Ashley is a special case when it comes to traveling: during her junior year (and my unplanned sabbatical year) she went off to St. Petersburg for a yearlong study abroad, something that used to be standard but now seems daring and unusual in face of the shorter, safer, slightly sissy “semester abroad.” She came back speaking fluent Russian. After college she went back for a year to work, and the apparent chutzpah with which she did so may have partially inspired me to take my own leap (of faith) across the pond. Then, about two years ago, she applied for a scholarship that sent her to India, and ended up in Hyderabad for a year. She came back from there with knowledge in several more languages, of course, as well as a keen fascination and enthusiasm for Indian food and Bollywood films.

It was lucky I had been to Prague before, because most of the weekend was spent inducting me into the world of the last two, as well as sharing outrageous stories and long contemplations about our past, present, and future. We wandered the beautiful streets of the Czech capital, drank beer and caught a few World Cup games, and then found that perhaps the only Pakistani restaurant and food shop in the city was sitting at the end of her street. We watched a Bollywood film called Dostana, which I highly recommend to anyone who likes musicals or silly, girly movies about straight men pretending to be gay, and generally had a fantastic time just hanging out and often being slightly lazy. I love it when I get to the point with a city where I know it well enough that I don’t need to run off and do everything; in fact often when I am in a place for the first time, I gaze with no uncertain amount of envy at people lying on the grass (summer) or leisurely lounging in bars and cafes (winter). I always want to be at that point where I don’t have to rush.

This sense of leisure lasted only as far as Monday morning, however, when I woke up and dashed to the airport for a flight to Bonn, to attend my first ever media conference. I checked into the Hotel Königshof, located directly on the Rhine river and with a full view of its banks, feeling very special and proud of myself indeed. Never had I been put up in a hotel by my work, although now I knew how important it could make a person feel. Bonn itself was like a German version of a New England college town—or perhaps I only say that because my hotel was literally across the street from the main university campus, with its sprawling green lawn surrounded by ornate Prussian looking buildings. The beer garden right down the road reinforced my notion that I wasn’t in Kansas any longer, but the general mood of the campus was the same as it is in America: leisurely and friendly, with groups of boys playing Frisbee an kicking balls around on the lawn while smaller groups of girls sat picnicking together, and lone studiers sat pouring over books and laptops. I nearly felt like I was back at Columbia for a moment.

I got to the conference as quickly as I could, checking in with enough to catch most of the last panel of the evening, on how films can inspire activism regarding the environment and climate change. Since I knew absolutely no one there (the one other person from the Future Challenges team being someone I had never met before and could have only vaguely recognized by site), I was lucky enough to meet two nice people—a British woman and a German man—who were at the conference to promote their latest environmental activism project, along with a film called “The Age of Stupid”—also about activism in today’s world, or rather the lack thereof. As we introduced ourselves and started talking, we were herded down a short path to the Rhine, where we boarded and giant and rather magnificent decked out party boat for a cruise down the river. There was dinner, there were two lives bands, and there was an unending flow of alcohol, including the Cologne class Kölsch, which must have been stored below decks in such abundance, it is a wonder the ship stayed afloat. It was a veritable international smorgasbord, with journalists from far and wide, including many from Africa and India. I met the editor of an English language newspaper in Budapest—probably my favorite Eastern European city—who gave me his card and immediately promised me a job if I moved there—a request I was hard-pressed to turn down. I met a lot of people of course, but there was still no sign of my colleague, who had traveled all the way from Ghana to attend the conference. It was not until the next morning at breakfast when I finally met him, and was not so astounded to find that he was the one person I had suspected the night before of being him all along.

The next two days of the conference passed quickly. I went to some truly fascinating panels that approached climate change from different angles (including why it is important to involve religious communities in the issues of environmentalism, and how to do so), and took copious notes at each, in order to prepare myself for writing articles about each panel I had been to. By the time Wednesday afternoon came around, and I found myself again with suitcase in hand, dashing to the Cologne-Bonn airport (which I only link here because the website is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen) for a flight back to Berlin, I could not believe how many new experiences and stories I had accumulated in how short a time. I had gone from Berlin to Prague where I had seen one of my oldest and best friends, and then from Prague to Bonn where I had felt like a businesswoman. Now suddenly here I was, arriving back in my hometown of Berlin into the waiting arms of my boyfriend, driving as fast as possible to his friends’ house to catch the Germany-Ghana world cup game (which both teams won, in a sense, because both were allowed to advance to the next round—but more on that later).

I had come full-circle. Almost exactly a year after I had quit the horrible ad agency that paid me nearly nothing to work ten-hour days and some weekends for them, that kept on promising me the chance to travel but never actually made good on that promise; a year and three weeks after I had quit that job to an uncertain future of I knew not what, I finally felt like I had emerged (somewhat) victorious. It took only a year and nine months in Germany, but at last I have a visa, I have work, and I am somewhat established. At last, I feel I have arrived.