Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Finding a Narrative

Last weekend was my second-to-last weekend in Hamburg. I spent it fairly quietly, with a lot of sleeping in and lazing around and reading this truly excellent comic that a couple of my friends convinced me to read. But I also walked around in neighborhoods I haven't visited, and I went to the Kunsthalle and spent a couple of hours looking at the art.

Although I have been living here for two months, I don't feel as though I really *get* Hamburg or belong to it the way I felt like I belonged to Berlin. That's part of the problem, of course: Berlin got to me first, and made such a deep impression on me, that I'm afraid nothing else will ever live up to it. Hamburg had the misfortune of being the direct following act. And I like Hamburg, I do, but Berlin stole my heart. Studying abroad in a city deeply scarred by history and at the center of international politics both in the past and today, especially living as I did with two retired teachers who were both born in Berlin in the tail end of World War Two, and being there with friends who were thinking about and asking similar questions...my time in Berlin supported my personal narrative of becoming more aware of the world and caring more about helping to solve its problems.

My time in Hamburg has been, through my fault entirely, far more isolated. I mean, I could have gone to the University of Hamburg more often and been bolder and talked to people. But I didn't, and I probably won't in my last month here. The trips I've taken this summer have been much more past-focused than present- or future-focused: Lübeck, Queen of the Hanse, an organization which declined as nation-states rose. Salzburg, which has significance to me because it features prominently in Übermädchen, a novel set in 1777. The Nordsee, the ocean, the eternal. On Friday I fly to Rome for the weekend and because I idolize Augustus Caesar, you know I'm going to be focusing on what was there two thousand years ago.

I know it sounds like I'm whining, which is stupid because I am ridiculously lucky to have the opportunity and the means to travel so much. And one thing that being in Europe has taught me is that the past matters: being too future-focused, which is what I'd call one of my defining traits, is often dangerous because you ignore the reasons the world is the way that it is. Not to say that means you give up on changing it, but rather, be aware of what has been here before, and what tracks you may fall into.

There are a couple of specific reasons I'm frustrated:

1) The next time I leave Hamburg after Rome will be going back to Berlin for a day where everyone who took part in the internship program shares their experiences (and then a weekend with a couple of friends [the same friends who showed me the comic linked above]). I'm stressing because I don't know what I'm going to say, and I'm worried that I'll look like a fool and a waste of time/money. Like I didn't make the most of my opportunity because I mean, objectively? I didn't. I go to work and I come home. I have not made friends with any Germans beyond the ones with whom I live (and I've had some very good, human-contact-affirming conversations with various Asian women who see me and feel solidarity and thus strike up conversation).

One of the points of the internship program is to strengthen transatlantic ties, and I don't know if I've done much or any tie-strengthening. My personal appreciation for Europe--appreciation as in "I like it" and appreciation as in "I see what it's about"--has deepened, certainly, and adulting more thoroughly than I did even in Berlin has strengthened my own confidence in how I'll be able to navigate the world in the future--but what is so special about the fact that I can now cook more than pasta and manage my money and go on trips by myself without having everything go terribly wrong? And I've enjoyed and will enjoy my travel this summer but I also wanted to volunteer and do something, anything, to help refugees but I just...haven't. I mean, another thing I've realized is that really helping people requires long-term commitment, but I could have tried harder to find ways to do good for others.

But that gets to what I wanted to talk about with this post: finding a narrative. A good thing about being alone a lot is that you stop performing quite so much. That's why I instated the policy where I do memorials alone. That's why I generally prefer to go through museums solo as well, because what calls to me may not call to someone else, and if I'm there to experience art I don't also want to have to justify my artistic tastes. The Kunsthalle has a special exhibition of Piranesi's Carceri d'Invenzione which is ending on Sunday, and was really the reason I decided to go in this weekend, and sure enough I spent a disproportionate amount of time in the room with these architectural grotesqueries, staring at the dark lines and the stairs and arches and threatening shadows. I don't know what it is about them that resonates so deeply, but they do, and I needed to let that resonance happen without worrying about how that was being read.

Yet: I'm going to have to talk about my summer in a way that is consumable by others, and because I'm pretentious and want to keep up the facade of being deep, I want a Narrative. I want to say something profound, that sets the world on its side in the minds of my listeners for a while...when really, I mean, this is a summer internship, on a different continent so I went on a bunch of fun trips to fairly touristy places because I don't know the next time I'm coming back. Could I have engaged more with modern life in Hamburg, the life of the youth and the students and so on? Yeah. But I live and work in a quiet part of town so I just bike to work and back and hey! I learned to cook lentil soup.

Architecture is neat and the people are nice but I want to do something more technical and more responsive to social needs in the future. This is an honest thing I can say, but I also don't want to sound ungrateful for the opportunity because I really, really do like the people I work with. A positive thing I've been feeling--although it hasn't made it onto this blog, because I write more when I'm upset or frustrated about things--is the satisfaction of going around town and seeing streets or buildings where I have touched the work, even if in a small way. I haven't been here long enough to see a project through, but I can imagine how good it feels to go past a building, or for me a piece of infrastructure, being used and lived in/with, and know--I made that. This is why I feel so much more satisfaction working on stuff related to projects that are further along in development. Making a model for speculative future development is technically more intricate work, but my favorite thing I've done so far is the emergency escape paths I drew on existing plans, because work that I did may help save lives in the future. That is a good feeling.

And that is only one thing. I wish it didn't make me feel better to have sound bites ready, but I'm going to keep working on preparing sound bites.

2) I've been slipping on keeping up with the news. Specifically European news, because although I'm here the email newsletters I subscribe to tend to be very US-focused. (This is why I signed up for the Der Spiegel newsletter about half an hour ago). I don't know what the latest news on the situation in Turkey is; despite having presented twice in the past year for German classes about the refugee crisis I still feel as though I don't really know anything about it. The big names in German politics I know--Angela Merkel, Sigmar Gabriel--but after almost five months living here I should have a more nuanced understanding.

Over the weekend I read the New York Times feature story Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart. It is very long and in-depth, and I highly recommend it. But block out a couple of hours. I read the whole thing in one sitting--couldn't stop myself, because it was that engrossing. And at the end I sat back and thought, why was so much of this new information to me? Why wasn't I reading the news more in spring 2011? Of course most of it is my fault, but at the same time, a story such as the above could not have been written without some hindsight...

...and yet, wouldn't waiting yet another few years to see how the current situation plays out add another layer to it? And would the story be worsened if it had been published a couple of months earlier? I write stories in which the arc of the plot is usually pretty clear to me beforehand, but the world is not like that, and when reporters stop recording in real life is far more arbitrary than when a writer decides to end the story. You read one article, more things happen, you have to keep reading. You're never done.

That's one reason why it's more comfortable to be past- or future-oriented than present-oriented: because the present is messier. On such a short timescale as the one in which we live, it's hard to see the trajectory, because if you zoom in close enough it's just a line (thank you, calculus). What is signal and what is noise? Is it significant that I feel ill thinking about a customer service phone call I have to make, or is it significant that I sent a bunch of emails to people in industry? (My confidence in my ability to be an adult has increased but so has my anxiousness about doing so.) Is my friendlessness this summer an obstacle that I will overcome or a character defect that will haunt me for the rest of my life?

The conclusion to this is the usual one: you don't find a narrative, you make a narrative. I'm going to make that phone call, on Monday at the latest, and it's going to be awful because I hate phone calls and if it goes poorly I'll probably sulk for a few hours, and I'll turn in housing paperwork and probably sulk about that too, and I'll make myself lentil soup, and all the other life-maintenance tasks that adults do, and eventually I'll be okay at it. As for the interesting part of my story--I'll keep working on that too.

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