Schmaltzing Berlin: A beginning
Expatica Germany's new blogger Sabrina Small explains how a food-obsessed American Jewette landed in the German capital.
How did I get here? I ask myself the same question, sometimes in an excited exalted way, flitting from gallery opening to gallery opening with some daring outfit I’ve put together for the occasion. Sometimes, the question takes on a hand-wringing tone of fear and doubt, like the time I reached into my pockets for money at a Plus market in Kreuzberg and found only 50 cents change. Panicked and without language, I ended up chanting, "no money, no money" and then fleeing the store in shame and confusion. I ask myself the question because the thing is, I never intended to move to Berlin.
I was living with my boyfriend in Baltimore, finishing my master’s thesis for an MLA in Gastronomy and dreaming of becoming a chef. Then my boyfriend was offered a short posting at a private design college in Berlin. I begged to come along but money made this request impossible. Money problems and a knee injury that laid me up for weeks put a strain on my relationship. So after my knee healed and my boyfriend went to Berlin, I decided rashly to stay with my parents in Los Angeles and try my hand out at cooking professionally.
I found a job in a decent restaurant in Los Feliz, the trendy Hollywood neighborhood where actors go to be ignored by hipsters. I cooked seven days in a row, sometimes until 3 a.m., with no break. I made tuna-tartar, devilled eggs, cream-filled donuts that sold for $9 a serving. I found the tactile nature of cooking provided me a solidness and grace that was missing from my ambling forays into culinary academia. There I was permanently sullen, opposed to the gourmet culture that reigned, and absolutely terrified of any and all criticism; at the same time, I was terrified to commit myself to any work that could have granted me success.
I fantasized about success—interviews, classrooms full of students awaiting my words, even, unfortunately, Food Network stardom. But in actuality I was not very disciplined academically and the work was lonely. In a kitchen, I was part of a team and success and failure were not naval gazing subjects. They were "a 4-top wanted to thank the person who made their beet salad (me)" or "Did you taste this ginger dressing (me again)? It’s absolutely inedible and I am this close to firing you. Don’t let it happen again."
Three months later, my boyfriend was finished with his first leg of teaching in Berlin. Meanwhile, I was trying to decide between going back to him and having to start over career-wise or moving to Portland to cook and eventually open a restaurant in Carlton, the premier Pinot Noir spot in Oregon. I agonized over this decision - I was incapacitated by it. I spent entire days crying myself into catatonia trying to come up with a right answer. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a Libra (October 7, 1980) that makes the prospect of indecision so crippling to me. Maybe I was simply torn between love and a dream. In the end I chose love and Berlin.
The weeks leading to my departure were marked by family turmoil. I was being chastised for not putting my career first but there was a deeper threat to my parents and my grandmother - Germany - home of the Nazis and enemy to the Jews forever. Amen. My mother’s parents narrowly survived the Holocaust. Her father lost an entire family, wife, children, before meeting my grandmother in New York and marrying a second time. My 75 year-old Grandmother, the last of my living grandparents, simply refused to speak to me after I had decided to move here. She isn’t speaking to me now, in fact.
The ironic thing is that I have never felt more Jewish in my entire life than I do in Berlin. Me, the eldest daughter, who at her Bat Mitzvah denied the existence of God and has been stringently atheist ever since, feels the stirrings of spiritual communion with my Jewish ancestors every time I pass the gold name-plates that checker the streets here, marking a fallen Jewish resident. I feel this awakening of Jewish cultural identity, oddly, in the absence of Jews here, too. It’s the pioneer’s impulse to be vocal and revolutionary in my Jewish identity here. I imagine opening a restaurant in which the Jewish recipes I grew up with - cholent, kuggel, knish - are boldly reintroduced to a generation of Germans my age who have never known them by name.
Food is memory and memory can be painful but food can also mend pain. Jewish food and German food are like two sisters who haven’t spoken for years and have a lot of catching up to do. As do I.
15 February 2008
Sabrina Small / Expatica
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