On Europe

I’m thinking of moving to Dortmund, Germany. I’ve been thinking about it for awhile now, and by awhile I mean three weeks, ever since I became a fan of American soccer phenom Christian Pulisic. The benefits of moving to Germany would be myriad. I’d get to watch all of Dortmund’s home games; it’d be easier to watch their away games and maybe even some of the Champions League games which are played in places like England, Spain and Cyprus; and my German would continue to improve. Right now my German is on the cusp of intermediate. For the record, I define intermediate as, “can sort of speak.”

But mostly I just love Europe. My love affair with Europe started in 2004 when I studied in Seville, Spain. I was freshly 21 years old. I’d just broken up with my girlfriend. When I got to the Madrid airport I saw people smoking cigarettes — inside! — and thought, This is where I’m supposed to be.

That semester in Spain is linked to many fond memories: drinking beers and nibbling on olives in quiet alleyways, watching flamenco, and stumbling through the foreign language that was Spanish. I remember dinners at 10pm and buying one euro wedges of brie at the local Dia supermarket. I remember sitting along the Guadalquivir River, drinking liters of Cruzcampo and laughing with the other study abroad members, Americans from all over the country who’d come to Spain ostensibly to learn something, though they weren’t sure what. And of course I remember afternoons on the couch smoking Chesterfield’s with Estefania, a 16 year old dancer from Jaen with whom I was hopelessly and irrevocably in love. I still remember the first day Estefania came to the house. She went around the table, kissing everyone on the cheek as was customary. But I wasn’t ready. The kissing was still new for me. As happened then and later happened when a Spanish girl in my Masters program casually draped her arm on my shoulder, I mistook a cultural norm for something personal. I thought she liked me.

Then in 2014 I was off to France. I was working online and could go anywhere I wanted, though technically I was supposed to stay in the US. My first port of call was a tiny town in southwest France called Saint Vincent de Tyrosse. Saint Vincent, for short, is known for nothing, and that’s precisely why I chose it. For two weeks I lived with a guy named Pedro and his wife Claudia. Pedro spoke no English; we spoke exclusively French. Claudia spoke Spanish and and we sometimes spoke Spanish, but usually for Pedro’s sake we’d stick to French. At night I’d sometimes sit on the curb outside their house, in this tiny residential neighborhood in a town in southwest France where no one goes unless they live there, and smoke hand-rolled cigarettes. Southwest France is a good place to be any time of year, but even more so in the fall. The leaves begin to turn. The temperature is cool. The salty air of the Bay of Biscay is never far away.

After Pedro and Claudia I began living with a woman named Fred. Fred remains, to this day, one of the most important people I’ve met while traveling abroad. She was renting out a room in a place called Seignosse two blocks from the beach where she lived with her three dogs Nala, Aloha and Dune, her cat Pepita, and her 15 year old daughter Marie. Fred, like many French people, knew how to live well. She worked, but her work did not define or consume her. In the afternoon, after we’d both worked, she’d come home and sit on the back porch and drink a glass of white wine, idly caressing whichever dog was closest and talking about her day or asking about mine. The days were growing shorter and the air smelled like fall. Fred never seemed to be stressed out. In the evening she’d often put a whole chicken in the oven covered in rosemary and salt, and then ask, her voice carrying into my room, “Mark, tu viens a manger?”

“But I feel bad, not paying for food,” I protested at first.

“It’s just as easy to cook for three as it is for two,” she said.

After living with Fred I walked the Camino de Santiago, which was essentially 33 days of introspection and eating yogurt by myself. On the first day I took the train from Fred’s house to Irun, on the border, and walked the thirty or so kilometers that separated me from San Sebastian. When I got to San Sebastian it was dusk, and the surfers were just getting out of the water. The offshore winds were blowing the spray off the back of the waves. People walked through the heart of the city in their wetsuits, carrying their surfboards. I heard snippets of Basque drifting through the alleyways, and passed tables full of people standing and drinking beers, chatting and enjoying the evening. When I got to La Concha, the main boardwalk that looks over the blue waters of the Bay of Biscay, I asked myself, how is it possible for a place to be this beautiful? For an evening to be this beautiful? I wanted to freeze everything, to capture the light as it danced on the wave rivulets in front of the island of Santa Clara. But instead I had to keep walking, and anyway the moment did not last long as night quickly descended.

As I write this and reminisce about Europe and think of a possible upcoming move there I’m sitting in a grocery store in Seattle called PCC. I’m in the cafe. There’s a girl with too many tattoos in front of me and those kind of MC Hammer parachute pants that i think might be popular with yoga type people that look a bit like you just crapped yourself. There’s a baby to my right screaming and reminding me with every scream why I’m glad I don’t have children. There’s a man to my right who’s, oddly, sitting in front of a teapot. And everything around us breathes commerce. This is the US and this is normal, and I feel at home here. I don’t, conversely, feel quite at home in Europe, though I wish I did. Does Europe have commerce? Of course it does. But somehow it’s more tasteful. And maybe I’m just saying this because the prosciutto is cheaper, or because they don’t say, “HI!!! How are you??? How’s your day going? Do you want to be my friend?” every time you buy something, or maybe it’s just because the supermarkets are so much smaller, the aisles are tinier, they have more varieties of sparkling water (try Vichy Catalan before you die) and the wine is cheaper. There’s somehow something different about the commerce, and this extends to all aspects of life in Europe. Money is less important. Working is less important. Living well is more important, though the nuances of this secret Europe is reluctant to divulge. Sure, anyone can sit on a quiet side street and enjoy a glass of wine and some cheese that smells like dirty underpants. Anyone can live the European life for a moment, without really being changed. But I suspect that to live it and not have it be novel requires time and dedication.

The first time I went to Europe I was either 11 or 13. I say either 11 or 13 because I thought I was 11, but my mother recently said different. I remember little from the trip. We went to Switzerland, where my sisters dressed up in traditional dirndls and took pictures next to a Swiss chalet, and we did a lot of hiking. One day we were walking up the wall of the valley leading out of town and a man started screaming at us from the second story window of his house. “Steinschlag!” he yelled. “Steinschlag!” We were startled but also amused. The man was clearly unstable, banging his fists against his head not unlike a baboon. Later we learned that he’d been trying to warn us. Steinschlag meant falling rocks. He was trying to keep us from getting pelted in the head by erosion.

After Switzerland we went to Spain, which was a revelation, mainly because the women at the beaches tended not to wear tops. Never in my life had I seen so many breasts, and so near me. Whatever age I was, 11 or 13, was a confusing age when it came to breasts. In the US we have a strange attitude towards nudity. Going topless on a beach would be obscene, yet when it comes to movies and magazines and television that’s pretty much all there is to see. This contradiction did not strike me at the time. The only thing I thought was, I feel a little bit uncomfortable right now, but I also like it. I waded into the Mediterranean, where I opened my eyes in saltwater for the first time. Everything was golden, the sand bottom of the clear water, the sand on the beach, the skin of the people on the beach, and the light of the late afternoon sun. I was delighted, but in the way an 11 or 13 year old is delighted. The source of my delight was the water and the swimming and the warmth. Europe played no part in it. Spain played no part in it. These were just names.

Twenty years later, or, this last spring, at the age of 33, I found myself in Europe again. This time I was in Hamburg, in northern Germany. I went there for a girl — or rather I went to Berlin for a girl — but before I got to Berlin I stopped in Lisbon, and in Lisbon I met a different girl, also German, much younger. I didn’t particularly notice her when we met in the kitchen of the small guesthouse where I was staying, but she suggested we go out and get a glass of wine and the rest is one big cliche that I lived out I think partly because I wanted to see what it would be like to live out one big cliche. It was January and the next day the light from outside sliced me in half as I lay in bed, whimpering with hangover and guilt. I went to the airport, where I sat on the ground, talking to the girl from Berlin, crying. “You’re not a child,” she was saying, “so why are you acting like one?”

She had a point. But instead of growing up right in that instant, instead of handling the matter like an adult, I got on the next flight to Berlin, which of course just made things worse. I made small-talk with the cab driver from Iraq on the ride to her house. She greeted me with a hug and led me to the kitchen of her beautiful apartment — Berlin is deceptively cheap — where she’d prepared dinner and we sat across from each other and tried to pretend like everything was the same. We had tea. We went into her living room where we watched TV and I cradled her in my arms. And that night as I continued to cradle her I felt her chest shuddering and then heard the sounds of her crying. I lay there, cold, not saying anything, all the while thinking in my head, You are a bastard.

A few days later she kicked me out.

And that’s how I found myself in Hamburg, not because I particularly wanted to be in Hamburg, I don’t think anyone particularly wants to be in Hamburg, but because I had to get out of Berlin. In retrospect I probably should’ve left the country altogether. I should’ve gone to France or Spain or anywhere else. I should’ve gone back to the US. But instead I stayed in Germany, and enrolled in an intensive language class in Hamburg where everyday I’d go for three hours and talk like a four year old, saying things like, “The teddy bear is on the table. I put the teddy bear on the table.”

There was a guy in my class, Seb, and he helped me forget about the girl from Berlin. He was from the Canary Islands but had a British father and French mother and thus
spoke these three languages perfectly. He was looking for cleaning jobs in Germany.

“You speak three languages perfectly,” I said. “Why are you trying to be a janitor?”

“Right, mate,” he would say, “but I don’t speak german. Kind of important, mate.”

Also in the class were Julio and Tania, from Brazil. Tania was cute and pretended not to speak German and Julio simply didn’t speak German. There was Johnson from Taiwan, whose real name I learned but quickly forgot. There was Arthur, from Paris, who outdressed all of us and like a true Frenchman had a thick accent in whatever language he spoke. And then there was Amelia, the teacher, who I think secretly hated me and who had a girlfriend from Puerto Rico who I met the one night we all went out together. “Where are you from,” I asked her girlfriend in Spanish, eager to practice, “I’m from the US.” “Me too,” she said, and smiled, and for some reason I fumed on the inside when she said this, like she automatically assumed I didn’t realize Puerto Rico was part of the US, or that I was geographically braindead. That night we consumed many bottles of wine and many tapas and all took the subway home together. It was the only time I got drunk in Germany.

The rest of my time in Hamburg consisted of long walks, conversation classes at the public library, and frittering my money away at local cafes. I had a roommate, Phillip, whose social life was approximately 400 times more robust than mine. At night we would sometimes watch TV together, and it had all the semblances of normality. In fact, it was normal, I was just incredibly lonely. But in a weird way I was also happy. After my conduct toward the girl from Berlin I wanted to take a close look at my life, and a month and a half in a cold northern European city where you don’t know a soul was the perfect place to do that. Eventually though it was enough. My life felt like a farce. How long was I going to carry on with this? How long was I going to continue this strange form of self-castigation/escapism? And then my time in the apartment with Phillip was up, I got sick, and suddenly the choice was clear: Get out. Get out of Hamburg. I found a cheap flight to Nice where I spent a few days recovering on the Cote d’Azure in the guesthouse of a woman from Scotland who had an alarming amount of facial hair and inserted the phrase “Fuck Trump” into random parts of conversation. I continued on to Italy, passing through Monaco. I began to recover. And in Italy things sort of started to make sense again. I began guzzling espresso and smoking cigarettes in the plazas and realized I was still alone, still doing the same thing, just in a place that was slightly warmer. So when I say things made sense I mean I was lost as ever but now I could at least see I was lost and was no longer lying to myself. Within a few days I bought a ticket back to the US. I went to Pisa where I glimpsed the leaning tower for the briefest of moments and had no desire to investigate further. I boarded a plane for London. I boarded a plane for Seattle. They served clotted cream on the flight and I watched a movie starring Zac Efron and laughed uncontrollably.

And that was how I left Europe.