No. 5: Apartment of Sand and Fog

this is not my grandmother in her living room

my grandmother in her Berlin living room

my fathers Berlin apartment building, Apthorp-on-the-Spree

my father’s Berlin apartment building, Apthorp-on-the-Spree

My brother David sends me a file that contains an image of our father’s birth certificate.

I look at the address typed on the fourth line.

Berlin, Iranische Strasse 2.

The apartment where my father lived when he was born, I presume.

With some relief and some hope, I enter this information onto my Federal Republic of Germany naturalization paperwork.  I don’t know much, but I know this: where my father and my grandparents were living in 1938.

I picture what this apartment might look like.

My mind is already cluttered with images of European apartments, so concocting this visual is a snap.

My maternal grandmother lived in the Hague when I was a child, and we would visit her in the summers.  Her front door was that wavy mid-century glass that makes the postman look like Nude Descending A Staircase.

Friends have lived in various London apartments.  Common themes are kitchen tile, electric kettles, scratchy rugs and hash smoking.  Paris apartments I have known are miniscule and crooked, plus art, books, and hash smoking.

And then there’s the Berlin apartment complex that I recall from the Bourne Supremacy.  The film washed over me in the haze of an attractive travelogue until the extended fight sequence to which I was riveted with the kind of real estate lust that’s raised and currently felling American civilization.  Forget the karate chops:  I was straining for a glimpse of the master bath.  All I could think about for days was that apartment complex, the big glass windows, the spare, deftly edited interiors, the courtyard where you pass your charming neighbor in his really terrific glasses as you head out for the evening.  When living in Berlin in my fantasies I have a “light, quick, firm step,” just like Anna Karenina in the Maude translation, but with a happier ending.

I don’t imagine the Ebels in a mid-century apartment complex.  One reason is that my father was born in 1938.  So the mid-century hadn’t quite landed.  Also, I assume that their home was more like the bougie apartment in the Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vittorio De Sica’s 1971 film adaptation of Giorio Bassani’s 1962 novel about doomed Italian Jews living in Ferrara, Italy, under Mussolini.  Dark, glossy wood, spotless moldings, built-in sideboards, good lamps, good rugs, good silver, good picture frames, good help.  Maybe on the third floor of the building pictured above.  A cage elevator takes you there.  Electric sconces along the hallway, a repeating pattern of ivy on the carpet, a heavy porcelain umbrella stand at the front door, coats on hooks and wellies lined up.

It is helpful to me on a deep psychological level to know my father’s address at the time of his birth.  Berlin, Iranisch Strasse 2.

Isn’t it interesting? I marvel.  Iran is in the news these daysAnd my father lived on Iran Street.  It’s Everything’s An Augur Friday!

If I can picture my father as a baby, coming home to his well-appointed apartment on Iranische Strasse, then I can have compassion for my father, who was a vulnerable baby, who would soon be a displaced, confused little boy with  two languages wrestling for control as the A train rumbled past.

Also, thanks to my clear sense of Iranische Strasse, 2, I  can imagine my homecoming.

As the taxi speeds away through the puddles (because it is always a wet, chilly autumn evening in my fantasies of Berlin), I cross a marble lobby to the elevator.  My arrival is announced with the harsh, homey trill of European buzzers everywhere.  Alex Kupfer comes to the door.  He’s a young architect, living with his girlfriend, Nola, who’s Cape Verdian and studying musicology at the art institute.  Thank God they speak perfect English.  (Nola did graduate work at UC Santa Cruz!)

Alex and Nola are startled but game.  They lead me through the rooms, arranged formally around a large central foyer.  Nothing is left of my grandmother’s interior décor, of course.  But the sound of my boot heels as they storm the border between wood floors and carpet, streetlight through the windows as evening settles outside, and the tiled kitchen, my God.  Despite the cloud of cardamom from the vegetable fritters Nola is in the middle of frying when I show up unannounced – in this tiled kitchen time and space refract.  I am at the kitchen table.  Grown-ups debate urgently in the next room as I slowly dunk sugared lady-fingers into a glass of milk until they dissolve, then fish them out with a long spoon I have nicked from Cook.

And then – Eureka! Google maps! – I look up Berlin, Iranische Strasse 2.  I am going to see a photo of this place before I’ve even checked the airfares.

But this address is not my father’s apartment, and it never was.

It’s the Judisches Krankenhouse Berlin.  The Jewish Hospital of Berlin.

So apparently I have no idea where my father lived when he was born.

Certainly not in my hallucinated memory mash-up with random details pillaged from five decades and various nations, starring Matt Damon and an invented brainy couple as art-directed by Giancarlo Bartolini Salimbeni.

Sorry, Alex.  Sorry, Nola.

Although your cardamom fritters do smell delicious.

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No. 36: The Fifty-Four Hundred

Fatherland starts as an idea.  Apply for restored German citizenship under Article 116, paragraph 2 of the Grundgesetz, the Federal Republic’s Basic Law, write about it:  that’d be cool.

I spend almost a full calendar year ignoring this idea.  In that time, I have a high-profile TV-writing job that represents everything I’ve worked towards for the last 9 years, struggle to find my groove like an exchange student from Planet Haiku going out for the debate team, am not asked back to the show, spend four months on a TV pilot that lands in a drawer awaiting resurrection as a dark, young adult novel, and become actually depressed.

In August, when I finally print out the application for citizenship off the German Consulate’s website and get down to it, I am thinking one thing: EU passport. I’ve always wanted to live and work in the EU, especially while our son is growing up, and if there’s one thing my formerly estranged, now dead father can do for me, it’s provide the hook-up.

The application requires documented proof.

Looking for documents, I reconnect with my brother.

Reconnecting with my brother, I realize that it’s not just the passport.  It’s not just the long arm of the Third Reich, that shaped my family’s emotional patterns as much as it did our geography.  It’s not just the formerly estranged, now dead father.  It’s not just the personal, creative reckoning inspired by profound career frustration.  It’s the combo platter.

Fatherland is a book!  I love it I love it I love it!” friends and fans enthuse.  “There’s no universal thread to your story,” the big-gun New York book agent declares.  “You need to get this out there,” tech-savvy friends advise, “via social networking sites.  Also, the format of the blog is confusing.”  “You haven’t had a job in seven months,” Reality reminds.  “You’re out of savings and back in debt.  Get your new, commercial TV pilot written, kamikaze style, and get yourself employed.”

To cram in all the writing, and getting-it-out there that I possibly can, I wake in the 4’s every morning.

To wake in the 4’s, I go to bed ridiculously early.

“Don’t you have half an hour to hang out with me?” my husband asks.

“I’m sorry,” I yawn at 9 PM, “I can barely keep my eyes ope – zzzzzz.”

I don’t know the best way to manage the recently renovated pie-graph of my life, in which I follow my Deep Instinct to where it will lead and stop writing merely to survive.

But here’s one thing I do know.

Something that makes no sense for financial reasons.  (In the land of Deep Instinct, money is no object but debt is no option.)

I must travel to Berlin with my family, and I must do it as soon as is feasible.

This morning, I draw up an estimated budget for a 2-week trip.  In the land of Deep Instinct, I’m looking at two weeks surrounding Spring Break, which is late March, off-season.

Plane tickets: $2500

Holiday apartment rental in Berlin Mitte (midtown): $1500

Spending money: $1400

Estimated cost for 2-week, life-changing, book-solidifying, expatriat-considering trip to Berlin: priceless!

Or $5400, depending on how you look at it.

Maybe there’s a grant out there from a German corporation that could cover some of our travel expenses.  I think my alma mater, Barnard College, has some sort of travel grant for recent graduates pursuing research.  Hmm…graduated from college, oh, two decades ago.  Is 20 years recent?  Will my project count as research as far as Barnard is concerned? (You old!  She pregnant!  Can’t have a lot of old, pregnant bitches running around.)  Maybe midtown Berlin is a lame place to stay.  Maybe we should target a funkier part of town where the prices are cheaper, but maybe for a first visit it’s better to stay among the corporate yuppies with their WiFi and good supermarkets and learn the city, and when we come back we can camp out in an East Berlin artists’ squat.  Maybe we can wrangle an apartment trade with a Berlin household who’d like to spend Spring Break in L.A.  Thomas Vogelbacher, the Vice Counsel with whom my brother David and I meet in September (see No. 11: I ♥ Thomas Vogelbacher, for the story), suggests I might find interesting connections through the newly thriving Berlin synagogue.  Maybe a German magazine will find my story way more compelling and universal than Madame X, the big-gun book agent.  Maybe the Berlin Hustle will go more smoothly when I can pitch myself as a new citizen contemplating relocation, as opposed to just another genealogical tourist.  But I don’t want to wait for the decree from Cologne.  Even if Germany doesn’t want me back, I know I must see the city that would have been my hometown if Hitler hadn’t ruined everything slash made this project possible.

Shit.  It’s 5:30 AM.  I’ve already spent an hour and a half on Fatherland today.

Deep Instinct sure gobbles up a shitload of the day.  And so far, it’s an unpaid internship.

No. 37: Putting Out

“There isn’t a universal thread to your story,” Madame X, the big-gun literary agent says, “which is the first thing I look for when I take on a memoir.  And there isn’t a publisher out there who’s going to see a format in what you’re doing.”

“It’s a movie,” says my friend Sal.  “Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.”

“We don’t know what it is yet,” Sal’s partner Timothy counsels.  “Right now it’s all set-up.  We need to know if you get the German citizenship.  We need to know if you move to Berlin.”

“Your idea sounds great,” the Consulting Editor for a major publishing company says.  “If Madame X doesn’t respond, you should by all means find an agent who does.”

Fatherland is compelling, heartfelt, smart, beautiful, thoughtful, and marketable — like you,” raves Blanche, a successful friend-in-the-media.  She also means to say “funny.”

“You have no money and no job,” Jiminy Cricket pipes up from my right shoulder.  “You can’t afford a trip to Berlin and you can’t let this Fatherland thing take up too much time.  You have a TV pilot and a first novel to write.”

“From 4 AM to 5 AM I’ll do a quick trawl of websites that might link to my blog or be interested in having me write about what I’m doing, and I’ll look at the Foundation Center website to see what sort of individual grants are out there,” I tell myself.  “Then I get the blog posted and move on.”

It’s 6:24 AM right now, and all I’ve got are a pile of Google searches (Berlin synagogue, German corporate foundations, Barnard alumnae grant, Columbia grants, Der Spiegel English version, The Foundation Center) and two lousy emails.

When I write to the charming, DiCapriesque Vice Consul at the German Consulate in San Francisco, to whom my brother David and I presented our family documents back in September, I’m polite and, I don’t know, ever-so-slightly English-is-not-my-native-tongue:

Dear Thomas:

We met in September at the Consulate, when my brother David and I presented you with our family documents and, with your kind help, began the process of applying for restored citizenship under Article 116.

David and I have both received confirmation of our applications from Cologne, and we await further news.

I am a professional writer, and have begun a blog that is following my quest for restored citizenship.  I’m writing not just about the bureaucratic steps, but about my deeper interest in the possibility of relocating to Berlin with my family if the citizenship is granted.  Of course I don’t know whether this will be possible, but whether I am granted citizenship or not I am hoping to visit Berlin with my family in 2010, both to see where my family lived for (at least) 150 years, and also to do research for what I hope will become a book about my own relationship to the city and its history, and how the Third Reich shaped my family’s destiny in the United States.

I’m wondering if you might have any suggestions of organizations, publications, websites, or individuals who are involved in Berlin’s Jewish community and/or media community who might be interested in my project and helpful resources.  Specifically I am hoping to find sources of financial funding for my travel and research.

For instance, in our meeting I remember you mentioned a Jewish synagogue in Berlin that had a new rabbi.  You suggested that this synagogue would be a place to visit, and the home of a growing community I might find interesting.  Could you please remind me of the name?

I’m grateful for any suggestions and advice you might have!

Best regards,

 

Just so’s you know, the reasons I refer to this important government official as “Thomas” are:

1)    in an earlier exchange he said I could, and;

2)    he is much too young and cute for me to call him ‘Mr.’ without sounding like John Houseman in The Paper Chase

When I write to the newish, hip, articulate website that’s a spin-off of an influential online magazine, I am newish, hip and articulate:

Dear Editors:

I’m a native New Yorker who grew up in Boerum Hill when it was still the ‘hood, went to Barnard, and now lives in exile in Los Angeles, where I write for film and TV.  I just came off a season writing on the cop show COLD CASE, where I felt like the resident alien from Planet Haiku who landed on the debate team, and am currently juggling a TV pilot project about an unlikely lady astronaut with magazine work (I’ve sold memoir-style essays to the LA Times Magazine, SELF and MORE) and my first novel.  Which is why I’m writing this email at 5 AM, Pacific Time.

I’m also writing a blog that I think would be an excellent candidate for a close personal relationship with [your super-cool website], whether as a feature, an entry for [your cool daily column], some sort of ongoing whatnot, or a link.  It’s called FATHERLAND: There’s No Place Like Home, or, How and Why a Nice Jewish Girl Asked Germany To Take Her Back, and it’s tracking my progress as I apply to have my German citizenship restored through a re-naturalization program offered by the Federal Republic of Germany to German Jews who surrendered their citizenship during the Third Reich and their descendants.  I qualify for this credential through my father, who fled Berlin with my grandparents in 1938, who didn’t raise me and who died last year — so there’s layers here, people.  Layers.

The blog explores the lure (and the fantasy) of the expat lifestyle, my ambivalent Hollywood career, and how the long arm of the Third Reich has influenced the emotional patterns and life circumstances of my wildly dysfunctional immigrant family.

I hope you’ll take a minute or two to check it out and think of me as an appealing newcomer to [your super-cool online media community].

Best regards,

 

And that’s what I did today with my precious wee small hours.

I shook my money-maker and kissed it up to God.

Does that count as writing?

No. 41: Moving Pieces

In September, I submit my application to the Federal Republic of Germany to have my citizenship restored under Article 116, paragraph 2 of the country’s Basic Law.

In October, I receive the confirmation letter, postmarked Cologne, telling me that I’m in the bureaucratic loop, and that the process can take up to one year. (See No. 22: Alma Pater, if you demand more on this.)

I start to think about Berlin.  Like, a lot.

I type “Berlin” into the New York Times’ search engine.  I see a fabulous architect couple, gay and Scandinavian, in a jaw-dropping renovated warehouse in East Berlin, which appears to be what Williamsburg was a decade ago.  I see that the hot new street food in Mitte is a grilled sausage cooked on a portable stove by vendors wearing propane tanks on their backs.  I subscribe to the daily fashion blog Stil In Berlin, so I can see what the kids are wearing.  There’s Zara mixed with vintage, and struggling artists with one great accessory that really pops.  OMG, just like me except twenty years younger!  I notice that my brilliant artist friend in New York has a piece in a group show that references Berlin.  A flyer from Disney Hall arrives in the mail, announcing the Berliner Philharmoniker will be performing Brahms next month.  I put the flyer on the fridge with a magnet we got on Cape Cod in August.

I reconnect with a friend from high school, who’s been an expat in Luxembourg with his wife and two kids for the last year or so.  He writes beautifully about his experiences.  His kids are thriving at the International School.  The Luxembourg government pays a cash credit for each kid in a household.  He tells me it’s okay if I picture him walking along wet cobblestones in fading light the color of violets with the Herald Tribune tucked under his arm, because he regularly does that.

I crunch the numbers.  How much would it cost for us to go to Berlin for, say, two weeks?  Just for a glimpse.  Just to confirm or deny if we could live there.  If I could find a job with my EU citizenship that I don’t have yet.  It would cost about six-thousand bucks.  I haven’t collected a paycheck in, oh, seven months.

I think about aliyah – when Jews return to Israel to reclaim their birthright.  I wonder if I am hearing the call to aliyah, in a Berlin kind of way.  I am thinking about how I might feel.  Thinking about how I might feel but prepared for action.  All of this I do wholeheartedly, while sitting in traffic on Highland en route to Sephora to replace my mascara, doing dishes, wielding my Swiffer duster over my chotchkes, “listening” to my son re-tell the entire plot of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, noticing his dry cough, taking him to the doctor, having him home sick from school this past week with a viral infection, inviting people to dinner, remembering they’re vegetarian.  (Cue the bossa nova theme from Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian film Brazil, won’t you?  In which Jonathan Pryce, who’s just managed a daredevil escape to an idyllic scene, is revealed to be a catatonic in a futuristic torture chamber and wheeled away.)

I have this idea that there’s a way for traveling to Berlin to pay for itself.  If I can sell this story as a magazine article, in effect traveling on assignment.  Who cares if a nice Jewish girl with everything to live for and a California tan sets her sites on Berlin?  Maybe other Jews would care.  Or other Germans.  Or one of the women’s magazines I have already written for, if I can crack the angle.  Maybe something about expat women, making their careers and households overseas.  I start emailing editors.  Heeb magazine already did something on Germany.  What about Der Spiegel?  Will my obsession with trench coats translate?
What about travel grants?  More emails.  Up to my eyeballs on the Foundation Center’s website.  What about the Jewish community in Berlin, currently being revived?  More research.  I find an expat rabbi living in Berlin with his wife and two kids!  He went to Columbia!  I email him.

“I would love to help you,” the rabbi responds, “as I am entirely in favour of more wacky Jewish Columbians in Mitte and environs (I am the sole member of this group currently known to its present leadership, me), and due to your background, alma mater, and stated interest in picking up and moving to Germany, you would safely qualify for membership.”

But he has no idea about any resources on any front that I can wield for my own self-interest.  However, we make a loose plan to meet and sing Columbia drinking songs when I get myself to Berlin.

Meanwhile, in my regular life, there’s that pesky unemployment.

I’m back in the TV-writing saddle, first researching, now outlining a new pilot idea that’s less unwieldy and more promising than the last one I tried, which wound up in a drawer, covered in blood, after four months of work.  Madame Y, my manger, thinks it’s a great, very commercial idea.  As I recall, my TV agent, whom I haven’t spoken with in about six months, liked it too.  If I want to work again in TV any time soon, this project is the absolute top priority.  To be in an ideal position for so-called staffing season, it would behoove me to have this script nailed by around the New Year.

There’s the novel I began almost two years ago.  Before I realize I am in fact writing a novel, I think I’ve written a bloated short story, and I send it off to the New Yorker, hat in hand, on a whim.  I receive a hand-written letter in reply, now framed over my desk.  “This novella is beautifully written and well-conceived,” the anonymous editor says.  “It’s not right for us, however, despite its evident merits.  I suggest you develop it onto a novel and shop it to publishers – this is great.” I have now outlined the basic shape of the book, as well as a detailed outline of the second chapter, and…yeah.  That’s about it on that front.  But the novel is about everything I know and care about, and it sounds as much like me as anything I’ve ever written.  “I am ready and able to help you develop a career as a novelist,” says Madame X, the big-gun book agent.  I just need to have the novel, don’t I.

Having worked for years as a freelance copywriter for entertainment clients, and having last collected a paycheck, like I said, about seven months ago, I’ve been sending my portfolio out and hearing…crickets.

Last week, a staffing agent emails me.  A Creative Director is hiring, and he likes my portfolio.  Will I come in for an interview?  I wear a very cute-yet-chill outfit (crisp black shirt, skinny-ish jeans, smattering of ghetto gold) and sit down with the guy.  While not British, he is the love-child of Hugh Laurie and Hugh Grant, with blondish scruff, good jeans, and a rumpled cotton Army jacket as interpreted by Armani Exchange.  No wedding band.

Of the one-point-two million gigs I have done as an entertainment copywriter, what’s the one writing sample the Creative Director wishes I had?  TV commercial scripts.  I get down on one knee and sing Mammy (my signature number), explaining to him that between what I’ve done and what he wants there is a negligible distance.  “You’ve done so much cool stuff,” he says. “You’ve written long-form scripts for a top twenty show.  Are you really going to be happy selling windshield wipers?  Because that’s sometimes what we do around here.”  “I’m not a size queen,” I assure him.  He smiles slightly and rises.  “You’re obviously very talented,” he says, shaking my hand.  “But I’m not sure you have a leg to stand on with this.”

I’m already texting my friends as I walk out the door.  Who has TV commercial scripts for me to study?  Gigi does, God bless her: she’s done commercials for years, as voice and on-camera talent.  By the time I get home from the interview, there are three commercial spots in my in-box.  That night and in the wee hours of the next morning, I write three 30-second TV commercial scripts for windshield wipers.

“These are cute,” the Creative Director emails me the next day, “but what we do is sell product.  Google windshield wipers, pick the first company you see, go to their website, learn their selling points, use a stopwatch to make sure your copy times out, and give yourself fifteen minutes from start to finish to do this.”

I do this.

And then I search for Berlin advertising agencies on-line.  There’s a bunch of them.

I don’t speak a word of German.  Who knows when I’ll hear from Cologne?  Our finances are a white-knuckler.  Oh, and my husband is applying for doctoral programs, only a couple of which are here in Los Angeles.

But when we move to Berlin after my German citizenship is restored, maybe I can write copy for a living there.

I think about my grandparents’ story.

In 1928, my grandfather, Richard Ebel, applies for a visa so that he can move to the United States and open a White Castle hamburger franchise.  He gets the visa, but he stays put in Berlin, putting the visa itself into his safe-deposit box for me to discover 71 years later.  (See No.: 12 The Number, for more on this.)  It’s not until December 14, 1938, ten years later, that he is able to flee Berlin from just under the grip of the Third Reich.  Why did they wait so long? I have wondered.  Why didn’t they see the signs?  Why couldn’t Richard Ebel have been more like Katharine Graham’s grandfather? Yeah, yeah, I know.  If everything hadn’t happened exactly as it did, I wouldn’t be here to roll around in it now.  Yet I have felt impatience for all the decisions, across three generations, that bring me to this moment, in a disorienting swirl of moving pieces, wondering where I belong.

But I am also starting to realize.

Richard Ebel didn’t get out sooner, he didn’t do things differently, because of Life.

There is always so much going on at once.  How do we know which of the world’s many ongoing upheavals has us in its crosshairs?  How do we ever see our destiny in advance, as it hurtles towards us?  How do we catch it before it becomes hindsight?  How do we know which door to pick?

The Creative Director sends me a text.

“Kathy, these scripts are great.  We are meeting with other copywriters today, but you are definitely in the running.”

No. 44: The Emoticon

When our dear friend Blanche announces she’ll be in the Bay Area over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend to attend her sculptor boyfriend’s gallery opening and see her mom, who lives in Berkeley, the pieces quickly fall into place.  Clyde and I both have the Monday off.  We’ll drive up on Friday night, stay at the Hilton in Emeryville, hang out with Blanche and her posse, do some sightseeing, hopefully see my brother, and drive back to Los Angeles on Monday afternoon.

The last time I saw David was in September, five months prior, when we had a whirlwind visit around two life-changing events.

Pouring over the archive of family documents that our grandparents took when they fled Berlin in 1938, that had been shuffled from one safe-deposit box to another over 71 years, I observe a lesson in the random twists of fate that buffet and define our lives, and the persistent emotional themes that run through generations.

As I sit on my brother’s sofa in September and reverently consider my grandmother’s Nazi-issued passport, I realize that in just a handful of years my family’s identity had become completely displaced, and in some ways it all started by leaving Berlin, the Ebel’s hometown for a century and a half, probably longer.  As I look over at my brother, next to me on the sofa, I’m fascinated and overcome that somehow our circumstances aren’t irreconcilable: it ain’t over.  We look so much like one another, I think, considering the profile of the man with whom I have always shared a father but never a household.  Except he’s skinny.

It’s a tidy metaphor for Berlin itself – the father I have never met, the household I wasn’t raised in, but that I might very well and very deeply resemble.

Yeah, yeah.  Berlin is the metaphor.  I get it.

As David and I scan our family archive, assemble a presentation, speed to the German consulate with the top up, get rock star parking, and make our case to the DiCapriesque Vice Consul Thomas Vogelbacher, I am flooded with emotion and adrenaline (See No. 11:  I ♥ Thomas Vogelbacher, for way more on this).

“I feel quite sure this is going to happen,” says Vogelbacher, “although I cannot promise anything.  However, if your citizenship is granted quickly, you should come to Berlin for the office Christmas party.  It is off the chain.”

It’s kind’ve like I’m on one of those really good dates where even though you should know better you start naming babies, installing copper soaking tubs and planning tasteful bar mitzvahs.

What will I wear to the Berlin Christmas party?

“The Ebel file!  The Ebel file!”  The rat-a-tat of slim loafers across a marble floor as the young, harried clerk races to the double-doors of an imposing office.  He stops short, breathless as the trim secretary smooths her chignon and prepares to open the tall double-doors.  “The Ebel File!” the Chief Bureaucrat murmurs as he rubber-stamps my application.  “The Ebel File!  The Ebel File!” as a pink-cheeked young maid hangs a needlepoint stocking with my name on it over the Embassy fireplace and sets my family’s place-cards along an immaculately set banquet table.

Yeah, that shit didn’t happen.

But we are coming to San Francisco for the weekend.  My brother and I exchange Facebook postings, voicemails, and text messages as the little trip nears.

On Saturday afternoon, we will stop by David’s apartment or he will join us at the gallery that’s presenting our sculptor friend’s show.  On Sunday, we will do some sort of local hike.  Art and nature.  Two wholesome pursuits that bring families together.

My brother has met our son exactly once, when Clyde was an infant:  he turns 8 next week.  “You’re going to meet your Uncle,” I say to Clyde.  “He’s Mommy’s half-brother.  Our father was Henry Ebel, and we weren’t raised together.”

“Cool,” says Clyde.  “Can I bring my Gameboy in the car?”

Weekend traffic clogs the freeways as we crawl northward out of L.A.

I picture the delight with which David will meet his nephew.  “Wow,” he will remark, after a soulful conversation had at eye level – possibly about art or nature.  “What an incredible kid.”

And then there’s David and my husband, both musicians.  The harmony that will ensue.

I am wondering whether of all the various doctoral programs John has just applied to, he will land at Berkeley or Stanford.  In which case, maybe a Bay Area chapter of our life is about to unfold.  Maybe I will get the Stegner fellowship that I applied for in December, the one with 1400 applicants for ten spaces.  And David will be a major player in this scenario.  There will be Jam Sessions and Family Dinners.

This visit will be the Beginning of That.

We show up at David’s apartment at around 4 PM on Saturday.  “Hey! Hi!  Great to see you!”  Deep hug.   But a deeper pressure snakes up within me to trump my brother’s embrace.

There is the idea I concocted in my imagination, and the reality of the situation, and the windy gap separating the two.  It’s not that David isn’t happy to see us, he’s perfectly jovial, but our arrival on his doorstep clearly isn’t the big, polish-the-silver, pastry-on-a tray deal that has been ratcheted in my mind.  Where did I get the idea that my bachelor brother who’s a macher at Burning Man is going to stack petit fours on a doily when he hears me coming?

For David, it appears to be just another lazy Saturday afternoon.

I stroll the long hallway to the kitchen, and immediately spot the bong and the stash on the desk in the guest room where a friend has been crashing.  I close the door before Clyde catches a glimpse.

I make tea, wishing he would have offered.  Clyde sits in the next room, looking at an art book.  David shows me photos from his recent trip to Costa Rica, where he stayed a wellness retreat with a gorgeous view.  We talk about the possibility of visiting Berlin together in the spring.  I show David a website I discovered while trawling Exberliner magazine – an architecturally significant building in Mitte that rents stylish lofts with some amenities by the week.  But immediately the prospect of staying in the same place at the same time has awkwardly tumbled into the aforementioned windy gap.  David’s friends show up with a mountain of groceries: they’re preparing a big, late, dinner, to which we’re invited.  We make a plan to take a walk on the beach the next day.  I ask David what time isn’t too early to to call, and he says he should be up by 11.  We leave.

David has interacted with Clyde so minimally that Clyde’s memory of him will be scarcely altered from the one he already doesn’t have.

It’s not like something bad happened…but the flush of my first date has plummeted somewhere.  I’ve been confused and disappointed like this many times before.  Or, um, have confused and disappointed myself.  (Oh, gawd.)

“How was your brother?” Blanche asks when we meet her at the gallery.

“Um…I’m not sure,” I reply.

The next morning is rainy and beautiful.  We gear up for a walk on the beach and, at the stroke of eleven, I text David.

“Sorry,” he texts back.  “Crazy nite.  Bed at six.  Can’t make it.  Have fun!”  Insert smiley-face emoticom here.

“Are we picking him up?” John asks.

“He’s not coming.”

“Are we going for a walk on the beach with your half-brother, David Ebel?” Clyde asks.

I stare out the hotel window at the East Bay.  Joggers in windbreakers trot along the nearby park path and birds drift overhead on the wet breeze.  Behind them, cars zip over the Bay Bridge.  There’s a picturesque city they’re hurrying to, but it’s obscured in fog.

“No,” I say.

No. 45: A Net Will Appear

When I write post No. 36: The Fifty-Four Hundred), I am seven months into a radical stretch of unemployment.  My thoughts are a wall of insane worry, at which something begins to tap persistently.  Maybe this Something is Deep Instinct, maybe it’s Off The Deep End.  But It tells me that going to Berlin with my family is a spiritual and artistic necessity.

Spiritual, artistic, necessity.  This combo platter hasn’t been previously available on my menu.

The logistics form a daunting cluster.  I have springtime dates in mind and I’m not really sure why, other than Clyde has spring break in the spring – it’s not an homage to Mel Brooks.  I’ve let go of the idea that I need to wait for the decree from Cologne regarding my application for restored citizenship under Article 113, paragraph 2 of the Grundgesetz, because I don’t want to do assign God-like control to an authority figure of my own invention, even though I’m really, really good at that.

The springtime trip I want to take – two weeks or so in a decently appointed Mitte rental — will take about six grand I don’t have in a big way.

Yes, yes – I need a job.  But I still allow myself an utterly free little brainstorm session, and it goes something like this:

  • Travel grant, German corporation
  • Travel grant, alma mater
  • Apartment trade
  • Hook-up via Berlin Jewish community
  • German magazine assignment

A month later (see No. 42: A Cup of Ambition), I jump through multiple, spinning hoops to land a copywriting job at an in-house ad agency at the multi-national media conglomerate that recently got bought.  It sort of rhymes with Embassy.

No longer being unemployed is a profound upgrade.  I’m grateful.  But that don’t mean I have an extra six grand lying around – or an extra two weeks.

(As a copywriter I earn exactly half of what I did as a TV staff writer.)

In order to grow my own writing life while working full-time pounding out TV commercials for wireless cell phone networks, mattresses, amusement parks, and pest control, I change my schedule.  It’s the classic early to bed (9:30 PM) and early to rise (4:30 AM) that made Ben Franklin a household name.  This arrangement creates two hours of writing time – truly gorgeous time when the world outside and inside my home is quiet and peaceful, the coffee, prepped the night before, greets me piping hot, and the light is flattering.

Cue the mourning doves.  It is now my precious responsibility to apportion my precious two hours, about which I am suddenly greedy and protective.  (My prehhhhh-scious.)

If I ever want another wildly lucrative job on a TV show, then my first order of business should be to finish the original TV pilot I started when the one before that got relegated to the Drawer of Misfit Scripts.  It’s a workplace dramedy in the vein of a giant franchise you’ve heard of.  And then there’s another idea that’s decided to cook itself up, a smoldering teen love story with a supernatural twist in the vein of another middle-weight franchise you’ve heard of.  For the former, I’ve done considerable research and written several drafts of an outline.  For the latter, I have interest from a smoking hot director with a hit on the air and a development deal at a major studio.

I have no problem with TV money.  But — Spiritual, Artistic, Necessity.  Can I get TV money up in there, and is that what I’m going to spend my two hours on?  (My prehhhhhh-scious.)

Meanwhile, upstairs, over my desk, there’s a framed note from the New Yorker.  I received it a couple of years ago, when I wrote a really, really long short story and submitted it on a whim.  I never thought I’d hear.  I just stood in front of the mailbox, kissed it up to God, and dropped the manila envelope in.  I was remembering who I’d once wanted to be.

The note from the anonymous editor that arrives a few months later heartily praises my work and encourages me to develop my “novella” (Ohhhh — is that what it is?)  into a novel.  I burst into tears, frame the note, hang it over my desk, and ignore it.  But now, at four-thirty in the morning, with my precious two hours, I return to the novel with tenderness and relief.

When I write TV commercials for casinos, insurance companies, and laxatives, I’m working fast and furious.  By the time the scripts have been approved by the client, pre-production starts, and I get word that a client is thrilled with my work, that I’ve brought their five-figure ad campaign to an unheard of level, I’ve long forgotten what I banged out.

As I write my novel, I’m going slowwwwly, slowwwly.  A paragraph at a time.  The story I’m writing, about two young sisters in New York City in the early 90’s, estranged from their family and trying to make it on their own, will cover only three months in their lives.  It’s not a sprawling epic, but I am going deep to tell it.  Because I have a paycheck now, even though it’s not extravagant, it allows me to put the “oh my God it’s pilot season it’s staffing season it’s development season this better sell” on mute.  I am left to my own devices.

My own devices want to tell you what Christmas eve in New York City is like for Jewish girls whose mother has cut them off.

In January, a feature I sold back in 2008 finally hits the stands in SELF magazine.  It’s the hilarious, touching story of my 30-pound weight loss:

http://www.self.com/health/2010/01/diary-of-a-dieter

It run in the “Happiness” section.

On January 6th I get home from work to find a letter from Conde Nast.

“This letter serves as notice,” it says, “that your material, originally published in a United States edition, has been optioned by the affiliated publication referenced above.  Love and kisses, Glamour Bulgaria.”

Whoa – really? Who knew?  Glamour Bulgaria…is that where they give you tips on grooming your mustache?

But also – remember the part where I wanted a magazine assignment to fund my trip to Berlin?

I pull my contract from the files.  It’s borderline incomprehensible on the subject of foreign sales, because there’s Syndication Rights, and Foreign Rights, and who knows.

Because we’re old friends by now, and because it’s relevant to my story, I will share with you that I was originally paid six grand for the feature.  And, you know, six grand is the magic number.

I email the nice lady at Conde Nast whose name is printed at the bottom of the letter.  She explains that the magazine has thirty days after securing the option to schedule the piece, and within that time frame I will be paid twenty cents a word.  I think that’s what she said.  And I think that’s about a grand.  But after thirty days, if the magazine still wants to schedule the piece, it has to negotiate my rate directly with me, from scratch.

A few days later, another letter arrives from Conde Nast.  My piece has now been optioned to Vogue Girl Korea.  A few days later, Glamour Italy.  Then Glamour South Africa, and Glamour Poland, and Glamour Mexico. That’s six magazines.  At a grand a piece…

…if it runs.

And then it occurs to me.

Maybe Conde Nast owns a German women’s magazine…and…yup! There’s a German Glamour!

Maybe German Glamour would like to option my essay, too!

And then I can contact the editor!

And she can hire me to write a family/relationships/lifestyle/fashion/travel piece!

The Berlin Workout:  Burn Calories and Get Toned With Emotional Reckoning!

Pecs In The City:  How To Keep Slim, Groomed and Tan, LA Style, in the Land Of Sausage!

Keep Calm And Carry On: One Wheelie, Two Weeks of Inspired Outfits from Berlin’s Prodigal Daughter!

Berlin Roots:  The Mitte’s Swinging Colorists Tell All!

So I email my Conde Nast BFF.  Any signs on the horizon that German Glamour cares about my journey from size 12 to size 6?  As it happens…yeah…nope.

Then, on January 13th, I get a message on Facebook from my oldest friend in the world, Rosie.  Our mothers went to the same girls’ school in London and are still best friends, and Rosie and I grew up together, visiting one another back and forth across the pond since infancy.  A few years ago, my dear friend from college, Blanche, was in London producing a TV show, and I made a transatlantic introduction to Rosie.  Blanche and Rosie became friends.  They shopped for vintage fabric on Portobello Road and made throw pillows, which is the sort of thing they like to do.  Then Blanche had a dinner party, and invited Rosie, and introduced Rosie to Nigel.  And then Rosie and Nigel fell in love, moved in, and had two kids.

“Hey lady,” Rosie says,  “Nigel and I are being married 22 May Derbyshire and would dearly love it if you could come, invitations are nearly there not quite though. I am trying to get hold of Blanche as well. You are both responsible for this occasion so get your ass over here.  All my love think of you lots Rosie xxxxxxxxxxx.”

Is that where my idea of a springtime trip to Europe came from?  Did it already exist, pulling me towards it?

Rosie was at my wedding in 1999, and John and I spent party of our honeymoon in London with her family.  Of course I will be there.  Um, somehow.

And then something else occurs to me.

Now that I’m poised for my international debut…would any other magazines like a piece of this?

I send off inquiries, linked to this blog, to the Guardian UK, the international version of Der Speigel (written in English), and Exberliner, the Berlin culture weekly, also written in English, pitching a family/ relationships/lifestyle/travel piece.

Last week, one of my bosses at the ad agency calls me into his office.  There is a young girl there with a high ponytail from Human Resources.

“Close the door,” he says.

He gives an enthusiastic appraisal of my work over the last three months.  Then I am offered a staff position.

It is perhaps really weird to quote one’s own unfinished, unsold novel.  And yet my 24-year old protagonist, Claudia Silver, articulates perfectly how I’ve felt about my myriad day jobs over the years:

“She was determined to perform her daily tasks with an ever-so-slight yet palpable indifference, which, when paired with her charisma, would keep her pointedly on the fringe of the operation and protect her from ever turning out like them.”

It’s explained to me that the employment package requires me to sign an agreement giving the multi-national media conglomerate some sort of rights to the creative work I generate while in their employ, including the various projects I’m working on outside of work.

I stare blankly at my boss.  The sign on his desk says “You Work For Me.”  The thought bubble over my head says, “You Have Got To Be Fucking Kidding Me.”

“We offer really, really great benefits,” Human Resources Barbie is saying.  “Including two weeks paid vacation in your first year.”

No. 46: Open Letter Slash Personal Ad to the Progressive Jewish Expat Community of Berlin, Ties to the Ivy League, Terrific Children and Memories of Trader Joe’s Optional (But Preferred)

Dear Progressive Jewish Berlin Expats With Terrific School-aged Kids:

I will be making my first pilgrimage to Berlin, my hometown from another lifetime, at the end of May with my family.

Two words for y’all:  Tax Return.

Our traveling party: myself, my husband, our 8-year old son and my retired-professor mother.

We’re looking for a Shabbat dinner to attend on Friday night, 28 May 2010.  Any room at the inn?

Please keep in mind:

I am in the process of applying for restored German citizenship under Article 116, Paragraph 2 of the Grundgesetz.  My father was born in Berlin in 1938.  His family fled shortly thereafter.  He didn’t raise me, and he died last year.

My husband is not Jewish.

Our son is Jewish.

We’re sort of thinking about living in Berlin for a chapter at some point.

Frankly, I’m picturing Berlin Bar Mitzvah as a sequel to Fatherland.

You’re an expat family just like us, but better.  Because you didn’t just talk about getting your kids out of Dodge before subjecting them to American junior high school – you actually did it.  Your kids are school-aged, and they’re not just nice and smart…they’re a great hang.

You invite us to Shabbat dinner.  Thank you in advance!

We get to hear all about your life in Berlin.  Mainly, we want to know where we should live, shop, and send our kid to school, and what sort of artsy things we can do for a living.  And where our kid can continue his piano study.  And also, which Expat Jews in town – other than you, of course — are OUR kind of Expat Jews.  The kind where the husband isn’t Jewish.  The kind that make colossal big deals out of some rituals (Shabbat, High Holidays, Passover) but become grumpy and superior regarding others, for instance, overly ambitious and chronically disorganized Purim carnivals.

You know the old joke about the Jewish guy on the desert island who builds first one, then a second beautiful temple from seashells and palm fronds?  Finally, after many years, he is rescued.  “But sir,” asks a member of his rescue party, “Why did you build two temples?”  “This is the temple I attend,” the guy explains. “That other place? Hah! I wouldn’t set foot in that shul if you PAID me!”

Dear New Friends in Berlin…do you know that joke?  And also, what shul is our shul?

This blog post is a message in a bottle.  Here I am, tossing it out…splash!

And here I am, opening my inbox…oh my gosh!

It’s Amy and Josh Halberstam and their three kids, Oliver, Harriet, and Po.  They would LOVE to have us to Shabbat dinner on 28 May!

Their kids go to the Berlin Brandenburg International School and they LOVE it!  And they have a friend who knows ALL ABOUT the Nelson Mandela and John F. Kennedy International Schools!  Josh got kicked out of Ramaz for selling pot, Amy is a reformed teen tour JAP from Long Island…they met at RISD…they’re going to break it all down for us…I love her dress-over-pants…she does a great power pilates class…and when I tell Amy that when Clyde asked if he could get a mohawk haircut, I replied, “The day after your bar mitzah, you can have any hair cut you want,” she totally, totally gets it!  Thanks for writing, Amy and Josh!

Please tell us what we can bring for dinner and if you want to tag-team for a run to Ikea.

Oh!  Before I forget!  Where do I get my shoes repaired and who’s my new colorist?

Your New Friend and Possibly Future Neighbor,

Kathy