“You’re not going to print my name, are you?”
I paused, my pen poised over my notebook, thinking, That’s exactly what I’m planning to do. My deadline for the story on American ex-patriots in Berlin was looming. And I only had two other subjects. It wasn’t the reaction I was expecting from an American, but then again, Joe may not really truly be an American.
He sat on a sideways crate, the only seat left in this bar on Dresdener Strasse by the time he arrived to the Thursday night gathering of ex-patriots. A velvet curtain hung as a back drop. A red chandelier and red walls made the back room of the pub glow in a rouge hue through cigarette smoke.
We went through the normal negotiations when someone is hesitant to commit to an interview and eventually settled into questioning. Joe moved to Germany from New York City when he was 13 with his parents, he told me. He grew up in Cologne. He worked in the IT industry in Berlin at the time.
His words didn’t have the typical American accent, buttressed by blurry r’s. But they didn’t carry the strong consonants and the telling emphasis on the first syllable of words either. His pompous was more of the European kind. The way his hand motions guided his words, like a conductor of an orchestra, was a U.S. trademark.
Joe retained his American citizenship and used the word “they” as he spoke of Germans, as one speaks of foreigners. Yet, by the time of the interview, he had lived in Germany for about 30 years. I paused, trying to figure him out. Who was he? One of his feet seemed grounded on American soil, with the other stretching to reach the German border. Yet the span across the Atlantic was too great, leaving him caught in in the updrafts and wave crests of what is in between.
How much of his eccentricity was part of his character and how much was the result of a mixed cultural identity? I wondered.
“Do you feel more German or more American?” I asked him.
“Neither,” he said, taking a sip of wine while everyone else drank beer.
He liked Berlin, he told me, where he moved to two years prior. It felt safe. He liked the freedom. “It reminds me of New York City, but without all the problems.”
Joe, if that really is his name, wasn’t to be part of the article I wrote about American ex-pats for a German newspaper. He didn’t fit the rubric.
He just didn’t fit.