‘I only discovered both how much I was missing New York and what was irritating me about Berlin when I visited Manhattan in the week after bin Laden’s killing’
“I miss something.” I have thought this repeatedly over the past few weeks, only to add, as if playing the lead in an absurdist play, “but I don’t know what.”
Ever since I moved back to Berlin almost six months ago, after spending the better part of the past ten years in England and America, I’ve been missing something without quite knowing what it was. It wasn’t just the glitziness of New York, the city I left for Berlin, the hustle and bustle of its streets or going out with notoriously busy Manhattanites; in short, the sheer power of a true metropolis against which Berlin, while being hailed as edgy, can only feel tranquil by comparison.
“What could you possibly miss?” My German friends kept pressing me for an answer. “You grew up here, surely this is home for you. And there are so many New Yorkers living in Berlin, they can’t all be wrong, can they?”
Every return entails a form of alienation: you get restless waiting for your coffee-to-go when those few seconds have passed in which a New Yorker gets impatient. You feel people invade your personal space when they don’t queue up the way you’ve become used to.
You think someone is rude when they are upfront (as in the countless situations in which I’ve been defined by either my age or my gender or both). You remind yourself that not everybody understands that there’s a difference between offending someone and being politically incorrect.
You attempt to ignore the quiet sense of contempt that is reflected off so many faces on your daily commute that you feel as though you are walking through a postmodern version of a painting by Otto Dix. You miss the language you’ve made your own (despite the fact you still can’t quite get away with impersonating the clipped accent of a Radio 4 presenter).
In other words, you constantly compare what you’ve become with how you used to be and feel with a passion the obvious truth of that old song: they said don’t change the old for the new, but I’ve found out this will never do.
In some ways, these are idle worries — a natural part of getting older, not an experience that’s exclusive to my life. To put it more bluntly: isn’t ruminating about missing a sense of oneself some coquettish show put on to stylise oneself as the ever-fashionable outsider, too elusive and ethereal to be tied down to one place, geographically and intellectually?
I became aware of the dimensions of my irritation only when I returned to New York, for a short trip during which I was to meet young writers and intellectuals living there.
The week I went back happened to be the week Special Operation forces killed Osama bin Laden. While I was living in Palo Alto, and later New York and Washington DC, 9/11 still determined the country’s conception of itself. It shaped the atmosphere, from the various “threat levels” that were announced at airports to the uncomfortable feeling you got when you saw a plane flying a little bit too low over the skyline. Now, almost ten years later, it wasn’t as if the country had changed overnight.
When I arrived, I had just missed the night-long spontaneous celebrations at Ground Zero and elsewhere, and there was a sense of confident calm in New York. Americans seemed relieved, not happy, at the death of the terrorist. Just as President Obama had called for in his speech, when he spoke calmly of Americans “coming together” in the weeks after 9/11, the atmosphere was one of restraint.
The message was simple: “The United States has, at long last, dealt with Osama bin Laden. Dealing with his legacy will pose a greater challenge,” wrote David Remnick in the New Yorker.
It wasn’t so much the realisation that America could kill a terrorist responsible for thousands of deaths and then declare that justice had been done that impressed me, nor was it the fact that Obama’s speech was sombre, yet heartfelt, without shrill overtones of jingoism.
Instead, it was the sense that these two opposites were equally true, without moral quarrels: to kill a man and to do justice. Here a truth was being expressed that had become unsayable or even unthinkable in Europe: that doing justice and killing a man are not always oppositional.
Walking down Fifth Avenue, I suddenly remembered a conversation I had overheard in my newly adopted home on the other side of the Atlantic, about how “the Americans” could dare to kill someone who was “a human being after all”. I thought of the hushed, earnest and somewhat dour voices, and Berlin and New York, the Old and the New, seemed more than a world apart.