German seemed punk

A fluke decision to take German as a foreign language credit led to our editor spending most of his adult life in the nation's capital. 

Nina Hagen in 1987.
Nina Hagen in 1987.

Berlin-Berlin just happened.

In the seventh grade we moved from Littleton, Colorado, to Aurora, Colorado, forcing me to switch schools. I had to re-choose all my classes, including a foreign language - at the time a requirement at many American schools but now often just a luxury.

“How about Spanish?” the school counsellor suggested. No, I thought. Everyone I know takes Spanish, even my Mexican friends.

“Huh uh,” I said.

“French?” French seemed encouraging at first but then I realised it would be mostly would-be artists who thought Depeche Mode was the best band ever (I thought they were good but not great) and smoked a lot of clove cigarettes.

“ No,” I said.

“Then the only thing left is German,” she said and I thought I’d hit the jackpot. German seemed punk. It was the language of philosophers and composers. And Nina Hagen. At the time we thought Nina Hagen was so punk she was most certainly illegal. The fact that she was East German played a big role. German was also the language of great cars.

At the time, a popular commercial featured a VW Scirocco speeding along a test track. At the end of the ad, the driver lifts his helmet's visor and says only “ausgezeichnet”. It was as if the car had robbed him of empirical evidence and pushed him to the emotional.

The ad pushed me and my friends to the emotional too and we practised until we could pronounce the word exactly the same way. My first German word.

“How was dinner?” my mother would ask.

“Ausgezeichnet,” I would say, looking off into the distance.

“How’d you do on the test?” a friend would ask.

“Ausgezeichnet,” I would say and we would all laugh. It remains a part of my lexicon with certain friends to this day.

I regretted my decision to take German almost immediately: Der, die, was? But I was stuck and four years later, when we arrived at the genitive case, I decided it was time to either do something with this language or acquiesce and start with Spanish.

So I became an exchange student in what was then West Germany. I spent the 12 months learning German and reading J.D. Salinger and Graham Greene and telling everyone that some day I’d like to live in Germany again. I couldn’t know how prophetic my teenage self was.

Years later with my journalism career stalling, I remembered that statement and started applying for jobs in Germany. I figured some foreign correspondent experience would help me land my dream job as a reporter for Variety in Hollywood. I discovered my German language skills were a massive asset and got a job in Frankfurt am Main.

One of my first assignments was covering a truck convention in Hanover where then-chancellor Helmut Kohl gave the opening speech. He walked by me as he left and I wondered briefly if he was the largest person I’d ever seen. At nearly two metres, in an expensive suit and flanked by bodyguards, it seemed like it. I often joke that after he passed the weather changed and I’m only slightly lying. The aura in the theatre certainly did.

But I also realised that Kohl had also been chancellor over a decade earlier when I was an exchange student. Having a chancellor atop a country for 16 years doesn’t feel like democracy. But then, neither does electing a son a mere eight years after his father had been president.

At the time, no one liked coming to Berlin to cover events, but I did. So they often sent me and I would expense a Saturday night hotel to the company and hang out at Tresor and Ostgut and catch a train from Ostbahnhof back to Frankfurt. I covered Bundesbänker, businessmen and even a dog cafe.

Cargolifter was the big story back then. A startup that wanted to float powerplants across Africa on zeppelins as a cheap means of transport. The company failed and is barely a memory now. Their old headquarters is a Brandenburg water park. Germany has never had much success with dirigibles.

I switched jobs and relocated to Berlin and told everyone I was just going to stay for two years. I still wanted that job at Variety so I didn't expect to stay too long in Germany's capital. That was 20 years ago and the Variety dream has faded but I’m now at the first paper I ever read in Berlin.

Because of the pandemic, I can’t visit my parents, who now live in Denver, so I talk to them every Tuesday on the phone.

“How’s Berlin?” my dad always asks.

“Ausgezeichnet,” I say.