Saturday, September 27, 2014

How Bertolt Brecht Changed My Life

Bertolt Brecht
My blog posts are nonfiction, but today I'll share a bit of fiction I recently wrote. Learning to write and enjoying the craft of writing has been an evolving process. I've always enjoyed reading, but not writing. Maybe it was typing on a manual typewriter, using that cumbersome white-out to correct my errors, or fiddling with the carbon papers required in high school (this was the early 1980s after all). Whatever it was, I didn't like writing.

In fact, I took great pains to avoid college courses involving a lot of writing. I'd even bypassed the English 1A and 1B requirement by testing out. But gradually, I learned to appreciate the skill and adventure of writing, thanks, in no small part, to word processing. It opened up a new world and freed me of my writing inhibitions. 

Recently, I enrolled in a creative writing course at my local university. Our first assignment was "What If." What if something had not happened in your life. So here is a semi-fictionalized account of how I came to live in Berlin.

How Bertolt Brecht Changed My Life

It was January, and Berlin was cold, damp, and gray. I was living near Kudamm, the Champs-Elysees of the former West Berlin. Kudamm or Kurfürstendamm, as it was officially called, had been the hot hip street in its day. But now, everyone was heading East, to East Berlin where artists and musicians from all over the world were congregating to discover the new Europe, and leaving Kudamm and West Berlin to the blue haired ladies.

I had rented an apartment for three months, taken a leave of absence from work, and left friends and family behind. I wanted the “European Experience,” an experience devoid of debris. Berlin seemed like the perfect choice. It was relatively cheap, cultural, and full of distractions to occupy my increasing loneliness.

The Christmas lights that had lined Kudamm during the holidays were now gone, and the faint smiles that the Berliners had managed to exhibit during the Christmas season were replaced with their usual grim and stern countenances. It was like living in that old Richard Burton movie about the Cold War, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. A film devoid of color and encased in a thick soup of fog, everywhere muted shades of black and white.

Now that I was here, what would I do. Perhaps, a course at the Volkhochschule, the German equivalent of Adult Ed. I could improve my German, meet people, and live like a real Berliner. But what to take? The cooking courses didn't appeal to me and neither did the foreign language classes. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a Bertolt Brecht course.

I'd seen the Three Penny Opera and Mother Courage and even liked them. I'd recently visited Brecht's grave at the Dorotheenstädtisher cemetery. It was tucked away in a quiet corner, next to his wife, the famous actress Helene Weigel. Brecht's grave was surprisingly simple, and I wondered what kind of man he was. He'd lived through the horrors of World War II, escaped to the USA, and then returned to East Germany to establish the Berliner Ensemble.

There were twelve of us in the class, a real cross-section of Berlin society. There were a few retirees, a couple of young punkers with assorted piercings and tattoos, a policeman, a school teacher, a civil servant, a nurse, and an au pair. We met once a week for 8 weeks discussing a particular Brecht work each session. During the break I would chat with the other students, but I quickly became friends with Philippa or Phil as she was called.

Phil was Australian, and had come to Berlin for a year to work as an au pair before entering University. She lived in Potsdam, a posh suburb of Berlin. She looked after two small girls, and her only duty was to speak English to them. There was an older couple who lived next to the main house, and they did the household cleaning, cooking, and gardening. Phil had lucked out with this gig.

Over the next few weeks, I told Phil my story. I was an attorney, like her employer, and that I specialized in Intellectual Property: Software and Internet stuff. Then one day, out-of-the blue, Phil said her boss wanted to talk to me about a potential job. A job! I'd come 3600 miles to escape from work, and a job was not on my agenda. I knew that Berlin was Germany's so-called answer to Silicon Valley, and that there were hundreds of Start-Ups seeking expertise on how to break into the American market. I told Phil that my specialty wasn't marketing or technology, but instead security and confidentiality. She said it didn't matter. Her boss wanted to chat with me anyway.

Herr Peters' Kanzlei or office was impressive. A Friedrichsstraße address, a restored Art Nouveau building, and an espresso bar to die for. Our conversation was succinct and friendly, in that way lawyers do--divorced from emotion. He needed a translator with knowledge of the American legal system. I fit the bill. The hours were ideal, the money good; and best of all, I could return to the USA as often as I liked. Like so many things in life, serendipity often plays an important role. I jumped at this once in a lifetime opportunity and took the job. Bertolt Brecht had changed my life.

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