Goodbye to All That
by Sarah Harman
Looking at her life, I began to doubt that I had what it took to make it in New York.
Millennials don’t care about real estate, at least according to all the trend pieces I’ve read in the New York Times. We are the sharing economy! We reject bourgeois notions of ownership! We rent our bicycles!
Not me. I have always wanted my own apartment—in the same way I imagine other people want a puppy or a full-sleeve tattoo: that is to say, with my entire, covetous Grinch heart.
For most of my life, I assumed this apartment would be in New York.
Never mind that I am neither a trust fundie nor married to a Russian oligarch, and thus have no way of AFFORDING said apartment. I’ve watched enough TV to know that people like me—sarcastic media types who love brunch and loathe children—are supposed to live in New York. Mary Tyler Moore, Elaine Benes, Liz Lemon—those are MY people. The financials, I naively assumed, would sort themselves out. Probably via the Powerball lottery, but I was open to other possibilities as well.
In fact, I was so sure that I would end up in New York eventually that I never tried very hard to move there. The city, I was confident, would pull me in organically when the time was right.
So it’s come as some surprise to find myself well into Official Adulthood and not living in a Brooklyn brownstone. Or even its millennial equivalent—the basement of one.
Instead, I live in Berlin. It’s a city that’s been touted as “the NEW New York”—an artist’s paradise with its cheap rents, bohemian vibe and surfeit of abandoned industrial spaces that seem destined to become million dollar galleries in the not-so-distant future. I can see how the comparison would ring true, if one is willing to accept a version of New York that a few decades ago was in a communist country that doesn’t exist anymore.
When I first moved here, I would go back to New York regularly to check in on my future. My friends were all hustling—balancing unpaid internships with restaurant jobs, schlepping their groceries up five flights of stairs, working on side projects. Their lives were stressful, their roommates numerous, but they were buzzing with purpose and potential.
Back in Berlin, I was taking vacations to Iceland and eating out every other night. I wasn’t rich, but the money from my entry-level media job went a lot further. Plus, rent was cheap. To my friends in New York, my middle class European lifestyle must have looked a lot like early retirement, but I was determined to savor it. After all, I would be joining the rat race in New York eventually. Right after I crossed a few more European countries off my travel To-Do list.
But one year in Germany turned into two, then three. I accumulated more stuff: a boyfriend, a French press, a pension plan. I got used to my cushy continental lifestyle, with regular doctor's visits and six weeks paid vacation.
My neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg, was pleasant and safe, if slightly too clogged with strollers—the Berlin version of Park Slope, full of yoga mommies and organic food stores. The rent on my one bedroom apartment, situated on a tree-lined street full of sidewalk cafes, was roughly equivalent to a monthly parking spot in Park Slope.
Meanwhile, my best friend lived in Bed Stuy with three other people across from an empty lot heaped with scrap metal. She ate canned tuna on quinoa for most meals, and one of her roommates was definitely running some kind of illicit Craigslist massage business out of her room. Her rent was double mine.
Looking at her life, I began to doubt that I had what it took to make it in New York. I craved the creature comforts: a washing machine in my apartment, regular dental care—stuff I could never have afforded in New York on my entry-level media salary. Gradually, my visits there became less about researching my future life and more about gawking in blatant disbelief at how HARD everything seemed.
RENT COSTS HOW MUCH? I found myself shrieking to acquaintances. WHY ARE THERE SO MANY RATS? I would inquire of complete strangers, not really wanting to know the answer. And inevitably, WHAT DO YOU MEAN, "LOTS OF PEOPLE MASTURBATE ON THE SUBWAY?"
I had become, in short, a horrible cliché: the gawking tourist.
For years, I had lived my life in Berlin halfway on hold, never buying nice furniture or daring to rent a larger apartment. I didn’t want to go "soft" or have to get rid of a bunch of stuff when the time came to move to New York. But being away from America had shifted my perspective. Viewed up close, New York looked less and less like a place I wanted to live.
Last year, my boyfriend popped the question (“Should we pool all our money and try to buy a place?”), and I surprised myself by saying yes. I have grown to love Berlin, but admitting it out loud was the final blow to my New York fantasy, the death of my imaginary future self.
Saying goodbye was not easy. What kind of person am I, if not a New York person? My sitcom lady role models—Mary, Elaine and Liz—have failed me. There are new shows now about young women in New York, like Broad City or Two Broke Girls, shows where the struggle of living in the city are a central component. But there aren’t any about young media types who spend their 20s bumbling around Europe, and then decide to stay forever. I am off script in trying to figure out my new reality as a permanent foreigner.
It took seven years, but I am ready to admit: I have never lived in New York. And it turns out, I never really wanted to.
I’m still open to winning those Powerball millions, though. In Berlin, you could still buy an apartment with that money.