This September, I’ll be coming up on my seven-year anniversary in Berlin. It’s funny. I never expected to stay here that long. Hadn’t even been to Berlin before I decided that this was the place I was going to move. “Du bist verrückt mein Kind, du musst nach Berlin,” composer Franz von Suppe is said to have said. You are crazy, my child, you must go to Berlin. “You’ll like it there,” my mother said. My grandma said New York had made me brittle, which in its own way is possibly a kind of crazy, too.
Seven years ago, I wasn’t really moving towards something, but running away. From New York, sure, but also from the person I’d become there and the person I saw myself still becoming. Two of my dearest friends had not long before sat me down on a dock in St. Croix, the sun setting out over the ocean, sand curling over our sunburned skin and said to me, “What’s going on?” by which they meant, Where has our friend gone? And I’ve always admired the bravery of that, because it takes courage to tell your friend she’s been behaving badly. Because it’s true, I had been behaving badly, had let the less pleasant sides of my personality run the show. In drawing comparisons now, retrospectively, I’m not sure if I’d call it armor (sarcasm, skepticism, an easy sneer) or lack of buffer. New York is a city that strips you. Maybe it was a little of both.
But leaving New York was hard. I’d loved it more than any place I’d ever lived. And for everything it took from me, it starkly outlined my strengths. I knew I could make my own way, knew I could start from nothing and build a life. And I’d never known such fierce creativity. New York breathed poetry into my fingers. I wrote as intensely as I did everything else.
My first few years in Berlin, all I talked about was New York. I gravitated towards neighborhoods like Neukölln, which reminded me of my beloved Brooklyn, and made endless comparisons. I didn’t want to go back, but I wasn’t fully here. Berlin isn’t necessarily the easiest city to arrive in. Everyone already seemed to have their place, and I would start tentative friendships, which would dissolve again in the flow of people coming and going; over and again the pattern would repeat like an endless ebbing.
When did I finally drop anchor here? It was a lowering so slow I didn’t notice when I struck sand. It’s had me thinking about what makes a place a home, especially after this recent move into a new apartment. In Berlin. In this city that is my home. Now the place I’ve lived second-longest of anywhere.
Without anything in it, an apartment looks impossibly small. The walls are too white, the floor scraped with someone else’s cat’s claws. There will never be enough room for all the furniture, never enough wall space for the art, never enough personality for the place to look loved. And then, little by little it changes. There are curtains to temper the bright summer sunshine and the shouts of children playing from the school next door. Someone brings bread and salt. Someone comes to visit and sleeps on the brand new sofa bed. The laundry spins in the machine and is hung up to dry. The tomatoes burst out of their pots and need to be replanted into bigger pots. Their yellow flowers splay and droop, replaced by taut, green pebbles. The plants on the balcony riot. The oregano nearly goes to seed it’s so happy. Some furniture leaves, other furniture arrives. The groceries are purchased and consumed and purchased and consumed. There are moments of plenty, where the fridge is full of peppery filets of smoked trout and pickled turnips, of ruffled chard leaves spilling over the shelf and slices of fatty ham. And there are moments where there is nothing to eat but the everlasting jars of plum jam. Usually there is cheese. Usually there is bread. A friend brings a tin of licorice. A friend brings a bottle of Champagne. The ladder is moved to the wall. The ladder is moved to the other wall, because now there’s art where the ladder once was. Now the ladder is moved again, because the table is where the ladder was and the ladder ought to go where the table isn’t anymore. Why is the ladder still here at all? The oven bakes its first cake; miraculous alchemy. The ivy dies. The orchid sprouts a new bud. Eternal cups of coffee are consumed. I wake up one morning and two months have gone by and I know that I live here now and not there where I lived before. This is home, and my heart feels it.
This apartment is home and this city is home, but more than a place you can point to on a map, home is where the mundane and the magical happens. It’s where you feel free to create, and it’s the people you share your life with. It’s when the person you are and the person you feel yourself becoming feels just right. There’s room to grow and there’s something to ground you. The tomatoes streak with red. The shoes are lined up inside the door.
Rhubarb Cake with Marzipan and Almonds
Rhubarb season is drawing to a close, but you can easily substitute the rhubarb in this cake with any other summer fruit. I imagine stone fruit would be lovely. Peaches! Apricots!
4 cups rhubarb, peeled and cut into 1-2 inch pieces
1¼ cup sugar, divided
3 sticks (300 g) butter, plus more to grease the pan
Zest of 1 small orange (abt. 1 tsp.)
Zest of ½ lemon
4 small eggs
1¾ cups (200 g) flour
½ cup (50 g) wheat semolina (or fine polenta)
½ cup coarsely chopped almonds
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1/3 cup (100 g) marzipan, cut into small cubes
Toasted, crushed almonds, to garnish
Toss rhubarb with ¼ cup sugar and set aside to macerate (at least 20 minutes).
Heat oven to 350 ºF (180 ºC). Rub 1 tbsp. butter on the inside of a springform pan and set aside. (If you don’t have a springform pan, a deep, round cake pan will do fine.)
Using an electric mixer, beat the rest of the butter and remaining sugar along with zests until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, and beat each one until well incorporated. Add flour, semolina, chopped almonds, baking powder, and salt. Beat until combined.
Fold in marzipan and rhubarb, along with any of the rhubarb juice.
Bake for 45-55 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool.
Remove from the springform pan and place on a cake tray. Top with whipped cream (ideally, homemade from heavy whipping cream and just a little bit of sugar) and toasted almonds.