Wohngemeinschaft (WG) noun: 1 a number of persons living together in one apartment, usually co-operatively
I fell in love with the stairwell before I even saw the apartment. Old concrete walls chipped in places, as if the shrapnel had walked in the front door and gone upstairs. Something happened to you in that stairwell. A musty spell released by a foot on a step, in just the right light. Time was suspended, and disbelief, a dark banister leading you somewhere, you didn’t know where, but somewhere, a mystery, pulling you further inside. Anything could have been up those stairs. A family of husky dwarves arguing about the rent. A murder. A love affair. A creepy old man playing cards with a picture of his dead wife. Tawdry, half-dressed cabaret girls peering through peepholes from behind solid wood doors. It was just that kind of building.
It was just that kind of apartment. It had “you will write a novel here” written all over it. No, it didn’t, strike that, it had “you will write a fucking dark impelling masterpiece here” written all over it. I already knew I wanted to live there, and I hadn’t even been inside the apartment yet.
Chris answered the door on crutches. “Volleyball accident,” he told me when I asked, leading me into a high-ceilinged hallway. “I’m starting to appreciate how great it is, just to be able to bend down and pick something up yourself. Three more weeks though.”
He gave me a short tour first. His room, Jane’s room, the bathroom, the room that could be mine. It was an ugly yellow, but with a tall bed already built in, the wood already stained dark. Plenty of space and a sunny window looking out at a playground. I could already see myself sitting at my desk in front of the window, typing madly on my new Erika typewriter.
“Do you mind if I finish my cigarette?” he asked. “I just lit it when you rang.”
We settled down across from each other at the narrow kitchen table, Chris easing himself gingerly into his seat. The walls were the same chipped concrete as in the stairwell. Pans hung from a string stretched between a cabinet and a wall. A full spice rack. An exposed gray pipe. It breathed history and character, as if the decades of lives were all still there, just behind it all, whispering at us quietly.
“This place is beautiful,” I said. You can try not to gush, but when you’ve already succumbed to the seduction you won’t be able to. “The chipped walls, the old doors, the ceilings. It’s so…romantic somehow.”
Chris smiled knowingly. After all, he’d been under the stairwell’s spell for four years already. “You won’t find many buildings like this in Dresden anymore. Most of them have been sanitized.”
“I love it.”
He took a drag of his cigarette and leaned forward. “Enough people have come by already that I’m getting pretty good at this introductory speech. What you should know about living here is that we’re what some people call a ‘Zweck WG.’ Usually people say that as if it’s negative, but I don’t think it has to be. We’re people who would like to live alone, but can’t afford it. We’re pretty quiet. We keep out of each other’s way. No obligatory spaghetti dinners or happy family bullshit.”
I smiled and nodded. I wasn’t sure how I would fit in with quiet, but I would certainly fit in with the moody, sometimes-antisocial crowd whose skin crawled at the thought of the happy family picket fence spaghetti dinner. I can’t even write those words without shuddering.
“The other person who lives here is Jane,” he continued. “But she’s in Stuttgart right now working on a production. She’s a set builder. But what about you? What do you do? Why did you come to Germany anyways?”
“Well.” I hung on the “l” for a long time. I’m never quite sure how to answer those questions. You’d think that by now I’d have a cute little monologue memorized, complete with suspense, intrigue, and a few well-timed jokes. But I don’t. I hesitate every time. Not sure where to begin or where to end. How do you package the most important and exciting two years of your life into a conversation-with-a-stranger sized answer? “Right now I’m an English teacher,” I started. “But, well, I’m moving to Dresden to take some time off to finish writing a novel.” I said the last part fast, embarrassed somehow, as if taking time off to write a novel was the most ridiculous thing in the world. The people who support my decision tell me it’s brave, what I’m doing, and really exciting. But I still feel a bit silly saying it out loud. Yes, I write. I am a writer. Yes, I’d rather starve to death than do anything else. No, I will never be rich. I’ll never get a promotion or work my way to the top of some imaginary ladder. But I’ll never sit behind someone else’s desk in someone else’s office doing someone else’s work. The trade offs are more than fair.
Chris raised his eyebrows. “I can’t afford to live in Frankfurt and not work,” I went on. “Everything there is at least twice as expensive as it is here. And besides, my boyfriend lives here.”
He wanted to know more, and soon we were talking about our Uni theses, whether or not the school system made any sense, about getting stuck in jobs and the meaning of money, and about the punks outside the Scheune whose bottle throwing catalyzed a spät Bierverkauf Verbot (late beer selling ban). We laughed at how we were both already grumpy old men at 25.
Two hours slid by, and I had other appointments to get to. We became awkward at goodbye, the way little kids do sometimes when they’ve just made an exciting new friend. Downstairs I unlocked my bike, still in a bit of a trance. And there, just inside the door, the name Bird, another omen, another thread of the stairwells spell, whispering at me still, you will feel at home here.
I wanted to live there, I had to live there. Back out into the daylight, back into reality, onto Louisenstrasse, charming like rest of the Neustadt: walls covered with graffiti and wheat pastes, charming little stores owned by real live people and not corporations, smiling hippies and punk types on every corner.
How could anything live up to Louisenstrasse? The place on Bischofsweg certainly didn’t. A ho-hum apartment on a busy street. “Sometimes the trucks going past rattle things right off of my desk,” the chick living there now told me.
None of the people who would live there had ever met. This chick, who had the place now, she was just filling it up herself. The new residents could worry about liking each other once they’d moved in. No thanks. “One of them is studying economics,” she told me, “and the other one said business I think.” Next please.
I rang every bell outside the building, but not one single Tony answered. The few people who did answer hung up on me as soon as they realized that I didn’t know them or have a package for them.
If only I had some credit on my cell phone. If only I EVER had any credit on my cell phone. What would Marty McFly do? Nobody had cell phones in the eighties and they solved problems like this all the time. I thought for a second. Marty McFly would probably just go back in time and remember to ask the dude which bell to ring in the first place. As if doing the whole “I’m the exciting and interesting person who you’d like to pick over the other twenty people who’ve looked at it today” dance wasn’t exhausting enough, I had to fight my way into the building and then guess which door to knock on? Great. Calling people I don’t know makes me nervous. Ringing strangers’ bells is even worse.
When a dude with a bicycle slipped out, I slipped in. Now what? The first door on the left had a “Nazis Raus!” sticker on the door. Students, I thought. Students living in a WG, I hoped.
I knocked. A scruffy blonde guy opened the door and looked at me suspiciously. “Are you Tony?” I asked. He nodded. “I’m Nikki. We spoke on the phone. I’m here to look at the WG.”
He left the door open and walked back inside expecting me to follow. He still hadn’t said anything. He seemed bent out of shape somehow, as if I’d just interrupted him masturbating, just before finishing. He kept looking at me like he couldn’t imagine what the hell I was even doing there.
“That would be your room. Mine. Bathroom. Kitchen,” he said, shrugging in the direction of each room as he mentioned it. The place was dark and dirty, a pile of mattresses, drying racks, and odd-shaped boxes littering the end of the hallway. This place didn’t have ‘you will write a masterpiece here’ written all over it. More like “you will rot and die here.” It was 123 Church Street all over again, but without the big communal living spaces and merry housemates.
I should have left right then. But I felt compelled to stay and make conversation. As if that was somehow the polite thing to do.”So what’s it like living here,” I asked. I suppose that at that point, I was still considering the place as a last-straw emergency apocalypse option.
He looked confused. “What do you mean, what’s it like to live here?”
Was there anything not to understand about that question? I mean, you live here, I’m thinking about living here, you put an ad online, I answered it, I came to see if I liked the place and what it was like. Isn’t that what we’re doing here? Hadn’t he been hearing that same question from all the other people who’d come to check the place out? “Ummm, well, how are the neighbors? Is it cold in the winter? Is it loud? Are you happy here? Stuff like that, for example.” Maybe I had made a mistake with my German. Said the wrong word. I was still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Well, umm, it’s ok I guess. I’ve lived here for a few months. It’s alright.”
“And, so, what do you like to do? In your free time?”
He looked just as confused by this question as by my first. “Well I guess I don’t have much of that because of Uni. I study traffic engineering. And, ummm, well, I guess I like soccer. Yeah, I like to play soccer. And watch soccer. On TV.”
It was official: I hated him. I hated his dirty kitchen. I hated his suspicious looks, and I hated his inarticulate ridiculous answers to what I was pretty certain were really reasonable questions. I’d given it a chance. I couldn’t live here. I couldn’t even stand twenty minutes in the place. Too bad, there’s a really badass playground on Böhmische Strasse.
I had been wondering what a guy named Knut would look like. From his voice and a few texts, I’d pasted together an image of a laid-back, shaggy blond hippy type. But that was probably just what I’d hoped he would look like.
The Knut who opened the door had well-kept black hair and a polo. The stairwell had felt hospital-sterile; one step into the apartment and I was having dorm flashbacks. Knut and his other roommate had already started painting the walls hideous shades of maroon and bright yellow. There were tapestries on some walls, gaudy glass cabinets filched from mom and dad against others. The room meant for me was small and impersonal. I wasn’t sure you could pack personality into that room with a crowbar. Looked more like the kind of place that sucked the personality out of you. Maybe that was what had happened to Knut.
As usual, we ended up on opposite sides of the kitchen table. And Knut had his “so this is the deal in our WG” speech memorized. They had been there two months. The other dude was a journalist. Knut studied biology. Had always wanted to live in Neustadt. Listened to underground electronic music.
At the end of his speech he folded his hands and in what sounded like his best attempt at a professional interviewers’ voice said, “So Nikki, tell me about yourself.”
I almost laughed out loud. Some of them just want to hang out and chat. Some of them don’t even seem to want you there. And then some of them turn it into a job interview, practically demanding a resume and references through tone alone.
He must not have noticed my smirk because he offered me the room after fifteen minutes. I needed a back-up plan, just in case, so I told him I had a few more places to look at, and that I would call him on Monday. I told him I had another appointment that I had to rush to right then. I already knew I didn’t want to live there. My other appointment wasn’t for another hour. I met Markus on the river, and we lay in the sun taking turns trying to ask each other “So Nikki, tell me about yourself” as seriously as possible without laughing. I never called. Poor Knut.
I was getting bored with the apartment search at this point, tired of all the shitty places and awkward forced conversations. But I had high hopes for Kamenzer Strasse. When I had first decided to move to Dresden, I had googled “Dresden + squats.” The results were a few articles about a squatted park on Kamenzer Strasse. The police had already cleared it out once, but the locals had just come right back and planted their gardens and built their playgrounds all over again. Sounded like the kind of neighborhood I could feel at home in.
Sara answered the door, as blond and pale as you’d imagine someone from Finland would be, with Steven, with his brown shaggy hair, just behind her. The place felt good. There was no fairy dust and no magic spell, just a good feeling. Just inside the door was a board covered with postcards they’d gotten from all over the world and a pile of checkered Vans slip-ons. The kitchen was painted light blue, the cabinets white with red trim. There were signed posters from indie rock bands on the walls. And everything was just chaotic enough. The bathroom was at least four times the size of my old one, with a rainbow peace flag hanging as a curtain over the glass door. My potential room was a decent size, with ceilings high enough to build a tall bed, and a window facing out into the back courtyard. And on the other side of the courtyard, a workshop with artists’ studios.
“And this,” Steven said, “is the party cellar.”
We walked downstairs into the low-ceilinged room. “It used to be a meat smoking cellar, that’s what those hooks are,” he told me. “When we first moved in the walls were completely black. But we fixed it up and now we have parties down here.” I looked around. A sound system. Lights. A disco ball. I looked at Steven and Sara and smiled.
We talked about squats and music, supermarkets and favorite bars. Steven was working on the German equivalent of his GED. Sara worked in a sign printing shop. I could tell that Steven liked me, but Sara was harder to read. I stayed a half hour and left, one more appointment to go. An appointment I skipped after driving past the building. Concrete filing cabinets. Next please.
Two nights later I got a text from Steven offering me the room on Kamenzer Strasse. I called Chris. The line was busy. I was sure he was on the phone with Jane. Damn it. I had wanted one last word before he spoke with her. To tell him that his place was my first choice. Now there they were on the phone deciding, and there I was on the other side of the country and a busy signal, unable to do a damn thing but pace around my apartment and wait.
I called back every fifteen minutes for two hours. Finally I got an answer instead of a busy signal. “Chris! It’s Nikki,” I said when he finally picked up, over-cheerful to hide the nervousness.
“Nikki, I just dialed your number, but then I got nervous and hung up. I have bad news, we’ve decided to offer the place to someone else.” He said it the same way I’d told him I was taking time off to write a book, fast, practically one sentence, as if the faster he said it, the less likely I was to notice how much what he had to say sucked.
“Too bad, that’s really too bad.” Fuck fuck fuck I screamed in my head.
“I’m so sorry! I’m so so sorry!” he exclaimed. “I wanted to pick you. I told Jane all about you, and, well, she thought that I was a little too, well, euphoric. She got all jealous. She didn’t want to lose her place as favorite female housemate. So we chose a guy.”
Wait, wait, wait. Stop me if I missed something, but I didn’t get picked because some dude liked me too much? Well f@ck all. Here I thought that I could get a spot in a WG if the people there liked me. But apparently I should have been aiming more at cold distant bitch.
“I hope you found another place you liked,” he said, sounding as distraught as I felt.
“Well, one other WG offered me a room. On Kamenzer Strasse. The people are really nice, but I’m a little nervous that they are a little too happy-family obligatory-spaghetti-dinners. But at least I have a room.”
“I’m really sorry Nikki. Oh I’m so sorry. I would have really liked living with you.”
“Well, it’s ok, that’s the way it is, right? Too bad though, it was my first choice.” I paused to let that sink in. “But maybe we could get coffee or something sometime. Once I move to Dresden.”
“Yeah, that would be really cool.”He apologized a few more times before we hung up, and I assured him it was ok. Didn’t it have to be? The place on Kamenzer was really good. Had a really happy, fun feel to it. Had a “you will laugh and be merry and meet people here” feel. It just didn’t say “here you will write a masterpiece.” But after all, that part was up to me.
And then there I was, in Dresden, two of my new house mates helping Markus and I unload the van into our (thank fucking cod) ground floor apartment.
“How many typewriters do you have?” Sara wanted to know as I handed her another one from the van.
“Five.” I laughed. “I can’t help it. Every typewriter I see I have to take home. Most of them I found in the trash anyways.”
That afternoon after some unpacking I came into the kitchen with a few more plates. Steven stood at the counter, spreading Leberwurst on slices of dark bread. We chatted about Dresden until Sara came in.”
I made you a sandwich Sara,” he said, holding out a slice of bread with cupped hands.”
No thanks, I ate something already,” she replied.
“Oh ok.” I was looking at them harder now. There was something about the tone of his voice, the puppy dog look on his face, and the way he’d offered her the bread…Sara put on her coat and came back into the kitchen.
“We’re going to Steven’s parents. We’ll be back sometime tonight.”
His parents. We’re going to Steven’s parents. As soon as they were gone I ran out into the hallway and started counting rooms. The bathroom. Steven’s room. Ant’s room. My room. The kitchen. Three bedrooms. Four people. Going to Steven’s parents. Well look at that, I’d gone and moved in with a couple. It’d only taken me two entire days to notice.
My third house mate had been in Denmark when I’d looked at the place. I was nervous about having a housemate I hadn’t met before signing the lease. What if he was a jock? Or a republican?! Or a four-headed monster who would devour me on sight!?!
Monday morning we finally met. I was plan-lessly moving boxes from one place to another in my room. He was wearing an “I spooned Kimya Dawson” shirt.
“I’m Ant.” We shook hands.
“I’m Nikki.” He seemed normal enough.
“You have a lot of stuff.”
“Yeah well, it just looks that way. It’s not actually that much, once you get it unpacked. But hey, I like your shirt.”
“Kimya Dawson gave it me herself!” he sang back, obviously proud. “Because we’d hitchhiked all the way to Amsterdam just to see her.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Looked like everything was going to be just fine.