Mogg & Melzer is one of a few restaurants currently housed in what used to be Berlin’s first Jewish school for girls. It flourished for nearly one hundred years until Hitler came and decided, well, he wasn’t that into Jews, really, and it goes without saying that he wasn’t that into their education either. By 1942, the school was closed, most of the children and their families shipped away, and the facility used as a military hospital until the end of the war.
Now people come here to eat pastrami sandwiches and drink white wine. In the hallway there are black and white photographs of what once was: girls playing games in a dirt courtyard, sitting at wooden desks wearing skirts and sweaters, dark hair done up in a 30s fashion. The bathroom still looks like a little girl’s room with pink walls and swinging doors, a long mirror that people half my size likely passed in front of to wash their hands.
The restaurant is creamy blue and precious, with purple benches and communal tables, windows opened up to the street below. Food is prepared on the other side of the room, between a tiled wall and bit of glass. I feel like I’m in Brooklyn, though almost a better version of Brooklyn in a way, because there is so much space, so much room between tables. Berlin seems to have found a way to inherit the benefits of a cosmopolitan city without absorbing the costs (filth, a crushing populous, incivility).
“I could sit right there and read all day,” I say, pointing to the corner where a man in glasses eats alone, save for the little dog sitting next to him.
Jonas’ friends arrive and I have a horrible time remembering any of their names until about two hours later. I meet too many people, shake too many hands, hear too many names and rarely, if ever, do I expect to see most people after first introductions. Mine is a transient, friendly universe, built on intrinsic impermanence and a faulty-wired brain.
“I’m Jenny,” I say. That’s usually as far as I get.
But halfway through dinner, I make the point to remember, because everyone at the table is lovely and vibrant and from all over the world.
Lina, the birthday girl, is in town from Milan for meetings and a shoot. She’s a photographer. Lina has thick wavy hair and bangs that nearly cover her eyes, a big smile and dimples that crease the places below her cheekbones. She and Jonas met in Munich a few years ago. Karen, another friend who has just arrived, met them all there, too.
Karen – blonde haired, blue eyed Karen – now lives in Berlin full-time. She just got back from a buying trip to Paris for a store she runs out here. Yesterday, she tells us, she woke up, walked into the bathroom and fainted, only to wake up on her tiled floor six hours later. The last twenty-four hours were spent stuck in a German emergency room until she couldn’t stand lying down in a foldout bed any longer while Friday passed outside her window.
“I just pushed it too far,” Karen says. She went a week straight in Paris, working all day and doing dinners until well past midnight, sleeping for four hours and then doing it all over again. Her body shut off in retaliation.
Lina’s friends trickle in as the night continues, eating or not eating when they arrive, drinking from bottles of wine left on the table. It feels like I’m in school, eating in the cafeteria while my friends get out of class at different times, socializing around the table, at the table, smoking over by the window. “It’s casual,” Lina says, waving her hands.
One of fashion’s famous gender-benders walks through the door wearing a white shirt tied up up up above her belly button, clinging to a pair of perky breasts. She’s had a more successful career as a model than myself, despite having technically been born a boy.
With her is an energetic Italian named Eduardo, wearing a silkscreened shirt of his own design – orange snakes writhing and wrapped around neck like a snood or something royal and opulent but completely accessible. Like costume jewelry meets tee shirts. That would be my pitch if I were in PR. My brain works like this now. Sell sell sell. Buy buy buy. Fabrication and bottom lines.
I like Eduardo. He’s got a big smile and a nice beard.
I end up sitting next to a guy named Brannon. He lives in Milan but he’s obviously American. Ohio, he tells me. He moved fifteen years ago, plucked straight out of design school to work for a famous designer based in Italy.
Brannon has the inflections and intonations of an expat, a flourish reserved for people accustomed to talking to Europeans. It’s like the way I say “yeah” after hanging out with my Australian friend for too long. Now, my “yeah” has a question mark at the end of it, pulling itself upward with some invisible string. “Yeah?” where there should be a good ol’ American “Oh, really?” instead.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“Oh, yeah, you are,” he says. “I can hear it in your voice. California girl.” He sits back, crossing his arms, nodding his head as though he’s just figured out the last word in a Sunday crossword puzzle.
For reasons owing simply to an obligation to defensiveness, I argue lightly with him, saying there is no such thing as a Californian accent. “People say I sound like I’m from the South,” I say, as though that’s better.
Los Angeles has never sounded exotic enough for me. The same goes for the San Fernando Valley, known mostly for ungodly summers and Ron Jeremy.
“Porn Valley?” Jonas asked when I told him where I grew up.
I argue this point, too, only to concede soon after, admitting that for a time in the late 90s, I lived across the street from a modern, boxy white house where they did indeed shoot porn films. Skanky girls with fake tans and huge breasts used to get dropped off in white limos and then disappear through a solid fence. All night, lights would shift blue and white and purple through palm trees. My mom didn’t much care for that house.
Brannon tells me about his own fashion line, how he doesn’t need to go to New York so much anymore, how his mother has since moved to Atlanta. He goes there, he says, for holidays.
Brannon from Ohio who moved to Italy and now travels to Berlin often.
Fashion makes these things possible. You can have a weird life. You can have a big life. You can travel the world and have dinner in Paris and dinner in Berlin and, if you need to, you can go to the ER and get an IV drip because it’s all more than a body can take. You can wash your hands in sinks that soldiers used and walk down hallways that used to echo with the sound of bombs and shrapnel. If anything at all, modeling has afforded me this realization, this openness to the Possibilities of Weird.
And this, I think, more than makes up for the unholy rejection, days spent bored and bleary-eyed, nights spent falling asleep with cramped calves and an existential crisis.