Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Review in Vogue

"Hope, the melancholy protagonist of Anna Winger's This Must Be The
Place, follows her estranged husband to Berlin shortly after 9/11. Finding herself marooned in their palatial apartment...she struggles to gain a toehold in the unfamiliar, rapidly transforming city. Then she befriends her neighbor, a once-famous soap actor who has made a second career in dubbing as the German voice of Tom Cruise but is still searching for his own role in life. Crossing paths in the building's elevator (a hilarious scene in which REO Speedwagon figures prominently), they join forces to plumb the building's secret history--and their own covert pasts. With a wryly engaging voice, Winger deftly reveals the rough-edged layers that make up places--and people."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Passover in Berlin

An article I wrote for the New York Times Magazine about celebrating Passover in Berlin will be included a book of food essays edited by Amanda Hesser called Eat, Memory. It will be published by Norton in November 2008.

Please click on the post title above to read it.

Review in Publisher's Weekly

"In Winger's touching and emotionally turbulent debut, the fantasy of new beginnings gives way to a persistent sense of haunted—but oddly comforting—history. Set in Berlin in the late fall of 2001, the novel focuses on the overlapping stories of grieving American expat Hope and has-been minor German celebrity Walter, who's dreaming of a new career in Hollywood. The real drama arises between the cities of New York and Berlin; both cities, like Hope and Walter, bear a profound survivor's guilt: the war, the wall and the towers overwhelm individual sorrows...but the elegant ending and confident storytelling are redeeming."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Deborah Turbeville

This is the picture I was talking about in the article below. For more about the photographer, Deborah Turbeville, please go to her website.


I originally wrote this article for Vogue, about my discovery, as a young photographer, of a gorgeous Deborah Turbeville picture that ran in the magazine in 1975. Since the new novel I am writing now takes place in Mexico in the 1990s, I often think about that time in my life, in my twenties. The portrait of me (left) was taken in Oaxaca in 1994 by the artist Judith Golden.

By Anna Winger

When I was twenty-three, I packed my Rolleiflex, a complete darkroom and two suitcases of summer clothes and moved from New York City to Oaxaca, Mexico. I had just finished college and received a Fulbright to do a photography project about girls’ coming-of-age celebrations there. Having lived in Mexico with my anthropologist parents as a teenager, I was drawn back to the site of my own adolescent transformations.

In those days there was no email or mobile phones and a land-line was almost impossible to come by. Out of touch with family and everyone else at home, I was now free to try on new identities. I wore embroidered huipiles from Juchitán, like Frida Khalo, and kept long-winded diaries that closely imitated Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I smoked cigarettes rolled in sweet rice paper and stayed out late drinking mescal and modeled nude for various local painters. I made lots of new friends. At dusk every evening, the theme song to a popular telenovela starring Eric Estrada came over the wall into my garden: Dos Mujeres, Un Camino. Two Women, One Road. The music struck me as impossibly romantic.

On the weekends, I attended fiestas de quince años all over Oaxaca with my camera. At one, in a nearby village called Xoxo, the quinceañera, dressed head to toe in pink organza, trailed twelve ladies-in-waiting, twelve groomsmen, and me, on the dusty street behind her. At another, in the cathedral downtown, the quinceañera sat miserably between her parents, collapsed under the weight of her elaborate hairdo. I lurked among the pews, trying to capture the moment without calling attention to myself. Although I was blonder and taller than most people in the room, I tried to be invisible. The photographs, after all, were not about me. Through the square frame of my old-fashioned camera, I concentrated on the ritualistic details, hoping to capture something universal about female experience.

There is an art library in downtown Oaxaca, founded by the artist Francisco Toledo, a space half indoors and half out, where you can spend hours with a book in the dappled light of a jacaranda tree. I went there often and pored through their photography collection. Although there were many books of photojournalism and documentary work from all over the world, it was the monographs of fashion photographers like Irving Penn that mesmerized me. Included in a collection of pictures from 100 years of Vogue was one taken in 1975 by a photographer named Deborah Turbeville. Five women pose in bathing suits, in a bathhouse, looking alternately bold and bored, feminist and feminine. An homage to the Ingres paintings of women in Turkish baths, Turbeville’s image is as much an anthropological document about American women in 1975 as it is a fashion photograph. When I first discovered this image, the complex story it told about the evolution of female sexuality both fascinated and intimidated me. I sat in Toledo’s library and stared at it for a long time, contemplating the metaphorical possibilities of a single photograph.

When I learned that Turbeville herself lived in Mexico part of the year, I wrote her a letter. To my surprise, she invited me to come and see her.

San Miguel de Allende is about four hours north of Mexico City. It was a dry, late spring when I went to visit Turbeville there, just before the rains began. The sun on the street was blinding. Stepping into the cool interior of her townhouse, which was built around a courtyard, was like entering an oasis: blue shadows cast on plaster walls, antiques, bougainvillea. Turbeville herself was tall and beautiful, of an indeterminate age (older than me, younger than my mother). She wore flowing clothes offset by serious, bobbed hair.

We had lunch and then she showed me her new work, a project about Mexican woman and religion. As I remember it now, she had covered the wall of her studio with brown craft paper, hung up and down with photographs in old-fashioned, half-broken frames. The images were black and white, out of focus, portraits both of Mexican women and of church statues of the Virgin Mary. Taken as a whole, the wall had the effect of a colonial altarpiece. Turbeville wasn’t simply documenting the local women’s spirituality—she had created a three-dimensional piece that embodied it. When I was in college, I had often complained about the photographs of Mexican women I saw in the United States: covered with serapes, carrying pots on their heads, devoid of sexuality or individual personality. Turbeville’s work transcended those stereotypes. By contrast, I realized then, my own did not.

I looked around the courtyard where we were sitting—there must have been a fountain, because I remember the sound of water, the play of the light. I felt as if I had been transported into one of her photographs. She was the first woman I had ever met who was, literally, living her art.

I fumbled for the right way to express my wonder, and dismay.
“Do you think of yourself as a documentary photographer?” I asked.
She laughed. “I think of myself as an artist. I’m a story-teller. I am interested in people’s lives.”
I pulled out my folder of prints: the girl in Xoxo performing a formal waltz with her father; the girl downtown getting into a carriage shaped like a pumpkin. My pictures captured the mechanics of the ritual, its kitsch maybe, but none of the emotions of coming of age.
“I’m so careful,” I said. “I try not to get in the way. But in the end I feel stuck on the sidelines.”
“Then be less careful.”
“But then I’m interfering with the moment.”
“Says who?”
I listed the names of ten famous photographers and my professors from school. Turbeville handed back my prints.
“Why are you taking other people’s pictures?” she asked me, not unkindly.

The bright sunshine on the sidewalk outside of her house afterwards hit me like the blast of a light bulb going off in my brain: the placement of the frame is always subjective, in photography as in life. After that I didn’t lurk around at parties with my camera. I spoke with the fifteen year-old girls I met. I asked them to choose their favorite clothes and location for their portraits. The process was collaborative: as I looked down into my camera, we talked about their lives and mine, about beauty, about our aspirations. The resulting pictures reflect the intimacy of these conversations. In one, a girl in her catholic school uniform reclines on a garden bench in her parents’ backyard. Although the outfit is childish, the look on her face betrays a knowingness beyond her years. When I look at it now, the picture seems to capture both my subject’s nascent womanhood and my own.

San Miguel is a town so beautiful that it might have been dreamed up, a Disneyworld version of Mexico. After leaving Turbeville's house that day, I walked its streets thinking that if all fiction is a little bit autobiography, then all documentary is a little bit fiction too.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Hot Off the Presses

This Must Be the Place has been printed! A copy of the real thing is on its way to me across the Atlantic. It won't be in stores till August 14, but my editor at Riverhead received the first few copies today. It will be incredible to finally hold it in my hands.

Kirkus Review

"The star of the book is Berlin itself. Winger deftly reveals its history and cultural significance: the secrets of the elegant 19th-century building where Walter and Hope live; the playground located in the footprint of a building bombed during World War II; West Berlin as an insular beacon of democracy; the role of a new Berlin after German unification. References to Berlin's vanished Jewish community and German attitudes toward Jews...[culminate] in a touching scene in which Walter and Hope make peace with the past."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Here Comes the Bride

The artist Aura Rosenberg has asked me to participate in the project Who Am I? What Am I? Where Am I? that she will publish this fall with the art book company Hatje Cantz. Each artist was asked to set up a photograph reflecting ideas that adults project onto children. I decided to play with the romantic future fantasies that we inadvertently encourage in little girls. To my dismay (but not surprise) my daughter loved everything about the traditional wedding outfit. She kept the veil on for as long as possible, even after we were finished shooting.

There Goes the Neighborhood

Here is the English original of the article I wrote last winter for the Frankfuter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) about rediscovering the spirit of my old New York life in Berlin. Before you read it, let me add the disclaimer that I still love New York! The piece is based on impressions I had last summer, while staying in the West Village, a neighborhood that has changed particularly in recent years. The image that ran with it in the FAZ (above) is by Helmut Fricke.

There Goes the Neighborhood
By Anna Winger

The last time I was in New York, a Sex and the City tour bus pulled up alongside me and released fifty female tourists from the Midwest, and their cameras, onto the sidewalk. They clamored past me towards Carrie's stoop and took turns posing for pictures, then headed over to Bleeker Street to go shopping. If you have never seen the series, Carrie, the main character, is a struggling writer who spends a lot of time thinking about fashion. Officially she lives on the Upper East Side, but in fact the show was shot on Perry Street, in the West Village, just a few houses down from my own apartment.

A few days after the tour bus incident, I ran into the actress who plays her, Sarah Jessica Parker, in the hallway of my building where, I was told, she recently bought an apartment for her personal assistant. The last time that same small apartment turned over, only a decade earlier, it had cost $40,000; this time more than $600,000. I shook my head. Thanks in no small part to her own fame and fortune, struggling writers like Parker's alter-ego can no longer afford to live in the West Village at all, let alone in Manhattan. They live in Brooklyn, or more likely in Queens.

I moved to Berlin five years ago and now, every time I go back, I wish that I could click my heels together and conjure the place I remember as home, but the New York I knew and loved is gone.

Let me begin at the beginning. The first time my German husband came to visit me in New York was in 1991. He was still my boyfriend then and I was a student at Columbia University. The subway cost $1.25 and David Dinkins was the mayor. Cultural capital still seemed more important than money. While Europeans always loved New York, because it was the least American of American cities, in those days most Americans thought of it as a dirty, scary place. My husband had never been there before so I took him everywhere and everywhere we went he said the same thing.
"I have déja vu," he said. "This is just like in the movies."
He was referring to Woody Allen movies, in which artists and intellectuals ruminated about love in nice apartments, in which politics was a more appropriate subject for dinner party conversation than real estate. After a brief banking boom in the mid-1980s, the city had been humbled by recession. The streets around Columbia were dangerous enough that the university provided football-player escorts to female students who left campus after dark. But still, the bottom is a good place to start. Rents were cheap. Everything seemed possible.

I would like to write a eulogy for New York when I was young, except I'm still young. It's New York that got old. It happened so fast.

When I was a student I used to eat all my meals with friends at a greasy spoon at the corner of 110th and Broadway called Tom's Restaurant. The menu there hadn't changed since the student revolution in 1968. We liked to stay up all night and go to Tom's for breakfast at four in the afternoon. During exam season, we brought all our books with us and pretty much lived there, since it was open around the clock. Then Tom's was cast as the regular hang-out joint for Jerry, George and Elaine on Seinfeld. My life, with a laugh-track. Europeans always loved New York, but it took TV to make it popular with the rest of America. A few years into my education, Tom's filled up with sitcom fans eager for a taste of Jerry Seinfeld's nihilistic urban experience. It was time to move downtown.

Germans always say that it's better to look at real estate in the winter.
"Everything looks nice in sunshine," they tell me. "A really good place looks nice when the weather is shitty."
This makes sense, of course, so it is either a mark of willful ignorance or blind American optimism that I have found every home I've ever had in July.

The summer of 1992, my friend Becky and I spent one afternoon walking around Greenwich Village looking for an apartment. We just rang the doorbells marked "Superintendent" on every building we liked till we were offered a place on West 11th Street, with an unblocked view of the downtown skyline, moldings and an elevator, that cost considerably less to rent than an ugly room in the dorms uptown. When I tell this story now, people look at me as if I am telling them that I remember when the movies cost a nickel. But it was only fifteen years ago, not fifty. I told you, I'm still young it's New York that got old. Or maybe it just got expensive.

Let me rephrase. I would like to write a eulogy for New York when it was cheap.

The summer I finished graduate school, in 1997, I bought a small three-room apartment in an old brick building on just about the cutest corner of the West Village. Before I was allowed to take ownership, I had to endure an interview with the co-op board about my finances. I had never had a real job.
"Tell them they're looking at a fortune in solid gold potential," my father told me going into it, referring to my lengthy and expensive education.
Nowadays, even cash buyers are required to provide letters of recommendation, bank statements, guarantors. You hear stories about people who are turned down again and again, not by the bank but by the co-op board, because their long-term financial goals just aren't up to snuff. And no one knows why: a legal loophole allows co-op boards not to disclose the reasons why they reject certain buyers. Even Madonna was famously rejected by various buildings uptown, so the fact that the co-op board in my building was willing to take me, on the basis of good education alone, tells you something about how different things used to be.

In 1997 most of my neighbors were artists and theater people who had been living in the building for thirty years. Most of the people in the neighborhood were bohemians of one sort or another who had been there since they, too, were young, because in 1997 you did not have to be rich to live there. Then Gwyneth Paltrow moved in across the street and put up video surveillance cameras to watch people passing by on the narrow sidewalk. Then Monica Lewinsky moved in around the corner, bringing with her a permanent throng of paparazzi. But it is not an exaggeration to say that what really killed the neighborhood was Sex and the City. Despite all the superficial details, by using real locations and familiar situations, this TV show managed to capture something authentic about what it was really like to be young, female and single in New York at that time. My life, with better shoes. But by celebrating the city, it exposed it. By exposing it, it ruined it. I think there is a word for this in German, one of those special words that cannot be properly translated into English. Thomas Mann used it when he was writing about Italian villages at the turn of the last century. It applies here, too.

Before Sex and the City, people who did not live west of 7th Avenue in the village rarely came our way. The streets are crooked there, have names, not numbers, and it's easy to get lost. Before Sex and the City the highest end boutique in the West Village was Condomania, a luxe condom emporium at the corner of Christopher Street, but now it's been taken over by Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren and other designer boutiques. Magnolia, a tiny little bakery on Bleeker Street where my friends and I used to drink coffee every morning is now inundated with tourists who wait in line for hours to buy cupcakes, like Carrie, even when it rains.

I know that it's too simple to blame a TV show for the demise of a whole way of life. My husband, who is an economist, and a TV producer, will tell you that there were more important factors in the recent transformation of New York: the globalization of the financial industries, the deregulation of rent-control, Rudolf Guiliani. He will point out that New York was never exactly a secret, anyway, but rather like a movie star so known to people all over the world that she seems like a friend. But if New York is a movie star then her image has changed. Forget cultural capital. These days, the city is all about money. The socio-economic diversity that made it special, the unique creativity that used to thrive on that, is gone, leaving in its place an elaborate shopping mall. This makes New York feel like the most American of American cities after all.

So you can take the Sex and the City tour of the West Village and bring home a Marc Jacobs handbag, if you like, but to live Carrie's life, you better move to Berlin.

I moved to Berlin in 2002 for love, not real estate, but boy, was I lucky. I currently live in a lovely apartment on the 4th floor of a 100 year-old building in Charlottenburg. It has lots of space and high ceilings, a view of rooftops and the sky. But the remarkable thing is not that my place is nice, but that nice apartments are easy to come by. In New York, my friends are now separated into two groups: those who made it and those who didn't. The difference between their subsequent lifestyles is so extreme that it is almost impossible to get together for dinner as a group because people feel jealous and the evening ends with bad feelings all around. Those who made it, have comfortable homes in convenient locations, good education for their children and health insurance. Those who didn't, live in tiny places on the fringe of the city and despair that they will never have children because they have nowhere to put them. One of my artist friends is planning to have her baby at home, in a one-room place, because her health insurance doesn't cover the cost of delivery with a doctor in a hospital.

In Berlin, the natives never talks about real estate and everyone has health insurance. I had my daughter here in a friendly hospital, where I stayed for four days, and a midwife who came afterwards, ten times, to my house and I didn't pay an extra penny for any of it. Germans take this kind of thing for granted because, at least in recent memory, they've always had it. But I don't. It's like university education: in America it costs a fortune, so people brag about it endlessly. Here, it's free and no one ever mentions where they studied. So when people ask me why New Yorkers are so obsessed with real estate these days I can only answer that they have no choice. If the single most important factor in your survival, shelter, became prohibitively expensive, you too would be obsessed.

But just because it's understandable doesn't mean it isn't boring. I think I moved here just in time. In Berlin, nobody talks about real estate or university education. I can invite artists and business people, journalists and students to the same dinner party and nobody feels jealous. In fact, people here rarely lead a conversation with the favorite New York question "What do you do?" This is a relief, not because work isn't interesting or important, or because I have anything against being ambitious, but because we are all more than a sum of our achievements and our achievements must be measured with more delicate instruments than money.

Because rent is cheap and there's graffiti everywhere, Americans who live here like to say that the city reminds them of New York in the 1970s, but they are forgetting that the 1970s was a time of rampant crime and corruption in New York, of racial conflict and radical feminist activism and pre-AIDS free love. I beg to differ. Berlin reminds me of New York in the late 1980s and 1990s, when I was young and everything seemed possible. What better place to grow old?

American Thanksgiving celebrates the Pilgrims' alleged first meal with the Indians and remains a favorite with immigrants of all stripes in the United States. So perhaps it is fitting that Thanksgiving is the holiday I celebrate most enthusiastically in Berlin. This past November we made two enormous turkeys for fifty people, including all the stray Americans I could round up, various other foreigners, and lots and lots of Germans. Halfway through the evening, a friend of mine came up to me with her pumpkin pie.
"I feel like I'm in a Woody Allen movie," she said. "One of the old ones, you know, when they still took place in New York. Do you remember the Thanksgiving scene in Hannah and her Sisters?"
There's no place like home.