It’s a Saturday morning and Berlin is showing itself from its best side, with crisp, yet mild autumn weather and bright yellow leaves against sunny blue skies. We introduced Susan Langan, aka Qzen, last month when we featured her soundscape on the site. This time we visit the new home owner, and Billy the cat, in their apartment on the seventh floor of a former DDR building, located right on the border between Kreuzberg, Mitte and Friedrichshain. Up in the treetops, surrounded by songbirds, the sun is even more intense than down on the ground, giving the whole apartment a warm glow.
We sit down on the couch to talk. Billy has braved his way out from under the couch and is prancing around us, curiously investigating the warm croissants and hazelnut buns we’re about to devour.
You recently became a home owner. Tell us about the process.
I found this place in February and bought it in April. I had a really nice real estate agent who gave me keys to the place before I had put down a penny or signed the contract. My previous roommate was allergic to the cat, so there was a bit of a rush to get out of there.
I started renovating on my own, taking down the wallpaper that covered every surface from the ceilings, to the walls and the insides of the cabinets. I had no idea that these amazing colors were hiding beneath. I knew that I had to install a new electrical system, but the guys I hired to paint were used to doing work on film sets, so they were able to perfectly disguise the veins that were opened to install the electric.
All of May was spent renovating, and at the beginning of June I moved in. A lot of changes have happened since then. I first intended for this room to be the bedroom, but after sleeping in here for one night, something didn’t feel right. When a good friend of mine came over with a bottle of champagne, we emptied it and then spent the rest of the evening moving furniture. It immediately felt right.
I initially fell for the light in this place. When I first saw it, there were no leaves on the trees at all and the view of a bunch of other ‘plattenbau’ buildings was kind of sad — but I was in love with all the light.
While I was renovating in the spring, the trees blossomed and everything became green around me. In the summer I could hear crickets at night and the winds rushing through the leaves. The traffic below gets muffled by the thick foliage.
What made you choose to buy over renting?
I never had an ideal living situation in Berlin so far, and I was looking for something more stable and secure, so originally I was searching for a long term rental contract. I used to work for Apple back in San Francisco and had opted to receive a percentage of my salary as stock in the company. I decided to run some numbers to see if it could be possible to move parts of my investment into a living space, and end up with monthly mortgage payments equal or similar to the price of renting.
Also, being from San Francisco where the real estate market completely exploded in the last couple of decades, seeing how much it has changed in Berlin just in the years that I have been here, it seemed like a smart investment.
This isn’t necessarily about me staying in Berlin forever, but about finally having a comfortable home base. I never thought much about investing in property, or dreamed of owning an apartment, but it just made sense.
My good friend Jon makes fun of me, because I always talk about how it feels so weird — the whole process of buying and owning a place. Perhaps an extreme metaphor, but it’s like when you have sex for the first time, and you’ve thought about it so many times in your head, but when it’s finally happening, you’re like ‘wait, so this is it?’ This feels similar; all of a sudden you’re in the middle of it and you can’t believe it’s really happening. It’s been an intense year!
Has it started feeling less weird now that you’ve been here a few months?
I travel a lot for work and the feeling of coming home after traveling is special. I recently got back from France and on the flight back, it hit me that I was going back to my own place, and that felt really great. It still feels a bit weird, but not in a bad way, it’s more of a cognitive dissonance between what I feel like as an adult and who I am. That has been another really interesting side effect of this process. The experience has reflected back to me the things I have done, and how far I have come in many ways, but haven’t really given myself credit for. In the midst of this, I said to myself, ‘I’m a total boss lady’. That was a cool feeling!
While I was renovating in the spring, the trees blossomed and everything became green around me. In the summer I could hear crickets at night and the winds rushing through the leaves.
Well, you are! You’ve done this alone in a foreign country.
I had a moment when I called the notary to get them to send me some papers, and as I explained to the woman on the phone that I had never done this before and I was doing it all alone, I suddenly started crying uncontrollably and had to hang up. I immediately called a friend on Skype and said, ‘I’m bawling and I don’t know why’. I realized then that I really never saw myself making this step, and if I did, I always imagined it to be with a partner. Another thing that became even more clear to me through doing this, is the distance to my family. My mom is very domestic and was an interior designer for part of her life, which was something we always bonded over, and my parents have a huge, beautiful house where there was always some renovation project going on, so to be this far away from them during this process has been very strange and awkward. All of a sudden I had this strong feeling of being alone, despite having a large and supporting friend base. This was another thing that really shifted this last year through this process. Even though I had lived here for three years, I felt that, apart from my friend Jon, I wasn’t sure who my real friends were — the ones you can just fall apart in front of and not care. This year, I discovered, or rather uncovered friends that were there all along, I just didn’t know. Now, a year later, I feel like I have an incredible support network here.
So this place has made you realize a lot about yourself?
It’s been a huge process! And the physical labor has been really fun as well, because your achievements are so palpable. Most other things I’ve done in my life are not that physical and haven’t left me with the same feeling of achievement. You can gather experiences or stocks or what have you, but how can you see the result? This place feels like a physical manifestation of it all.
The Buffalo & the Shrine to the South West
So what are some things that are especially meaningful to you in your home?
There are so many things, such as that plastic buffalo in the window cill. I grew up with it and noticed it again one time I was home, and ended up bringing it with me. My parents’ house is big and we were lots of kids and there was always a bunch of visitors. It wasn’t the tidiest place, but it was extremely comfortable, and there was always something to discover. My dad doesn’t like to throw away things and his office is like the ‘ground zero’ that trickles into the rest of the house. The buffalo is from the top of one of his book cases.
He grew up in the South-West, in New Mexico and we were really influenced by that culture while growing up, so this guy is for me a link to my ‘North American heritage’. The whole window cill over there is a bit of a shrine that represents home to me.
We continue to talk about obsessively moving furniture around and about whether or not people who wake up in the middle of the night to reorganize their living spaces around are crazy. (We both decide they’re not). We also discuss the fear of committing to hanging pictures on the wall and the urge to leave them leaning against the wall instead. Susan has an eclectic collection, including a somewhat obscure poster depicting a young girl pointing at the scar in a man’s hand, accompanied by the text ‘What happened to your hand?’ We move past it and end up at the still life next to the couch.
I always talk about how it feels so weird — the whole process of buying and owning a place. Perhaps an extreme metaphor, but it’s like when you have sex for the first time, and you’ve thought about it so many times in your head, but when it’s finally happening, you’re like ‘wait, so this is it?’
My parents’ house is big and we were lots of kids and there was always a bunch of visitors. It wasn’t the tidiest place, but it was extremely comfortable, and there was always something to discover.
The Perlon Thread
I bought a lot of prints when I lived in Argentina. There’s an incredible street art scene there which became an important part of my time there, and it was affordable, so I brought a lot of it back.
What I really wanted to tell you about was the little spool of thread leaning against the painting. The whole time when I was stripping off the old wallpaper in this place, I fantasized about finding some kind of hidden treasure in the wall. There’s so much history in these buildings I was sure I was going to find some weird old thing, and sure enough, this thread was found under the wall paper, inside the bedroom closet. I also found a jar full of buttons that is standing in the window cill in the bathroom. It’s clear that the person who lived here liked to sew. My mom ran a sewing school in San Francisco while I grew up, so it has a nostalgic tie to my childhood. And, because the brand of the found thread is called Perlon, which is also the name of a Berlin-based electronic music label, it seemed to carry a special significance. I plan to frame it once I find the right frame, but for now it sits there.
The whole time when I was stripping off the old wallpaper in this place, I fantasized about finding some kind of hidden treasure in the wall. There’s so much history in these buildings I was sure I was going to find some weird old thing.
The Shelf of Wonders and the Books of Random Factoids
I am a huge collector of knick knacks, in fact I have a whole collection on the shelf in the other room. I have rocks from La Gomera and Costa Rica, a small Madonna figurine in honor of my Catholic upbringing — which was both awesome and not, and eventually led me to studying religion, and is also probably why I would be inclined to buy something like that strange Jesus poster.
We move into the bedroom and start exploring the shelf of knick knacks. Susan picks up a tiny, illustrated book called The Wisdom of Professor Happy, and starts reading;
‘The holes in your bread are to hold butter.’ ‘Drink as much milk as possible.’ ‘When washing remember that you’re the only one who can’t see the back of your neck.’ ‘Brush your teeth at least once every day.’
It’s from a flea market, but I can’t remember exactly where or how long I’ve had it, it’s just one of those things that I love. And because I can’t fit anything very large in my suitcases when I go home to visit, these are the kinds of things that I bring back with me, along with abalone shells and sand dollars and all kinds of small figurines.
I also love this book; it is the New York Times Everyday Readers Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused and Mispronounced Words. It’s from the 50s so the selection is really funny. I mostly read it when I can’t go to sleep and don’t feel like getting really into something. This is one of my random objects that just keeps giving. It also came with me from my childhood home.
So your parents don’t seem to mind you ‘flea market shopping’ a bit at their house?
Ha, no. I’m one of seven children, and I spent many years alone with my parents after my older siblings had moved out, so I was kind of a semi-only child. By the time I came along, they were more like ‘yeah, just don’t burn anything down and you’re fine’. They were so used to it all by then and they also owned a bunch of animals. They were natural caretakers and they can’t understand that someone would choose not to have kids. But it was a different time, and they had a huge house and could provide for all of us. The thought of a house like that now, in the San Francisco area with that many kids, there’s no way. But they bought it back in 1971…
I point at an old rusty key and Susan immediately starts telling the story.
I got that at a thrift store in Wrangelkiez, (a neighborhood in Berlin) where I used to live. My grandfather used to collect keys and gave me a whole bag full when I was a child, and it became one of my most prized possessions. My dad would bring me home coins from every country he travelled to, in Europe and all over the world, so these became my main collections, keys and coins — along with music.
We continue walking through the apartment and looking at all the little details, and Susan has stories to tell about almost all of them. We deliberate over where to hang her mirrors and the many framed pictures leaning against her walls. We discuss the different colors of the walls and the moods they inspire. We learn about the old East German phone jack that was spared during construction, a postcard from the gift shop of a contemporary art gallery in Prague, a colorful serving tray from Mexico City juxtaposed with a handwritten love note, about a pair of peculiar cat figurines in the hallway, the laminated map on her shower wall and her DIY baking soda facial scrub. Lastly, we learn about how Susan ended up painting her door frames and moulding jet black and how she found and installed all matching black, vintage light switches from the same time period as the apartment itself.
I am a huge collector of knick knacks, in fact I have a whole collection on the shelf in the other room. I have rocks from La Gomera and Costa Rica, a small Madonna figurine in honor of my Catholic upbringing — which was both awesome and not, and eventually led me to studying religion.
The experience has reflected back to me the things I have done, and how far I have come in many ways, but haven’t really given myself credit for.
The Light Switches
During construction the electricians asked me how many centimeters away from the door frame I wanted the switches, and it was one of those questions I was not ready for at all. I was overcome with fear that I would make the wrong decision and put them too close or too far away, so that it would annoy me every time I went to turn the light on or off. I wanted to go for 20 centimeters, but someone had told me that 15 centimeters was standard. I was reeling so hard over this decision, I started bawling right there in front of the electricians. I hadn’t slept the night before and it was a crazy time, so these light switches really became a breaking point. I refer to it as decision lag, when there are so many seemingly important things you have to relate to and decide on, but have no basis for making an informed decision. One of the electricians came over and gave me a hug and a pat on the back, while the other guy backed off and looked pretty freaked out ‘Oh my god, she is leaking’. A friend of mine from work had the best response; he said, ‘Susan, five centimeters matter a lot in some cases, but not in this one’.
So, would you say that buying and renovating a home is a bit of a soul search?
I guess it depends on how you approach it. It also depends on how much money you have and how involved you are in the process. For me, being an expat and settling in a new place, and also being the ‘baby’ of the family, leaving to find my own way, you could say, this is a bold mark on the page and that feels good.
Through this, I’ve been realizing how fortunate I am, and have to give my brother props for being my financial adviser. Without his encouragement to join the employee stock purchase plan at my old job, this would not be possible.
To be honest, I feel like I ‘fell’ into most of it. My love for drum and bass, and the lack of places to hear it, got me into throwing parties, which led me to DJing, which again led me to have a radio show and throw even more parties. Because of all this, I was suggested by a friend for a position at iTunes. Everything so far has happened as a result of my love for music and raving — which was also what ultimately brought me to Berlin. Feeling like you’re not in control — it’s both frustrating and exciting, but I do know that music is always going to be a main focus in my life.
During construction the electricians asked me how many centimeters away from the door frame I wanted the switches, and it was one of those questions I was not ready for at all. I was overcome with fear that I would make the wrong decision and put them too close or too far away (…) I was reeling so hard over this decision, I started bawling right there in front of the electricians.