Friday, February 17, 2006

Passing ...

This week His Holiness and I have been on our own, Mama is back in New York and the boys have been staying up late, going to cafés and renting videos … having an altogether great time. Today we went to the nearby neighborhood of Lindenthal, to a lovely little park where deer run free and birds and other animals wander the grounds and where there are vending machines with healthy food for the animals for just 50 cents a box. My neighbor across the street told me about the park this morning when he was out walking his 15-month-old son. We met at the corner and chatted for a while and he told me about this wonderful place where children and animals meet on fairly equal terms. This man is a recent PhD and a very nice human being. Today he was wearing one style of show on his right foot and another style of shoe on his left. His footwear was not a fashion statement, but rather a function of fatherhood, of the dim light of early morning when our young sons call out for Papa and we go stumbling down the hall toward them. Later when they are eager to get outside and we are just as anxious to be in the open air where they can scream and run and carry on without literally raising the roof, it is no surprise that fashion, even function, is far from the first item on the list of what needs to be considered.

Today was all about a good bus ride and touching some animals and to that extent it was a success, but along the way I committed an ex-pat betrayal. While riding on the bus to the animal park I couldn’t get the on–board ticket machine to function and in desperation I asked the driver, in English, if he could sell me a ticket. He said the ride was on the house then proceeded to ask me whether I was from England or America. Instead of telling him that I had recently moved to Cologne from New York I simply said I was from New York. Here we were on a crowded bus, and I am sitting in the middle of the bus so we are both nearly shouting. He was so excited to hear I was from New York that I couldn’t bear to add the qualifier that I had recently taken up residence in Germany. He said he was going to be in the Manhattan for his vacation in July and I could return the fare favor if I ran into him in the subway. Well, I will probably be in New York this summer so I didn’t feel it required any further qualification to say that I would also be a visitor. Why did I deny my recent German residency? Was it simply easier to pass as a tourist on a bus, out with my son for a little sightseeing? Did I think I was less likely to get a free ride if I told him I actually live here? The funny thing is that the moment I told him I was from New York I realized I had crossed a line, that I was pretending to be a tourist because it was easier than the explanation and blank looks I often get when I tell people I have decided to settle here in Germany.

The truth is that no matter how much I feel I am blending in to my new surroundings, it is crystal clear to me that I am marked a foreigner by every person with whom I come in contact. I struggle with my newly acquired German, to speak the language, to use the subtle inflections and rhythms that characterize local speech, but I have barley gotten the words out of my mouth (whatever words they may happen to be) when the person with whom I am speaking often answers or corrects me in English. Today, when I stopped into a delectable little chocolate shop in the Belgian Quarter (more on that another day) the owner addressed me in English before I uttered a word. Had he been reading my English-language thoughts?

It’s unusual feeling like a stranger. For most of my life I have lived in the same city, a small island really, notwithstanding the 8 million people or so, but still a place I knew well and where I never, ever felt out of place. Here in Germany I nearly always feel out of place and I don’t like that feeling. There have been days when I felt more at home here than others, and I realize that it is the nature of things that for some time to come, I will have good and bad days. Today it was easier to be a tourist than to be myself …

11 Comments:

Blogger Cathy said...

One of my absolute favourite places to go when I was an "auslander" living in Bielefeld was an animal park....Tierpark Olderdissen. It was enchanted, and I still think of it with fond memories.

Happy memories, Dad...

2:08 AM  
Anonymous lillian said...

Enjoy the fact that you CAN pass for a tourist. Misuse it whenever the stress level is high. Its part of the fun of being an expat !!! :-)

2:25 AM  
Anonymous keri smith said...

I like the part about the different shoes.

(and i strive to be a tourist all of the time. a gift of sorts, yes?)

k.

6:33 AM  
Blogger Expat Traveler said...

Yes being an expat or tourist does have it's pro's when you know what is going on and still can play stupid and get away with things. I'm thinking the clothes are the dead give away. I was never singled out which I loved the most, but then again, I understood the French language at least.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Sarah Mackenzie said...

It's funny. I have always enjoyed... no... loved, relished, bathed in the warm glow of being an outsider. Maybe it somehow removes you from responsibility of any kind ;-) Sadly, I don't feel that alien-ness in France, even though my french would best be described as "sucky" and, yes, here too they uncannily speak to me in English before I have opened my mouth. You don't have tatty jeans with holes in their knees, self cut hair and beat up hiking boots do you? I think that what may be marking me out.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

So this day you played the accidental tourist. :) All too often I have the feeling I stick out from the natives like the proverbial one dark sheep in a white flock. I agree with expat traveler, the clothing must have a good deal to do with our obvious foreignness. I was even once told by our neighborhood medical practitioner I "exude a large American aura", whatever that is. But I think it'll pass, given time.

Just this past summer I was walking in town with the baby and a full busload of Japanese tourists began excitedly photographing me, thinking, I assume, I was part of the local element*. I was so pleased to be mistaken for an Aachener it embarrassed me a bit, but after a couple seconds of feeling sheepish I let myself enjoy it all the same.

*or Godzilla, as tall and broad as I am... but I just don't wanna go there. I'll stick to the compliment theory. ;)

11:58 AM  
Blogger christina said...

The Tierparks are wonderful. At the one we have here the children gather chestnuts in the fall for the deer and the people who run the park hold a little festival.

I would love it sometimes if people took me for a tourist. I guess I just blend into the woodwork too well. It is the clothes, especially the shoes, and the glasses a lot of the time that single people out. I find Germans are very easy to spot when they are abroad, even if they're not being touristy simply by the way they dress.

Sometimes in Canada people will overhear my husband and me speaking German and ask where we're from and when I say "Oh,we live in Germany" they usually respond with "Wow, your English is really good! You hardly have any accent at all!" Rather than laughing hysterically and getting into the whole long, boring story, I just thank them and go on my way. :-)

3:50 PM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Thanks all of you for the comments - I was really feely a bit guilty about my silent little lie ... but seeing it through your eyes - it doesn't seem so awful at all - a bit of develish fun even.

And expat traveler, sarah & christina ... you probably have a point about the clothing. my usual cold weather outfit consists of torn levi's and rugged hiking boots topped with a variety of sweaters and my old NYC haircut which is long overdue for a trim ... However, I fear the german beauty knife so it may have to wait until spring.

Peace your way ...

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I met you today on the playground and promised to send the anglo club link I mentioned. (I'm sorry to post it here, but my new laptop/mail account and general computer ignorance didn't allow me to use the direct Email option). Their rather minimal homepage is www.angloclub.de and mentions that the get-togethers on the 22nd of Feb. and the 1st of Mar. will not take place due, of course, to carneval! I was never there myself so have absolutely no idea what these evenings are like, but I'm curious. It was a pleasure to meet you and hope to meet you again one Wednesday. Jennifer S

7:55 PM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Jennifer ... Thanks for the link - I will try to make a meeting after Karneval and before I return to New York at the end of the month ...

Hope you can figure out the email thingy.

Best ...

8:18 PM  
Blogger sandy said...

Dear R.,

you shouldn't worry too much about being a foreigner. Although I haven't been a foreigner in terms of an expat myself, I got your impressions and feelings since in the past I used people's imaginations to answer their questions to their satisfaction - so why not identifying yourself as a tourist in the bus to your advantange? When I am a tourist, I always enjoy being such.

Don't be 'ashamed' of speaking German even if your skill is just 'beginner-like'. Keep in mind that learning a foreign language can't be done in a couple of weeks, so go ahead with your lessions - and you shouldn't hesitate to use it. Being a tourist on my own, I always used to adopt some words of their language and the localized people mostly have been happy (or even sort of proud!) when I spoke some broken and presumably inproperly pronounced fragments of their language.

And, by the way, local ticket machines could be quite tricky anyway, as I have learned last year in Hamburg...

Best regards, Sandy.

10:25 PM  

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