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 …
Pudding is a good thing ... Posted by Picasa