Sunday, December 16, 2007

Music Together

Yesterday HH and I performed our first duet.

He played his red, blue and yellow auto-piano and I accompanied on guitar. We both contributed our voices to “Jingle Bells” and “Oh Tannenbaum” along with a room of 19 four-year-old German children. It was priceless.

We had rehearsed during the week leading up to our debut. It was a little tricky convincing HH that he shouldn’t play his piano on pieces we hadn’t rehearsed in advance, but he eventually got it. He sat there patiently with the piano on his lap for the first few songs that Papa played solo, but he was ready when I turned to him and nodded that it was time to begin. He was seated right next to me on a small wooden chair, the brightly colored piano in his lap, his finger resting on the keyboard and his eyes taking in the room. The children were all watching HH – and when the moment came he was wonderful. He remembered what to do and when and performed like a pro – I thought I would explode or implode or something equally dramatic because it was just too wonderful.

Later that night at the dinner table he didn’t talk much about the performance but he wasn’t finished singing. After eating and mangling his hamburger he broke into a version of one of his favorite German tunes, something about bells, but the version he performed was not the one from the song-book, it was the kindergarten version and the lyrics were just a little naughty - with Oma shaking her booty – and he had us in stitches. He followed that with another German song – one traditionally sung at Karneval time here in Cologne. He has been singing it quite a bit lately and when I asked his mother what it was about she informed me that he was singing in Kölsch. Kölsch? I can’t even speak German well and my little boy is singing in the local dialect? I asked him what the words meant and he had to think for a moment. He translated the lyrics into German and then into English – that’s how his brain is working these days. English has taken a deep back-seat to German and is now his second language. That’s not a big surprise really, we live in Germany, he attends a German kindergarten and his mother speaks German with him, but it doesn’t lessen the impact of the development.

He still looks like a little American boy to me, a New Yorker no less, with his soft, round cheeks and study frame – he’s going to be a big boy HH. And we’ve started playing basketball together: What could be more American than that? Baseball maybe, but he isn’t ready for baseball, or perhaps more to the point, I’m not quite ready for bats and hardballs flying around the apartment. Basketball was his idea. He was the one who coaxed me onto the court. When I asked him why he wanted to play he told me that he had seen another father and son playing and he thought it looked like fun. While we played he was laughing so hard I was sure he would pee in his pants. It doesn’t take much for him to pee in his pants after all, but he enjoyed himself and so did I.

These little things, these activities we are beginning to share are a huge leap from building Lego worlds and reading together – both of which I still love and look forward to – but singing and basketball – that’s playing Papa can really sink his teeth into. I suppose I’m beginning to feel a little in competition with the culture here – not an encounter in which I expect to prevail necessarily – but I know I am the only one who can fight this particular fight. If I had to guess, I would say that HH is about 60% German and 40% American – that’s an acceptable balance and I’d like to keep it that way. We live in Germany, it’s our home, it’s the language of the street and the kindergarten and at least half of the dinner table. And I don’t want to confuse the little guy, but at the same time I don’t want America to be a foreign country to him, I don’t want his American roots to become vestigial elements of his being that slowly fade into deep memory. If possible, I’d love for HH to be able to embrace and incorporate the best of both worlds into his sense of self.

This isn’t a program I’ve consciously designed but it is something that has moved from the back of my mind to the front and each time I hear his English regress while his Kölsch improves, I am reminded that his education requires my conscious attention and time. It’s a balancing act – like everything else in life – and the next few years will be decisive. So we’ll keep singing and dribbling and building Lego worlds and reading out loud in English and in the course of holding on to what is American in my boy – I’ll have fun just holding on.


Blogger d. chedwick bryant said...

I think you are a wonderful role model for your son, your singing and playing guitar makes it easier for him to perform, and your speaking English with him wil help his English, you give him a New York element to his European life. This is something you can be sure he will comment on when he is an adult, and have fond memories of.

5:03 PM  
Blogger d. chedwick bryant said...

It might be good to read books like "Paddle to the Sea" to him--books about North America--there are plenty out there.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Ralph said...

My two daughters, 14 and 20 respectively, speak English but not flawlessly and with a German accent. It was just the case that, when they were children, I was working full-time and commuting to and from Bonn, and their mother and grandmother played a more significant part in raising them. Moreover, my wife and I speak German as a rule and English as the exception. Occasionally I tried to swim against the linguistic current in our household, but a visit from a relative or a phone call could quickly plunge us back into that German stream.

In the end, though, it was my responsibility as father and native speaker to teach my children my own language, so I can only encourage you and your wife to speak English with your son. He will thank you for it later on.

I'm sure you realize all that, but the going later on may be even rougher than you think it is right now.

As for the Colognian (Kölsch) dialect, the Low German dialect spoken by my parents-in-law is very similar. I like the sound of it better than standard German, and always encouraged my partents-in-law to speak Platt with my children, but regrettably it didn't take hold.

The greater issue is, of course, not language but cultural identity. But that's a big subject....

In the end "ett kütt wie ett kütt."

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Hiberno said...

Just read your entry posted a few days ago, where you were wondering who reads your blog... I enjoy reading your blog, as my husband and I live in a similiar situation to yours; we live in Germany, actually not far from Cologne, I am German, my hubby is Irish, and we're expecting our first child in early May next year. I've followed your blog for a while now, and your thoughts about Germany and your description of HH's development fascinate me. And your writing is so poetic, it's a pleasure to read.

9:48 PM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

dcb ... Thanks, as always, for any suggestions for new books, and for your thoughts.

ralph ... It will be what it will be ...but I would be less that true to myself if I didn't give it my best. Thanks for your comment, and for stopping in. Hope to see you again.

hiberno ... Thanks for your thoughtful comment and all the best with your growing family.

6:10 AM  
Blogger lou said...

What a beautiful image in my mind, the two of you performing in all seriousness! Bravo HH and his Dad!

7:47 AM  
Blogger christina said...

Sweet post.

I think if you give bilingual/bicultural children a solid foundation when they're young, making every effort to be with them as much as possible and transmit the "other" culture as well and as enthusistically as you can, it doesn't necessarily have to become more difficult as they get older. For us it's a given that our children speak both languages equally well and identify with my roots.

You're fighting the good fight - keep it up. :-)

11:24 PM  
Anonymous Des said...

Cannot help with English books yet and I need to concentrate on the German input with my old childhood books including Astrid Lindgren books, which do not seem to be around in the UK apart from Pippi Longstocking,looking forward to Petterson & Findus, Augsburger Puppenkiste and maybe some Dutch with Nijntje (Miffy)if I can manage to sneak it into the house behind my partner's back.

60/40 % ratio sounds brilliant to me! Hope to manage similarly....
As we plan to move to different countries in the future we decided to establish a mother language, a father language + with whatever environmental language.

hiberno...Irish/German kids rock - I speak from experience ;-)

2:25 AM  

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