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.