Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Secret Germans

A little over four years ago, I moved to Germany. I am a Mayflower American with ancestors stretching back to Plymouth. I never imagined myself as an expat.

That all changed when I married a German and we had a son. We were living in Manhattan at the time, and about one year after the birth of our child my wife expressed her desire to return home. I had lived in Manhattan for most of my adult life and although I had enjoyed most of that time immensely, I could not imagine raising a child there. This feeling was only enhanced by the events of September 11, which my wife and I witnessed from our neighborhood streets in the West Village, and by the ever-sharpening political divide spreading through the country as a result of the Iraq war and the “my way or the highway” rhetoric of our President and his handlers. It was also painfully clear to us that we could never afford to upgrade from our tiny West Village apartment to anything like an apartment big enough to accommodate the three of us. That, and the certain costs of schooling, the politics, and the undeniable lure of Europe, brought us to our decision to leave.

I did not speak a word of German and I had only visited the country briefly during summer holidays. I had no idea what to expect and I was intimidated at the prospect of trying to find work, raise a child and make a home in a country about which I knew relatively little. Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up with the stereotypes of Germans as they were portrayed in films and television shows about World War Two. They seldom smiled, unless enraptured in a state of shadenfreude at the suffering of others, were often blunt to a fault and were terribly fond of ordering others around. The flip-side of these dark generalizations was the kooky-stern obtuseness of Colonel Klink from “Hogan’s Heroes.”

Armed with this vast understanding of my soon-to-be neighbors, I proceeded to stay inside our apartment for long stretches of time, venturing out only for German lessons, which were painfully difficult. I lived in a bubble for nearly two years, blocking out most of the unfamiliar sounds around me, the voices of passersby, fellow passengers on the tram, and anyone who might try to get my attention. I simply pretended I didn’t hear them.

I remember one afternoon in particular. I was sitting in a small café near our apartment, by myself, having a cup of coffee and reading. I was in full bubble mode until I heard the voice of Judy Garland coming from behind the bar. I could almost feel tiny doors inside my head opening as I took in the familiar sounds of my native tongue. It was in that instant that I realized how much I was surely missing of the world around me. These people listened to Judy Garland, I thought to myself, it might just be worth the effort to get to know them.

Hundreds of hours of German lessons later, I was able to carry on brief conversations with some of the vendors at the nearby Farmer’s Market. I may never be able to communicate with many of them, because they speak with heavy regional accents, seasoned with dialect mumbled in terse bursts. To them, I will continue to nod knowingly and point – the last defense of the speechless.

But I have been able to break through with some of the people with whom I regularly come in contact and those relationships have shown me a side of Germany, and the Germans, that I never knew existed. It isn’t a remarkable insight on my part. Speaking the language of the country in which you live is a sine qua non for assimilation – a topic on which the Germans are very keen. But it was a breakthrough for me. The bubble slowly evaporated and there I was, a local - not a foreigner, a neighbor - not a stranger. It was only then, when I began to understand the voices around me, that I started to realize that Germans have a sense of humor, they are warm and generous and yes, friendly.

I’ve come to know my neighbors, my grocer, baker, mail carrier, butcher. I recognize the faces of the taxi drivers who cue up each morning at the end of the block. We say good morning and now and then exchange brief pleasantries across the parking lot. And even the men who sit each day in the park and drink, even these men say hello to me each morning when I walk by to tend the flowers in the beds surrounding our small enclave here in Cologne. The Germans I have come to know in the last four years have been generous of their time and wisdom, have helped me in innumerable ways to navigate through this once strange place I now call home. It is a false stereotype we Americans carry around with us - as many stereotypes often are – of the stern cold German. They may be slow to warm, that I will grant you, but there is a certain wisdom in that. But once they take you in, they take you in fully, warts and all. Were I to leave this place I would miss it, but I have no plans to do so. The Germany that I have come to know is not perfect, it has its problems like any country, but the people are solid – solid and true and warm. A secret worth sharing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Garland .. yes, she is a universal language.... the power of Judy. Awesome.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous NYCtoNewHampshire said...

Great post. A nice follow-up to those of us who have been reading you when you were renting and looking for a place to settle.

As for growing up in Manhattan. I did, and I am so glad. By the time you are 18, life has thrown everything at you that it can possibly throw, and you have mastered a response while you are still resilient.

Having retired to New Hampshire, I have often thought what a stressless, carefree, protected, life these children have growing up here. That's the upside. The downside is that they are unprepared for life's trevails. They have to continue to live here as adults to minimize life's impact. Adults here are stressed and apprehensive just going for the day to Boston!

9:18 PM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

NYC to NH ...

Thank you for your comment and for reading this blog over the years.

Had the situation been different, HH might have been growing up in NYC. We still spend summers in NY and visit NYC often but choices are made.

And Cologne is not NH, or Boston for that matter, a city I know well. I love cities, can't live without them, and you make a good point about resiliency. I can only hope that experiences HH has as a child equip him well for his future, wherever he may encounter it.

12:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, HH-Dad, for this post. I'm your fan of the opposite experience here in L.A. It's nice to hear someone say something positive about Germans or Germany. In general American comments are negative or mocking about "my country"; not so much from individuals but in the media. But just yesterday someone felt compelled to tell me that Germans are really, really rude and are lousy tippers. Hmmm. How do you reply? Would they appreciate it if I said that about their compatriots or their country?
As for our growing up experiences, I think we all believe that our childhood was the best - whether it was in NYC, Cologne or New Hampshire. I think HH is a very lucky boy. He will be growing up in and with two cultures which can only broaden his horizon and will prepare him beautifully for a wide variety of experiences.
Thanks again. And please keep writing. I too have followed you on your blog for quite some time.

8:20 AM  
Anonymous NYCtoNew Hampshire said...

Just for clarification. I was simply responding to the original post - not necessarily advocating growing up in New York City which is more intense a childhood experience than any other democratic, non-war place. Boston and L. A. don't begin to compare with the stress.

For example, in NYC you are most likely attending an academically demanding private or parochial school where you can get expelled - my school expelled a student if any one grade was below 80 on your report card or your term average was below 85 - street and subway safety is always an issue, time is scheduled with after-school lessons (i.e. piano, dance, sports), weekends are scheduled with cultural events, and competitive excellence is the goal in every activity.

Mothers-to-be enroll their children in school at three-months' gestation - at around $30,000 a year currently.

And, of course, there is exposure to human depravity. You know that there are evil people - incorrigible people - not just people who are going through a phase! I could go on...

There are benefits to NYC and non-NYC childhoods. My only point was that adult life is psychologically easier after you have survived a childhood in NYC. I'm not saying that the trade-off is worth it.

Situations that upset non-childhood-NYC adults, those raised in NYC are able to resolve in a minute or two without emotion because they've faced that situation early on in life.

HH has a very caring, loving, and attentive father - the number 1 priority for a boy. HH has the best growing-up experience of all, no matter the locale. HH will be a very well prepared and adjusted adult. It's predictable.

9:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post and nicely written. But ‘assimilation’ is kind of a strong word (to my understanding).

Anyway, I think HH is lucky to be educated bilingually, and at school he'll learn yet another language.

1:13 AM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Thank you for your comment Sandy ...

I like strong words and stand by 'assimilation'in this context because I believe that is the true goal of the many programs instituted by the German government in recent years, directed not only toward the recent immigrants who are encouraged to participate but ultimately for the benefit of their children.

4:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no doubts that you like strong words, so do I.

Yet, the word ‘assimilation’ implies (to me, at least) leaving everything (‘old’) behind and redefine yourself, adopting anything given (‘new’), however unfamiliar (including religion).

Hence, have you been assimilated? As we all know, resistance is futile (that's from StarTrek, just in case ;-)).

2:28 AM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

I don’t think it means to leave everything behind from your homeland (religion, language, customs, etc…) nor does it mean that you must or will adopt anything that comes along with the new culture into which you have moved. It does mean, as I understand it, becoming more or less fluent in your adopted country, not simply with its language but also with its cultural norms in such a way and to such an extent that you can function in this new land with a certain fluidity. That you blend in yes, but not that you disappear.

5:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My bad, your definition does sound good. I think the German word ‘Assimilation’ is considered much stronger and a rather negative thing. I've looked it up in the dictionary — which I should've done in first place — and it says basically what you wrote. My apologies for that misunderstanding...

8:31 PM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Sandy ... No need to apologize - it is a good thing to question the use of particular language. I do it every day with German.
Thanks again for your comments.

2:35 AM  
Blogger Bertolt said...

I, as a german, can very much identify with what you are saying. It is true that we are a tough bunch to get in contact with, but once you do, you won't get rid of us so easily ;)

3:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! I moved to Germany just over a year ago, from Britain, and to my knowledge no-one portrays the Germans worse than the British.
The media have an obsession with dissing the Germans, basically calling them Nazi's just without using the actual word.
Some of the 'Kraut Bashing' I witness makes me ashamed to be a Brit, and I'm almost too embaressed to show my girlfriend my own country.

Although I have no job here at the moment and my German is a very slow work in progress, I still love it every day. I have an amazing girlfriend here and some amazing friends and although sometimes I consider moving back home, I think I must ride out the tough times and learn German.

It would be far too easy to go home and to live with my pessimistic native people again, so I am more than determined to stay here and to speak well with the people around me.

I love it here, and i'm sure my girl would love it in the UK too, I just wish they would break those ridiculous stereotypes!

1:37 AM  
Blogger Poet/Jones' in Germany said...

We are an American family who relocated to the Nuremberg area four years ago. The first year was very difficult, especially with the language barrier, but we now very much love it here.

My children were two and six years old when we moved here and to them this is home. In fact, we've only visited the U.S. once since we moved here.

We love the emphasis on family, the fact that Sunday is a day of rest; therefore, nothing is open, the importance of wellness of body and spirit, the ease of travel to other countries and the obvious connection with nature and the the need to protect it. We feel so fortunate to live here.

I agree with you that the key to enjoying the experience of being an expat is being open to the ways of the locals. Do not try to cling to what you know from home. You will miss out on so much if you do.

10:21 PM  
Anonymous Laurel@ExpatGermany said...

Just read this post in Expatica and loved it. I moved her 6 months ago and could relate to a lot of what you said. I think the Germans do have a bad rap that is mostly undeserved, although I have found some older German woman to be very free with sharing their thoughts.

6:36 PM  
Blogger JimM said...

It's no secret that the "never forget" mantra has had undesirable side effects--keeping the connection between the current German nation and the Third Reich alive in the minds of people everywhere.
When you realize that Germany has resurrected itself after being bombed to dust by the Americans, raped and pillaged by the Russians and torn in half for fifty years, and is now being asked to buy the worthless bonds of her European neighbors, you may begin to think more kindly of the Germans.

9:33 AM  

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