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.