Monthly Archives: August 2013

I don’t like beer, and Germans eat too much pork.

(An aside…before I continue with the three challenges in my “new” life…)

This is what Europe looks like, right?

Le Bonhomme, a quaint village in the Alsace-Lorraine area of France
Le Bonhomme, a quaint village in the Alsace-Lorraine area of France
Haut-Koenigsbourg, a restored castle in the Alsace-Lorraine area of France
Haut-Koenigsbourg, a restored castle in Alsace-Lorraine, France

Growing up, I always had a longing to go to Europe.  The fairy tales, the castles, the misty green landscape, Shakespeare, the romantic accents…all enticed me.  However, Germany, though certainly a country in Europe, never intrigued me much.  Before visiting Germany for the first time my main associations with this country were the following:

  • beer
  • more beer, served by buxom beer maids
  • Lederhosen (short leather pants with H-shaped suspenders worn by yodelling sorts)
  • sausage
  • Nazis, Hitler, concentration camps, WWI, WWII, and other evils
  • an unelegant language
  • Birkenstocks

That’s about it.  The only thing I liked on the list were Birkenstocks.

Well, I have learned a few things since moving to Germany:

  1. Love of beer is not a prerequisite to living here (although a water fountain or a simple glass of tap water is harder to come by in public places than I’d like).
  2. I have never been forced to attend Oktoberfest (a world-renowned party that actually begins in September), which I assume is why I have managed to avoid buxom beer maids.
  3. I have never knowingly met a person wearing Lederhosen (although a local grocery store currently has an advertisement for a pair for only 80 Euros!  Is that a good deal?).
  4. One can develop an affinity for sausage–if one does not dwell on origins and details of production.
  5. Unfortunately, history cannot be reversed and corrected, and evil still exists–and will continue to threaten till the Lion and Lamb can coexist in peace.  Until then, Nazis and Punks (sometimes only physically distinguishable by the color of their shoelaces) duke it out on the streets.  Hitler is dead, but concentration camps are a stark reminder of the horrors he and his followers unleashed on innocent victims (lest we forget).  The World Wars have left their marks all over this land in bombed-out ruins and haunting memorials.  And again, we must remember so we can try to keep such hatred, such evil, from becoming so powerful.  (Last year, Ange and I watched a documentary of Hitler’s secretary reminiscing.  It seems she and others involved were extremely ignorant and blinded to the evil they were perpetrating–not only on those they fought against, but also on their own countrymen and women–in delusional world Hitler concocted.  I am thankful for the Berlin Jewish Museum and Holocaust Memorial, places that attempt to show the madness and confusion of the tragedy through their architecture and form while educating us about the historical facts.)
  6. (Please, see my “Schneckenhaus: Snailhouse” post regarding the language.)
  7. My feet are still very much at home in Birkenstocks, and here they cost less!

Yes, I have learned a few things about my preconceptions.  And, as it is with most prejudices, I pre-judged based on lack of information.  After personal experience with this particular European country, I can truthfully say that Germany has much more to offer than we Americans often realize.  For instance,

  • bakeries with hearty bread and delectable cakes in almost every town
  • a very varied countryside–carefully preserved (unlike much of the USA’s exploited natural areas; Germany is smaller so they must protect the gifts they have more responsibly than we think we need to in our excess of space from sea to shining sea)
  • a culturally-rich capitol city (Berlin, we have heard, has more pubs than London, more museums than Paris, and more bridges than Venice!  Plus, Berlin has a very low cost of living for a metropolis.  Rather inviting, no?)
  • Spreewälder pickles!
  • a satisfying health care system (Sometimes I wonder if we were supposed to move to Germany to avoid becoming bankrupt in the States after my personal series of hospital visits, unusual medical tests, and THREE C-sections!  Never a word from our insurance; never an extra penny paid for my treatments!  Wunderbar!)
  • Milka chocolate bars
  • and more…which will most likely be revealed as I continue to reflect.

Ah, yes…and I have only just begun to explore.  The journey continues.  I am still here, and the dawn of each new day brings a fresh start, new experiences, new perspectives.

Haut-Koenigsburg, France, castle

“The true journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

~ Marcel Proust

 

schneckenhaus: snailhouse

snail shell, child's handHave you ever moved somewhere without having a home to move into?  Just picked up and ventured forth like Abram and Sarai before they received new names.  Knowing it’s right, but not knowing exactly why–except you have to do it because it is right. 

We had it much easier than the aging Abram and Sarai.  We were young, adventurous, and–perhaps most importantly–we had family to stay with until we found our own home.  It wasn’t the first time I had moved blindly.  After finishing graduate school, I began my new job without a home of my own.  The school secretary, generous, compassionate Lorraine invited me into her home until I found the right place, requesting only that I pass the kindness forward one day.  And in Brandenburg, Germany, we had kindness shown us again when Ange’s folks welcomed us into their home until something worked out…something that took longer than anyone thought or wished.  Thankfully, our patience was only tried by expectations while we waited on fairly comfortable terms compared with years of wandering deserts.

Still, a wait it was.  Until a home of our own could be, we settled in with my in-laws.  After hearing stereotypical nightmares about actual in-laws from actual friends, I am extremely grateful to have a pair I get along with swimmingly.  Relationships were not a hardship.  There were, however, three things that made my new life challenging.  One will suffice for now:  communication.

  1. Language.  Obviously.  I knew only a few basic words and phrases in German.  Communication is SO important!  Sure, I could speak English with my American husband and his parents, but almost everyone else…Well, let me just say that the former East Germany put more emphasis on Russian than English.  In Berlin it was, and is, the case that almost everyone you run into will want to show you how great their English is–even if you insist on speaking German!  They just keep rolling out their beautiful display of English language learned in schools that often put an emphasis on it from day one.  Out here in the boonies, on the other hand, there still pervades a certain ignorance among some folks.  Consider the following:

My blonde-haired, blue-eyed sister-in-law and I (pale as a peeled pear) were browsing a local second-hand store when we overheard a conversation between a few men.  The youngest complained to the others about those Turkish immigrants, meaning Rose and myself.  Since Turkish immigration is a hot topic in Germany (in a similar way to the Hispanic/Latino immigration debate in the States), one would think it might be rather obvious to this young man that we did not look at all Turkish, nor were we speaking Turkish.  The Turkish language resembles our American English, um, not at all.  To the trained ear, I suppose?

So…I felt rather lonely.  I would wander through the aisles of grocery stores, taking my time, familiarizing myself with typical names and prices.  The most important word–I thought–to know in this particular situation was “Entschuldigung,” meaning “Excuse me.”  I soon discovered, however, that Germans do not easily take offense at a casual bump, a too-close-encounter into “American-sized” personal space, or an intrusion into their line of vision (as in my shopping cart and I pass between a woman and the shelf of canned oily fish she is perusing).  I, having been raised mostly in the South and Midwest, learned to be a lady of good manners, oozing pleases and thank yous, excuse mes and sorries, at the slightest possible requirement.  Such requirements are rather rare in Brandenburg, Germany.

Browsing Aldi, Lidl, or any other staple, discount German grocery store did not allow for very many verbal interactions.  Now and then, however, miscommunication or lack of communication caused embarrassing moments in the checkout line.  One spicy, petite cashier with a big pile of blonde curls about chewed my head off for trying to request a cardboard box to put my groceries in; I had seen my mother-in-law do so every time she shopped.  How was I to know Aldi had instated a new regulation?  Or had I simply not said what I thought I had?  Another time, I was physically led out the door of a store as other customers stared, and to this day I have no idea why.  All I did was ask for a little paper time-keeper thingy you have to put in your windshield to show how long you’ve parked in certain parking spaces; yeah, I still don’t know what it’s called.  Which is probably why they threw me out.  I’ve never gone back to that store.

Sitting around the stately old dining room table at Angelo’s folks’, I could carry on a conversation in English, but their family had lived in Germany for so many years that German had become their main mode of communication.  Especially when the foster children joined the gathering, the room filled with laughter I could not honestly share because, not only did I not get the punchline, I had no clue what led up to it.  It felt like my ears strained to hear when the volume was adequate; my brain ached to separate individual words from a conglomerate of garble and try to unscramble them into some kind of meaning.  After awhile, I would silently slip outside, sit on the step, and talk to cats.

At first, German sounds harsh.  To me, in the beginning, a casual talk between two friends might sound like the typical Nazi guard yelling orders at the prisoners in all those movies.  Whenever I had heard one-sided phone conversations before I knew any German at all, I assumed there was always an argument in the works.

Ange always said I’d come to appreciate some aspects of the German language; it was hard to believe him at first, but he was right.  Sometimes the matter-of-fact way two, three, name a number of words strung together into one spaceless phrase of a word astonishes, yet practically states a precise meaning.

Gemeindemitgliederversammlung, for instance.  What an insane word!  One word made up of three different words combined to be “church member gathering”.  But it says exactly what it is and avoids spaces, which simply clutter the page, don’t you think?

German even has cute words.  Don’t believe me?  Schnecke.  Pronounced “shnekka”.  Snail.  We wouldn’t dream of saying, “Snail, dear, would you please pass the salt?”  But Germans use snail as a term of endearment because the word is just so darned cute.  (By the way, I realize the irony of a snail getting near salt.  The example refers to a person being called “Snail” like “Sweetie” or “Honey”.  Just so we’re on the same page.)

And then there are those words that you just throw around like “genau” (pronounced “guh-now”…”exactly”.  “Genau” just jumps from the back to the front of the tongue and fits so many situations.  Just like this.  Genau.

Ah, but even though I have lived in Germany for almost ten years, I have yet to master this grammatically nightmarish language!  Die, der, or das?  Which article should I use when?  THE!  Such a wondrously simple article, applicable in every instance!  No, I fear I shall never master the German articles.  Not only do different nouns receive a different article depending on the noun’s prescribed femininity, masculinity, or neutrality, but the article changes again if applied to the same noun used grammatically differently.  For example, the article before a noun used as a subject may very well change into a different article when placed before the same noun used as an object.  Even though I was an English major, I will never master grammar in German.  I’m pretty sure I don’t even want to.  Which makes me empathize more with my many former students who loathed grammar lessons.

No, I am not fluent.  I never will be.  My 8-year-old corrects my German.  But I have learned to place my verb accurately most of the time–often seemingly illogically, at the end of the sentence–oh, the suspense!  I have also come to appreciate the language (sans articles), and–most importantly–I have learned to communicate.

The world is a friendlier place when understanding takes place.

 

a chilly welcome

When we arrived in Germany, the month was September (spelled the same in both English and German–how friendly!).  I was used to September being a lovely transition month…from summer to autumn.  When we stepped out of the airport into the Berlin chill, though, it reminded me more of an early November day.  We actually had to build a fire in the stove at Angelo’s parents’ home to stay warm.  Since then, I have come to regard September in Germany as an off month.  Sure, there will be some lovely days, but the typical German September in my recollection is uncomfortably cool and moist, which must be rather awkward for the pubescent month since it is often rivalled by big brother October who tends to appear with more pleasant temps and scenes such as these…

_MG_5875

But September 2003 introduced me to a seeping chill that penetrates the bones and sends one to a cozy, firelit corner to drink tea, read a book, and tuck that afghan tighter ’round the hunched shoulders.

As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away, —
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature, spending with herself
Sequestered afternoon.

The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone, —
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.

And thus, without a wing,
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.

~ Emily Dickinson, XLV of Part 2 (Nature)

exodus

_MG_1053

In less than a month, I will have lived in Germany for ten years.  So often time seems to fly by, but when I think about those last months in the U.S. of A.  . . .

  • when I unabashedly (although involuntarily) wept in front of my students, their parents, and my fellow teachers…boy, was I a mess!  (I HATE crying in front of people because my nose and eyes get all red;  so unattractive.)  I guess I really was sad to be leaving them.
  • when we organized our first and (so far) last yard sale on our lovely log cabin’s screened-in porch, and I, in a desperate attempt to get rid of most of our belongings, sold everything at the 1982 prices I seemed to recall from my parents’ yard sales…(I mean, where do you buy ANYthing for a quarter these days?  That was probably my average price.  I think I was a bit loco at that stage of our moving process.  At least we had happy customers!)
  • when my most handy of husbands built a crate that was approximately a cubic meter in size (3x3x4 feet), and we crammed all of our most treasured possessions into said scrawny quarters for a long journey over the Atlantic without us.  Dear friend, Lash, joined my Angelo in putting his back into the effort to haul it out on a pitiful pallet hand-truck, down a long and bumpy driveway, then down an even longer and bumpier alley, and onto a delivery truck waiting at the main road–with a less than spectacular freight lift up to the trailer.  (I’m sure our sweet landlords were grateful when it finally left their garage.  They were so generous to us, Cade who spoke beautifully slow Southern and offered her citrus-tinged sweet tea, and Tom all white haired with a knowing twinkle in his eye.  After working with my dear husband on building the screened-in porch out back of their treasured, two-century-old log cabin, Tom commented on how Ange might make some mistakes, but he always figured out how to fix them.  I loved the delicate Forget-me-nots sprinkled amongst Cade’s blooms; they were so special to her, something from her father once-upon-a-time.  They hosted a group of 20-somethings for a Bible study in their refined, pink parlor, and one evening–after some heated debate–Tom told us, “I knew better than to get involved with your generation.”  That same parlor hosted our families as we gathered for a pre-wedding time of prayer and blessing.  My sister-in-law-best-friend-Maid-of-Honor, Rose, and I slept in their guest bedroom the night before the hot July wedding, and the first wedding pictures of the day were taken on their staircase and in their garden.  What blessings, Tom and Cade.  They even let Ange sleep in their basement when he came to visit me.  And, lo and behold, there he stayed until we married and he moved into that fantastic cabin with me.)
  • when every single nook and cranny of my “Lily” white car became the home to every other single thing we had to take with us that didn’t fit in the crate.  And Ange and I drove around 20,000 miles (30,000 kilometers) from our first home in Asheville’s gentle mountains to visit all the relatives and friends we could manage to see before flying across the ocean for who knew how long for who knew what reasons.  It was a grand road trip fueled by Wendy’s Frosties (unavailable in Germany) and surely worthy of Steinbeck’s treatment.  From Florida’s Spanish Moss panhandle, up along the East Coast to the rainbow houses along Charleston’s shore, with a special detour on the ferry out to the sliver of an island called Ocracoke on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, to D.C. to chill with one of our favorite friends who happened to be studying one of my least favorite things at the time (parasites!), and up to NY to sample the lush green and waterfalls and good food of Graham & Amy’s Cornell.  Then we veered left to go back to our roots, mine not so distant, Ange’s folks’ further back.  The midwest, heartland, breadbasket, flat, boring-to-drive-through-unless there’s a thunderstorm or sunrise/set prairies with their amber waves.  More precious time with family.  We put in a hardwood floor there.  And we journeyed out to the rugged Colorado Rockies for a camping adventure with my folks where Ange caught fish for us to eat around the campfire.  Oh, there was much more!  A wedding!  Chicago swing dancing and jazz!  Singing along to “Puff, the Magic Dragon” with Peter, Paul & Mary (musical childhood memories) in concert!  Hugging all my grandparents!  Reminiscing with my Eddy B gals from college!  Before we left, people warned us that a lengthy road trip might be rough on a young marriage–stuck in the car mile after mile with the same person.  No problem.  And, although we honestly did not see the irony, appropriately, we read Leon Uris’s hefty novel, Exodus, as we drove. 
  • when we wound up back East in Philly at Angelo’s brother & sister-in-law’s place, we discovered we didn’t even have room in our flight luggage for what we still had in tow.  So a box we’ve never retrieved stayed there, and we soon found ourselves in a NY airport on 9/11, two years after the horrific events had occured.  It was a quiet day to travel.

In less than a month, I will have lived in Germany for ten years.  So often time seems to fly by, but when I think about those last months in the U.S. of A. … Well, right now those memories seem like an age rather than a decade ago.  I suppose it’s because I’ve experienced so many different things since then; in a way, I changed worlds, and in the process, I think this new world–the “Old World”–has changed me, for better and for worse._MG_7633_1