Friday, March 15, 2013

Goodnight and Iraq

Today was our St. Patrick's Day party at work, and at the same time my going-away party. I'm moving. I'm leaving the city that I've lived in for seven and a half years, leaving my job and my partner and my friends, leaving this place that has knocked me down and picked me up again so many times.

I left the party with a whimsical gift in hand, a bouquet of helium balloons, plump green foil printed with shamrocks, "GOOD LUCK!" emblazoned on the sides. I left slightly tipsy and sentimental, tramping through the snow to the tram with a dreamy smile on my lips. Squeezed into a seat with the balloons bobbing around me, coyly framing my face as if I were a leopard lowering in ferns. The tram stopped at the stadium and a group of drunk football fans clambered on board, bellowing their obnoxiouly generic songs and playfully harassing me, flicking the balloons into my face with shouts of, "Hey, anybody got a pin?" and ,"Hey, sorry! Don't worry, we're not hooligans!"

I got out a stop early for two reasons: to get away from them and because I was hungry. Wanted to stop by a kebab shop on the way home. Since Obama was elected, I've become a little less apprehensive about admitting where I'm from, a little more optimistic about having a normal social life without being plunged into the constant, painful political interrogations that I experienced from 2005-2008. I was one of the first customers when this kebab shop opened last summer, the employees were overwhelmingly gracious and friendly, heaping me with offers of sweet tea and baklava, aside from their already rock-bottom prices.

Tonight there was a different man working, a handsome man in his late thirties with glossy dark curls, his rimless glasses and black polo shirt granting him an intellectual air. I smiled apologetically as I dragged my bundle of balloons into the small shop, eying the empty meat skewers. "Do you having any fallafel left?" "Yes," the man answered, peering sceptically at my balloons. "Goo...lack? What does that say?" he asked me. "Good luck--Viel Glück," I told him. "And I'll need it!"

"Are you selling those?" he asked me.
"No, they were a present from my colleagues. I'm going away. I'm going to study again."
"Are you Turkish?" he asked me, still gazing at the balloons, now floating against the ceiling.
"Turkish?" I asked, puzzled. "Um, no, I'm not, but it's not the first time someone's asked me that. Even when I was in Turkey I was asked if I was Turkish. Why do you think people think I'm Turkish?"
"I don't know," he replied, flipping the pita break onto the grill behind the counter. "Your skin is different, you look different, you're not German. Where are you from?"
With nothing but boring ol' western European Protestant blood coursing through my veins and a near-perfect German accent, it's fairly unusual these days for me to be outed as a foreignor, especially by a fellow non-German. And with my heart full of hope and gratitude, I gave an almost-honest answer, the backpackers' standby: "I'm from Canada."

"Canada, hmph," he snorted. "Which dressing do you want? We have garlic, spicy, and herbal."
"A little bit of each, please. So, are you from Turkey?"
"Turkey! No! Thank god."
"Then where?"
"I'm from Iraq, from northern Iraq. Iraq is a wonderful country, a very rich country," he tells me with a hardened expression. "Iraq used to be the best country on earth. When I was young we had a Volkswagen, a big German car. 55 liters to fill it up. We paid $1 at the gas station. One Iraqi pound was worth 8 US dollars back then! I told a German man and he didn't believe me. But it's true. Ask any Iraqi!" I listened wordlessly, my wool cap itching against the tops of my ears.
"Then the Americans came and destroyed everything," he spat, gesticulating with the salad tongs. "Do you want olives? Peppers?"
"Yes, but no onions, please," I responded quietly.
"The Americans, Canadians, Germans, Sadam. Iraq was a wonderful country. Now it's all been destroyed."

I nodded solemnly, thinking back to the party. "I'm a teacher," I said, "I have a student from Syria." A beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated woman who was laughing with me over the picture book about outrageous Syrian lingerie that I'd brought in today to show her, photos of feather-fringed thongs and gaudy bikini tops. I thought of how we walked to the tram together yesterday with a Jewish Ukrainian friend, how they giggled as I told them about my problems in Egypt being overwhelmed with male attention, and she enthusiastically confirmed that Egyptians love full-figured women like me. Thought of how watching these two smart, stylish, warm-hearted ladies chatting happily over glasses of wine had seemed like the most natural thing, even as conflicting religious symbols dangled in glittering diamond pendants hanging from their respective necks. How these every-day, affectionate interactions had given me a glimpse of hope for humanity, fueled my gregarious mood, encouraged me to start this ill-fated conversation. "She can't go home, either. We can only hope that things will get better."

"Syria!" He shook his head regretfully. "Syria is a poor country. Palestine, Jordan, Syria are poor countries. Iraq, Iraq is a rich country. Was a rich country. And now the Americans go there and storm houses, 10 U.S. soldiers against one Iraqi woman. They rape women and then call them terrorists. An American solider shot two small Iraqi children and went to court. The punishment was ninety dollars. Ninety dollars and two small children dead! And then they say we're terrorists. If you don't believe me, look it up!"

"I'm sorry," I tell him, sceptical of his stories but wondering if the tears now rolling freely down my cheeks are enough to demonstrate my flaccid compassion. "I'm sorry. We can only hope that it will get better. I hope it gets better."

"And Americans come to Germany, too!" he continues. "What do they do here? What do they want here? Why are there Americans in this country?"

A young German woman entered the shop and ordered a fallafel, throwing puzzled glances between my wet cheeks and the bundle of balloons bobbing above me.

"I'm sorry to talk about politics, sorry to make you sad," he said, without a hint of regret, wrapping my meal in foil and tossing it into a plastic bag. "That's nine euros." Several times the actual price. "I really only have two-fifty," I told him honestly, slipping the coins into his hand. "Please remember, there are good people everywhere. Even Americans."

"Good people everywhere, but we Iraqis have to get by some how, we have to fight to survive. Enjoy your meal, and," gesturing spitefully at my balloons, "Have fun."

Sunday, May 27, 2012


„Like a shower: hot, cold, hot, cold.“

So many neuroses, obsessions, and addictions.  We have to try so hard to qualify as normal.

And worst of all is the undeserving idol—no, object of affection, bordering on mild dependency.  Whose ego is better fed?  His, no doubt.  But mine still longs for those morsels of desire, for those memorized moments of bliss.  I am what I am, and rarely apologize for it.  He even less so.  We understand each other as few others do, and yet not at all.

Who can get away with telling me what I’ve done wrong, what I’ve failed to accomplish??  Seven years, nearly to the day, I’ve lived my own life.  I rolled up the futon and stuffed my hamper full of second-hand clothes, a milk crate full of books in the ´92 Honda, and drove off to the Philadelphia unknown.  To that fabled Quaker city with so little brotherly love.  I sat with my Langescheidt pocket dictionary, a painful investment at the time, and attempted to translate the stack of documents that arrived at our row house as I cowered, sweating in my tiny, blue-carpeted room brightened by the streetlight that lit the corpse that lay there, 2 a.m., July 5, 2005.  And two months later, my parent cried at the airport, but I was too stunned, too disbelieving.  Europe.  Europe?!

But I can say, and say again: I did it!  I came to this country with my ethics, with my fearful, wounded heart full of hope and courage, with my doubt and dismay and conflicted loyalties.  And here I am!  I love and am loved and I am happy.  I am known for my integrity.  I am known for defying stereotypes.  I have been told by my students, “Your analyses are always correct—you’re my favorite.”  “I like you because you’ve lived for a long time in Germany, but you haven’t become German, you’re still yourself.”  And a simply eavesdropped, “Dobrá.”  I spent hours today with someone else’s baby in my arms.  And I’m “die Tante Kelsey” for at least two now.

And I hate how “häppie” is not “glücklich” for Germans—it’s some pathetic, tragic-comic stepbrother to true happiness.  Just try to deal with the conflicts we have in daily life, just try to live in a society more than three times larger, two times older, and 100 times as complex than this one!  And just see what kind of ironies, what contradictions arise.  Every exchange student and journalist is welcome to her own opinion.  And each will form one.  And how many will go on to tell the same old story 1000 times without remembering the audience that’s already heard it?  Or are they just hungry for more of the same?

And if I had a euro or a dollar or 100 yen or a pound for every time I’ve heard, “Es tut mir leid, aber die Amis...” or “Das ist nicht böse gemeint, aber...” I’d never have to work again.  And they live off welfare and they live off their parents.  They live off half-realized dreams and half-decent intentions.  And I do what I can.  My heart opens and closes like loose sphincter.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Germans be brave, Germans be kind

Today I read the most intelligent, concise, and sensitive advice I have yet to hear about how to deal with the burden of history when you still need to get things done.  I laughed out loud when I read the last line--"very brave - and very sensitive" could be written on my tombstone.

The article from the front page of Die Zeit (02. Feb. 2012) weekly newspaper was written by Bernd Ulrich and entitled, "Immer mit der Keule."  Here's my translation of the most pertinent excerpts, with my own emphasis added in bold:
(Und unter der englischen Übersetzung steht das deutsche Original)

"The country is gradually taking on a similar function in Europe that the USA long had for the whole world. As the force that used and sometimes abused its power, that was guilty of everything, that was expected to save everything and had to let itself be berated for how it did so. What were the Americans not impuned to? The CIA was the root of all evil, the Americans were constantly accused of imperialism.

But one thing they could never be accused of: that they sent six million Jews off to death and brought war to half the world. The very human and often justified reviling of the strongest power takes on another dimension when it comes to Germany, one that kills all discussion and serious conversation.

Particularly when as we know that Auschwitz is used for moral leverage in political conflicts, friendly non-reaction or sometimes unoffended dismissal are the most sensible responses. And then continuing the discussion about facts, about finances, or military intervention.

What to do? Ask the others to cut the Nazi crap and for godssake think of any other possible way of bitching about us Germans? Yes, we could. We could also admit that we want to be loved (that's not a bad thing), much more than the French or the British, who already love themselves. The Germans certainly can't disown themselves because of the very need for love, if for no other reason than that the others would despise us even more for it.

Finally, a certain outer coolness must be coupled with with an especially heightened historical sensitivity. Antisemitism, neo-nazi terrorism, historical oblivion, spasms of arrogance: those are the real dangers and seductions.
Now the Germans must be very brave - and very sensitive."

And the German original text:

"Allmählich bekommt das Land für Europa eine ähnliche Funktion, wie die USA lange Zeit für die ganze Welt hatten. Als jene Macht, die ihre Kraft gebrauchte, manchmal missbrauchte, die an allem schuld war, die alles retten sollte und sich dafür beschimpfen lassen musste, wie sie es tat. Was wurde den Amerikanern nicht alles Übles angedichtet, immer steckte die CIA hinter allem Bösen, stets wurden die Amerikaner des Imperialismus geziehen. Eines allerdings konnte man ihnen nie vorwerfen: dass sie sechs Millionen Juden in den Tod geschickt und die halbe Welt mit Krieg überzogen hätten. Das menschlich nachvollziehbare und oft berechtigte Schimpfen auf die je stärkste Macht bekommt im Falle der Deutschen allzu häufig eine andere, eine alle Diskussionen und jedes ernsthafte Gespräch abtötende Dimension.

Zumal man ja weiß, dass Auschwitz als moralischer Hebel in politischen Konflikten eingesetzt wird. Freundliche Unbeeindrucktheit, zuweilen unbeleidigte Zurückweisung sind also die vernünftigsten Reaktionen. Und dann das Weiterdiskutieren über die Sachfragen, über Finanzen oder Militärintervention.

Was soll man nun tun? Die anderen bitten, mit diesem Nazi-Mist aufzuhören, uns Deutsche bitte schön in jeder nur erdenklichen Form zu beschimpfen außer in dieser? Ja, das könnte man. Die Deutschen könnten auch zugeben, dass sie geliebt werden wollen (das ist nichts Schlimmes), viel mehr als Franzosen oder Briten, die sich schon selbst ganz gut lieben. Allerdings können sich die Deutschen vor lauter Liebesbedürftigkeit nicht selbst verleugnen, schon weil die anderen sie dann nur noch mehr verachten würden.

Schließlich muss sich eine gewisse Coolness nach außen mit besonders hoher historischer Sensibilität nach innen verbinden. Antisemitismus, Neonazi-Terror, Geschichtsvergessenheit, Anfälle von Arroganz - das sind die wirklichen Gefahren und Verführungen.

Die Deutschen müssen jetzt sehr tapfer sein - und sehr sensibel."

No doubt that this advice would also serve Americans well "going forward."

"There were never any 'good old days'
They are today, they are tomorrow
It's just a stupid thing we say
Cursing tomorrow with sorrow."

--Gogol Bordello

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Berlin to Brussels to Brooklyn and Back--I

March 24, 2009

First flight with Brussels Airlines, Berlin to Brussels.  Whenever I fly via Paris, the plane is always crowded with ebullient French businessmen in immaculate suits with pastel shirts and shiny leather shoes.  This plane to Brussels is more gender-mixed but all in dour black suits and red ties and wool overcoats: the quieter, stiffly formal diplomatic class.  Somehow foregoing the warm purring of Dutch, stuttering Flemish sounds like an English cassette tape played backwards.  The plane starts with the dry noises of the diplomats snapping open their newspapers.  A broadly curving rainbow stretches from the wing of our plane down toward the flat farmlands of Belgium. 

The Brussels airport is dull, but efficient.  Terminal B seems populated almost exclusively by Indians, the women swishing around in sherbet-colored saris, and Chassidim, with one older gentleman with his boxy black hat wrapped in protective plastic wrap, other young men wearing their dangling beards and baggy black-and-white duds with a dash of hip-hop swagger.  Some of the saried women have draped their diaphanous garb over bulky acrylic sweaters and yanked stocking caps smurf-style over their long black braids.  Several are wearing wool socks stuffed into plastic sandals, with silver bell-wreathed anklets jingling over their thick legs.  A shrivelled, dark-skinned woman in a rustically embroidered skirt and bright red ski cap clashing with her sparkly bubble-gum pink sweater squats deep on her haunches in the middle of the boarding line and looks how I feel: tired, and slightly irritated.  

A surprising discovery at the Brussels Airport

Flying to New York City with the amusingly obviously named Jet Airlines, on the plane, the “PUSH” signs on the bathroom doors and all other instructions are in English and Hindi.  I am undoubtedly an ethnic minority on this plane, and it feels good.  Even the few pale-blond Belgian families are a touch too exotic.  Only the Chassidim look something like me.  My desperation for sensory stimulus, for cultural color, is being gradually fulfilled.  The wine-red upholstery has a soothing effect, my mind eases out of the steel-and-glass austerity of Germany.  I take hot towels and candy from the flight attendant dressed in an elegant sunflower-yellow tunic.  The candy is a gummy brown ball, and my western pallet, attuned to the bland salt-and-pepper-parsley flavours of Europe struggles to process the blast of sweet-sour-spicy seeping from the tarry lump.
Instructions on Jet Airways plane

The large, rustically dressed group sits in the middle of the plane.  As I squeeze by their seats, an elderly woman looks up, her face dripping with bits of gold: a large stud on the side of her nose, and a beaded pendant hanging from an additional golden septum ring.  Hours later, there, to the right of the plane is the northeast coast of the US, looking pale and grey on the horizon and stretching form the sea in a long line familiar from countless maps, now real—the US looking dry and barren at the end of winter.  I stare out at the land: even the most barren islands inexplicably have wide grids etched into their muddy-looking surfaces.  The East Coast, the most populated region of the country, shows no signs of city centers, monumental plazas, or organic development.  The houses are all neatly spaced around straight lanes and cul-de-sacs.

The immigration officers at JFK Airport, cold and efficient with societal authority represented in a rainbow of Americanized nationalities: a young Puerto Rican woman, middle-aged Asian man, dark-skinned descendants of Africa, their orders all tinged with the East Coast twang.  I wonder how much was intentional and how much was a product of the natural hiring process.  Keepers of the guard, watchdogs to these gates of paradise.  Where is this cold-hearted, money-hungry America that the Europeans are always telling me about?  Waiting in line, the news blathers on in the background: more panic and outrage about teen pregnancy and the morning after pill.  The report could’ve been straight out of my high school days.  Ach, puritan America.  Some things never change. 

The airport is buzzing with Jewish families, and for some reason it makes me incredibly happy.  Some in Quaker-like hats and corkscrew Yeshiva-locks, others sporting just a subtle kippah, all these signs of orthodoxy and exclusion that cheer me with their very defiance of fate.  I’ve sometimes heard awkward comments in Germany along the lines of, “But there are no Jews anymore,” and the next time I will think of this moment, being a minority among minorities, bonded to them by our equally pale skin and chestnut-colored hair and my understanding of their Yiddish.  In contrast to the men’s snappy two-toned suites, the Orthodox women look dowdy, most of them wearing ankle-length skirts with tennis shoes.  The Muslims do it better, I find myself thinking.  All the Turkish and Lebanese fashionistas strutting around Europe should fly over to the US for some workshops on the East Coast, before moving on to help the Pentecostals in the Midwest.

Some guys I met in New York

Friday, November 11, 2011

Egypt II

January 28th, 2010

Alf-Laila Wa-Laila--A Thousand and One Nights Hotel

After the bus ride from the airport, I checked in in the elegant lobby and surrendered my suitcase to a bellboy in a beige tunic. The hotel's English name is "1,001 Nights," and it's modeled after the great palace of Bagdad--except this version is of pastel stucco.  Another bellboy then escorted me to my room.  On the way, we passed one the hotel courtyards with a small dessert garden in the middle, a patch of rocks and and cacti complete with two live tortoises--who were most definitely fucking in plain view under the Egyptian sun.  The bellboy turned to me and shrugged.  "Wenn Schildkröte Liebe machen will, macht Schildkröte Liebe,"--"When turtle wants to make love, turtle makes love," he said with a smile.

As if that were an omen for my trip, I got hit on for the first time here just a few seconds after emerging from my hotel room.  Standing in the hall on the polished mosaic floor, I immediately caught an employee's eye: "First day here?  You are very beautiful!"  I couldn't help smirking, amazed that it took so little time.  "Oh no, no, no, not that already," I told him playfully, "Just tell me how to get to the beach."

And there, another revelation: So, it's true.  Of all the world's styles of tourism--the Japanese herds of immaculately dressed retirees, oohing and ahhing and clicking away in khaki-colored sunhats, the sunburnt Americans traipsing around the Yucatan in miniskirts and cutoff shorts, dashing young backpackers armed with charm and nonchalance--nothing quite prepared me for the true European "fly-and-flop" vacation, this bizarrely multi-yet-very-mono-cultural experience of middle-class dowdiness polished with an exquisite 3rd-world veneer.  As I try to place this special brand of unattractiveness, it dawns on me: in America, these people don't go abroad.  But if they did, would they also have blaring techno music playing at the poolside all day?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How to Ruin a Party

Whatever post-Soviet East Germans accuse West Germans of being--greedy, selfish, spoiled, inconsiderate, capitalistic, cold-hearted, cut-throat, superficial, insincere, manipulative--they assume was a result of decades of American influence.  "Es kommt alles rüber, alles rüber!"--"It all comes over (to us)!" they grumble, shaking their heads, whether the topic is reality TV, investment banking, foods full of evil "chemicals," or the celebration of Halloween and Valentine's Day.  No matter how many times I try to explain that investment banking was invented in Europe, that America's Halloween and Valentine's Day traditions come from Britain, that chemicals are in everything--it's also called matter, and that it's their own fault if they're dumb enough to watch reality TV, no one seems convinced.

There may well be some grain of truth to their accusations, and I am not an apologist, but there are certain things that press my buttons.  West Germans grumble about the same things, and also love to hate America, but their assumptions are usually more tempered by personal experience.  Or not.

Your country raised you
Your country fed you
And just like any other country
It will break you
On front line send you
Tax the hell out of you
And just like any other country
It will lock you up you!

What are all these countries
How did they appear?
Who cut up the cake?
Who brought up all this gear?
Did it have to do anything
With its people's will?
I don't know, I don't know
I don't know my dear...

--Gogol Bordello

July 24, 2011

I woke up this morning with my left eye glued shut, my upper eyelid stuck to the skin below with a paste of dried tears.  I did it again last night, the faux pas of trying to defend myself and my background and people who I know and love and respect.

We were at the birthday party of a Brazilian friend, a handsome quadrilingual charmer.  His apartment was packed with an international crowd: Italians, Brazilians, Argentinians, Germans.  And me.  I met a German guy for the first time, Christian, an artsy emo-type Wessie studying design in Leipzig.  He was friendly, funny, and well-traveled.  He told me he was in a long-distance relationship with an American girl from Missouri, and I was thrilled to find a mid-western connection, which triggered our switch from German to English.  He'd actually heard of my home town, and we compared past travels: "St. Louis?  Yeah, last year," "And Kansas City?  For real?!"  It was refreshing to speak English at a party (even my German friends who have great English rarely speak it with me), and nice to talk naturally, not some stilted ESL-English or British/Euro mash-up.  I finally seemed to have found someone who knew where I was coming from.

And then the moment came: He stepped on a landmine.

Of all of those points of difference, of all of those things I miss about my home country, it's the lack of plain old interpersonal politeness and decency towards others here that makes me want to pack up my bags and never come back.  Of considerate interaction with strangers in various circumstances: shopping, traveling, standing in line, walking down the street.  To an American (or many other nationals) visiting or living here, it sometimes seems like everyone is mentally ill.  You get snapped and shouted at for things you never dreamed of doing, courteous questions are repelled by a steely glare.  It's not uncommon to be greeted with, "What do you want?" or "You better not ask me about ...!" when you've walked into a shop.  You could say that it's my midwestern upbringing that makes me so sensitive, but I've visited New York City twice since moving here, and melted each time into a puddle of relieved euphoria at the New Yorkers' soothing politeness and friendliness.  Part of my job is teaching "small talk."  For all too many Germans (and, arguably, other northern-Europeans), making chit-chat is an unpleasant burden, a pointless task that they'd rather avoid.  First meetings between strangers are considered naturally awkward, and any attempt to make them less so (in the absence of alcohol, that is) are often dismissed as disingenuous.  Which, translated to international situations, can make them look like sociopaths.

"I miss that American friendliness," I confessed to Christian, thinking he'd know what I meant.  And in response, a line I'd heard a hundred times before: "Yeah, sure, an American will be your best friend for five minutes."

"Best friend for five minutes."  That's often the line that Germans use to sum up interactions with Americans.  Germans take relationships seriously, they carefully evaluate who they let into their hearts, and are fiercely loyal to the in-group, dismissive to the out-group.  For them, a classic culture shock situation is when they visit American friends in the US, go to a public place, and the Americans strike up a short conversation with other random Americans.  The Germans ask their friends, "How do you know those people?" and the American's answer is, "I don't."  And the Germans are astonished that it's possible to talk so long, so comfortably, with a complete stranger.

Having heard it before, I try to take a diplomatic stance, despite my shock at hearing it from him.  "It's a shame you say that," I tell Christian, "I really think that's a misunderstanding!"  I give an example from my last visit home.  I bought some clothes at Target, and while ringing up the items, Sheniqua The Cashier said, "Oh, that's such a pretty dress.  You know, my daughter loves clothes.  She always wants more and more and more.  But I ain't got that kinda money!"  Me: "Oh yeah, how old is she?"  Cashier: "She four, but she already knows what cash is!"  Me: "Oh, I know it's not easy!  Good luck with her.  Have a nice day."

"Yeah," Christian says sarcastically, "But that's totally fake.  You don't care about her."

"Maybe I do, maybe I don't!" I say.  "But we're talking, we're communicating.  We're two different people expressing ourselves and sharing something, and that conversation would never even happen here.  Is that so bad?"

"Oh, come on!" is his answer, "You don't give a fuck about Sheniqua."

"Maybe I do, maybe I don't," I repeat, "That's not your call.  That's up to me.  Is it really so hard to be nice to other people?  I hate when Germans say this 'best friends for five minutes' crap.  We just have a different way of interacting with people.  And it's not always strategic or self-interested or empty.  Maybe it is sometimes, but it doesn't have to be."  I feel the muscles knotting in my neck as the tension rises.  I'm so disappointed.  "And to be honest, really, I just hate hearing the same thing again and again and again.  It's upsetting.  It kind of makes me want to slap you."

"So slap me!" he said, with aggressive flippancy.

I thought for only a split second, of my cramped muscles, of my misunderstood sentiments.

"Ok."  *smack*

I hit him with my right hand, not too hard, but a nice classic slap, full finger-on-cheek impact with a satisfyingly plosive sound.  And suddenly, he looks utterly shocked, his hand to his cheek, his voice a half-octave higher than before.

"You slapped me!  Why did you slap me?!?"

"Because you told me to!" is my equally indignant answer.  "You sit here and tell me how superficial we Americans are, that we never mean what we say.  But I mean what I say.  I slapped you to prove that I'm not as full of shit as you say we are.  You say we don't mean what we say, but when I say I want to slap you, I want to slap you!  I really do!"

Within an instant, I'm crying, still sitting on a wooden chair at Rodrigo's kitchen table, Christian on the chair right in front of me, the other party guests milling around us, raising curious eyebrows at the confusion in the corner of the room.  And I'm crying to prove a point, more than anything else, to defy that "superficial" label.  And Christian's crying now, too, on the verge of hysteria.

"Why are you crying?!  I like you!  You're wonderful!  I didn't want to hurt you!  My own girlfriend is an American!"

"I liked you, too," I say tearfully, "I'm crying because I've heard this all before, and sooner or later it's just too much.  I can deal with it 99 times, but the 100th time I snap.  Because when you're alone and far from home and constantly have to hear this stuff, are constantly misunderstood, it hurts.  And at some point it's just too much."

My watchful and long-suffering German boyfriend, witness to many such outbursts, kisses the top of my head.  Our Brazilian host is holding my slapping hand, talking to me in German with his elastic accent and purring "r"s. "Hey, warum weinst du? Ich werde auch immer falsch verstanden! Glaubst du, ich mag das? Immer hören, Brasilianer können nur Party, Party, Party, Frauen sind alle Prostituierten. Glaubst du, ich mag das?"--"Why are you crying? I'm always misunderstood, too! You think I like it? Always hearing Brazilians can only party, party, party, all women are prostitutes.  You think I like it?"

"How can you say you're alone?" the slappee asks, continuing in German.  "Look, you have an adoring boyfriend who takes care of you.  You're not alone."

"I was alone when I first came here," I said, "I met him later.  I had to figure out everything for myself.  And I've had to fight for everything I have."  My voice cracks.  "I've had to fight.  You might think it's easy, but it's not.  You have to be tough to live abroad."

My boyfriend looks on, unperturbed.  He's used to my fits.  "It's true," he says calmly, "She's had to fight.  It's really not that easy."

 "But it's made you stronger!" Christian and Rodrigo chime in.

"Of course it's made me stronger," I say, "But sometimes it's just too much.  Too much to deal with, too much misunderstanding."

I go to the bathroom and let out a few girlish sobs, splash my face with cold water.  My eyes are blood red.  After a few minutes, I try to collect my dignity anyway, ready to go back out, to go on having a good time.  But when I emerge, everyone's disappeared.  I ruined the party.  Cleared the room.

Just three people are left in the kitchen: my boyfriend, our host, and another man, sitting at the table talking quietly with Rodrigo in Portuguese.  The mood is overcast.  "Ach ja," Rodrigo sighs, "Es ist wirklich nicht so einfach"--"It's really not that easy"--he says, without looking up.  He himself had managed to get Portuguese citizenship through his mother before moving to Germany, and is now living alone, waiting for his German girlfriend to finish an internship in London, planning their upcoming move to Sao Paulo.  I ask, and the other man tells me he's also from Portugal.

I nod resignedly. "At least you're EU citizens," I say softly.  "That makes it all a little easier."

"I know I'm too naive," I continue, "Too idealistic.  But I really work to help everyone in the world understand each other just a little bit better."  I turn my gaze to the three men.  "Look at us, we're all white.  Between Europe and the Americas, it shouldn't be so different.  But sometimes it is.  The poor Arabs, the Africans, the Persians--imagine what they go through.  Why do we always misunderstand each other?"

I feel bad about ruining the party.  Why can't I lighten up?  Why do I have to take everything so seriously?  Rodrigo's look is distant.  I don't know if he's irritated, tired, or just thinking.

We gather up our stuff, and at the door, Rodrigo hugs us goodbye.  "Listen, when it gets bad, call me," he says.  "We'll talk."

Outside, it was already morning, full of sunrise prettiness and chirping birds.  My boyfriend ushered me cheerfully into the tram, and I almost instantly fell asleep in his protective arm.  He shook me gently at the right stop, and we stumbled home and into bed.  I woke up this morning to overcast skies, fully clothed, with my eyelid stuck to my cheek.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why East Germany Needs More Psychotherapists

Last Monday, October 3, was a national holiday: the 21st German Unity Day.  Tomorrow is the Festival of Lights here in Leipzig, commemorating the Peaceful Revolution that took place here, when tens of thousands of people met every Monday evening in 1989, holding candles and marching through the city under the barrels of military sharpshooters.

The local people of my generation don't have too much to say about that time: they were kids, life was great.  Free schools, free daycare, a low crime rate, plenty of milk and potatoes and lard, and maybe even an orange or a banana once or twice a year.  There were lots of sports activities, summer camps, and "solidarity field trips" to other Eastern bloc countries  Their parents sheltered them from the harsher realities of their Soviet-controlled society.

I work as an ESL teacher for adults.  Most of my students are around my parents' age, in their 40s and 50s, old enough to have been much more directly effected by the political turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s.  From the most confident career woman to the most neurotic welfare recipient, every single one of them has a story.

I met a new student today, Silke, who introduced herself as a psychotherapist.  My first thought was, "It's about time!"  I work with people from all walks of life, but this was my first psychotherapist.  My mind wandered to the staggering, bulbous-nosed alcoholics loitering outside the grocery stores, draining their 3rd flask of schnapps at 11 a.m., the people who scream at me on the street when they're cycling on the wrong side, the cashiers who shove my groceries right off the counter as soon as they've been scanned, the occassional students who burst into tears and start muttering accusations at themselves the second they forget a vocabulary word.  "Yes, PLEASE, get these people some therapy!"

As it turned out, Silke herself had an astonishing story.  In the early 1980s, she was a professional handball player and a member of the East German national women's team.  The members of the GDR's prestigious sports teams were among the elite allowed to travel extensively abroad--except for her.  Her sister had an Austrian boyfriend--"Westbeziehung," connections to the West--which was enough to place the whole family, even a professional athlete, under a travel ban to Western countries.  After her sports career, she started university, studying to be a teacher.  That lasted three years, until her sister applied to emmigrate to West Germany.  That was enough to get Silke kicked out of school--the state couldn't tolerate a turncoat in the family of a future educator.  She was sent to work in a chemical factory for the next five years, until the revolution came in the fall of 1989.  After studying again to be a kindergarten teacher in the 1990s, having 3 children of her own, and later going back to university for a third time, she eventually found her way to psychotherapy.

After 6 years of hearing such stories every day, I'm as convinced as anyone that, "Not everything was bad."  I would love it if there were as few housewives in the West as in the East, if every college and factory still had a free daycare attached to it, and if "International Women's Day" were still a public holiday (which, btw, Men's Day is).  But there's no question that the emotional strain of living in an authoritarian society and the struggle with changing paradigms, on top of the even older trauma of two world wars, mass murder, and population transfer, have left indelible scars.

For some, their lack of English skills is just another symbol of their "otherness" in German society: whereas most West Germans of that generation speak English fairly fluently, the vast majority of East Germans had 10 years of obligatory Russian lessons in school, of which they now remember about 5 words.  If they were lucky enough to have learned any English, it was sometimes taught with intentionally poor-quality instruction. Even if they still have ties to Russia, English is now the "in" language of big business there, as well.  As a passionate linguist, I'd be the last person to claim that "everybody should just learn English."  But in my current role, I can empower people to integrate into their own society, improve their careers, broaden their horizons, and live out unfulfilled dreams.  And that's a great feeling.