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.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Arrival in Egypt

2009-2010 were intense years when I was stretched too thin, trying (unsuccessfully) to scrape together money for a master's program, frantically applying for scholarships (unsuccessfully), and taking a full course load in Japanese Studies at the University of Leipzig, all while maintaining my usual teaching schedule.  A typical day consisted of waking up at 6:30 a.m., studying til I left for class at 8:00, starting to teach at 2 p.m., and getting home around 9:30 p.m. to study again until around 1.  My shoulders were stiff and my joints ached.  I needed a vacation. 

In the previous years I'd tried several times to visit Muslim countries: while in Andalucia, I wanted to take the bus across Gibraltar to Morocco--but my German friends had forgotten their passports, not needing them within the EU.  A friend in Damascus invited me for a visit--but the Syrian embassy in Berlin ignored my multiple visa requests until that friend moved to Canada.  I had another invitation from a friend in Dubai--the day I planned to book the ticket she e-mailed me saying that the police had banned guests in her apartment building (a residence for women only) and had cordoned off the place because someone there had been arrested for prostitution--"We could try bribing the guards...," but I wasn't going to risk spending a week in $300/night hotels! So, I tried to think of the Arabic country to get into...Egypt?  I was a nerdy little hobby Egyptologist as a kid, but never thought I'd have a chance to go there--until I realized that it's a popular destination for European tourists.  Totally doable.  Not wanting to push my luck as a woman traveling alone, and really just needing to relax, I decided to break my own DIY travel policy and booked a package week at a delightfully kitchy hotel on the Red Sea.

At the Hurghada airport, charter planes brimming with lower-to-middle-class European tourists arrive every minute, dumping their load into impossibly crowded arrival hall, a sea of sun-seekers surging like a tide toward the exit.  An Egyptian travel agency employee, shouting out clients' names through the chaos, hustled me over to a booth where the tourist visa was plastered in my passport--in all of the info about Egypt I'd read, it was supposed to cost 10 USD, on the sticker itself was written "$15," but they charged €20.  Hmph.  No time to ask questions, I was sent back toward the passport control and swept away again.  In this mass, just slightly less overwhelming than a Tokyo subway car at rush hour, I soaked up the incessant babble around me: Russian, German, French, Arabic, scratchy Swiss German, and felt very aware of being the only American, and surely the only one traveling alone.  My nerves piqued as the crowd pushed me closer and closer to the glass booth with the police officer inside--what if they didn't let me in?  What if the guard decided to berate me about my country's foreign policy?  Would he be as offended as I was by the cartoonish new US passport format, with garishly patriotic pictures on every page, even ending with the moon on the back cover?  What if all that money, all that happy anticipation, were swept away?  By the time I reached the booth, my heart was in my throat.  I tried to smile politely as I slid my passport across the desk.  The officer took it and glared at the dark blue cover.  "American?!"  I nodded apprehensively.  His stamp thudded against the page, and he broke into a broad smile.  "Welcome to America!" he declared, handing back my passport.

In the baggage claim area, the orange digital signs over the conveyer belts with the names of the departure points were in Arabic only, and the belts weren't moving anyway; the suitcases were lined up all around on the dusty floor.  Venturing toward the bathrooms, I saw printed signs taped all along the walls, declaring "NO TIPPING" in about 20 different languages.  In the ladies' room, one of these signs was hanging directly behind a group of bored-looking local women, holding out their palms and calling to the guests in Arabic.  After closing the stall door behind me, I realized something was missing, but a slender brown hand shot under the door, offering me a handfull of toilet paper.  And when I emerged, the same hand asked me for money.

Searching for Roots at the Devil's Hammer--Part II

I set out on this adventure with my former roommate, Katha, herself from a village in the area.  We'd started with nothing but the name of my ancestor's village of birth, Seidwitz.  Other clues were provided by the letter of recommendation written by his former employer. It was written and signed by a woman named Margarethe Orttung on the 4th of March, 1840 in a place called Teufelhammer--Devil's Hammer.  The ornate old German handwriting had been transcribed by my grandfather's translator incorrectly as "Teufelskammer"--"Devil's Chamber."  After asking Katha's relatives and various locals whose doors we knocked on on a Saturday afternoon, we finally discovered the correct name, and that it was a part of a village called Wirbenz, about a ten minute drive from Seidwitz.

Teufelhammer in 1904
Teufelhammer in 2009
By the time Katha, her parents and I pulled up by the house, the elderly couple was already standing outside.  We parked and got out, they waited patiently for us to approach the house.  "Do you know of a woman named Margarethe Orttung?" I ask the man.  "Sure, she was my great-grandmother," he answered cheerfully.

They invited us inside and led the four of us into their kitchen.  They hauled out all of their genealogical records.  They explained that Margarthe had run the farm and watermill alone for a number of years after her husband died.  They showed us the farm's book of tax records from nearly the whole the 19th century and turned to a page written by Margarethe, also in 1840.

                        The Orttung Family's Steuerbuch and my family's the Dienstbotenbuch Margarethe's handwriting

The Old Millhouse

 We were also told that the name of the place is a relic of very ancient times.  Franconia, like Saxony, is full of places with old Slavic names, predating Germanic settlement in these regions--places with endings like -itz and -enz.  The mill where my not-quite-sure-how-many-greats-grandfather worked already existed in those times, as a blacksmith's workshop--at a time when people who worked with metal were still thought to have mysterious powers.  They could transform and create.  It was these otherworldly abilities, the association with the gods of fire, and the sound of the tools gave that the place its lasting name.

Searching for Roots at the Devil's Hammer--Part I

I'd lived in Leizpig for a year already when my grandfather took me into his office one Christmas in Indiana.  "Here, you can have this," he told me, and handed me an old book.  An incredibly old book, by American standards--the Dienstbotenbuch of one of my ancestors.  It later led me to a tiny village in Upper Franconia, now the Protestant northeastern region of Bavaria.

May 29, 2009

The Fichtelgebirge

In the soft lavender light of sundown, even the sterile white windmills look stately against the sky, with cloud-spots casting a glowing pink over the silvery rolling green wheat fields and meadows brushed with a whisper of yellow blossoms, dotted with lupins and daisies.  We're crossing the Brücke der deutschen Einheit, (Bridge of German Unity) the Inner-deutschen Grenze (Inner-German Border) between Thuringia and Bavaria, where even the gas stations with their searingly bright signs give an undeserved impression of nobility, plotted solidly between the ubiquitous forests: tall, dark, densely green, spindly-thin trunks filtering the sunset, accented with the occasional heart-breakingly elegant birch.

The sky darkens to purple-grey over the Fichtelgebirge (literally "Spruce Mountains"), rolling hills topped with bristly green pine ridges.  It's here in the homeland of many of my ancestors, and certainly the close vincinity of where one of them was born and lived, that I begin to understand what "American freedom" means and has meant.  The Bavarian countryside is self-consciously picturesque, an intentional geography of modulated interaction between human and land--this as viewed from the Autobahn that Hitler built.  This land, densely inhabited for thousands of years, is still lush and bountiful, the forests thick and vibrant, shocks of trees scattered generously between the crops.  The windmills turn slowly and silently alongside the road and on the horizon.  


I take note, for the thousanth time, of the utter difference in residential planning here: the middle-class family still has a duplex with a tiny, but elegant front garden, the houses are clustered tightly together.  Homes are crammed within 'city' limits, no matter how small the community.  They don't dribble out into the outskirts and scatter themselves among the trees, or stand lonesome on the edge of the wheat fields.  Aside from the feudal village culture of days gone by and the much-cited protection from dangerous outsiders that surrounded and threatened their borders, what kind of legislative, regulatory, and bureaucratic measures has it taken to maintain this landscape into the present day?  

An American thinks: I want my house and my yard and my driveway and--maybe even these days--my farm, and I deserve to build them whereever I please.  My beautiful wife and my wholesome kids deserve it, and once we build it we've earned the right to do what we please with it, too.  And the cities swell and spill into the outskirts, small towns are loosely planned and trail off into ugly grids of featureless farmland, and everywhere fields and forests give way to McMansions of various shapes and sizes.  But liberating from this almost stifling, preened and overwatched manipulations of the European building bureaucrats--who, in all their years of collective wisdom, might know what they're doing.

The Pox

Day 6.  It feels worse than it looks.
...or so we thought, until the itching began:

June 14, 2011
“Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite!”

Until a couple of years ago, the brutal reality of these traditional parting words seemed as unlikely to me as the darker interpretations of “Rock-a-bye Baby” or “Ring Around the Rosie”--just as no modern mother would even dream of sticking her baby's cradle in the branches of a tree, bed bugs seemed as mythically distant as the Black Death, just a nursery-rhyme relic of a by-gone era.  Even when I heard news of a new generation of bed bugs rising from the grave and the persisting outbreak in New York City, even infesting the apartments of some of my closest friends, I hardly thought it would ever hit me personally.

On Day 3 of trying to cheerfully ignore my discomfort and expecting it to fade away, it finally dawned on me that it really could be bedbugs.  Thanks to the Italian train drivers' strike we'd arrived back in Leipzig early in the morning 8 hours behind schedule and completely exhausted, stripped to our skivvies, and crashed on the pull-out futon, leaving our unopened suitcases in the middle of the floor.  I do an image google and find page after page of pics that look just like the long lines of delicate raised spots traced across my shoulders.  Googling deeper, page after page of bedbug advice: identification, treatment, prevention, etc.  Reading in English, I notice that many of the texts contain some odd turns of phrase and a quirky sense of humor that makes me curious about the author: I scroll down to the bottom of the text: “By Abeer Gupta”  Next page: “By Padmal Malhotra.”  Next: “By Indrajit Bhatnagar.”  India.  Of course India.  That's why I've never been to India: I'm a wuss. I'd never make it out alive. 

Flashback to the hostel in Verona and the check-in card that kept sticking to the bottom of my foot in the dorm room where I stayed.  Someone had lost their check-in card and it kept ending up on the floor in front of my bed.  The name on the card: Kalyani Banerji.  But Kalyani Banerji was gone, there was a different girl in the top bunk every night, Flemish, Canadian, Japanese, but where was Kalyani, and was she a walking bed bug delivery service? 

I call my friend Laura in NYC.  “Your bed bugs came from an infestation directly in your apartment, right?” I ask.  “They were in the whole building?”  “No, no,” she answers, “I got them in my suitcase from a luggage rack.  The plane had just come back from India.”  I sprang into panicked action.  “Don't worry,” she said.  “Just put everything in the dryer on the hottest setting.”  “Germans don't have dryers,” I answered, “They think they're wasteful and decadent.”  “So, you seriously can't find somebody who has a dryer?”   My mind whizzed through a list of possible candidates, and I heaved a deep sigh,“I think it'd take at least a week, and I need to act faster than that.  Even if I found a laundromat, I'd have to wait another two days until the end of the 4-day Pentacost weekend, and I don't exactly want to try calling everyone I know and asking to use their place to de-infest my stuff.”  I quickly convert the highest setting on my washing machine from Celsius to Fahrenheit--90°C = 194°F--and call my mom, a hospital manager in the states with some bed bug experience of her own.  “Anything over 100°F should do the trick,” she says.  “You could even tie everything up in trashbags and leave it on the roof to heat up for a few days.”  I glance out the window at our neighbors's steeply pitched roof, a mirror image of our own, and realize that's not an option.

36 hours and 5 steamy loads of laundry later, it's still a public holiday in Germany and everything is still closed.  I've already been to the Notdienstapotheke (emergency pharmacy, open when the others aren’t) and found little-to-no relief from the antihistimine and very weak hydrocortisone cream they'd sent me home with.  My boyfriend is starting to itch, too, with bumps identical to mine.  After days of calling me a hypocondriac, he starts boasting of his “solidarity spots.”  The last night we'd stayed in the hostel I'd met his new roommate, a good-looking guy--named Raja.  It's Day 5 for me, and our apartment looks like that of a careless cokehead, a thin film of coarse, white dust covers every surface.  Some of it is baking soda, some baking power (when I'd run out of soda), some chopped up aspirin tablets.  Following the home remedies recommended online, I'd mixed each of these products into a paste and smeared them on my skin.  They all offered a mild degree of relief (although the baking powder fizzed like crazy and quickly formed itself into little mini-icebergs, which I stubbornly crushed against the welts), until they crumbled away onto the carpet, sofa, coffee table, drying laundry, etc.

Around 1 a.m. on Tuesday, Day 6, the thought of waiting another 7 hours to see my GP when her practice opens at 8 a.m. makes want to hack my arms off.  Feverish fantasies of an itch-free, armless life float through my mind. I pace around the rooms, splashing cold water on my skin, wrapping myself in frozen dish towels, wimpering in desperation.  As I try to get to sleep I start to realize that the spots are growing and spreading—my jaw line itches, my earlobe, my knuckles.  My arms and shoulders look like the rind of a baked ham.  I imagine taking a cab to the emergency room, arguing with the nurses to let me in, forking over the extra holiday fee, sitting for unbearable hours in a waiting area doubling as a drunk tank, only to finally be seen by an overworked ER doc who's used to stitching up hands sliced open in barroom brawls and setting bones cracked in moped accidents, but doesn't have a clue about mysterious rashes.

At the end of a sleepless night, I dress at dawn and pace around some more until 7 a.m. when I walk to my GP's office around the corner.  I know I'm too early, but I don't know what else to do with myself.  I stand directly in front of the praxis door, bracing my burning arms against my chest and trying not to think about the new spots on my face.  By 8:30 I've been referred to a specialist across town and sent off with a note to get out of work for the rest of the week.

Waiting at the dermatologist's office, the sight of my own reflection in the bathroom mirror makes me burst into tears of pure shock and misery: I look like a 16-century Franciscan's illustration of a Native American dying of smallpox.  I imagine a tilda-shaped codex speech bubble painted in red brushstroke—what's the Aztec word for “MOAN...!”?  There are four new pea-sized lumps on my right cheekbone alone.  I ache with both self-pity and flaccid post-colonial compassion—back in those infectious days, bed bugs were the least of a person's problems.  I oughtta suck it up.  But all around me in the waiting room the other patients are cheerfully anticipating their varicose vein and cellulite treatments, brochures for cosmetic dermabrasion and electrolysis smile back at me in blond perfection while my whole body continues to burn and swell.  What the fuck.

I finally go to the nurse's desk and make a scene, pacing and scratching and begging her for something to smear on myself while I wait my turn.  My voice is weak and hoarse from agony and lack of sleep, I can barely keep from sobbing.  I'm politely ushered into the blood work room, where I sit alone for another 45 minutes.  A nurse come in and draws three vials of my blood; I'm too exhausted to ask her what it's for.  The doctor comes in and takes a quick look at me, smoldering in my chair.  “Do you have hay fever?” she asks.  “No,” I sniffle meekly, “Just crying.”  “There, there,” she says soothingly, “It's only Nesselsucht,” and disappears again.  I've heard the term Nesselsucht before and have a vague idea of what it is, but it's not a comforting thought.  I try to translate it in my head...Nettle-searching?  Nettle-addiction?  My body's addicted to nettles?  I've never been stung by a nettle that made me look like a medical textbook freak.  Hours later I check the dictionary and find the translation I should've figured out already: hives.  And really fucking bad ones, at that.

I'm dressed in the only things I could find that were soft, loose, and lightweight, easy to remove, and not among the clothes I'd had with me on vacation (which are now all boiled and quarrantined in plastic bags).  I'd taken off my cardigan for the bloodwork and can't stand to pull it on again, my arms and shoulders are bare outside my tank top.  The glass door to the room is propped open and nurses and other patients come in and out to pick up medications from the fridge.  I watch their stunned expressions as they try not to stare at my blistery skin.  Once the doctor sees me I'm diagnosed with a severe allergic reaction to...hmm...bed bugs, perhaps?  I take my prescriptions to be filled at the pharmacy downstairs, and the young woman behind the counter says she recognizes my characteristic welts from her travels to India.  “Oh ja, I've had those, too,” she says.  “Don't worry, they go away... eventually.”

With that small comfort I go home and plant myself on the couch again.  The news reports of the nuclear referendum in Italy and Berlusconi's continuing shenanigans make my skin crawl—as if Berlusconi hadn't always made my skin crawl already.  A glance at the binding of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice on my bookshelf gives the title a horrific new significance—it was just after we'd come back from a day trip to Venice last Thursday that the rash started, innocuously enough, and now I feel like death.  Through my itchy delirium I regret that I can't go back to work until next week, if not later.  I was looking forward to seeing my students and colleagues, to being relaxed and happy and full of funny anecdotes about our adventures in Italy.  A week of empty days at home yawns before me.  With two cortisone creams, two cortisone tablets, and an antihistamine keeping the itching down to a slightly more bearable level, and with the doctor's reassurance that I'm not contagious—even if I look lethal--I decide to go the library and find some books and DVDs to keep me distracted. 

I don one of the few long-sleeved items I own to cover the multitude of now fingerprint-sized welts, and thank whatever-it-is-out-there-that-I-should-thank that we're having a relatively cool summer.  Walking down the street, feeling the heat rising from my wounds and incubating under my sweater, I dream of somewhere cold and clean, rivers of mountain water, somewhere known for the Alps...Wait, I was just there...that's how this whole thing started!  Fuck!!!  My mind ricochets off opposites with a universal revulsion toward places starting with “I”: Italy, India, Indonesia, Illinois.  Even home-sweet-homes fail to comfort—Iwate Prefecture, in northeast Japan, where I spent a semester abroad: earthquake, fire, tsunami, radiation...*scratch scratch scratch*   Indiana: upcoming visit in August, hot, muggy, buggy, the image of me in my best friend's wedding, decked out in formal wear, leperous skin peeking out from a sweetheart neckline in photo after photo.  I can't even stand to wear a bra right now--what if there's crinoline involved?  Silent groan...*scratch scratch scratch*

At the library, the selection is not easy.  The mere sight of  The Bollywood Fanbook sends tortured shivers down my spine. The same goes for Tuscan Cooking.  Not to mention The Pope and Lord of the Flies.  I'm usually a sucker for historical fiction in exotic locales, stories of trials and tribulations, but I'm not in the mood for desert oases or Middle Age tales today.  Just the thought of an illuminated painting or a renaissance palace reminds me of an eloquent German metaphor I picked up recently: “Man kann auch Läuse und Flöhe haben”--“It's possible to have both lice and fleas.”  No thanks, bed bugs are enough for me.

Next stop is the drugstore, where I can finally buy some jumbo-sized garbage bags to quarrantine our suitcases and suffocate any stowaway bugs, now that the holiday weekend is over and the shops are open again.  A seductive glance at the jewellery rack in the store is interrupted by shadowy threats of a nickel allergy; I turn on my heels and head straight to the check-out counter.  Swerving around strolling shoppers on the way home I fantasize about having a maid to run my errands for me, to cook and clean and leave me sprawled on the couch ready to receive pampering.  But who has that kind of money?  Who has a maid?  Other than my Nepali friend, Mona, of course, with the family cook in Kathmandu who runs their household...wouldn't that be nice...a Nepal...wait—Nepal?  They have bed bugs, too! NO!!!!  Nepal...Naples...Napoli...I pass a sign for an Italian vegetable market...Italy...bed bugs...NOOOO!!!

When I get home, my not-quite-equally-suffering boyfriend greets me at the door and proudly announces that he's prepared dinner: rice with homemade apple chutney.  For him.  I've never liked chutney.  But he made something for me, too: pizza.

The above is a true story.  Names have been changed to protect the possibly guilty.  The author is aware that bed bugs can turn up just about anywhere and that many travel accommodations all over the world and in all price classes are infested and is not pointing any fingers.  But again, this is a true story.

First Night in Villa Francescatti

After several years of mostly separate vacations, my partner and I wanted to finally have a romantic trip together in some cheesily romantic place that we could manage to afford.  We headed off from central Germany by train for a week in Verona, Italy...unfortunately without reservations.

 June 7, 2011

 In Verona, safe and sound in a clean, comfy bed.  Silence.  Only the soft rain falling through the trees of the elegant garden outside the window, the glow of the city lights pale grey-peach toned through the leaves.  Flashback to half a day earlier: Hot and damp, umbrella in hand, we rolled our bags clacking over cobblestones and uneven marble pavement on the off-chance that this “youth hostel” on the map was correctly labelled and willing to affordably host us.  And then the relief and awe: a “Yes” to our inquiry and the gradually unfolding gorgeousness of this place—an old palace.  Beyond the very basic reception room and common area we found the wrought iron staircase, fragments of centuries-old adornment—painting of faux marble and optical illusions of building blocks on the plaster walls.  The extensive gardens with fountains and statues.  Lovely.

The Last Shall Be First

This is my first-ever post, after years of casually mulling over the idea of starting a blog.  It started its life as a message to a concerned Brazilian-German friend who'd unintentionally offended me, but also managed to sum-up a lot of my thoughts from the last six years as an American in Europe.

How can people be so heartless
How can people be so cruel
Easy to be hard
Easy to be cold

And especially people
Who care about strangers
Who care about evil
And social injustice
Do you only
Care about the bleeding crowd?
How about a needing friend?
I need a friend.


As much as I'd like to think of myself as being "above" my nationality, it would be blind of me to try to deny that it has an effect on who I am. And naive as it may be, I'm still not cynical enough to take a "fuck it all" approach because, like all identity issues, it's personal and social and undefinable and fluid, but it doesn't go away, and it strikes me as immature to pretend like it doesn't matter--even though I still think, "Fuck your nationalstaatliches Denken" is one of the coolest bumper stickers I've ever seen! Fact is that the cross-cultural interactions we have leave lasting impressions that, on a larger, collective level, also have an undeniable "trickle-up" influence on big-picture stuff like politics, which can then trickle back down into our daily lives (war, embargos, immigration policy, me not being allowed to go to Cuba, etc.). And vice-versa. A little abstract, I know, but I always think, well, if I can't change that politics stuff, I can at least try to bring in a little more mutual respect on a person-to-person level.

The thing about Germans being wonderful friends once you get to know them is certainly true, and is one of the first things that "Germany hands" learn when they're on their way here. And I appreciate it. It's one of the things at the top of the "good things about Germany" list that I recite to all the Americans who can't understand why I'd want to live with all these horrible people.

The thing about being caught between two cultures is that you're constantly put in a position where you have to take shit from both sides. When really, the people who've been through it themselves eventually learn that unloading all that baggage on an individual person is just killing the messenger, so to speak, and it doesn't make anyone's lives better. And the chances are pretty damn good that that individual has already come to the same conclusions him/herself.

What I find completely incomprehensible is the enormous gap between Germans' theoretical ideas about "doing the right thing," which they are not at all afraid of expressing, pontificating on, and preaching to others (sometimes complete with finger-shaking), and the way they actually treat strangers in daily life. Like you said, they just don't give a shit. Like all those brilliant ideas about abolishing the death penalty and implementing green energy policies and buying fair trade products have nothing to do with very simple, basic consideration for the person standing in front of you. I have to listen to the long list of grievances about all the things America does wrong, AND get shitty service in the shops, AND get yelled at by strangers when I'm doing nothing wrong. It is an absolute mystery to me what (if anything) goes through some people's minds--it's like the "trained reflex to blame someone else" that you mentioned often seems like the most prominent national trait. Germans think of themselves as rational people, but that is simply not rational behaviour.

And let me tell you, it's not good for my health. I feel like a 60-year-old man sometimes, worrying about my blood pressure.