My earliest brush with German culture that I can remember came at the tender age of four, waking up with a jolt to the not-so-dulcet-tones of Wagnerian opera my father blared out as he sped down a Norwegian motorway approaching my Mormor’s Trondheim home.
Blinking blearily into the darkness as a crowd of familiar wooden homes shone out like small, toytown specks in the distance, I watched them grow as we entered that most bombastic passage of the Ring of Nibelung-en that almost everyone knows; the repetitive bit with all the trumpets and that incessant percussion work that could easily be confused with the soundtrack to Star Wars.
Wagner stalked and irritated through my childhood years and into my teens, adored as he was in our household, so much so that I have countless memories of having to train myself to sit still with my arms rooted at my sides, for hours on end, enduring tortuously prolonged spectacles aptly described in Mark Twain’s famous travel letter on Bayreuth’s opera festival that’s still held in Wagner’s honour.
“In "Parsifal" there is a hermit named Gurnemanz who stands on the stage in one spot and practices by the hour, while first one and then another character of the cast endures what he can of it and then retires to die”.
German teachers in later years commended my quiet, steady classroom manner, although occasionally complained that I had a tendency to space out for long stretches of time and not take in anything they had said. I believe I might have Wagner to thank for this early age filtering system that helped assuage a great deal of boredom, while keeping minimal feelings hurt.
I am not German. We moved to Germany, Rhineland's tranquil Bonn, when I was around six, the second of several relocations I lived through. My earliest memory here is of being shouted at by a German neighbour whose words I could not understand, for the transgression that was walking into his overgrown garden in pursuit of a lost boomerang.
We all know that children pick up languages easier than adults do. Because they don’t really care about sounding silly. They just want to make friends.
Now, of course, on my return to this corner of the world, all I can think of when I speak are of declension tables, and how none of any of the long lists of verb agreements I’d poured over time and again at university, have retained a sustainable spot in my brain.
I’m less fluent now than I was then, because I’m convinced I sound like an idiot, now. What’s more, the musculature of my mouth, my throat, is off. Each time I speak, I strain, physically, for words that used to come so naturally.
I speak, and write a lot, about experiences of place and belonging, when one is somewhat bereft of a homeland.
While I was in Hong Kong, a city wedged between worlds, I found myself in many conversations about life and identity as a third-culture-kid, and what it meant to have ties to everywhere, and nowhere at all.
Third-culture-kids are shape-shifters. That’s our magic. But some say we’re shallow, lacking roots. Gatsby-like in our capacity to reinvent ourselves to mould into our environments, or whatever idea it is we have in our minds, of how we should be. What we should run away from.
It’s a useful quality. It’s also exhausting.
My flatmate is also not German, and has recently moved here from her native Oregon, having, up until now, lived in the U.S. her whole life.
She seems baffled by the interchangeability of words like ‘muesli’ and ‘granola,’ - I see nothing to write home about. I’m used to the meanings of words flitting about depending on where you go.
She asks me if I’ve heard of sour cream. I tell her it’s the most Hungarian food in the world. She wonders how Europeans have yet to stock their stores with brown sugar. I agree that her homemade syrup is the best I’ve ever tasted.
She understands ovens, the superiority of a meal cooked with real butter, and the concept of nesting objects in smaller versions of themselves, like babushka dolls.
I miss the microwave I used to make my pancakes in.
She’s been learning German, while I’ve been trying to review what I know, feeling everyday a little bit less of a stranger to these words I used to know. Just as I’ve grown used to her intolerance for mess, she’s grown used to my imposing poetry on her.
Here’s a poem we looked at together, found in one of the few books that have made it with me from one continent, and back again, that is Rolf Dieter Brinkmann’s Standphotos. It’s a nice collection of playful, proto-Pop Literature poems published between 1962 and 1970, before the poet's untimely death in 1975.
Vogel am leeren Winterhimmel
da ist ein leerer Raum
treibt er weg
It’s a simple, visual poem that describes the spectacle of a bird crossing a barren space. It writes that the image is a cliche from which the bird, or the viewer, can’t take flight, and which takes both nowhere. It’s a nice one to read aloud, and has a good rhythm to it. It’s quite meta, of course. But it’s also pretty, in its own, morose way.
There’s a weariness to this poem. It captures that feeling we get when we think we’ve seen it all. Which is kind of how I felt when I first left Europe, leaving for a city so remote that when I Googled it, only one image came up.
Now that I’ve returned, I think, maybe it’s just a matter of how it is you are looking at something.
A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.