Wednesday, July 5, 2017


I'm back! After living most of my life in the United States the English language has come to dominate my thinking and feeling. Nevertheless German words and expressions creep into my night and day dreams, my working hours and to do projects like unannounced guests. They linger, overstay their welcome and force me to stop what I'm doing to contemplate my strange bilingual existence. Americans get the ball rolling and Germans get the stone rolling. It's easy to get a ball rolling; a gust of wind might help and we won't even have to push it. But to get a stone rolling takes effort. In Germany nothing comes easy, everything takes effort. Is that our national character? Is that's why we need to get a stone rolling, why we can't make it easy for ourselves by using a ball? The stone versus ball debate occupies my head, I don't get anything done and forty-five minutes later I'm not smarter than before. There's an ease speaking and writing in English that I don't experience speaking and writing in German. The English language allows me to have more of a life, be more than what I once was. But like an old lover the German language won't allow me to abandon it. Look at me, it screams, I'm stronger, more precise, more forceful. You know it too.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Loss Beyond Words

In the air, on my way from Berlin to New York I finish Monika Maron’s “Ach Glueck” somewhere above Newfoundland. The sparse and forlorn prose, the author’s questions about happiness in old age and the role of fate in our lives, speak to me. Like the protagonist, I am on a transatlantic flight headed into a new scary life, a future much different from how I envisioned it months ago. Maron’s protagonist is leaving behind her husband in Berlin. My husband died and left me behind.
I take out my note book to add to my bloated to-do list. English words appear on the paper. I am surprised. After more than five weeks reading, speaking and writing German, my brain has switched over to English. I wasn’t aware of it. I take it as a good sign.
On April 4 I brought Roman to the emergency room of Mount Sinai Hospital. Language was my refuge for the twenty- three terrifying days that followed. I woke up after a few hours of restless sleep and sat down at my computer. I wrote friends asking for help and prayers. I gave updates following his twelve-and-a-half hours of brain surgery. I told them about the diagnosis of Schwannoma and my relief at finding out that it was a benign tumor. I wrote about the complications and setbacks, his optimism and his plans for the future. He was looking forward to Christmas in Goerlitz, Easter in Vienna, and summer in Venice. He promised to take me for a ride on the Siberian Railroad once he retired.
On Wednesday, April 27th I wrote the final message: Roman died this afternoon.
I wrote the obituary for his memorial service for I could not bear the idea of a stranger delivering the final words of farewell. Then the English language failed me. I was struck speechless. I could barely write. When I scribbled down a few paragraphs into my journal, it was in German. I have resided in a place without written language ever since.
Living in a new land, the land of the grieving, I live with tears, pain, despair, but also gratitude and love. I cannot shape these emotions into words, sentences and paragraphs. They are too raw and too unruly for words. Roman was my husband, my best friend, my life companion for twenty-five years. A loss beyond words.
It has been four months since Roman left this world. He lives in my heart, in the cells of my body, and in my memories. He lives on in the hearts and memories of his friends, his family, his students and colleagues. He visits me in my dreams, takes me in his arms and comforts me.
The English language is the second language for both of us. We spoke to each other in English, we argued with each other and expressed our love for each other in English. A language made precious because he told me several times each day that he loved me.
I hope to make him proud by going on living and writing.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


The second snowstorm of this winter has arrived. A priceless stillness has fallen over New York. The city that never sleeps usually moves to a fast-paced soundtrack of honking horns, wailing sirens, and rumbling subways. Music blasts from windows and stores; vendors shout to attract customers. Street preachers pontificate to their impromptu flocks. People talk and argue louder and faster than any place I’ve ever visited.
Not this day. Not outside my window. St. Nicholas Avenue and St. Nicholas Park are blanketed with snow; the parked cars are buried under mountains of it. No one walks, no one shouts in the street. Except for the occasional sanitation department snowplow, the street is sparsely trafficked. The pristine white, the serenity, the brilliance of the winter sun, the unique winter light are a miracle to me --- not the weather emergency it is for the rest of the city. I can sit at my desk and devote a full day to my novel, look up and out once in a while to take in the serene city.

“So gemütlich,” I think.

There is no word in the English language that accurately captures the meaning of “Gemüt” (mind, soul, disposition, heart) or “gemütlich” (comfortable, smug, and cozy).
The term originally meant soulful (voller Gemüt.) In the beginning of the 18th century “Gemütlichkeit” appeared in the writings of the Moravians in the sense of “Herzlichkeit” (cordiality, heartiness, warmth). In the Biedermeier period, “Gemütlichkeit” gained the new meaning of comfort or comfortableness and became a fashionable concept. At times “Gemütlichkeit” appeared related to nationalism and Teutonic mania and took on the negative connotation of laziness. The writer F. T. Vischer coined the derogatory untranslatable term "Vettermichelsgemütlichkeit" (cousin kraut‘s coziness?).

A word does not only carry linguistic and etymological meaning, it carries cultural as well as emotional meaning. In contrast to the common and valued emotional restraint, “Gemütlichkeit” is an acceptable way of expressing emotions in German culture. It’s a way of making oneself and others feel at home, to let down one’s guard and experience intimacy. My own etymology, origin and meaning of the word “Gemütlichkeit” stems from the Germany of the 60s. I was invited for “Kaffee und Kuchen” (coffee and cake) by my neighbor, Frau Stanke. Sitting across from her on the kitchen bench, I watched her set the table with ritualistic accuracy and care for her ten year old visitor with the linen tablecloth (picked up earlier in the day from the Heissmangel pressing service), the gold trimmed Sunday china, a platter of poppy seed cake, a cup of Muckefuck (ersatz coffee) for me and the cup of Jacobs Krönung for herself. She squeezed her massive body into the narrow space on the bench and slid closer to me. Then came the precious invitation in her charming Silesian accent:

“Lass es uns gemütlich machen.” Let's get comfortable.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Xenophobia and growing hostility towards immigrants are on the rise in Europe. “British work for British workers,” they shout. “Send the Romas back home,” they insist. Failed immigration is making headlines everywhere. The German chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed that in Germany the multicultural society has failed.
The situation of immigrants in Germany is a hot topic here in New York also. The German Consulate hosted an Immigration and Integration Issues conference. We watched the documentary “The Yilmaz Clan” about three generations of a Turkish family living in Berlin. It was followed by a panel discussion “The Turkish German Minority in the European Context” and a seminar on Economic and Human Rights Factors. Jürgen Habermas’ article “Leadership and Leitkultur” appeared on the op-ed page of the New York Times. The reaction in Germany to Thilo Sarrazin’s book “Germany does away with itself” was documented in two articles in the New York Times. The last one, on November 13th, took up an entire page. I was shocked to find out that more than one third of Germans agree with Sarrazin’s belief that Germany is becoming more stupid as a result of Muslim immigrants. He seems to express what a lot of Germans are thinking.
I am aware of the heated headscarf debate which has been going on for years. Many of my left-leaning friends fear a Turkish parallel society. They tell me that third generation Turks do not speak German properly. Their graduation rates from high school are lower than those of Germans and their incarceration are rates higher.
This concerns me also. What are the reasons? Certainly Muslim immigrants are not of lesser intelligence (a false biological conclusion Sarrazin draws). If Muslim children are doing poorly in Germans schools, could it be the fault of the German school system? Are discrimination and prejudice to blame for higher unemployment among Muslim immigrants? Higher education in Germany seems to be for children of the upper class whose parents have attended college, not for children of working class or immigrant families. In Germany a quarter of the population attends college, less than in the United States.
I am worried that Europe is becoming more provincial. I see nationalist movements on the rise and politicians acting as if European civilization is under threat. There is a European Union, but no European passport. If the Turkish community in Germany today is more religious and more conservative than the first wave of Turkish immigrants could this result from German policies towards integration? The social and economic status of immigrants is an indicator for integration. The discussion is too often about us and them. How much of us do they have to become? It seems that the only well integrated Muslim is an ex-Muslim.
I left Germany in 1980. Today, it is a much more interesting country, not only because of reunification, but because of immigration. Germany has better food, even better fast food (the Döner kebab was an instant hit). There are plenty of writers, artists, taxi drivers, soccer players, and teachers who have a “migration background” as immigrants are labeled in Germany. All of them enrich the German cultural landscape.
Maybe we should start to speak of trans-culturalism instead of multiculturalism. Immigrants who have a foot in two countries, who travel with two passports, are always a hybrid of two cultures. For some this is a painful experience. The Chicano rapper Jae-P sings about being “Ni de aqui, ne de alla” (Neither from here, nor there).Others enjoy their hyphenated existence. Mexican American Gloria Anzaldua writes about her in-between identity. She’s not crossing a bridge from one culture to another, but is staying on the bridge instead.
Finding myself on that same bridge, I’d like to help in making the bridge passable to others. I believe I can do so by writing my own narrative and helping others do the same.

Monday, October 11, 2010

German Reunification--My Personal Gain

“Wende”, turning point, is what Germans call the time that led to reunification of the two Germanys. Twenty years ago, protests and demonstrations —a peaceful revolution—ended the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) regime in the German Democratic Republic. The first free elections of the People's Parliament took place in March 1990. They paved the way to a parliamentary democracy and German reunification.

The New York Times reflected on the 20th anniversary with the article “For Some Germans, Unity Is Still a Work in Progress.” NPR,Deutsche Welle TV,and the BBC World News took an in-depth look at how Germany has been growing together. Germans, in their typical “the glass is half empty” attitude, focused on flaws, imperfections, and disappointments.

There’s disparity: the unemployment rate is higher in the East and the salaries are lower. But Germany today is without a doubt a great place to live. Germans have freedom of speech; they are well off or well taken care of with universal healthcare from cradle to grave. They retire at an early age and have plenty of vacation time.

German reunification has brought me many rewards. Throughout the early nineties, I had the opportunity to work with teachers and social-workers in the former GDR. This gave me insight into the East Germans’ state of mind. The world they knew stopped to exist; their careers were obliterated. Some felt anxious and overwhelmed. Others bemoaned the loss of security. The windows of bookstores displayed plenty of self-help books.

For the first time in history, a capitalist and a socialist economy suddenly became one. Many East Germans embraced the new freedom and the previously unthinkable opportunities that came with it. The West Germans, often lacking empathy, complained about the steep price of unification: $1.7 trillion. The country seemed split into "Ossis" and "Wessis." Alienation and misunderstandings ruled.

Maybe I understand East Germans better than the West Germans. When I moved to New York my cultural and social security blanket vanished. Feeling off balance, I had to fend for myself in an alien land. It took years before I felt I belonged. Thirty years later, as both an American and a German citizen, I still have trouble understanding the behavior and thoughts of my fellow Americans.

I benefit from personal post-unification perks: travelling to Weimar, Dresden, Leipzig, the Baltic coast, and the lakes of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. As a resident of the Federal Republic of Germany who had no relatives in the East, I was not able to visit these places before. I was only entitled to spend 24 Hours in East Berlin. Driving from my hometown to Berlin and through the GDR transit zone, I could never drive off the roads, explore the villages and towns along the way or have a picnic in the forest. I would have been arrested. The border crossings were an ordeal. The x-ray machines at Bahnhof Friedrichstraße where West Berliners crossed over to the East could have been invented by George Orwell.

Another reunification benefit: spending time with my Berlin friends in their Brandenburg forest datsha (Many former West Berliners now have vacation homes in the East.) Developing new friendships with Kathrin from Leipzig, Dagmar from Görlitz, and Anetta and Petra who grew up in East Berlin.

At the top of my list is: falling in love with Görlitz (a gem of town on the Polish border) where I bought a charming apartment in 2004 at a ridiculously low sum. I now have a German “Personalausweis” (ID) that states that I am a resident of Görlitz. I spend time there every year. With each stay, my love for the town and its people deepens. Many other Germans are turned off by the dialect spoken in Saxony. It took some time to get used to, but as a resident of the state, a Saxon and “Ossi” by choice, it is music to my ears.

As Germany was reunified I was reunited with people and places in the East kept at a distance from me in the past.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Our Mother Tongue and its Influence

I often ask myself if and how our first language influences our way of thinking. My German self is more serious, deeper, gloomier and more complicated than my American self. I am a different person speaking and writing in English— simpler, lighter, and funnier. Perhaps that is why I have become a published writer in the English language first.
Our mother tongue forces us to think a certain way, to be precise about certain information, to pay attention to aspects of our experience that is not required by speakers of other languages. In English, a teacher can be either male or female; in German, the gender is clear: I am either taught by my “Lehrer” or “Lehrerin.” In English I need to spell out if I meet or met my husband, if I will meet him, or I am meeting him. Other languages do not force us to specify in this manner; in Chinese, the same verb form stands for past, present, and future.
When the English language borrows words from the German, as in leitmotiv, schadenfreude, wunderkind, weltschmerz and realpolitik, is it difficult for the native English speaker to understand the concepts behind those foreign terms? Two psychologists, Lisa Irmen and Astrid Köhncke conducted experiments to find out if the grammatical use of gender influences our notions about the objects. To Germans, the bridge, “die Brücke,” is female: They attribute qualities like beautiful, elegant and slender to it. For the Spanish, the bridge, “el puente” is male. The Spanish think of typical male attributes as huge, strong and solid. Do Spanish and German architects therefore design different types of bridges? I wonder why the moon is male and the sun is female in German, while it is the opposite in French. Having grown up near the Rhine river, “Vater Rhein”, the river is always male to me as is the forest, the mountain and the ocean. The meadow, color, crowd and revolution on the other hand is always female. The child, “das Kind,” is an “it” in German as is the girl, “das Mädchen.” Does this reflect the belief that they are not yet sexual beings?
If the habits of our mother tongue impact our thoughts, perceptions and experiences in the world what happens to the English-speaking people who do not assign a gender to their nouns? Linguists argue about the validity of linguistic relativity, the fact that different languages give us a different picture of the world. David Sedaris’ contributed the funniest comment to this debate in his story “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” the hilarious account of his struggle with learning the French language. It is assigned reading in all of my writing classes and often the text my CCNY students—most of them immigrants or the children of immigrants—enjoy the most.
“… I managed to mispronounce IBM and assigned the wrong gender to both the floor waxer and the typewriter. The teacher’s reaction led me to believe that these mistakes were capital crimes in the country of France…. I find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself. Why refer to a Lady Crack Pipe or Good Sir Dishrag when sex implied?”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Civic Duty

I was eager to take part in an “important civic responsibility and opportunity to participate in the American judicial system.” It was my first time to be called for jury duty. What I knew about the American jury system, I learned from movies like “Twelve Angry Men” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.”
The eligible citizens, a mix of Manhattanites of all ages, races, and ethnicities, gathered in the jury’s room on the 11th floor of the Manhattan Court House. They were dressed in Wall Street, hip-hop, Madison Avenue Prada, ethnic African, and work out attire.
To most, their contribution to democracy seemed an inconvenient burden. They slept through the instructional film, tapped furiously on their blackberries and laptop computers, and negotiated real estate deals over the phone. Some hid out in the TV and PC rooms. Free Wi-Fi tranquilized the majority of them. I brought along a thick novel and spent the morning reading and waiting. A panel of sixty people was called after three hours, but I wasn’t one of them.
“This is the golden age of Manhattan trials,” a court employee said. “Crime is so low that we have very little to do for you.” How reassuring. At 3:30 PM, another panel of jurors was called. At first, I didn't react when my name was called. Even after thirty years in New York, mispronouncing my name ÄNNA STIEKMÄHN, made me feel they're looking for someone else. “Good luck,” the court employee said. “Remember, you are the one standing between civilization and anarchy.”
We were invited into the judge's court room. A criminal case, I thought, I hope it's not murder. Horrid images of Truman Capote’s “In cold blood” ran through my mind. The judge introduced the defendant, a middle-aged white man, accused of selling cocaine to an undercover policeman. He explained the reasons one might not be able to serve as a juror, i.e. being a Jehovah's Witness who are not allowed to sit in judgment of others. He invited potential jurors who might be excused from the case to speak to him individually. Once outside again, a long line of people formed with issues that might prevent them from serving as jurors.
By 11:30 AM the following day everyone had a chance to speak to the judge. So far, the experience had nothing of the tension and excitement portrayed in Hollywood movies. Twelve jurors and two alternates were selected. My name was called first; I was in shock. Those chosen sat in the jury box, the rest on the benches reserved for the public during the trial. We filled out a questioneer, and then had to read our answers out loud. Again, I was first. Soon we found out where each juror lived and who they lived with. Each disclosed their profession, their highest level of education, their partners’ profession and if they had family members in law enforcement.
Amongst us was an oncologist from the Upper West Side, a retired subway employee, a young girl who worked for Banana Republic, a plumber from Washington Heights, a fashion designer, a pianist and a CEO married to a medical doctor. We were a highly educated group; most of us had master’s degrees. The college educated read the New York Times; the high school graduates preferred the Daily News.
“Would you have trouble judging someone?” the judge asked. In my previous life as a social worker, I was trained not to judge people. “Would you draw conclusions about the defendant’s character knowing that he has a criminal record?” the lawyer asked. “How do you feel about the police, undercover police in particular? The young black man, who worked at Footlocker and lived in East Harlem with his mother, had strong feelings about undercover police officers. One of them had thrown him against the wall in this building and patted him down without identifying himself.
Most of us stated that we’d be able to judge the defendant impartially. “Innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” the potential jurors said.
“How do you feel about someone selling drugs?” the lawyer for the defendant asked me. I had hoped that someone else would answer before me to no avail. I have smoked marijuana and tried Ecstasy. Some of my friends and family members have used drugs. I worked as a drug prevention counselor and saw the devastation caused by crack cocaine firsthand. But I had no time to think about an answer. “Using drugs is a mistake. Selling drugs is a mistake,” I said sounding as eloquent as a fourth grader. “Hopefully people will learn from their mistakes.”
We sat outside for another forty minutes. I remembered how the defendant scrutinized all of us in the jury box. His fate lay in our hands. Was I ready for this responsibility? I no longer felt excited about jury duty. I felt ill at ease, anxious about judging another human being. I thought about the unjust Rockefeller laws that might send the defendant to jail for a long time for a small amount of cocaine. The defendant with his pockmarked face looked frightened and dejected. He reminded me of my younger brother at his worst, in the thralls of alcoholism and mental illness. Would those feelings influence me? Could I be impartial? What gave me the right to judge somebody?
Finally, the list of acceptable jurors was called. I felt great relief that I wasn’t one of them. It would be six years before I was going to be asked to serve as a juror for New York State again, four before the Federal Court could summon me for duty. Enough time to come to terms with judging a fellow human being.
I felt lighter, going down the elevator. I didn’t have to become a Jehovah’s Witness to evade my civic duty after all.