Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sturm und Drang

Adolescence struck like a tornado. My parents, teachers, and most adults became my enemies. They were hypocrites and liars. My school, the Municipal Modern Language Secondary School for the Education of Women, was a prison. The teachers were harsh and punitive wardens. Most had taught during the Nazi era and although officially de-nazified, their fascist teaching methods persevered. Herr Bhode, my history teacher had lived on a large estate near Königsberg “until the Russians confiscated it.” He still advocated the doctrine of the Bund Deutscher Mädchen, Hitler’s youth organization for girls: “A German girl is a pure girl. She does not smoke or paint her face.” He aborted my first foray into make-up with blue eye shadow. “Make-up is for whores. Go to the bathroom and wash your face.”
I was thrilled when after years of pounding Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Hebbel, Herder, Fontane and legions of other dead writers into us, we finally got to read books written in our century. Herr Bhode, a staunch anti-communist, hated Brecht and called him “A traitor who moved to East Germany. Voluntarily! Imagine that.” He despised having to put Mother Courage, a play set during the Thirty Year War, on his lesson plan. The Education Department of our social-democratic state made it a mandatory part of the curriculum. Since Herr Bhode hated Brecht, I liked him right away.
“Girls, what is your interpretation of the funeral scene?” he asked. No one paid attention. It was the last period and the room was hot and stuffy. My class mates were bored. They liked romantic novels without all that bloody fighting. Two girls in front of me were reading the teen magazine Bravo under their desk. My neighbor secretly filed her nails. Some girls had their head down, others were yawning. I was the only one to raise my hand. Herr Bhode cut me down: “Tersteegen, we are not interested in your comments. You don’t have to think in my class.”
The old geezer made my blood boil. I was furious. How dare he forbid me to think? Our history book portrayed the Germans as victims of World War II who were led to disaster by a megalomaniac leader. The German loss of life, the soldier’s loss of limb, the allied bombing and the destruction of cities were described at great length. The losses of other nations and the atrocities committed in the concentration camps were relegated to a few paragraphs and fine print.
Whenever I asked adults how all of this could have happened, they shrugged their shoulders, refused an answer, or insisted that they didn’t know how terrible it had been. Frau Stanke felt that Hitler hadn’t been all that bad. “He built the Autobahn. Everyone had work again. Our Führer restored law and order in the country, and people felt proud to be German again.” I pitied the losses of the other nations, especially the Russians. Discovering Chekhov and Dostojewski made me fall in love with the Russian people.
I followed the Auschwitz trials and the testimonies of the camp survivors in the news. More than 6000 former members of the SS guarded Auschwitz from 1940 to 1945; only twenty-two faced trial. Those accused showed no trace of remorse. The loathsome concentration camp Doctor Mengele lived a privileged life in South America. I looked at pictures of emaciated bodies, rooms full of shoes and handbags. Had they really mixed ashes with fat to make soap from the remains of the Jews? How could I feel anything but shame about belonging to this nation?
We had murdered millions. What role did my father play?

I discovered rebellion and assumed a loud-mouthed belligerent defiant stance. Testy and antagonistic on principle I confronted my father about his participation in the war and his beliefs about Jews, Poles, and all the other “inferior races.”
“What did you do in the war?”
“I was a regular soldier.”
“A regular soldier? How many people did you kill? Did you enjoy doing it?”
“Watch your tone, young lady. We did what we had to do.”
“What about the guards in the camps? They did what they had to do. Would you have done it too?” I howled him down.
My father’s face turned dark red. His Adam’s apple started a little dance, as if he had trouble swallowing. I didn’t care that his blood pressure might rise to a dangerous level. Let him have a stroke right this minute. “What about the camps? Was that all right with you?” My mother ran in from the kitchen, an onion in one hand, a small knife in the other. “Leave your father alone. Don’t aggravate him. He’s not well. Your questions will bring him to an early grave. If he dies, it will be your fault.”
I stormed out of the room and marched up the stairs. I loved the screeching sound of my metal shoe tips hitting the cold hard stone. Hoped it would send goose bumps down my parents’ spine. I pushed the door to my room open and then slammed it shut with a loud wham. Turned the key and barricaded myself inside. My heart raced as if I had just finished a sprint on sport’s day. I would never calm down. Not in a million years. I wanted to hit something, kick the door in or punch a hole in the wall. Instead, I paced in a circle. My riding trophies, all seven of them lined up neatly on my book shelf, caught my eye. They had to go. Bam, bam they flew of the shelf. I loved the noise. The pictures of horses were next. They had graced my bedroom walls for as long as I remembered. A testimony to my childhood plans of owning a horse farm one day.
A horse farm! What a ridiculous idea! I started with my favorite picture. The Arabian stallion, torn to pieces, landed on the floor. The Lipizaners, Dülmen ponies, and the fine Przcwalski were next.The Araappaloosa show horse, the black Friesian with its long mane, the strong Holsteiner, and even the small Hucul from the Carpathian Mountains, they all had to go. I felt strong and powerful as I destroyed them. What would my father, the proud cavalry man think if he could see me now? He had taught me to love horses. I had followed him around on tournament day dressed in proper riding-habit, boots and riding crop, the entire outfit his gift for my ninth birthday. He had been proud to show his daughter off and asked a stranger to take a picture of us. He even let me bet on my favorite horse. None of this mattered anymore. The horses time was up. I did not stop until all hundred and twenty-five pictures were scattered on the floor. I thought about starting a bonfire, of burning down the house, but stopped myself right in time. Instead I stomped over to the chest of drawers, took the Animals album out of its sleeve, placed the 45 on the record player and lowered the needle. “We gotta get out of this place” was the best song ever written. I played it as loud as possible, at least twenty times in a row and sang along at the top of my lungs.

Somewhere baby
Somehow I know it baby
We gotta get out of this place
If it’s the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
Girl, there’s a better life for me and you
Believe me baby
I know it baby
You know it too

I could not get out of this place, but I could redecorate. I started by pinning my new heroes on the wall: Che Guevara, Mao, and Bob Dylan. The man was a genius. How did he come up with the brilliant line “If dogs run free, why we don’t?” Above my bed I hung a picture of the cutest couple in the world, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful. Meanwhile my mother shouted from the first floor:
“Turn down that Negro music. I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.”
“So what. Have your breakdown already.” I muttered. My mother was a doormat, a piece of furniture. Stuck in the past. She acted as if the war had never ended. I had heard the story of the starving Rapp family a million times. “Living on cabbage for three months, a hard boiled egg divided among four people, a tablespoon of butter a real luxury.” I didn’t care one bit. I didn’t want to hear another word about German suffering. If my parents both ended up in a mental institution, I’d be happy to live with my grandmother. My mother’s parents were the only acceptable ones among my relatives. My father’s family, the first to join the Nazi party in their village, had been staunch supporters until the bitter end, but my mother’s parents never joined. The Nazis were too un-Christian for their taste. My grandfather had always made fun of the little man with the big mustache and listened to enemy radio. The family maintained friendly relationships with their Jewish neighbors. Grandma lit the fire in the synagogue every Saturday until there was no more synagogue.

Looking for role models and help with my unanswered questions, I turned to literature. In the backroom of the public library, high up on the shelf were the books deemed inappropriate for youth. Ms. Waldenburg, the petite middle-aged librarian with enormous horn rimmed glasses that hid kind blue eyes had been my friend since third grade. I harbored the fantasy that she loved me more than any other child who visited her library. There had been rumors that she had no husband and children because her fiancé had died fighting in Belgium. I was sure I was special to her and if she could she would adopt me. What a wonderful life we could have had, sitting together on the couch in the evenings, reading, taking breaks to update each other on the plots, reciting special passages out loud, all the while munching on butter cookies.
“Do your parents know that you are taking out Günter Grass and Hubert Fichte?” She asked.
“We have to read Grass for school.”
She knew that I lied. The books were full of dirty passages I wasn’t supposed to read yet. The Catholic Church had placed them on the list of forbidden books. “You might want to read this one too,” she said with a wink and placed Peter Weiss into my hands. Weiss, a writer outraged by the amnesia that had befallen my parents’ generation, was the answer to all of my prayers.

Judge: Did you see anything of the camp?
Second Witness: Nothing. I was just glad to get out of there.
Judge: Did you see the chimneys at the end of the platform or the smoke and glare?
Second Witness: Yes. I saw the smoke.
Judge: And what did you think?
Second Witness: I thought those must be the bakeries. I had heard they baked bread in there day and night. After all it was a big camp.

I started to question everything. How could there be a God? Why was he unable to prevent such barbaric cruelty? I signed myself out of religion class at school, and then doubted if it had been the right decision. Still I attended the Catholic youth group meetings in the basement of our church. We went there because we were bored and had nothing better to do. It was a chance to hang out, to meet boys and to get away from home. The young chaplain was handsome and cool. As a miner’s son he was one of us. He had invited us to watch Die Brücke. It had been shown on TV before, but my father made us turn it off and I never got to see the end.

Chaplain Paul fumbled with the projector while I surveyed the room. My friend Astrid who had a reputation for being fast played with her hair and shot seductive glances in Reinhold’s direction. I had known Christel, the youngest in the group, since kindergarten. We had played doctor together in her parents’ garage. Cornelia was a straight A student and we all despised her for that. I had a crush on Andreas. With his handsome features, sultry voice, gorgeous brown eyes and dark hair, he was every girls dream. He looked just like a movie star. I helped myself to pretzels and Coca Cola. The coke was warm, but tasted fantastic simply because it was forbidden at home.
Chaplain Paul turned off the light (our favorite part) and said with a somber voice: “This is the first German anti-war film, based on a novel and the true experiences of the writer. It shows what happens when children are educated in the wrong ideas, when they become victims of ideology. You have to watch it so you won’t repeat the sins of your fathers.”
Andreas and Reinhold yawned. They hated educational movies; they hated it when Chaplain Paul used big words. “What’s ideology anyhow?” Andreas asked.
The film took place in a small German town similar to ours populated with children, women, and old people. It was shocking and sad. During the final days of the war seven teenage boys were drafted into the Volkssturm, a small ad-hoc unit pulled together for local defense. They trained for one day, learned to use their weapons, and were sent to the front. Their teacher, afraid for their lives, intervened on their behalf. The boys, not much older than us, had to secure an unimportant bridge, meant to be blown up anyway and defend it against enemy seizure. At first we were proud of how brave they acted. Andreas poked Reinhold in the ribs to show his approval. When their commander, mistaken for a deserter, got executed Christel and Astrid started to cry. On their own now, fiercely patriotic, and elated to be called to duty, the boys continued to fight even as the German troops retreated. American tanks arrived and tried to cross the bridge. We were worried and concerned for the boys. I stopped chomping on the pretzels so no sound would distract us from the action on screen. The American soldiers looked young and handsome. One of them was chewing gum. I liked his uniform. He made fun of the young fighters, called them kindergarteners. Why didn’t the boys surrender? I held my breath. To continue to fight would be a suicidal mission.
Only one of the boys survived. The death of his friends and the death of the German and American soldiers were all in vain. We had tears in our eyes when the epilogue appeared on the screen. ”This took place on April 27, 1945. An insignificant event, it was not mentioned in any military report.”
No one spoke. Nobody went to the bathroom. No one was in the mood for board games.

At home I confronted my father: “Why didn’t you let us watch Die Brücke to the end?”
“You’re not old enough.”
“Not old enough,” I fumed. “I’m old enough to learn about the war.”
“You won’t watch crap like that in my house. Not as long as you live under my roof and I’m putting food on the table.”
“What kind of reasoning is that? Just because you feed me, I don’t have to buy into your lies.”
“Watch your mouth or you’re gonna get it.”
“So what do you want to do? Hit me? Does that make you feel good? Alright then, if it makes you feel superior and strong, go ahead and hit me.”
Shaking on the inside, I managed to act cocky on the outside. I turned my face to my father. He raised his hand and held it up in the air for a few tormenting seconds. We stared each other down. Then his arm collapsed as if it belonged to a rag doll. He couldn’t do it. I had won. I was fifteen years old and more powerful than my own father.
From now on I let him have it. “Why do we have to switch channels whenever a Jewish historian or scientist appeares? “What’s the point of tearing up all the Marxist and Maoist pamphlets I bring home?” He didn’t answer. I stormed out of the room and heard him lament: “I’ve raised a Bolshevik? My God, I’ve raised a Bolshevik!”

My father didn’t have a monopoly on hate. I could stew in hate too. I hated my life. I hated him. I hated his politics and his despair. I hated my mother and her wimpy ways. I hated school, Germany, and the character traits of most Germans. Their desire to regulate every aspect of life. Hated bus drivers, post office clerks, and anyone wearing a uniform who savored their power and found perverse pleasure in treating me as an inferior. I hated old ladies who scolded me when I tried to cross the street on a red light: “My God, these young people today. No respect for rules!” The entire country was plastered with Verboten signs. Playing in the yard verboten! Verboten to touch the flowers! Spitting verboten! Walking on the grass forbidden! Was life itself verboten?

Luckily I found kindred spirits. The TV brought images of San Francisco’s rebellious youth, flowers in their hair, into our living room. College students in Berkeley, Paris and Berlin protested the Vietnam War. They all told their parents off: “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” In Germany, longhaired beatniks, despised by adults, participated in many Easter peace marches. The more the adults hated them, the more I longed to be one of them. Marijuana made a lot of young people happy. I was determined to score some.
In Berlin a group of young left-wing college students, seven men and three women started an experiment in radical communal living. The members of Kommune 1 had given up individual possessions to practice for life after the revolution. It was just a matter of time before exclusive love relationships were a thing of the past. The women in the group were beautiful like models, the guys funny looking. Rainer Langhans had a flamboyant mop of curls on top of his head. Fritz Teufel had a full mustache and beard. Everyone wore round wire rimmed glasses. I begged my mother to let me change my frames immediately.
The guys of Kommune 1 were great comedians. I was always hoping to see another of their pranks on the evening news. When US vice president Hubert Humphrey came to visit Germany, several members were accused of planning a bomb attack and were arrested by the secret service. They got off. The police couldn’t prove a thing. Teufel said: ”We had planned to bomb him with eggs and pudding.” My father was outraged: “They all belong in jail. Get rid of them; send them to East Germany.”
Dieter Kunzelmann, the leader and most outrageous member had me crack up every time he made a public statement. The latest was his best: “I don’t work and I don’t study. Why should I care about the Vietnam War when I have trouble reaching orgasm?”

What was an orgasm anyway? How could I find a man like Dieter to teach me all about it?

( published in sic, 2006 and read in KGB Bar NYC, 2007)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dieter II

We met in Monday morning’s “Fundamentals of Group Dynamics” class. There was chemistry and mutual attraction from the start. Dieter II was tall and handsome with dark shoulder length brown hair, blue eyes, fine features, and plump lips like a girl. We had been studying with the same professor for three semesters and discovered that we had read the same books, liked the same authors, in social sciences, psychology, and literature. On the last day of class, Dieter II announced that he was moving to Berlin. I sensed that he was too shy to make the first move; it was up to me to seduce him.
As we were leaving class I lurked about him and then managed to stand behind him on the escalator leading down to the first floor.
”Do you feel like continuing our discussion over lunch?” I asked.
“Sure, I’d like that,” he said.
At the bottom of the escalator we turned left to the cafeteria. I stood in front of the counter and could not make up my mind. Did I want the Königsberger Klopse or the noodles? I wasn’t hungry. I had no inclination to discuss Adorno, Horkheimer and the contributions of the Frankfurter Schule to the Studies of the Authoritarian Character. I needed a beer to calm my anxiety. Dieter II made his selection. I picked the noodles, he went for sausage and potato salad, and we both proceeded with our plastic orange trays to the cashier.
In a secluded corner we found a table with a view of the lake. I finished my beer in no time and picked at my food. Watching him eat, I got worried. Didn’t a man’s way of eating point to his skills in bed? Dieter did not taste, smell, or even chew his Würstchen mit Kartoffelsalat. He shoveled the food into his mouth at breakneck speed and then swallowed it. Would he be one of the guys who tore a woman’s clothes off, skipped foreplay and got right down to it? The way he inhaled his sausages, signaled he might climb on top of me for a few missionary minutes culminating in premature ejaculation.
“Es gibt kein richtiges Leben im Falschen.” Adorno is brilliant, don’t you think?”
“You really can’t say it any better way,” I agreed. “I try to live authentically, but it’s hard in this sea of pretense, among all these phony people.”
“Do you like Frank Zappa?”
“I like a lot of his lyrics. ‘Plastic People’ is one of my favorites.”
Dieter’s eyes sparkled like the decorations on a Christmas tree. He started to recite:

A fine little girl
She waits for me
She’s as plastic
As she can be

I chimed in:

Me see a neon
Moon above
I searched for years
I found no love

We finished together in perfect harmony:

I’m sure that love
Will never be
A product of

We stayed three more hours. Like me Dieter II was fond of Peter Handke .
“The man is a genius. Don’t you think he deserves the Nobel Prize for Short

Letter, Long Farewell?” I asked.

”Of course,” Dieter said. “No one else comes up with lines like ‘This is my second day in

America. I wonder if I’ve already changed.’”

We were made for each other. Soul mates, if such a thing existed. Neither of us felt like leaving, but the Turkish cleaning ladies in their light blue uniforms had started to move around noisily. Some were wiping the tables; others made a concert worthy of modern music with their buckets and mops. It was time to go.
“Let’s go to Pinkus Müller,” I said.
“Your wish is my command,” he answered.
Pinkus Müller was an old establishment dating back to 1816 and the glory days of the University of Münster. Its slogan was “Student life is not complete without Pinkus Müller.” There was a long history of dueling clubs whose members proudly exhibited their facial scars, drinking themselves into a stupor, thereby missing class the next morning. These fraternity members were punished with a few days of incarceration until they had sobered up. Tourists could take a tour of the university with the special detention cells, and admire the walls covered with graffiti and caricatures of evil professors dating back to 1902. There was plenty of evidence of mindless drinking throughout the centuries. On a regular day Dieter II and I would not be caught dead in this pub. Pinkus Müller was for conservative law students, supporters of the bishop, the right to life movement and other idiots. But that day Pinkus Müller felt right. We downed several pints of dark beer. I pulled up all the alcohol infused strawberries from the bottom of the glass and ate them one by one. Dieter II let me have his and fed them to me. He was hungry again and ordered the special Möppkes un Liärberbraut met Schmoräppelkes as Pinkus Müller insisted on regional Westphalian home cooking and would have none of the fancier nouvelle French or German dishes you could find in other restaurants. I watched with concern as he devoured his liverwurst sandwich topped with sautéed apples. Meanwhile I continued to suck dreamily on my strawberries, getting drunker by the minute. Although I was living with Dieter I, I had no inhibitions or guilt about cheating on him. I had only one concern. How could Dieter II perform after all this beer? Would he make love as fast and sloppy as he ate?
“Feel like coming over to my place for a cup of coffee?” He finally asked. I was primed. We walked along the Prinzipalmarkt, past the cages where the devout had speared and beheaded the Anabaptists, the Rathaus where in 1649 after thirty years of war they signed the peace treaty, past the fancy café where I had a part time job as a dish washer, and into Hacklenburg Street, where he shared a flat with a pal from his home town.

We never got to drink the coffee. His roommate retreated to his room as soon as we arrived. Ten minutes later we ended up on Dieter’s single bed. I was in for a pleasant surprise. Despite his greedy eating habits, Dieter II was a slow, delicate and attentive lover. He started by nibbling my neck, then covered me with kisses and very very slowly worked his way downward. I had given up bras in the 11th grade, so when he peeled off my T-shirt, he had no obstruction and started to caress my nipples with his tongue. Unable to contain my excitement any longer, I ripped off my jeans. He took his time, made me ache in anticipation of his next move.
I stayed all night. There was no point in going home. I had missed the last bus and I’d be in trouble with Dieter I whenever I got home. Why leave now? We had sex three times and must have resembled acrobats doing the impossible on a tiny bed. The most exciting moments happened in between the acts of fornication. My first orgasm. Ever. Between the second and third time Dieter got hungry again and fixed himself a Schmalzstulle. I declined a helping of the brown bread spread with goose liver fat, but accepted some of his father’s home made apricot Schnaps. After two hours of uncomfortable sleep, pressed against the wall on his hard single bed, he woke me up with a cup of coffee, the one he had promised me in Pinkus Müller.
“How did you get so good at making love?” I just had to know. Dieter II had suffered from a tight foreskin early in life. This had made erections and penetration painful. Too embarrassed to tell his parents, he waited until he moved to Tübingen for his civil service to undergo the simple procedure that liberated him from his foreskin. In the presurgery years he had become a skillful lover, experimental, adventurous, and unbelievably accomplished in the art of pleasing a woman via oral or manual stimulation. When I mentioned my good luck to my gay friend Halina she commented: “Now you understand what lesbian sex is all about.”

Monday, November 10, 2008

Germans in American and German Films

The anticipation for the new films from Germany at the Museum of Modern Art was high. A double feature. "On the Line" (Auf der Strecke) is Reto Caffi’s graduate project from Cologne’s Academy of Media Arts. It tells the story of a shy security guard who works for a large Zürich department store. He is infatuated with the bookshop clerk who works in the same store. He spies on her and follows her to the subway. The second film, "The Other Day in Eden" (Gestern in Eden) was written by Jan Speckenbach while he was studying at Berlin’s Film and TV Academy. Speckenbach tells the story of a man who goes to a nudist colony in the former East Germany to manage his recently deceased father’s affairs. At the colony, he starts a sexual relationship with the nurse who was his father's girlfriend.

My friends and I who have lived in New York City for more than 20 years were disappointed by these films described as “stories not about those from the East or those from the West, but just Germans, grappling with life, love, and trust” (Eddie Cockrell). We knew that American film and TV portrays Germans as Nazis, deranged scientists and insane psychiatrists. The Germans in those films never talk. They bark. For a more flattering portrayal of the Krauts there are the occasional Bavarians in lederhosen doing the Schuhplattler dance.

The Germans in the new films from Germany smoke nonstop. They have trouble connecting to other human beings. They throw themselves into raw, animal sex with no foreplay, no romance. No tender words are spoken. The Germans in the new German films are people without a conscience allowing a gang of four to beat up and kill a young man in the subway.

Which version is better? The Germans portrayed by American film or the Germans portrayed by German and Swiss filmmakers?

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Cigarette Box

Twenty-two seniors are still in limbo. They have not made a decision about life after high school. Most are afraid of move away from Bed-Stuy, East New York, and Brownsville, terrified to leave their neighborhoods. Proud of their “ghetto fabulous” ways they know they’d feel like a fish out of water in a place like Rochester, New York. A few are dieing to get away from home, the constant noise outside their bedroom window, the shoot- outs that rob them of their sleep. The yelling and constant arguing. A rural college in New Hampshire looks like paradise. But no one wants you when you score 650 on the SAT.
I have called Carla in because she is one of them.
“I think I’ll join the Marines. A recruiter came over to my house last Saturday. He
is just waiting to see if I pass English for the year, but once I have my high school diploma, I am in.”
“Carla, what if you have to go to Iraq?”
“Well, I do what I have to do. I am not afraid.”
I look at this tomboyish seventeen- year- old Jamaican girl in front of me. She is still sporting her elegant up hairdo from Friday nights prom.
“I would hate to find your name listed among the war casualties in The New York Times. Carla Rigby, age nineteen, from Brooklyn New York, killed in action.”
Carla is not impressed. I have been her guidance counselor for almost four years. She appreciated the referral to Planned Parenthood I gave her in the 9th grade when she needed to get a pregnancy test without her grandmother finding out. A few times each week she stops by my office to ask for a Band Aid, a feminine pad, calculator or candy when she is in serious need of a sugar fix. Maybe she sees me as just another old person, trying to spoil her fun and tell her how to run her life. Someone too timid to embark on a daring adventure. Besides I have no idea how hard her life is. The four foster children her grandmother has taken in to help make ends meet. Her little brother and his sickle cell anemia, the older brother in Rikers. Carla does not want to be a burden. She wants to pull her own weight.
I am losing this battle. Seventeen- year- olds know everything, have been everywhere, done everything or at least they act that way. It’s time to pull out my last weapon. I walk
over to my desk; push aside the disciplinary reports, cut slips, Kit Kat bar wrappers, and To Do List for my personal life to recover a little cherry wood box. I take the box, carry it like a precious jewel and hand it to Carla.
“I want to show you something.”
“What’s that? An old wooden box?”
“Notice anything special?”
“Looks like someone made it. There’s a rose engraved, and the letters H and S. What is it Ms. S.?”
“H. S. are my father’s initials. This is a cigarette box he made when he was a prisoner of war”.
“What war?”
“A war, a long time ago. You learned about it in 10th grade when Mr. Salerno taught you about the Second World War in Global Studies.”
“What happened to your Dad?”
“He was 17 just like you and felt very patriotic. So he volunteered to join Hitler’s army. Did well in the first year as a gunner. They won a couple of battles on the Western front, occupied Belgium, then France. I am sure he felt invincible. Two years later he found himself fighting in Russia and his luck ran out. His unit was hit by grenades. He was happy to be alive, but he lost his leg.”
“What happened?”
Carla stops fidgeting in her chair and gives me her undivided attention.
“Well in peace time they might have been able to save his leg, but not during the war. There were too many men dead and wounded, too few doctors and medical supplies. They had to amputate his leg and he, nineteen years old, spent the following two years as a prisoner of war.”
Carla is quiet. Her big brown eyes have lost their defiant stance and are filled with concern.
“And that is why, Carla, I cannot support your decision to join the military. Go to a community college, keep up your grades, you might be able to switch to a state college or another four year college. Then when you’ve gotten your degree and you’re a little older and wiser, rethink your idea about signing up with the Marines. You can serve your country in other ways and still make your community proud.”
We are interrupted by the piercing sound of the bell. Carla has to make it up to the seventh floor to her English class.
“Thank you Ms. S. for sharing something from your personal life.”
“Thanks for listening.”

I have three minutes before a group of freshmen is coming in. A lot of “He said - She said”, gossip, backstabbing behavior and the threat of fights. So- and- so said she’ll bring her cousins up here to jump me. Regular stuff. I push the jumble of papers on my desk away and return the box to its place of honor. I close the lid. The sorrow of thousands of young men put to rest again.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hans in Luck

My love for German food and the German language returned. Most Thursdays after therapy, I strolled down the three blocks of Sauerkraut Boulevard/ East 86th Street. Yorkville in the early 80s, before the onslaught of PC Richards, Victoria’s Secret, and Footlocker mega stores had the flavor of a German neighborhood. Restaurants, named Heidelberg, Ideal, and Café Geiger, served Jägerschnitzel, Sauerbraten, and excellent draught beer. Elk’s Candy carried the best marzipan this side of the Atlantic. In the evenings, zither and accordion players entertained the crowd. Before I started my long haul back to TriBeCa, I always treated myself to Kaffee,und Kuchen, Germany’s version of High Tea, at Kleine Konditorei. Their rich Black Forest tart, almost as good as my mother’s, never failed to improve my mood.
In Germany, being German was an ordeal, a full time job. Everyday we dealt with our parents and grandparents’ guilt, the heavy load we had inherited. On American TV, my compatriots were Nazis, deranged psychiatrists, or Bavarians in Lederhosen. They were barking orders, or slapping their legs doing the Schuhplattler dance. I was no longer troubled or insulted by it. Here in New York, at Kleine Konditorei, I shamelessly indulged in my Germaness.
Kleine Konditorei, proud of its home cooking and gut bürgerlich ambiance, kept the Teutonic theme under control. No antlers on the wall, no decorative steins, or yodeling over the sound system, just immaculately clean windows and floors, red fabric chairs and sofas, starched white linen tablecloths, and fine china. New York offered a multitude of restaurant experiences, but it did not have a coffee house culture like European cities. Kleine Konditorei, a pitiable substitute for Berlin’s Café Einstein was the next best thing. I could linger for hours in a comfortable upholstered chair over a Kännchen Kaffee without being harassed by the wait staff to place another order every twenty minutes.
Anita, the heavyset Viennese waitress, was polishing the doorknob with a table napkin as I made my way in.
“Schönen guten Tag,” she chirped.
“Danke, ebenso,” I answered.
Ogling the cakes and pies behind the counter, I made my way to my favorite table. From my vantage point, I could scrutinize most of the inside tables as well as the outside street action. Across from me, three old ladies with hairdos resembling corrugated sheet metal, sat with gigantic portions of tort. They spoke a strange mixture of German and English. “Der Mohnkuchen is fantastic. So lecker! Please pass mir die milk und das Sweet & Low.”
I considered the special attributes of German Kaffee und Kuchen. Brewed with less Arabica beans, German coffee was thinner than Italian espresso, but superior to the dishwater that passed for American coffee. Americans never got torts right. Just like their saccharine smiles, their pastries were unbearably sweet. German pastries, like life, were both sweet and tart. As I sank my teeth into the scrumptious piece of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte, a superb concoction of cherry sauce, flour, cream, eggs, chocolate, and Kirsch brandy, I mocked the accent I heard all around me: “Ziss Kriempuff is fäbuluss.”
As I licked my spoon I thought about my therapist’s question an hour ago: “Have you ever been with an older man?” and how I had rebuffed Vivian Deutsch: “No way. An older guy and me? You won’t see that happen any time soon.” Vivien had been adamant: “You ought to give it a try. Allow yourself to be attracted to a good kind man. A man with the qualities of a good father. It should help you move from romantic love and a fixation on sex, to sustained attachment.”
Maybe she had a point. Even Freud had called romantic love “the overestimation of the romantic object.”
As I surveyed the room, a man with the handsome look of an old-time matinee idol caught my eye. His Basque cap, silver unruly hair sticking out from underneath, and red scarf tied around his neck gave him a bohemian flair. He took cautious measured steps, and then rested on his cane until Anita came to his rescue. She led him to a table set for a large group of people, took his coat and helped him into his seat.
“Who is that?” I asked when she passed by.
“Hans Glück. He’s a writer. Part of the Stammtisch. A group of old Jewish folks who meet here every Thursday. They all speak German.”
“You are kidding?”
“No. They’ve been coming here for the past thirty-five years. No one wants to wait on them. They sit forever and don’t eat much. Terrible tippers.”
I decided to stay and ordered a brandy. As I savored my Asbach, I eavesdropped on the discussion at their table. My ears perked up when I heard them talk about Thomas Bernhard’s latest book. One man with an Austrian accent didn’t like Bernhard: “How can he call Salzburg, his hometown, a terminal disease?” Hans Glück didn’t like my favorite writer either. “Who does he think he is? James Joyce? Unreadable, this relentless, repetitive stuff.”
How could he not like Bernhard? In my canon of western literature, next to Musil and Beckett, Bernhard was the greatest writer of our century. No one else’s writing was so personal and uncompromising. Hans Glück was ignorant. How would he justify his position? I strained to listen. Against my better judgment and annoyance, I fell in love with the way he spoke. Like a bourgeois playboy in the final days of the Habsburg monarchy, his was a pure, upper class, turn-of-the-nineteenth-century German, untainted by any Anglicism. In an instant he transported me to an Arthur Schnitzler novel. Fortified by my third brandy, I asked Anita to introduce me. She did not waste time.
“Liebe Stammtischgäste, you have to meet Anna. She’s from the Rhineland, but she studied in Berlin.”
“Oh Berlin, my heart aches for you,” Hans Glück said.
Now I had a chance to study him close-up. He had bushy, unruly eyebrows, and curious pale blue eyes. His right eye had a mind of its own and made him look almost cross-eyed. The enormous dark circles under his eyes held a lot of sorrow. But his lips were full and sensual. Somewhat melancholic. He must have been a good kisser. As if he had been able to guess my thoughts, he turned to me, took my hand and kissed it gently. “Junges Fraülein, we must get to know each other. I’m quite lonely these days. Come visit me,” he pleaded. Then he rummaged through his pants pocket and produced a business card. Hans Glück, Writer, it said.

Read the rest of the story in : Love After 70, Tosteson, Pelletier, Krivchenia Edit.,
Wising Up Press, Decatur, Georgia 2008

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wilhelm Genazino: The Unpredictability of Words

On November 6, 1913, Kafka wrote to Felice Bauer: “I don’t keep a diary at all, I wouldn’t know what for; nothing happens to me to stir my inmost self. This is true even when I cry, as I did yesterday in a cinema in Verona. I am capable of enjoying human relationships, but not experiencing them.”
I found six more or less obvious distortions in these five lines. The first (”I don’t keep a diary at all”) is the most obvious. Kafka’s diary is one of the most impressive documents of all time. To unmask his second distortion (“I wouldn’t know what for”) we need to insert a single sentence from this unacknowledged diary: “But the stability I gain from the smallest amount of writing is indisputably wonderful.” The third, (“Nothing happens to me to stir my inmost self”) is so audacious a lie to anyone familiar with Kafka’s biography that there is no need to correct it. The opposite is true. Too much stirred Kafka’s inmost self and he often spoke about this burden. The fourth lie (“This is true even when I cry, as I did yesterday in a cinema in Verona”) is just a progression of the third; crying is a sign of too much emotion. We can easily see the fifth (“I am capable of enjoying human relationships”) and sixth lie (“but not experiencing them”) as the attempt of a melancholic man to pull the wool over our eyes. Kafka recognized long ago that his enormous masochistic energy might allow for much, but it surely wasn’t “enjoying human relationships.”
An explanation might be that Kafka, who found refuge in writing, was not aware of his dishonesty. He shares with many others the inclination to lie – or to be more forgiving, to distort the truth- while successfully relieving his urges. This might explain why Kafka’s distortions have rarely attracted attention.
The difficulty of the writing profession rests in the author’s relationship with his work. There are many fantasized relationships but only one real one. Fantasy is external. The writer sits quietly at his desk and writes. He hopes and prays that this minimal creative effort will help him survive life’s struggles. Of course, the image of serenity at the desk is an illusion. In reality, the author battles several myths at the same time. First of all, he has to invent his job description and his place within it. His occupation is not protected. Anyone so inclined can consider or call himself a writer. Let me remind you of Joseph Conrad. At the age of fifteen, he was convinced he would be a great writer. For the next twenty-three years he struggled with the feeling he might just be playing the part of the gifted writer. Finally, at the age of thirty-eight, he delivered his first novel and proved that all his fantasy had not been in vain. Let me remind you of Egon Krenz, East Germany’s last Communist leader. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, he was asked on TV about his plans for the future. With the most irritating self-assurance, Egon Krenz stated that from then on he would be a writer.
Both anecdotes are more closely related than they seem. By exposing how they view themselves, writers reveal the imaginary core of their profession. Even serious authors get tangled up in fantasies of entitlement. Despite all their professional accomplishments, they don’t arrive at a clear job description, measurable qualifications, absolute authority, or stable experiences.
The second fantasy the writer needs is more intimate and delicate in nature. A book’s basic structure has to be anticipated and imagined before it becomes reality. This creation fantasy must be megalomaniacal; a reduction fantasy can’t produce a great work, unless, as is the case with Robert Walser, this diminution is also the book’s theme. The author feels like a phantom. He knows he’s a dreamer, but he can’t expose himself as such in public.
The writer’s public exposure brings about the third, most dramatic fantasy. The postmodern author knows the public is not eager to welcome his book. His way to examine and engage in life, via literature, has lost credibility in our canon of communication. It was different once. After the Enlightenment, when bourgeois society established itself, the writer’s voice expressed new liberties. We all know that in our postmodern times we need just as much, if not more, enlightenment. But often the best books of today do not find their readers. The individual writer has to historicize his work into a future where subsequent generations might realize how useful he could have been, had he been recognized during his lifetime. This fantasy is necessary because through it (and often only through it), can the depression of futility be averted. Many important books are denied recognition by their contemporaries. Although published, they did not rise to the top in our culture of stupefaction. Yet these authors, despite failing on a personal and artistic level, hold on to the story, as Giuseppe Ungaretti wrote, that the goal of all writers is to produce their own meaningful biography.
At first, these three fantasies mislead the author and thwart his work. He has to use his fantasized self-assurance to banish the phantoms of obstruction to the sidelines. Only then he can press forward to the true core of his work: the unimposing sentences and images he expects of himself. The irony of writing is that nothing is earned without the input of fantasy. Even great writers often speak foolishly about their work; I presume it is because of their complicated entanglement of fantasy and reality. Nobody knows how an interior emotional script becomes an outward bound text. No one knows what writers separate their sentences from. Or should I say: Expel? Solicit? Tell lies? Not knowing the answer, I offer a metaphor: Literature is the attempt to speak with pain. Great writers know the pain that dwells inside, and what this pain tells them. At the same time, they know the language of pain is always a construction. Still they repeatedly consult their pain, attend to it and listen to the call and response of text and pain, until they become its carrier.
I can’t be more specific at this moment. You have guessed by now that I am attempting to rehabilitate Franz Kafka. I spoke of his distortions, not of his dishonesty. Dishonesty alludes to intention and deliberateness, distortion to disposition. It is the disposition of the poet and writer standing guard at the gates of his consciousness. He is the first one unable to grasp how a text with unsettling immediacy emerges from life and in that instant becomes a mystery. Unlike philosophers and psychologists, poets and writers do not know what speaks through them when they experience it. They are not willing to name this voice, if it is a voice. They do not call it Being, Unconscious, Language, Other or Non-Identical. Only in this namelessness, can the unpredictability of words survive to surface from time to time as fabrication.

Translation first published in Absinthe 9, 2008, New European Writing,

Original in: Der gedehnte Blick, München, Wien 2004

Friday, September 19, 2008


When my mother ate an apple, she slowly and systematically ate the entire fruit including its core and left nothing but the stem. When we threw out a half-eaten piece of fruit, she rescued it from the garbage and finished it. When we failed to clean our plates, she took our unfinished pork chops and gnawed the bones clean. She once made the mistake of baking a crumb cake with salt instead of sugar. The taste was revolting and the family refused to eat it. But without blinking an eye, she ate the entire cake.
It was 1964 and all of Germany was on a feeding frenzy. Even our Chancellor Erhard was chubby. The war had ended and food was no longer rationed. People stuffed themselves to make up for the times they had to do without. One room in our basement was set aside as a root cellar. Apples, potatoes, preserved fruits, pickles and sauerkraut in mason jars sat next to several five-pound bags of flour and sugar. We had no sense of security. Another war might break out anytime. “The next war won’t be fought with tanks and horses. It will be a nuclear war and the entire world will go to hell,” my mother said with teary eyes. I wasn’t worried. My hometown had air raid shelters and bunkers left over from the last war. We had food to survive for a few months.
My mother spread a slice of black bread thick with butter and put a piece of Schwartemagen on top. I hated Schwartemagen, a jellied loaf, made from the edible parts of the pig’s head and stuffed into a casing of pig’s intestine. It tasted as horrible as it sounded. I hated butter, but our family had had to do without butter, the best butter, for so long that it was a crime to refuse it. No matter how disgusting it looked or tasted, my brother and I were forced to eat everything.
“Why that face?’ my mother asked. We had just gathered for Abendbrot, our evening meal.
“I’m not hungry,” I lied, then turned to my brother and rolled my eyes. Heinrich was happily loading up on the slimy stuff. He had no problem with Schwartemagen.
“The poor children of India are starving, and you’re not even finishing your Butterbrot,” my mother scolded.
“Send it to India, then,” I mumbled.
She slapped me across the face before I had time to duck. My mother did not put up with my lack of respect. “Ungrateful brat! You’re lucky to have enough to eat. You have no idea what it’s like to go hungry.”
I did know; I was reminded of it every day. I had heard her story of deprivation a thousand times and could recite her litany by heart. When she was my age, her stomach had growled with hunger pangs all the time. The family lived on cabbage for months. Dinner was often Einbrennsuppe, a soup made with a drop of lard, flour, and water. A teaspoon of butter was a real luxury. A hardboiled egg had to be divided among four people. There was no coffee during the war, only Muckefuck, a grain beverage that tasted just as repulsive as it sounded.
For punishment I had to help my mother make preserves. I stared at the mountains of boysenberries, currants, sour cherries and rhubarb on the kitchen table. My mother started on the cherries and her lecture: “In the hard winter of 1942 people traded their jewelry, damask tablecloths, and even their wedding rings for food. I was sixteen, the oldest. They sent me and my aunt on day trips to the Hunsrück, to beg or trade our own wine for food.” I thought I had heard it all before, but this opening made my ears perk up. I had been to the Hunsrück, a small mountain range, and tried to imagine my mother hiking from village to village.
“You mean you went from door to door like Gypsies?”
“Kind of. We knocked on many doors. Most people didn’t even open their door. But when they did, I always tried to peek in.”
“What did you see?” I was curious now.
“Watch that knife. You almost cut yourself.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. Just go on.”
My mother emptied a sieve full of cherries into a gigantic pot by the sink, rinsed her hands, wiped them on her apron and returned to the table. “I saw tables bursting with black bread. I saw pitchers of milk, sausages, ham and pickles. I saw all the foods we had done without. What tormented me most was the smell of bacon and Handkäs.”
I hated that stinky, smelly cheese, her favorite, and could not comprehend why she liked it so much.
“Look at you, your mouth all red from eating too many cherries. Work a little faster or else we’ll be sitting here all night. Start on the currants now.” Cleaning the currents was a struggle. The tiny berries never came off the stem easily. Having to peel off the even tiny black flower remnants was maddening.
“How did the people react? What did they say to you?” I asked.
“They kept on eating, stared at us, and then told us to go home. They weren’t interested in trading a bottle of wine for a piece of bread or sausage. Maybe we would have been luckier if we had fine linens or gold.”
“That’s mean,” I said. “What happened next?”
“I tried not to faint from hunger. I was so excited by the aromas from the kitchen.”
I looked at my mother, her large breasts and wide hips. It was hard to imagine her as a skinny teenager.
“I was so mad, I prayed all the way back to Langenlonsheim ‘Lord please remove my hatred for these people from my heart,’” she said.

Read the rest of the story in H. Tosteson, C. D. Brockett (Edit.) Families: The Frontline of Pluralism, Wising Up Press, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008

A Visit to Germany

Once I had my green card, I could travel home again. My mother’s excitement had been building for months. In every letter and every phone call she asked:
“What shall I cook for you and your husband? What do you want to eat the day you arrive?”
“Cook something typically German,” I told her.
She did. The first evening we sat down to a substantial meal of fatty Schweinshaxen, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes.
“Best to have a good foundation, so you won’t get too drunk,” my mother said toasting with Earnest.
“Summ Woll.”
I had tried to teach Earnest a few German phrases, but he was hopeless. While my mother delighted in her new son-in-law, his manly voice, good manners, handsome looks and funny attempts at German, my brother’s face turned sour. Heinrich did not approve of my move to fascist America. The America of Ronald Reagan, the land of Right to Life fanatics and Evangelical Fundamentalists.
“Anna, tell Earnest he’s not the first black man I met,” my mother said.
“Is that so?” Earnest grinned.
“Langenlonsheim was liberated by American soldiers. When the GI’s rolled into our village with their tanks, I was scared of the Black soldiers. I had never seen Black people before. When an old man warned us that Blacks weren’t human like us and that the soldiers might rape us, all the girls ran home. I hid at home, but I shouldn’t have been afraid. They were very friendly. They gave us chocolate and chewing gum.”
I translated the portion about the gum and chocolate.
“Tell your mother her pork knuckles are almost as good as my mother’s.”
My mother watched Earnest struggle with his knife and fork. He did not manage to cut much meat off the bone. She came to his rescue. Holding the meat up with her fingers, she took a big bite. Earnest, relieved, followed her example. She nodded approvingly, “No need to feel shy. It tastes better this way.”
I studied my brother. Heinrich ate mechanically, without pleasure. He drank too fast. After my father’s death, my brother had taken on my father’s mannerisms, patterns of speech and way of bossing my mother around. Sitting in my father’s chair, under the crucifix, he barked at her: “We need more beer here, Mutti” and sounded just like the old man.
After dinner my brother proposed a trip to Vater Rhein, a brewery tavern. “You’ll be able to taste real beer, not that dishwater they sell in the US,” he promised his brother-in-law. It was a cool and cloudy August evening. Germany’s endless grey winters and cold and rainy summers had always depressed me. Now after years of tropical heat and the unbearable humidity of New York summers, I enjoyed the grey skies. I wasn’t gloomy, rather pleasantly melancholic.
On the way to the pub, I savored the scenery. The factories with their gigantic chimneys weren’t as ugly as I remembered. “Hein, do you remember how we played in the coal dumps. Wasn’t it fun to slide down the slag heaps?”
My brother shrugged his shoulders. “I guess.”
“Remember how mother had to waste a pound of butter, how she scrubbed us for hours to make us look like white children again?”
Hein did not share any of my excitement. I turned to Earnest.
“You might be in for a special treat. Twice a week, the blast furnaces of Krupp Steal light up the sky. It’s awesome. Different shades of flaming reds and oranges you’ve never seen before.”
“Can’t wait,” Earnest said.
There was the unpleasant smell from the Chemical plant. Still, after being away for a while, it was rather romantic. Keyed up by the view of the green meadows and the majestic river, I recited my favorite Heinrich Heine poem for my husband.
Mein Liebchen wir saßen beisammen
Traulich im leichten Kahn
Die Nacht war still und wir schwammen
Auf weiter Wasserbahn

“That sounds lovely,” Earnest said. ”Must be a romantic fellow, this Heine.”
“He was a romantic fellow. Born in Düsseldorf on the Rhine, not far from here, “
I said.
“Your homeboy,” Earnest chuckled.
As soon as we stepped into Vater Rhein, all eyes turned to Earnest. I was glad that he had left his bone earrings and bear claw necklace at my mother’s house. He was exotic enough. People in my hometown had no problem staring at strangers. Perhaps the only Black men they knew were Muhammad Ali and Sammy Davis Jr.? We sat down at the barrel-table and waited for the burly waiter in his blue work shirt and apron to bring the first round. He came with a tray full of small glasses of Diebels Alt, the local specialty-- a copper colored, slightly sweet dark beer. Happy to hear him speak in the local dialect, I didn’t mind his gruff manner. Smiling was not common in this part of the world. If you wanted to see smiling people, you went on vacation to the Italian Rivera or the island of Mallorca. I didn’t need to be around smiling faces when I was home, among my people.
My brother spotted a co-worker and shouted across the room. “Manfred, come over. Meet my sister and brother-in-law from New York.” All heads turned in our direction. It was rare for tourists to visit Vater Rhein. I eavesdropped on people’s conversations. The local dialect melted my heart. The view of the Rhine was sensational. Although it was 9:00 p.m., it was still bright outside. How I had missed the long European summer evenings. I watched the barges headed for Rotterdam, Basel, and Cologne. On one barge, a woman was hanging up laundry, on another a terrier looked expectantly at me. The boats’ lovely puttering sound put me into a dreamy state. I remembered the train rides along the Rhine on visits to my grandmother. The castles, fables and the tale of the Loreley Mountain. I had pictured myself as a stowaway heading for Holland, the North Sea, and finally the Atlantic Ocean on my way to America, the country of my dreams. The land of the Little Rascals, Laurel and Hardy, and Buster Keaton. A country where having fun was mandatory.
When the waiter set down the slender glasses I snapped out of my reveries. Heinrich and Manfred took two beers each. “The first round is on me,” my brother announced. The waiter took out his pen and noted six beers on Heinrich’s coaster. “Na denn, Prost,” Heinrich said and clinked glasses. Manfred emptied his in one gulp, Hein took two for his. They wasted no time and moved on to the next round. Earnest and I looked at each other. I shrugged my shoulders. “Guess, they have to prove their manhood,” Earnest whispered.
Hein inspected Earnest as if he wasn’t good enough for me. Hein and Manfred stepped up their drinking tempo. The waiter served us in shorter intervals. “Let’s see if the American can hold his beer,” my brother said. I was worried for Earnest. Like most Americans, he wasn’t accustomed to real beer. The waiter noted that they had twelve beers. My brother and his friend were not the only ones getting drunk. Many of the guests at Vater Rhein were working themselves up into a drunken stupor. In the rear, a group of fans celebrated the victory of their soccer team. They made sure the rest of the guests knew about it. “M--S--V, M--S--V, let’s drink to the MSV,” they hooted every time the waiter brought another round. Back by the brewing-kettle, two parties battled each other for dominance. They sang songs praising the beauty of the Rhine. “Why was it so beautiful on the Rhine? Because of the jolly maidens and the thirsty fellows.”
The singing and excessive smoking got on my nerves. I’d just kicked the habit a few weeks earlier and worried about a relapse. “Ask Earnest what his position on Reagan’s foreign policy is,” Heinrich demanded. During high school my brother had fallen into the clutches of the Communist Party. He decided against college and chose the revolutionary path: working among the masses in the factories. He never approved of my choices. We had been arguing about politics all our lives. Now he was ready to start with my husband. I translated the request. Earnest was perplexed.
“I have no idea what Reagan’s politics are.”
“But he’s your president. Aren’t you concerned?” my brother screamed.
My stomach felt queasy.
“Not really. I don’t care about politics,” Earnest said.
How could he be so relaxed under an interrogation like this? He had never experienced the barbs of my brother’s fury.
“What do you care about then?” Hein yelled.
“Interior decorating. Whether I should change my slipcovers from hunter green to midnight blue. Whether that would match my carpet.”
“What did he say?” Heinrich asked.
I didn’t dare to translate, but my brother, despite his proletarian demeanor, was quite well-versed in the English language. He was outraged. “The whole world is going to hell because of your government and you worry about your sofa!”
He had a point. I had been mad at Earnest for not exercising his right to vote. When was the last time he participated in politics? During the Vietnam War?
“You need to pay attention to your president’s position on rearmament. He wants to install more missiles in Europe,” Manfred said as his face turned purple.
”I don’t know anything about that,” Earnest said, without sounding the least bit apologetic.
“Don’t you read the papers?” Heinrich countered.
“Not really. I’m not interested in politics.”
Manfred was beside himself. US ignorance had infiltrated his favorite pub. My brother lit a new cigarette with the butt of the old one. Greedy, he inhaled as he worked himself up for further confrontation. The waiter brought another round of beers. One, two gulps and the small glasses stood empty again. Manfred called the waiter back to the table. The coaster had no more room for notations. The waiter turned it over and used the back to write on.
“I expected more from a Black man,” Hein said, “You are a bad example for your race.”
“How dare you say something like that,” I screamed.
Earnest covered his ears. My voice must have been several octaves too high.
“A black man should be aware of his country’s history. Aware of his people’s struggle,” Hein lectured.
Manfred nodded his approval.
“Well, maybe he is,” I said, hardly believing it myself.
“Does he think with his dick? Does he have a big one?” Manfred asked.
I was stunned. I had experienced bigotry a few times in Earnest’s company. While walking arm in arm in SoHo, a car with a New Jersey license plate had stopped next to us. One of four young men stuck his head out and yelled “Why don’t you let us fuck her, brother” before they sped away. This sort of conduct could be expected in New Jersey or Queens, but not here in my hometown, in the company of my brother and his friend, two revolutionary thinkers.
Earnest had not understood a word. I had been looking forward to this visit. The Rhine, my friends, my mother’s cooking, the Tatort detective series on TV. When Earnest got up to go to the bathroom, the revolutionaries took turns attacking me.
“The US is a fascist country.”
”Reagan is a madman. How can you live in such a country?”
“Look,” I defended myself, “not all Americans are alike. Some even read the New York Times.”
“But look at the politics of the country.”
“Not everyone supports it. At least none of the people I know.”
My arguments fell on deaf ears. Only one thing mattered. The principle. Reagan’s foreign policy had brought us dangerously close to a war. WAR. Didn’t I know what that meant?” Earnest came back to find me shouting on top of my lungs:
”No, I don’t know what war is. Neither do you. We have never lived through a war.” My brother was a pompous ass. So was Manfred. I was tired of their pontificating. They let me have it.
“You’re a fascist pig, yourself.”
“A degenerated Philistine.”
In our teenage years Heinrich and I argued all the time. At times, we chased each other around the kitchen table shouting obscenities at each other. My helpless mother tried to be the peace- broker: “Stop, you’re going to kill each other one of these days. For Christ’s sake, remember, you’re brother and sister.” He was my brother. But he was a fool who had not learned anything in all these years.
People at neighboring tables stared at us. Heinrich and Manfred chain-smoked. I was tempted to light up myself. Earnest looked helpless as if racking his brains for a way to protect me from their attacks. I was ready to leave it all: Vater Rhein, this town, this state, Germany. I wanted to get on a plane and return to New York. Stay in New York forever and never set foot in this country full of dogmatic idiots ever again.
The waiter stopped by our table. Earnest took two glasses for himself. Manfred and Heinrich moved in on me like two birds fighting over a crumb of bread. Each one tried to outdo the other in attacking me. Manfred tried to justify an attack on the US Air Base in Frankfurt.
“You fools. Two people ended up dead and one wounded. What was the point? Do you really believe you can change people’s minds by using such strategies?” I screamed. They never got a chance to answer. Earnest, a beer glass in each hand emptied them out over my opponents’ heads, in one swift move. The beer ran down my brother’s face and soaked his shirt. Neither Heinrich nor Manfred said a word. A temporary cease.

First published in Foot in Two Countries

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Mein Harlem

Harlem, even at its worst, has always been good to me. The first friend I made in New York after leaving my home in Germany lived in Harlem. We met in 1982 at an audition at La Mama. I was excited when Dana Jackson invited me to her house. She lived with her mother in East Harlem, not far from where my favorite writer, James Baldwin, was raised. In my German guidebook Manhattan ended at 96th Street and foreign visitors were warned not to venture beyond because they might not leave Harlem or Washington Heights alive. But I wasn’t afraid of Harlem. I already knew Harlem from James Baldwin’s novels, short stories and essays that I had read in the German translation.

As soon as I emerged from the No. 2 train at the corner of 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, the air was full of danger and menace. The only white person on the street, I held my head high and walked with confidence east for a block, then turned right onto what Baldwin had called “wide, filthy, hostile Fifth Avenue.” I looked for the grocery store’s Jewish proprietor who had given the Baldwin family credit, the shoe repair store’s Negro proprietor, the Buy Black street corner meetings and the Holy Rollers Baldwin had described. I hoped to find the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly where James got his start as a youthful preacher.

Instead I found blocks of abandoned and burnt-out buildings that looked like Germany at the end of World War II. Street vendors aggressively hawked their wares and Black Israelite preachers pontificated to their street flock. One of them, looking extraterrestrial in his shiny silver headband and belt, suddenly spewed hatred in my direction. “Whites are the incarnation of evil. God will wipe out all the Christians and Muslims. Only we are his chosen people.” I hastened my pace. Shady characters lurked in doorways. Young men offered me drugs. A good number of people had collapsed on the pavement, strung out on potent liquor or drugs. I was relieved to finally arrive safely at Dana’s home.

The Jacksons’ residence was fortified like a medieval castle with window gates, burglar bars, slide bolts, deadbolts and impressive looking high-security police locks. Dana explained that they had been broken into plenty of times: from the roof, the backyard, the basement, and through the kitchen window. Once I passed the security barrier, I found three elegantly furnished floors, an entire brownstone just for Dana and her mother. There were bay windows, a graceful parlor, shiny parquet floors, fireplaces and a library with thousands of records and books. Miss Jackson could have started her own radio show with her outstanding R&B collection.

Dana’s mother felt sorry for me, all alone in New York, so far away from my own mother, and adopted me for Thanksgiving, Christmas and many Sunday dinners. On my first visit I stared in disbelief at the abundance of food, the visual and olfactory feast spread out before me. The rich burgundy tablecloth was covered with plates, bowls, terrines and glass candlesticks. There were three plates for each of us, rolled-up linen napkins and a confusing assortment of cutlery. Unsure about what to do with all those knives and forks, I waited for Miss Jackson to start. She wore a chic flower-print dress that clung to her curvaceous body. Her hair was done in the latest Jheri-curl fashion and the bright orange of her lipstick and perfectly manicured nails matched the colors of her dress. So different from my mother who always wore an apron or a housedress, never a stylish dress like Miss Jackson. My mother hated make-up. She had been indoctrinated by Hitler’s youth organization for girls. A German girl is a pure girl. A pure girl doesn’t smoke or paint her face. Only whores do.

“Child, are you hungry?” Miss Jackson asked me. Then she folded her hands neatly in front of her chest. “Dear Lord,” she said, “thank you for all the blessings you have bestowed upon us. And thank you for bringing us this nice visitor from Germany.” Overcome, I turned beet red. I was twenty-six and no one had called me Child in a very long time. At home saying grace was simply going through the motions, mumbling the words without thinking. Miss Jackson made up her own prayer. She spoke like a poet and infused each word with deep emotion. An atheist since forth grade, I was ready to join her flock.

I was taken with Miss Jackson’s grace, hospitality and her amazing culinary talents. She introduced me to new foods: black-eyed peas, mustard greens, okra and best of all sweet potato pie. Her collard greens looked and smelled similar to my mother’s Grünkohl, but tasted so much better. Her smothered pork chops were the best I ever had. I found that black people, like the Germans, devoured pig’s feet, ham hocks and tripe. What we called Saumagen, they called chitlins and maw. Our drinking habits, however, were worlds apart. The Jacksons did not drink beer or wine with dinner. They drank ginger ale with their meals and strange alcoholic concoctions before or after.

Miss Jackson taught me about Black history, about Harlem as “the capital of Black America,” the excitement of the Civil Rights Movement, the riots and the devastation caused by drugs that followed. “The middle class moved to the suburbs and left nothing but poor people behind. Harlem turned into a slum.” A supervisor at AT&T, she purchased her brownstone on East 122nd Street during that time and was very proud to have made it on her own. Smart women buy low and sell high.

A legendary beauty, Miss Jackson had enjoyed many suitors in her youth, but never married. She had banished Dana’s father, “the sperm donor,” from her life. He drank too much and “was a heap of trouble.” She had a steady boyfriend, but would not let him move in with her. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? Hank, the owner of a trucking company, was a perfect gentleman. He took her to fine restaurants, Broadway musicals and weekend trips to Atlantic City. For her birthday, he bought her serious jewelry. He let her pick out his clothes at SYMS and agreed to have the rims of his hats taken in, since he, a native of South Carolina, looked “too country” for her taste. I thought of Miss Jackson as a feminist icon and tried to follow her advice. Don’t let a man treat your ass like a comfort station. My mother, afraid to be on her own, had stayed in a loveless marriage with an irascible husband. She could have learned a thing or two from Miss Jackson’s chutzpa.

Read the rest of the essay in or ep;phany; listen to the podcast of the New York Public Library's reading series Perodically Speaking: Literary Magazine Editors Introduce Emerging Writers from May 13, 2008.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

My Super and I

In February of 1999, I moved to Harlem. Bringing down the garbage for the first time, I met our middle-aged super.

“Hi, I’m Angela. They call me the Clean Nazi. I really appreciate how you separate your garbage. You do a great job tying up your recyclable newspapers and cardboard boxes,” she said.

After my initial shock of witnessing a black woman calling herself a Nazi, I answered: “Hi, my name is Anna. Thanks for the compliment. I’m from Germany. Recycling is a religion in my homeland. You might go to jail if you don’t separate your brown from your green and white glass.”

“My kind of country. Welcome to Harlem. How do you like it so far?”

While I stuffed my laundry into the dryer, we talked. Angela, from Trinidad, didn’t mind White people moving to her Harlem. “We have too many people with poor breeding the way it is now.” Our conversation turned personal. We found out we were the same age.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are you menopausal?” she said.

“I stopped menstruating a year ago.”

“A drag, isn’t it?

“I wake up at four every morning and can’t go back to sleep.”

“Do you take hormones?”

“No, I believe in really good quality dark chocolate.”

“You’re my kind of woman.”

On my next trip down to the basement I brought her some of the Novesia Goldnuss Schokolade from my mother’s care package. Angela inspected the green and gold wrapping, the see-through window revealing dark chocolate with gigantic hazelnuts. “Hmm, that looks different,” she said as she ripped the package open. She put the first piece in her mouth and closed her eyes in blissful surrender. I have never had sex with a woman, but Angela looked positively orgasmic. I felt like a voyeur watching the chocolate and hazelnut dance around in her mouth. Finally she opened her eyes.

“Good Lord, this is divine. I’ll throw my Hershey’s away for this. What makes this so good?”

“The right kind of fat. Nothing but cocoa butter. No fillers and additives,” I said.

Angela licked her lips. “How can I make it up to you?”

“No need,” I said, “I just wanted to give you something to take the edge off those menopausal mood swings.”

Then I threw the bright yellow Ikea bags with my freshly laundered clothes over my shoulders and made my way up the stairs.

“Wait a minute,” she stopped me. “Do you have any plans for Saturday night?”

“No, not really.”

“Want to come to my birthday party? We’ll have a male stripper to entertain a crowd of menopausal woman.”

Of course I wanted to go.

(First published in

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Venice Moment

While taking the grand tour of Venice on the vaporetto Nr.1, a family from Berlin occupies the prime outside viewing seats on the boat’s bow. Besides taking up more than one seat per person with their massive behinds, they store their outsized luggage on the remaining empty seats. In their excitement and enthusiasm, they report loudly on everything they observe. “Die Rialto Bridge. Der Canale Grande. Wie schön!” The family feverously videotapes and photographs the sites. “Almost as nice as our Wannsee,” the father says. “For sure,” his wife answers. An elderly Italian lady, desperate for a place to sit, complains to the sprawled out Germans about their quest for Lebensraum. The tourists shrug their shoulders and point to their luggage. “No place to put,” the father says. He opens his backpack, takes out a package of German chocolate, unwraps it, and offers it to his wife and children. The elderly lady tries again: “Please, put the suitcases inside the boat. I want to sit down.” The Germans ignore her. They enjoy their chocolate and the sights of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. The mother studies her Polyglott Venedig guide book. She lectures the rest of the family about the sights. “This is the former German Handelshof, today the main post office. “ The father nods approvingly. The elderly lady comes back with a handsome official in a light blue short sleeve shirt and navy pants. He’s obviously in charge of this vaporetto. “You must put suitcase to special place, inside boat," he says in broken English. The Germans don’t move. They talk among themselves. The father asks the older daughter to translate. “We don’t trust people. People steal our suitcases.” she says. The Germans keep their eyes on the palazzi in front of them. The father finishes the rest of the chocolate. The mother turns to the father. “We can’t leave our suitcases inside and sit outside. I don’t trust the Italians. They’ll steal our suitcases on our first day.” The daughter films a gondolieri. “He’s so cute,” she says. The handsome man in charge of the vaporetto comes back and forces the Germans to put their suitcases on their laps. The Germans are not happy. They can hardly see anything. They look ridiculous, extremely uncomfortable, stuffed into their narrow seats with their massive suitcases on their laps. The elderly lady sits down triumphantly. She puts on a pair of oversized Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and turns to face the Germans. In flawless English with a slight Chicagoan accent, she says: “Tourists have many rights in Venice, but they don’t have all the rights.”

P.S. I observed this confrontation during my stay in Venice where taught creative writing ( see

Monday, June 30, 2008


TWENTY-SEVEN years ago, I walked out of my old life and into New York.

I was an earnest young German who had just earned a master’s degree in social work from a university in West Berlin and was here on a brief vacation. But from the moment I first stepped out of the Hotel Earle, at Waverly Place and MacDougal Street, and into Washington Square Park, I was smitten with the city.

It was a Saturday afternoon, a time when German cities turn into graveyards. But in the park, blasting radios battled one another for dominance, elderly men played speed chess with youthful contenders, and dope peddlers, fire eaters and aspiring folk singers competed for the public’s attention. Children on the swings shrieked with delight, while hyperactive small dogs engaged in rough-and-tumble play.

I was 25, love-struck and delusional, and I decided to stay. Ignoring all the illegal immigrant’s red flags (no health insurance, no green card, no work, no savings), I cashed in my return ticket.

In New York, my vocabulary was that of a 10-year-old. I could barely read a tabloid like The New York Post. But I was confident that I’d conquer the English language in no time. I decided on a strict immersion regime: no hanging out with Germans, no German books or movies.

Men found my accent mysterious and my errors endearing. “Just continue to talk, go on about anything, even the weather,” one admirer pleaded. I was often the funny foreigner. En route to a dinner date, the zipper of my skirt broke and sent me rushing to Woolworth’s. My question — “Do you carry security needles?” — drew blank stares. “For when you need to hold it together!” I insisted. More blank stares. Finally, I took out my pen and drew two pieces of fabric held together with a safety pin.

But if my 10-year-old’s grasp of English was funny to others, it was often mortifying to me. I was enamored of a handsome sales clerk at the Spring Street Bookstore. Mustering my courage, I stepped up to the counter and asked, “Do you sell Granta?” I had seen the magazine before and remembered the edition devoted to Germany.

“What issue are you looking for?” my heartthrob asked.

Issue? Issue? Unable to understand, I blushed and fled. At home, I scavenged my dictionaries. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language listed nine definitions of “issue.” What was it: a point of debate, or a discharge of pus? Then again, what was pus?

Humor almost completely disappeared from my life. Imagine the anguish of sitting with a group of people, all of them roaring with laughter, while you, the oddball foreigner, struggle to grasp the jokes. I consoled myself with Buster Keaton silents at Film Forum.

Reading, too, deserted me as a source of pleasure. Someone recommended Thomas Pynchon’s novel “The Crying of Lot 49”; flummoxed, I gave up after the opening sentence. In Germany, I had published some poetry and personal essays, but here I stopped writing. Who, other than Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov, could compose literature in two languages?

I grew terrified of leaving telephone messages. Words like vegetable, refrigerator and schedule tortured me. And how did Americans manage to press the tip of their tongue behind their front teeth to produce the proper “th” sound?

Children learn their first language naturally, without formal instruction. But what about those of us who must learn a second language at 20, 30 or 60? Today, almost half of all New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home. I don’t know what the percentage was 25 years ago, but I recall that my manicurist, from Uzbekistan, had a master’s degree in sociology; a livery cabdriver had been an engineer in Senegal; the doorman of my friend’s high-rise was an anthropologist from Colombia.

TO make a living, I sold nuts from a pushcart and cleaned houses, mostly for elderly Jewish ladies from Poland, Ukraine and Russia who had lived in the East Village for decades. My favorite was Ms. Rabinowitz, 82 when I met her, from Odessa. Her children lived in large houses in California and New Jersey, but she refused to join them. “You’ll see,” she told me. “Once New York gets into your blood, you won’t be able to leave.”

To ease the pangs I was feeling, I watched the Miners’ Club from Recklinghausen, Miss German America and Bavarian Club Edelweiss in the annual German-American Steuben Parade, which will take place, for the 50th time, on Saturday. When I felt truly homesick, I went to East 86th Street, then the heart of the city’s German community, to visit the Kleine Konditorei restaurant, whose Black Forest torte was almost as good as my mother’s.

The customers, elderly men in Tyrolean hats and ladies with hair resembling corrugated sheet metal, spoke a strange mixture of German and English. “Willkomm, mei ladies,” one would say. “Du lukst wanderfull mit dem neuen hairdo.” “Try the Mohnkuchen,” said another. “So lecker!”

It took five years before I mastered The New York Times, seven years before I started to dream and think in English. By then I felt confident enough to work as a psychotherapist, one profession in which a German accent was no hindrance, and began a three-year training program in Gestalt therapy.

But only after a decade did I feel wholly comfortable speaking English, an achievement I paid for by a gradual loss of fluency in my mother tongue. Now, whenever I spoke German, I had to switch my brain from English to German. “Meine Arbeit ist zu stressful,” I used to say on the phone to my mother, just like the émigrés at the Kleine Konditorei. “Ich brauche unbedingt vacation.”

Published 9.9.2007, The New York Times

Sunday, June 22, 2008


I feel pure love for the English language, a love not soiled, not conflicting. The language of my childhood is the language of fear, the language of horror. I have been beaten up and humiliated to German words. “You’ll never amount to anything," my father said. "You are a quarter-liter jug and I’m trying to pour a half- liter into you," the teacher said.

English: James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, Easy Rider, Woody Allen, Talking Heads.

Deutsch: Heine, Hölderlin, Beethoven, Brecht, Fassbinder, Fußball.

The bluest sky in the world, the New York evening light, the majestic clouds over Provincetown are English. Gray, drizzling skies, the melancholy Lower-Rhine, poplars standing at attention like soldiers are German.

German is the language of the internal -- confined, conscientious, meticulous, encapsulated. Glück (happiness), lifelong friendships and profound conversations are German

English is the language of the external-- superficial, uncomplicated and unreliable. Fun, fleeting acquaintances and small talk are English.

English is the weightless summer dress; German the heavy winter coat.

English is doing; German is being.

The German sailors in the New Yorker subway talk among themselves. "Where do we get off for Central Park?" I secretly listen to their conversations. How beautiful the German sounds. How familiar. Like Christmas cookies and Glühwein (mulled wine). Here in New York, I am allowed to intrude in their conversation. The sailors made a mistake when they got on the express train. "If you don't get out at the next stop, you’ll land in Harlem," I say. The young man from Heidelberg beams. I speak his language.

Rita, a psychiatrist from Berlin, is visiting. We are sitting in the subway. Rita has come alive. She feels enthusiastic, inspired; she raves about New York. The furrowed, old lady opposite us slides nervously back and forth on the bench. She trembles, she is terribly pale. Her eyes are full of fear. She pierces us with her gaze. Suddenly, she gets up, positions herself before us and screams:Don’t you dare speak that bastard language in my town. Get out! Get out now!”

The German journalist is distraught. He dreads having to return to Germany. He doesn't want to go back into his charming house in Hamburg-Eppendorf. His wife and daughters don't want to go back either. Soon the girls will be sitting in a German class room agian. The fifteen year-old takes the PSAT regardless. No question, she will attend an American university. The father doesn’t know how he’s going to pay for it.

Forced to return to Europe, they miss New York terribly. The New York ease, the small surprises in everyday life, the friendliness without a cause, the humor. Precious New York moments.

The New Yorker subway brought me and a German-Romanian writer together. My friend Liz sat next to Carmen-Francesca Banciu in the subway and started to talk to her. She found out, that Carmen-Francesca is a writer who lives in Berlin. "Then you have to meet my friend Anna. She's from Berlin too. She's a writer too."

Friendships are formed effortlessly in New York. Often they don’t last. But would we have met in Berlin or Bucharest the same way?