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?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Thoughts of an Emerging Writer

I was thrilled to participate in Periodically Speaking: Literary- Magazine Editors Introduce Emerging Writers at the New York Public Library on May 13, 08 (find the podcast at

Willard Cook, editor of Ep;phany, had invited me. Four years ago, at the Cornelia Street Café, I read a story in public for the first time. I was introduced as an emerging writer then also.

English is not my native tongue. Often, I think I know the meaning of a word when I really don't. Having been called an emerging writer twice I finally looked up the word. I always pictured a diver jumping from a spring board, doing a few twists and somersaults, then emerging from the water and leaving the pool.

How was this connected to writing? The Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines emerge /emerging as 1.come up or out into view, 2. become known, be revealed to, 3. become recognized or prominent, 4. become apparent.

When does a writers stop to be an emerging writer? When she has published a book? When her book sells well? When she gets reviewed? When she gets a good review? When she makes the best seller list? Literary fame is a fickle mistress. German writer Wilhelm Genazino wrote in his essay A gift That Fails. On the Lack of Literary Success (translated by me and published this month with Dimension 2):

What is success? What is failure? Is publication success or is publication followed by silence the beginning of failure? … Isn't literature, not belonging to a society where mere literary success does not matter at all, the biggest failure?....The names Musil, Svevo, Fleißer, and Broch stand for an interdependent pain tumbling down our cultural century with unhurried brutality. Ronald Barthes called writing “spending oneself for nothing.” There is true despair about literature’s afterlife hidden in this phrase’s mundane elegance.

I feel honored to be considered an emerging writer, honored that some editors appreciate my work and my take on life. I am glad that my friends enjoy my stories. It doesn't matter that I do not have an agent, that I have not published a novel, that I will never make the New York Times bestseller list.

Writing is foremost my solitary pleasure. I write to please myself. But I also write to communicate. I reach out to the reader to share my experiences, my thoughts and my delight in storytelling. I hope to enter into a dialogue with the reader. I respectfully disagree with Ronald Barthes.

Writing I'm spending myself for something.