Wednesday, November 17, 2010


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

Monday, October 11, 2010

German Reunification--My Personal Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Our Mother Tongue and its Influence

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

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Civic Duty

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

Saturday, April 24, 2010

DIsgruntled Germans

I have spent time in Berlin, Leipzig, Görlitz, and my hometown of Moers these past three months. There is plenty I enjoy about Germany and the Germans: Pflaumenmus, Weizenbier, ecological awareness, the time they take to cultivate friendships, and the outdoor pubs where no one sits alone frantically pounding laptop keys, blackberries or i-phones. There is plenty I find annoying: stupid TV shows like "Wetten, dass...?," washing machines with 90 minute cycles, prejudiced attitudes toward Muslim citizens (as evident by the headscarf debate), and the obsessive complaining.
In my opinion, the Germans have no reason to complain. They enjoy a high standard of living and an unparalleled social safety net. People the world over would trade places with them anytime.
There’s one issue in particular that makes me feel that Germans live in a different universe: their attitude concerning reunification. Many Germans don’t seem to appreciate the gift of freedom, the bloodless revolution and coming together of a nation that’s been separated by barbed wire and “The Wall.” Shockingly, according to a recent survey by the Opinion Research Center Emnid, twenty-four percent of West Germans and twenty-three percent of East Germans wish, at times, to have the wall back. Sixteen percent even think it’s the best thing that could happen to the country. Eighty percent of the citizens in the East and seventy-two percent of the citizens in the West can imagine living in a socialist state like the former GDR as long as there is “work, security, and solidarity.” Freedom as the most important political goal is named by twenty-eight percent of the East Germans and forty-two percent of West Germans.
Who are these people who feel this way? Are they all born after 1970 into relative wealth? Do they all live far away from the wall and Berlin? Have they never known Berliners who suffered because their families were separated by the wall or former GDR residents who spent years in jail for expressing their opinion or trying to leave the country?
I have friends who have spent time in an East German jail or who were lucky to escape in the trunk of a car with the help of a paid escape agent. I have friends in Berlin, who from one day to the next, were unable to see their grandmother or other relatives in the East. They could no longer play in Treptow Park with their childhood friends. I remember the dramatic stories of people trying to escape from East Germany in the newspapers and the evening news. Doing research for my book I have immersed myself in the events of the early sixties for the past two months. The tragic stories of the divided Germany are fresh in my mind.

There are countless heart wrenching pictures and stories. People jumping from their third and fourth floor apartments, some of whom were saved by a fire department’s rescue net, others, not so fortunate who died. An engineer crawling through the sewers to freedom. Two young men arriving naked without any belongings in West Berlin. They swam to freedom. Newlyweds from the West walking up to the barbed wire to show themselves to their parents in the East who couldn’t attend the wedding. The wife's mother shouted across the barbed wire “Celebrate, but don't forget us.”
There’s one story in particular that haunts me. On August 17, 1962 two young men tried to jump over the wall. One made it into the west unharmed; the other, 18- year-old Peter Fechner, was hit by bullets in his back. Seriously wounded, he fell back to the eastern side of the wall. There he lay for 80 minutes without anyone coming to his assistance. West Berliners stood and watched in shock, unable to come to his rescue. Peter Fechner died a long, tortuous death. “Help me, please help me,” he shouted while the East Berlin Vopos let him bleed to death.

A stable job and a decent salary, health insurance, social welfare, and social security mean nothing if I don’t have freedom. The freedom of speech, the freedom to practice my beliefs, the freedom to live my life the way I want to.
The answers a quarter of Germans gave to the Emnid Institute make me feel ashamed of my fellow citizens. Is this dissatisfaction the result of the belief that unification has had a negative impact on social welfare? That life was better before unification?
Perhaps I have lived too long in the US, a country that has given refuge to millions of people persecuted in their homelands for their religion, political beliefs, or their ethnicity. I can live without security and wealth, but could never do without freedom.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Leipzig Book Fair

Leipzig has always been important for the printed word. The first newspaper in the world was printed here in 1650. Publishing and printing has been Leipzig’s most important trade for centuries; every second Leipziger was employed in it until WWII. When Leipzig became a Soviet zone at the end of the war, 360,000 businesses and most of the publishing houses fled to the west. The city continued to have an important book fair during GDR times, but here was no freedom of the written word. Since the collapse of the Iron Curtain—the Monday night marches that resulted in the peaceful revolution and the fall of the wall started here-- the city is once again an important laboratory for literature. The Frankfurt Book Fair is commercially more important. Berlin has more publishing houses, but for the sheer exuberance around books and reading, nothing beats the Leipzig Book Fair.

The fair lasted four days (March 18 to 21) and drew 150,000 visitors, 30% younger than twenty. There were 2,100 exhibitors from 39 countries. Events took place from 8:00 AM to well after midnight.Ulrich Blumenbach won the translation prize for David Foster Wallace’s “Infinitive Jest,” Ulrich Raulff won the prize for Non-Fiction/Essay for his book “Kreis ohne Meister,” a biography of the poet Stefan Georges. Georg Klein won the fiction prize for “Roman unserer Kindheit.” The Hungarian author György Dalos won the Prize for European Understanding for his books “Der Vorhang geht auf” (The Curtain Lifts) about the end of dictatorships in Eastern Europe.

The Leipzig Book Fair is pivotal for small independent publishers, especially those from Eastern Europe. Many Eastern European publishers can only afford to attend one international fair and most choose Leipzig. I enjoyed the exposure to literature from Bosnia-Herzegowina, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Ukraine. Many of the writers have not been published in the West. The translations were often financed by German foundations.

My first impression of the fair was visual and auditory overkill. Publishers staged a dramatic struggle for readers. They presented titles with the most commercial potential. VIPs were surrounded by autograph hunters. There were countless readings, discussion groups, book signing, mini-concerts by music stars, and garish manga-graphics. Visitors walked around with gigantic shopping bags to collect free gifts, buttons, stickers, pens, brochures, book samples, and audio books.

But then I discovered another Leipzig Bok Fair: the fair for writers and readers. With more than 1500 writers and 2000 readings and events, the fair is the largest reading festival in the world. Readings took place at 350 venues, in hair salons, cinemas, the cemetery, the opera, and the aquarium. My personal highlights were Balkan Night (music and readings) and the event at the Polish Institute where a collective of translators (Germany is worldwide the most important country for translators) spoke about translating the Ukrainian author Otar Dovzhenko, and the award ceremony of the Kurt-Wolff Foundation. Leif Greinus and Sebastian Wolter, two young publishers who started Voland & Quist Verlag in Dresden won the prize for most promising publishers. They specialize in authors from the spoken word scene. Klaus Wagenbach won the main prize for lifetime achievement. The event took place at the Connewitzer Velagsbuchhandlung, an independent bookstore and publisher. The upper floor of the bookstore was bursting at the seams. Voland & Quist introduced one of their authors, the talented poet Nora Grominger. I had seen her at City College New York a few months ago when the Creative Writing department invited her to present her work.

Wagenbach prides himself that he publishes books readers should read, not just books readers want to read. He spoke about his career and read from his forthcoming memoir. He started his publishing house after he’d been fired from Fischer Verlag and moved his business to Berlin in ‘64 when, because of the erection of the Berlin Wall, everyone else was leaving Berlin. He wanted to create an East-West Berlin press for he believes that Germans have a common history and language and that literature could be our bridge. He published the East German dissident Wolf Biermann—the manuscript was smuggled into West Berlin in installments. The GDR government retaliated by blocking all licensing of East German writers for him.

He is known as a courageous, courage-inspiring exemplary publisher who introduced Germans to the work of Alberto Moravia, Boris Vian, Natalia Ginzburg and Alan Bennett.

I listened enraptured to him and Nora Grominger sitting on a sofa made of books. After the event, I met Mama Hinke, the mother of Peter Hinke and owner of the bookstore. She had prepared a scrumptious buffet and had made all the Schnittchen herself. This too is love for literature in Leipzig, I said to myself, pleased that I had made the journey.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


I had a pleasant return to Berlin. The Berlinale celebrated its 60th birthday. I had collaborated on the script and was one of the main protagonists of “New York Memories” shown in the Berlinale’s Panorama section. Despite the rigorous selection, the film was one of 50 selected from a pool of 3,000. Next to Cannes, the Berlinale is the most important European film festival. This year 300,000 tickets were sold.
“New York Memories” is the latest documentary by Rosa von Praunheim. Twenty years after filming “Überleben in New York (Survival in New York)” Rosa returns to determine what happened to New York and his former protagonists. “Survival,” a documentary about three German women in New York was his commercially most successful film. Rosa and the producers hoped to repeat this success.
Of the three protagonists, Uli no longer lives in New York; she has moved to California. Claudia and Anna are doing well. Eva, the lead from his film “Transgender Menace,” has survived. New material is interwoven with clips from his old films depicting the wild 70s sex parties, gay pride demonstrations and eccentric superstars like Andy Warhol. Rosa recalls the tragic 80s, the bitter fight against Aids, and the transsexual uprising in the 90s. Giuliani has cleaned up the city. Rosa muses that the city has become richer and duller. He questions what happened and to all the artists and homeless people.
I remember my first Berlinale in1975, the stars, the exhilaration of discovering new films and filmmakers. We stood in line for tickets in the freezing cold; the films sold out fast. We partied all night. The Berlinale provided a welcome respite from the long dreary Berlin winter. Woody Allen won a prize for outstanding artistic contribution for “Love and Death.” This time I did not have to stand in the cold; I did not have to pay for my ticket. I got treated to drinks and Häppchen at the ARD parties (the alliance of German Public TV) and watched Eva Mattes, an actress I greatly admire, devour Eisbein next to me at lunch. She liked the film. “I could have continued to watch these people’s lives for another couple of hours,” she said. I found my name and picture in the program, sat anxiously in the cinema at the opening and felt embarrassed watching myself on the enormous screen. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
This was my first experience writing for the screen and I learned a lot. I did research, interviewed the protagonists, found interesting characters and locations. I tried to write visually; to keep a good pace and to interweave the individual stories in a way that would create a unified whole.
The final film is very different from the original script. Thirty-five hours of footage were edited down to 84 minutes. Lorenz Haarmann, the cameraman, told me that for documentaries, on average, 20 hours are shot for each hour of film. In terms of writing a novel, that means writing 200 pages to end up with 10.
Rosa discovered new protagonists —the multitalented, quirky and vivacious Pohl sisters— and cut out others. The film was funded by two public television stations, a situation many US filmmakers can only dream off. The producers had a huge impact. Certain scenes and characters were considered lackluster. They had to go. This might be similar to an editor telling an author to cut or rearrange chapters, to develop the characters more.
The final showing at the Colisseum on Schönhauser Allee was the best. Rosa asked us all on stage after the screening. The audience was fired up. They had a lot of comments and questions. Many remembered “Survival” and were fascinated by all the twists and turns of our lives. We were running half an hour over time. The people outside were getting impatient. I took the microphone. “We’ll do a sequel in twenty years,” I said. Rosa who is going to be in his 80s 20 years from now turned to me and said: “You’ll direct it.”
He might be right. Having been accepted to the Maysles Institute’s Filmmakers Collaborative, I will begin documentary film training in September.

Collaborative work, accolades, and drinks at the Hotel Savoy are pleasant. Now I’m back to working ALONE at my desk, away from the hustle and bustle of New York and Berlin. Here in Görlitz, I started work started on a novel. It’s my first day and so far I have written 1,500 words. By the end of April, I will be back in Harlem, hopefully with the first hundred pages in my suitcase. I pray I won’t have to throw out 90 of them.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bipolar Predicament

In Germany for two weeks now, I dream in English at night and find myself walking the sunlit streets of New York, in a crowd of people of all races. In New York, the Germany of my youth often invades my dreams. It might be the melancholy landscape of the lower Rhine with its gray and rainy skies or Berlin’s Prussian architecture, its Häuser und Hinterhäuser, backhouses and backyards.
I’m never just in one place; I‘m constantly comparing. New Yorkers are nice to strangers. They engage them in conversation; they are polite; they show genuine interest. Germans rarely speak to strangers. It appears acceptable to be rude, or to sit next to one another on the bus or in a cafe without exchanging a word or a smile. I am always living in two places simultaneously, with two languages in my brain. My way of looking at the world gets me into trouble on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Germans attack the US for its position on Israel, the National Rifle Association, its use of military power and its lack of ecological awareness, I become a staunch supporter of the US and the Americans. I point out all that’s right and fair in the US: a leader in civil rights, more opportunities for immigrants and more diversity in the workplace and the academic world. In Germany, I long for the optimism, the straightforward friendliness of the American people.
When in New York, just as my peers in Germany, I complain about American ignorance and narrow-mindedness, the pro-life activists and the religious fanatics. I long for more Tiefgang, (depth), friends I can argue with without the risk of offending them or losing a friendship. I deplore gas guzzling SUV’s, especially the pompous Hummer. I complain that the US is technologically behind Europe. Why is it that when we’re too hot in winter, we open the window or turn on the AC? Why don't we have individual thermostats in our apartments like most of the developed world? Why do we Americans waste our precious resources?
I had hoped that this rift, which I so often perceive as insurmountable, would heal over time. But it has never left me. Maybe I need to embrace it like a permanent companion, without whom life would not be worth living. When I was younger, I enjoyed nothing more than this “in-between state.” At ten, in a bus filled with children from the Ruhr Valley traveling to a Bavarian summer camp to escape the pollution at home, all my troubles disappeared. I was happy as long as I was on the move; no longer at home and not yet at the final destination.
Recently I came across the work of André Aciman a writer and professor of literature at the City University of New York. Aciman was born in Egypt. His family were Jews of Turkish and Italian origin who settled in Alexandria in 1905. Aciman experienced double migration. He moved with his family to Italy at the age of fifteen and then to New York at nineteen. I found comfort in his book “False Papers, Essays on Exile and Memory” (2000). In his essay Pensione Eolo, he writes:
“The true site of nostalgia is therefore not a land, or two lands, but the loop and interminable traffic between these two lands. It is the traffic between places, and not the places themselves, that eventually become the home, the spiritual home, the capital.”
On the train to Berlin, I pass through my former home state. Nordrhein-Westphalia has turned into a snowy winter wonderland. I have left my mother and my hometown but have not yet arrived. Zwischen den Stühlen sitzen, having fallen off both stools and experiencing the world from the gap, being in the middle might just be my place of belonging. My capital.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Embracing Change

“New York is nothing like Paris; it is nothing like London; it is not Spokane multiplied by sixty, or Detroit multiplied by four. It is by all odds the loftiest of cities,” E.B. White wrote in 1949.
New York is the greatest city I've ever lived in. It is constantly changing, evolving. Neighborhoods are transformed at a fascinating speed, ethnic and racial groups replace one another, and places of worship house several different congregations in their lifetime.
In the past thirty years that I've lived here, the city has changed at an unbelievable pace. Thousands of new immigrants from all over the world have arrived and foreign-born New Yorkers now make up 36% of the population—an all-time high. New York benefits from these newcomers, their courage, energy, cultures, and cuisine.
The city has both gained and lost. Many of my favorite places are gone: the small off-Broadway theaters and art cinemas, the sing-along bars, Zito’s Bakery, Café Europa, and the Village Gate. Times Square has been cleaned up and Broadway Disneyfied. Our parks and waterfront have never looked better and the city has never been safer.
I have become the victim of ever-changing New York twice. In 1988, I had to leave TriBeCa when I didn't have the money to buy the loft I was living in. I lived in SoHo for the following five years and had to leave when the landlord sold the building. Losing my residences was traumatic. Looking back, I don't feel bitter. Had I not been forced to move, I would have never experienced living in the West Village or Harlem. I might not have moved on with my life.
Some of my friends in Berlin, as well as some New Yorkers, still live in the same apartments they first rented as college students. They will never move because their rents are so low. When I return to Berlin and visit my old stomping grounds (I lived there from 1975 to 1980), many of the same restaurants and clubs I knew then still exist. At the Slumberland, a late-night dive on Winterfeldplatz, I found a former roommate (a member of my Wohngemeinschaft) leaning against the bar as had been his habit thirty-five years ago.
Living in one room with my partner for eight years stifled my creativity. In the West Village, we paid less than $1300 a month rent, which many of our friends considered a steal. I did not feel so lucky. I was tired of not having my own desk, tired of not having any privacy, and most of all, I was tired of living like a college student. Growing up, growing older, is about change. Forced to move, we move out of our comfort zone. Moving to Harlem has been a blessing. Once I had my own desk, my love for writing returned. I discovered City College across from Saint Nicholas Park and ended up studying creative writing there. A few years later I left my work as a school social worker to become a full-time writer.
Harlem has changed a lot since I moved there in February 1999. In the 70s, Harlem became a blighted neighborhood devastated by drugs, crime and arson, “a penal colony of poverty, drained of population, services, and hope” (Adam Sternbergh, New York Magazine 12/11/09). Thirty percent of the population, most of the middle class, had left. The new Harlemites, like me, often moved into abandoned or rehabilitated buildings. We did not displace the existing population. With the influx of new middle-class residents and their money, drugstores, supermarkets and a variety of new businesses arrived in Harlem. Harlem residents benefit from this development. They lost too. African-Americans are no longer the majority in Greater Harlem, but Harlem is on its way to become a truly integrated neighborhood.
Many of my peers bemoan the loss of the “Old New York”; they miss the gritty streets, the wild sex clubs, the hustlers on the Christopher Street Piers, and raunchy Times Square. They wish themselves back to the seventies, where they believe everything was better. They complain that New York has become too expensive, that lawyers and stockbrokers have replaced poets and filmmakers.
But young people from small towns from across the US and from the world over still flock to New York. Unable to afford the East Village and Williamsburg, they move to Bedford-Stuyvesant or the South Bronx. They share a flat with several roommates; they struggle to make ends meet, but they would not be anywhere else for the world. No one said it as eloquently as E.B. White (Here is New York). His words still ring true today.
“And whether it is… a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer…”

Monday, January 4, 2010

European Morosity

“Americans are so friendly. They talk to you, they smile at you,” Gaby said. It was her third day in New York. Like me she grew up in Moers, a small town on the lower Rhine. Geneva, Switzerland, is her adopted home. “Swiss people, like the Germans are not friendly to strangers. They always seem in a foul mood,” she added.
I’ve also noticed this difference between Europeans and Americans and still remember my astonishment upon my arrival in New York. White Americans physically resembled the Germans, but seemed a different species altogether. They did not walk with slumped shoulders; they did not drag their feet. They walked with a bounce in their step and held their heads high. They smiled at you. They were optimistic. I did not understand why they weren’t affected by history. Where was their Vergangenheitsbewältigung? How did they cope with the past? Why weren’t they burdened by guilt for what they had done to the Native Americans and the Blacks? Why weren’t they mourning their losses in the Vietnam War? Half of the world hated them, but they didn’t care. Unlike the Germans, they didn’t believe in guilt-ridden soul-searching.
Recently Dominique Moïsi’s book The Geopolitics of Emotion deepened my understanding of the differences between Americans and Europeans. Moïsi is the founder of the French Institute of International Affairs and a visiting professor at Harvard University. In his book, he examines the emotions that drive cultural differences and cause the divisions in the post-9/11 world. He shows how fear, humiliation, and hope are reshaping the world. For him both the U. S. and Europe are ruled by fears of the “other.” Both continents fear the loss of their national identity.
In contrast Muslims and Arabs are ruled by humiliation. They feel excluded from the economic benefits of globalization. Historical grievances and conflicts at home extend to the countries they emigrate to. This feeling of humiliation is evolving into a culture of hatred. In another part of the world China and India --with their economic might and focus on a prosperous future-- have created a culture of hope. Moïsi believes that “Chindia” will in the future come to dominate the world and that the U.S.A., with its huge debt and crumbling infrastructure, will no longer be a major player. According to Moïsi, Europe--stuck in the past and resembling a museum--won’t be able to move forward.
He sees more collective hope in the United States than in Europe and cites the election of Obama as an example. He observes that West Europeans experience more collective fear despite little real suffering. What my visitor from Geneva described as the foul mood of her fellow citizens, Moïsi calls the morosity of the continent.
His ideas are a thought-provoking and resonate with many of my own experiences. He is considered a leading authority on international affairs and I highly recommend his book:
Dominique Moïsi: The Geopolitics of Emotion, Doubleday
Price: $25.00
ISBN: 978-0-385-52376-9 (0-385-52376-9)