Going Far Away To Be Able To Get Closer



[I’m going to attempt to describe something which is probably indescribable given my limitations as a writer. Nevertheless, I felt it has to be done.]

In one of Thomas Bernhard’s novels, the narrator he had to get away from the places where he grew up, the places which he hates, to be able to get closer to them.

The longer I’m away from Germany the more I can understand what is meant by this in that it almost perfectly describes my feelings. I grew up in what in retrospect I can only call the stifling and utterly provincial atmosphere of a small German town, and it took me twentyone years to get away from there. I’m almost tempted to say that my life only really started when I finally moved away because everything I am interested in now I did not know when I lived “at home”, and almost nothing I liked back then survived. But this is not to say that I made any kind of effort to change my life. Instead, it simply changed. It happened without me trying to do it.

In a sense, Wilhelmshaven is maybe an archetypical German town where people live harbouring an odd mix of resentment, provinciality, and depression. That’s what Germany is all about: Resentment, provinciality, and depression. To a varying degree you can see that mix in any German town. It is strongest but most well hidden where you don’t expect it - like in Munich which visitors always praise for its “life” and “charm”, but once you live there you realize how stifling its atmosphere really is - and it is most easily noticable where people don’t make any effort to put up a facade. Like in Wilhelmshaven. In Wilhelmshaven, you will have no problem finding somebody who will tell you how bad life is and how bad the city is they are living in (in Munich people claim the complete opposite but they’re bad liars). And when you ask them why they don’t move away you don’t get an answer or you’ll hear all those reasons why that’s not possible. It’s much easier to complain than to do something about it.

Open a German newspaper or magazine and you find that if a journalist is talking about Germany or a German city or actor or group she/he is basically saying how bad Germany, that German city, or that actor or group is compared with what you find elsewhere. Germans have perfected complaining and whining about their situation to an extent which can only be described as grotesque given the fact that on the average, Germans are much better off than, say, Americans (no, we’re not talking about the number of TV sets per household here). But Germans like to think that everything German is somehow inferior. The hard thing to understand now is that at the same time, Germans also think that lots of German things are actually superior (that statement in itself is probably easy to understand). So they’ll claim that German movies are very bad and when you nod they’re pissed off because they want to hear that there are some good German movies. But when you point out some good German movies you will find that people disagree with you. It’s quite absurd.

A very weird consequence of these German character traits is that Germans are probably the most demanding people I’ve ever met. Ask them to give up something really tiny - say one of their dozens and dozens of official holidays - and there’ll be an outrage. The economy might be tanking but, you know, it would be very wrong to take any of those perks away. That just won’t fly!

Being German and noticing these problems obviously leads an even more absurd situation - as you undoubtedly will have noticed already - because a German complaining about Germans complaining too much… The German weekly Der Spiegel probably has mastered this technique to perfection.

Anyway, I was given the opportunity to turn my desire to get away from all that nonsense into an actual move. And that move made things even more tricky because over the years - I have lived in the US for a few years now - I have come to appreciate many aspects of life in Germany or of Germany in general. It is as if I had to move away to be able to get closer to my Germanness (whatever that is, I’m not talking about stereotypical superficialities here). But I also seem to notice that moving back there would not solve anything because very probably, I would simply hate it there for the same reasons which made me move away in the first place. Whenever I go to visit I notice how weird everything is. The last time I went, everybody kept telling me how bad the economical situation was and - at the same time! - how bad it was to try to reduce those perks. We’re constantly drunk but don’t take that alcohol away from us! But at the same time, I can relate to many things German so much easier than to most things American.

Let me try to explain that. Imagine a country where when you’re on vacation and you get sick you’re not on vacation any longer. So you’re vacation days are not wasted. For example, you fly to Spain for two weeks and you get sick and lie in bed for a week (in Spain). When you come back you can re-claim that one sick week and get another week of vacation. I guess at this stage I’ve lost all Americans. Thing is, though, I’m equally lost/baffled when Americans try to explain to me something they take for granted - for example, how America is the land of equal opportunities even though when I look at how black people are treated that so obviously is not the case at all.

There is no obvious solution for me here. I will probably have to live with this kind of Bernard-eque suspension between hatred and love of/for Germany. It definitely makes life quite interesting. And I find it much easier to discover new things in Germany now. But it also makes life a bit frustrating. It’s almost as if I have to put a restraining order on myself. Nothing is really solved. See? I’m complaining again! But, at least, I was able to get a little bit closer to everything by going away.