i have just been awoken from an afternoon nap by three housekeepers here at a hostel in frankfurt. they come in like a swarm of fat sweaty bees moving quickly and flapping blanket wings around the room and then they are gone. it is a cleaning attack. with all the speed and precision and single-mindedness of an attack. this is my last night here.
i am german! probably 50% german at least, anyway. i never thought much about it until very recently–two days ago actually, when i arrived here in germany. i feel at ease around these people. these are my people. honestly, i was never much interested in my german heritage before. beer steins and oktoberfest celebrations and sausages–these things are so common in cincinnati that i have taken them for granted or dismissed them as contrived. after all, most of my experiences with german looking buildings have been in theme parks.
now that i have seen some towns and met some people, i get it. the german celebrations and traditions we have in cincinnati are not novelties or exploitations but are truly ingrained into our heritage as a people with a great deal of german blood in our veins. my mother’s maiden name was german and my grandfather spoke fluent german. so after a month in dreamy otherworldly medieval cities in italy, frankfurt feels very much like home. the potato salad they serve here is a lot like my mom’s potato salad (the best potato salad in the tri-state). the franks and sausages remind me of being at a red’s game or in a friend’s backyard. the beer is delicious and so is the local apfelwine and apple cider. everything has a familiar quality to it: the way germans gather and eat and drink, their congeniality and humor, et cetera. there is a germany word for which there is no english equivalent: gemütlich. it means comfortable, cozy, warm, et cetera. that is what i have felt the last few days in the wonderful company of my german pen pal turned real-life friend markus.
for my first few nights in germany Markus and his girlfriend Laura graciously offered to put me up in their quiet town of bad nauheim, so named for the baths (bad) there, or hot springs. over the weekend they took me to see a small castle completely devoid of tourists. there Markus told me the local lore and legends of the mad men sculptures that switch places at midnight but can only be seen by those who have never told a lie (Markus has seen them switch twice he claims), and the man who was killed by a boar tooth for not trusting his wife’s intuition about a dangerous hunting trip. it was an incredibly intimate tour of the towns Bad Nauheim and BÃ¼dingen, places which no american tourist would see if not in the company of a local.
the three of us have had a wonderful time together and i think we will remain close after i leave despite the large atlantic ocean between us. however until greeting me at the train station Markus and i had never met face to face. coming from work he wore a perfectly starched white shirt and shiny black shoes and black slacks. he is a young businessman. he is about my height but much stronger and with almost black hair and piercing blue eyes. he is truly german and german looking but he speaks better english than i do in a direct professional manner, which was slightly intimidating at first. there are a great deal of younger germans who have been taking english classes since they were kids. they speak british sounding english with only a slight german accent. Markus’s girlfriend Laura girlfriend speaks english very well too as she lived in the states for a few years playing tennis during college. since i arrived they have spoken english most of the time as a courtesy, even when addressing each other. i asked them if they would be relieved to speak german again when i left and they said no, that they really enjoy speaking english occasionally.
to my surprise, markus and a lot of germans agree with americans in thinking that the german language sounds clumsy and harsh. i have also learned that it is very difficult to compose songs in german, which is one reason germans like american music so much. markus played me music from a german band that sounded very american. when their fans discovered that the band was german and not american, their record sales declined dramatically. not only is the sound of american music important, but it’s americanism gives it an authenticity. music and entertainment in general is surely one of america’s greatest exports and something that we can remain proud of despite our other exports which include preemptive wars, oil spills, mcdonalds, et cetera. american music is a positive, meaningful force in the lives of many europeans and i am happy to be here as a representative.
if there is one thing that breaks down cultural barriers it’s alcohol. but if there is another thing–and this is the thing i was going to say when i started that previous sentence–it’s the arts. american music is as important now to europeans as the european visual arts have been to americans since the late 1800’s. yesterday in frankfurt i saw a retrospective show of one of my favorite painters Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. without the german expressionists there would have been no neo-expressionists and i would not be able to paint in the way that i like to paint. in the 1920’s Kirchner and his friends founded the group die brÃ¼ke, the bridge, to bridge the old german art with the new avant guard art. (as a sidenote i met someone today whose grandfather hung out with the Blue Rider, the other famous group of expressionists in germany). Kirchner and his friends spent a lot of time sitting around his bohemian loft smoking cigarettes and looking at african sculptures. they painted and drew young girls, often their girlfriends or other artists, from life in poses that were considered unacceptable by the academic art would at the time. his paintings are mostly figurative, although they can be quite flat and abstract. at first glance they seem child-like but retain an underlying sophistication of color and texture through layered paint application. if there is one thing that will really stick with me about the show, it is the way he used layers. most of the paintings are visceral and quick as if the artist was possessed with the desire to capture the moment. these paintings were done in the 1920’s or before but a lot of them still seem contemporary. it is good timing that this show is here when i am here since a retrospective of a german painter like Kirchner will probably never happen in america, especially in cincinnati where, 100 years later, people still seem to have little tolerance for abstraction in painting.
Kirchner was quite popular in his own day. when Hitler rose to power Hitler staged the “degenerate” art show. the show was a place for germans to come and look down on or literally laugh at artworks that hitler dubbed primitive or degenerate or bad. hitler included kirschner’s works in the degenerate show and had over 600 of Kirchner’s paintings removed from museums around germany, including many at the famous museum here in frankfurt where the retrospective was staged, the stadel museum, which was loved by Kirchner. can you imagine being an aging artist, having accomplished so much and to have it all taken away by some crazy fuckhead who liked killing people who look different? this must have been the most terrible feeling, some combination of rage, disbelief, depression. surely it was, because when the Nazi’s finally arrived some 20 miles away from Kirchner’s house in what he thought was a secluded part of austria, Kirchner shot himself twice in the heart.
if you ask an american about germany and say what comes to mind they would probably say nazis. this is unfortunate but true and germans know this. i have seen so many movies about the nazis but no movies that i can recall about actual nice german people doing nice german things in their german way like eating breads for breakfast and afternoon cakes with coffee and eating sausages as if they are candycanes and laughing and toasting prost! the way they do everyday. germany as a country has been conflicted about her own patriotism until very recently. what could possibly ease the tremendous lingering emotional burden of the nazis? there is one thing that has united these people more than any other force, a thing that has finally given germans the right and confidence to proudly stand up and wave their yellow black and red flags and yell deutschland! that thing is soccer.
the world cup happens only every four years and is the most important thing in europe. more important than the mona lisa. on wednesday i had the great pleasure of watching germany play a quarter final game against argentina at markus’s brother Sven’s house. sven is stocky but not overweight with a good laugh that occasionally shoots off like a projectile weapon of joy, and a good sense of humor which is made even better by his accent.
this was a family gathering that reminded me so much of my own family gatherings at home i would have forgotten i was in another country if not for the occasional shouts at the tv of nein nein nein! when the other team approached the german goal. there were children running around the house, extended family doing dishes and cutting cakes, a dog eating tennis balls in the backyard and sausages coming off the grill all night. i ate well and smoked a cuban cigar, had some incredibly smooth prune brandy from Ziegler which was probably expensive (my mostly german grandmother loved brandy), and drank hefeweizen. there must have been fifty german flags in the house and all over the cars outside and on tee-shirts and noisemakers but in the corner there was one american flag. it is one of only a few american flags i have seen since i left america. sven and his family are quite fond of america. they have visited kentucky and vacationed in florida and love doritos.
when germany scored its fourth goal and went on to win four to zero the house was absolutely ecstatic, beaming with such positivity that everyone found it hard to sit down and there i was the lone american a smiling witness to this nationally important event, wearing a lei with german colors and i cheered and felt more german than i ever have. that night on the back porch i sang and played songs on the acoustic guitar for the family. sven and i had it worked out that i would play them one of my songs for every sausage or beer i consumed. i played for a while. the kids clapped their hands but germans can only clap on the 1 and 3 so i played songs that way until they grew tired and slowly drifted to sleep as we smiled and breathed in the summer air feeling gemütlich.