New Old World: Germans are getting to me

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Resident blogger R.W. Dooley explores what it means to be a part of a village.

I’ve just returned from a trip to New York City. It was a perfect autumn respite from the cold and gray of the approaching German winter. When I arrived, the sun was brilliant, the air warm and the streets bustling with a million faces, all the different shades of humanity that make up that island city I called home for such a long time. The funny thing is, after a few days, I could think of nothing I wanted more than to be back in Cologne.

 

Recently HH, Mama and I moved into new quarters in a close-knit community in the Belgian Quarter. It’s not very far from our old place but in terms of how we live our daily lives, it’s as if we stepped onto a new planet. We are living on a square, a ring of old townhouses and cafes that sit in a park surrounding one of Cologne’s many churches. It was spared the destruction that transformed most of this once beautiful and very romantic city into a poster child for bad postwar architecture. But it isn’t just the architecture that makes our new home so different from our old one.

Now, my German language skills have certainly improved since I began writing this journal almost two years ago – hard to believe it has been that long. It has certainly made a difference, being able to understand a little more than 60 percent of what is said to me but it doesn’t account for the sea change I feel moving through me. Living on a square is a bit like living in a small village. In the West Village in Manhattan, I had a similar experience: Over time, I got to know just about all the merchants and many of the residents in a two block radius of my toy-box sized apartment.

The street I lived on was just off the beaten path so we seldom saw a tourist and when we did, they were usually desperately lost with that look that only desperately lost tourists have, clutching their Thomas Guide in one hand and standing on the corner looking down one street and then over to the next, knowing that with either choice, they were certain to become even more lost. I enjoyed bailing these folks out with directions that would take them safely back to the well-traveled avenues just beyond the maze of streets that make up old New York. I was proud to be a local and being able to give good directions in the Village is a sort of hidden badge of honor that one earns only over time, after many missteps and wanderings.

I have also lived in another village, one in central Pennsylvania during the long winter of my newly acquired middle age. Shortly after turning 40, I took a self-enforced break from the rest of the world and moved into an old house right in the middle of a small town that bordered an Amish settlement. My immediate neighbors were mostly Mennonites and "Dutch" who were really descendants of the early Germans who settled much of the area centuries earlier. Both of these village experiences taught me something about living in close quarters.

In most of Manhattan, one sees one's neighbors but rarely speak to them; in a village, you see your neighbors and they see you and over time they know just about all there is to know about you. The cafes and other haunts are filled with villagers just like you and your comings and goings are the stuff of morning chatter. There is something both claustrophobic and reassuring about this and that is what I am discovering anew in the village in which we are now living.

 

Germans are often portrayed as stiff, cold analytical folks who wouldn’t give you the time of day if they could avoid it. Alternatively they are often seen as beer-swilling loudmouths who take over every available spot of dry sand on every sunny beach in Europe -- and elsewhere for that matter -- wearing sturdy shoes with high socks. My experience has been quite different.

Shortly after moving here, we got a telephone call from one of our neighbors. I was busy with work and she knew it (the café network at work) and she offered to take care of HH for a night or two if needed. She also volunteered the assistance of the other mothers on the square and told us that we should feel free to avail ourselves of this network of mothers with kids who helped each other out when the fathers were away on business.

Also, shortly after moving in, we were invited to join the other residents of the square for a barbeque. There must have been 40 people there and everyone brought something to share. We stayed out late into the night, talking and getting to know the neighbors. It is here that one learns about the neighborhood schools, the good fish markets, the best place to buy this or that – it is here that you generally acclimatize yourself to the world around you. The square is a community, a village and even though it sits in the middle of the city, one can close one's eyes and imagine oneself in the countryside somewhere, set far back from the clamor of modern life.

As I fumbled through the streets of Midtown Manhattan last week with my luggage in search of a cab, there was a quickening in my heart. It was palpable, I felt like a pony on his way home to the barn after a long ride through the hills. All I wanted was to get to the airport, board the plane, close my eyes, and wait until my ears popped as we made our decent into Cologne. Over the past two years, we have begun to settle, Cologne has become familiar and our neighbors are no longer "Germans" -- they are neighbors.

I don’t’ suppose I will ever get Manhattan out of my heart but I don’t think that is a bad thing. The good experiences one has in life accumulate and as they do, they leave less and less room for the ugly things you would rather forget. Manhattan takes up a lot of space in my storeroom of experience but I am building new connections. HH is happy in kindergarten, speaking German, excited as he can be with the St. Martin’s lamp he made for the upcoming holiday, when all the children in the neighborhood will gather at dusk and parade around the square singing songs their parents and grandparents before them have sung.

It wasn’t inevitable that I would feel this way about living in Germany. It could have turned out quite differently; maybe we were just lucky in our choice of this neighborhood. I don’t know. I do know that stereotypes have yielded to names, names with children and histories and real lives into which I have become a part. And even if I don’t understand everything that is said to me, I understand enough, enough to know that when I stepped off that plane last week, I was home.

9 November 2007

Copyright R.W. Dooley 2007

Read R. W. Dooley's full blog at http://germandiary.blogspot.com/

Subject: 'The New Old World', R.W. Dooley, expat in Cologne, living in Germany

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