Schmaltzing Berlin: Just a regular German weekend...
As an expatriate, at what point do you fully become integrated in a country amongst the natives? It may be the smaller, less significant things, says blogger Sabrina Small.
At what point do things in your newly chosen country cease to be remarkable and start to become normal? Surely it's different for all ex pats but for me, I believe I turned a major corner at Ikea. I've been to Ikea before in the US, steered my way through the labyrinth of sample rooms and kitchen implements, loaded up on things for my dorm room and exited with a giant blue plastic bag and the notion that Ikea was somehow too Swedish, and therefore unknowable to someone with my American sensibilities. The simplicity of Scandinavian furniture has always made me feel inferior as an American, as if all Danish people would be represented by some sleek curved blonde-wood chair and all Americans would be represented by an over stuffed E-Z Boy lounger, complete with broken footrest and stained plaid fabric.
The importance of Ikea
Germans are not Scandinavians but they share the Scandinavians' passion for bright, well organized living spaces. I will boldly claim that there is not an apartment in all of Germany without something from Ikea in it. It chokes the landscape here the way the weed kudzu chokes the American south. You can either resist it endlessly or learn to love it and appreciate it for the remarkable organism that it is. I chose the latter and seeing as we were short a teapot, cutting board and two planters, I decided to head down to the Ikea in Sudkreuz for my fill of the German consumer experience. Amidst those quietly munching curry couscous salad in the spacious cafeteria, I noticed how diverse the Ikea crowd was. Turkish families looked out onto the same parking lot as hipster lesbian couples. I heard French, German, Spanish, English and Russian being spoken as I contemplated a 20 Euro bathrobe and I was proud to be able to speak completely in my limited German as I wandered and eventually paid for my items.
In retrospect, what was so significant about this experience was that it was so normal, so effortless for me. Two months ago simply changing train lines three times would have been cause for panic and I never would have made it through the whole day without speaking English. But here I was, like everyone else, just getting a few things for the apartment, enjoying the ephemeral quality of mundane choices and their ability to make us feel like we are living inside a Dutch still life.
Later that evening our downstairs neighbors came over for dinner. We had vegetarian white bean chili and chocolate brownies. We played a board game and drank some German wine. I'd like to say we spoke only German but I had to switch to English, mostly to tell stories about myself or my family. The rest was in German and it didn't seem that strange to me.
I remember imagining myself in Berlin before I'd moved here. To actually imagine myself here I had to focus on something very basic, something I understood inside and out. In my fantasies I would be buying a gallon of milk (my metric fluency was poor then, forgive me) in German. I'd walk into the grocery store, pick out the milk, pay for it and leave. A pretty boring fantasy, you might say, but I think it was about longing for a sense of European identity. If I could buy milk here, I would be like a real German.
Now that I'm actually here I often pop into the corner shop for a liter of Vollmilch and as I utter Tschuss (goodbye) to the Turkish owner or his wife, I do feel like a successful interloper here, my American identity fully concealed. Assimilation is an over romanticized process. It certainly was for me. I thought I would be different here, more stylish, more serious, more like a character in a Doris Lessing novel. Each day I woke up expecting transformation, epiphany, and improved perception and each day I did change, realize and understand more but it wasn't very dramatic. It turns out that it's the superficial day-to-day stuff that makes me feel a sense of belonging.
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