Out of a dream like coming to the surface after plummeting to the depths of the black water of slumber. Slowing growing lighter and lighter until consciousness comes like breaking to the surface and back into the light.
Monthly Archives: March 2015
My Dad had no problems. No, really. It’s true. I heard him say so myself.
When Mom attempted to ask for help or discuss problems she was having with us kids or, God forbid, her relationship with him, my father responded predictably.
“Is there a problem? Well, I don’t have any problems. So it must be your problem.”
And that was that.
Here is my second to last segment about my family culture of Germany Worship.
I had a difficult reentry into suburban America after spending four years of my childhood in the ebb and flow of German city life. Over there I had been too American. On my return to the U.S., I was surprised to find how out of sync and foreign I felt. I clung to my German identity as best I could.
Awesome things about life in Germany included the following. And P. S.: I clearly love food but I swear this is not a food blog.
27. Did I mention Walking? It is basically a national pastime. I understand things have changed somewhat but when I was a kid, there were just not any overweight people to be found. Really. And along with the walking was the tradition of using a lightweight wooden hiking stick or cane. Each time you hiked at a new location, you had the option of buying a tiny colorful plaque to commemorate your visit. Yes, it is touristy. Yes, I have one. Yes, I still adore walking.
28. No waste. Or very little. I learned a lot about conservation. I witnessed one classmate saving money and trees by turning used notebook papers sideways and taking notes on top of and at a right angle to the original writing. Another example: Everyone had a single tiny water heater or a few tiny source heaters for their kitchen and bathroom. Some folks turned the water off after wetting themselves in the shower and then turned it back on to rinse off the soap.
I learned the hard way that long American showers were problematic. The first time I stayed at my German friend Hanna’s house, I used up the hot water supply for the entire apartment without realizing it. Oops! Everybody was too polite to correct me. Hanna’s Mom couldn’t stand me for years.
What else? Public transportation was abundant and efficient. Plenty of folks went without cars, and those who did own them bought tiny ones. I went into culture shock in the late 70s when I returned to the U.S. and the endless swaths of pavement swarming with gas guzzling behemoths. We’ve begun to use tiny cars here too but at the time, the contrast was extreme. And yes, by the way, this is a double standard since we drove a huge station wagon!
In Germany, I also learned that you can wear your clothing more than once before throwing it into the laundry bin for Mom to wash. On the down side, I also learned that deodorant was optional and that it is actually possible to wear your clothes so many times they stand up by themselves…
29. Füller. Fountain pens. Everybody used them. Even young kids, and even for math! That reminds me that I need to buy another pen, since my last one broke. I enjoy writing with them. I stick to Pelikan out of nostalgia, since that is the brand I used in German school.
30. Making up your own words. Yes, it’s allowed. Think of Fahrvergnügen = driving + pleasure. Schadenfreude = harm + glee. Let’s do one now for fun. I think I’ll invent Schokoladentherapie and use it in my counseling practice. Chocolate + therapy = happy clients.
31. Federbetten. Featherbeds. Americans have caught on. But I’m not sure they have the kind that are just one big bag of down without any stitches to hold the feathers in place. Using a Federbett is like sleeping under a giant marshmallow. It’s just a gigantic bag of down. People get really, really anal about the upkeep of their feather beds, so tread lightly. Not to be used in cases of profuse sweating. Must be gently beaten so as to fluff but not break the feathers. Should be aired regularly–you may see them hanging out of windows on nice days. And speaking of conservation—it is these featherbeds that allow the Germans to sleep with open windows in cool weather and keep some bedrooms unheated in the winter.
32. Whipped cream without sugar. Found this one out the hard way but eventually came to like it very much.
I remember the day my sister Gwen and I discovered it. We had begged my father to buy us ice cream. Uncharacteristically, he hesitated, and we figured we had a foot in the door. We then begged my father not only to buy us ice cream, but to pay the extra money for a big dollop of whipped cream on top. He assured us we would hate the whipped cream, and it would go to waste. We thought he was crazy and begged harder. We promised to like it. We promised to eat it. Against the odds, he caved in on both accounts: ice cream and topping. Our lucky day!
After he paid, he started to lope of ahead of us with his long grasshopper legs. He must have noticed we were not huffing and puffing, as usual, to keep up with him. He turned around a split second after the whipped cream had, uh, accidentally slipped off both Gwen’s and my ice cream onto the sidewalk with a puffy splat. We were appropriately mystified at our clumsiness. Mercifully he did not question us further.
33. Quark. We don’t have it. It’s a kind of fresh dairy product. We used to eat it with sliced fruit.
34. Vanillesoβe. A ubiquitous Dr. Oetker mix commonly used to make vanilla-flavored sauce for desserts. It is good but I’m not prepared to say it’s legendary. I think it was raised to the status of an exotic delight because my father brought several of the small packets home after work trips to Germany in the years before we went as a family. Also, I think my mother remembered it fondly from her own childhood when she spent time in the home of her best friend Luisa, a German girl.
35. Pommes Frites. I don’t care if they are supposedly French. If you want to die and go to heaven quickly, spend the day hoofing it around the city, working up an appetite, and then buy a big serving of Pomme Frites with ketchup and a Coke. The best fries ever!
36. Italian ice. The real thing is amazing. It is nothing like the stuff you get in the freezer section of American grocery stores. Once you have it, you will wonder why people aren’t jumping up and down in protest. Can you believe my classmates actually used to beg me to buy American ice cream in the commissary and bring it to their birthday parties??
I seem to think a lot these days
To cry and pain and pain and bleed
Then joy, bright champagne bubble mirth
Blows golden notes of dandelion seed
Solemnity of captives freed
A mind reduced to motion
I think I was my father’s little boy.
I say this tentatively and with an apology to my younger brother Will. Both because I may have misunderstood–and that makes me sound queasily grandiose–and because it might sound like I am blaming him for not being chosen as heir. Maybe I should apologize to Gwen as well. If one daughter could be his son, why not the other? I believe it had little to do with our individual merits.
Maybe birth order is to blame since both my siblings are loveable and gifted individuals. Looking through my adult vantage point and my therapist goggles, I see that my father was prone to bending logic when it suited him. It is deforming to spoil, provoke, or ignore a child into brazenness, neediness, or despair and then point at that child’s behavior to justify your concerns about his or her goodness or stability.
The fact that I learned to negotiate the shifting shoals is both an achievement and a source of shame and guilt. I rarely ran aground in any obvious way. While I was astute enough to figure out and operate within the rules of engagement, I did not save or defend my siblings when I might have. Instead, I stood quietly by and watched as they were branded with various labels and then punished for bearing them. Older and stronger, I sometimes even threw them under the bus.
I know, I know. I was just a kid. But it still feels bad sometimes. Back and forth, back and forth I go. Was I a victim or an accomplice? This is how I wear my damage. They wear theirs differently.
Allowing myself to contemplate my brokenness brings self loathing. If I claim I am damaged, I selfishly compete for balm at the expense of those who need it more. I have shown I can manage. If I claim I am undamaged, I smell superior and condescending. There is no way out. Thankfully, the reverberations have become dampened over time. I don’t spend a lot of time or tears on this matter. It generally stays in the back of my mind, held comfortably in check by God’s cleansing and my adult logic.
Occasionally old feelings still build and threaten. Writing this–right in this moment–I feel the edges of madness pressing in. That slow sinking. Eyelids falling shut. Bad Jane, bad Jane. Time to take a break…
…The brands I received were different but no less constricting. Though I never struggled with sexual preference or identity, being Junior and being entrusted with my father’s inside views on my mother’s shortcomings caused me to associate my womanly emotional makeup with weakness and disown it as inferior. I was just as uncomfortable with my body.
I got to be the Good Student, the Responsible One, the Dutiful One. Whoop dee do. These labels came with the designations Stoic One and Stick In The Mud. I think in time I also got Sneaky One, and sometimes that one fit.
Gwen got to be the Feminine One, the Cute One, and the Artistic One. Sigh. Sadly, those were padlocked to the brands Dramatic One (never to be taken seriously, even in extremis) and Messy One (“She can’t help herself. It’s because of her artistic temperament.”). How would you like to labor under those prophetic burdens? And what do you think happens when two girls, so differently regarded and so close in age, have to share a single small room? This was not a recipe to cultivate sibling love.
Will had other brands but those escape me now. The comparison between me and Gwen was sharpest given our 18-month age difference.
Dad labeled me because he knew he knew me and what I was about. Looking at me was looking in the mirror. It was a Fun House mirror–wavy and distorted–but only one of us seemed to realize it. I was supposed to be an engineer like him. He knew it was a fit for me. I knew I would never, ever, do it. Even the thought of it made me clammy.
I stood up to him about the engineering major but compromised by giving in to his expectation that I enroll in 21 credits my first semester in college. He had done it. No problem! Never mind that I was participating as a scholarship athlete on a Division I sports team. I lasted a few weeks before quietly adjusting my schedule and doing my own thing. To his credit, he was entirely supportive. This marked the start of a better phase in our relationship. On the cusp of my adulthood, I began to understand him differently. I came to view his behavior as motivated more by a lack of insight than a spoiling for malice. More on that soon.
I ended up studying Bio and German. I said I might try for medical school though I knew I never would.
In retrospect, this may have been the most Jane I was able to be at this time in my life. The finding of Jane has been a molasses-slow and ongoing process. Bio was not my thing. German, I love, but not as a profession. Years later, I ended up in counseling and then in grad school for counseling. It’s a great fit.
As for writing? Too artistic for me to even contemplate.
Razor stubble litters his humid morning face
Snowflake flecks invade those black-knight locks
Muddy coffee vapors collide with my perfume
And curdle my awe
His gritty gaze slumbers
Even as it lumbers
To greet me
Can this be you?
Here she goes again….
Can I help it if my family had a serious crush on Germany??
More of the things we hated to leave behind:
13. Licorice. I loved Lakritz Schnecken, which are delectable black licorice strings rolled up like snails. Black licorice, in general, was a spiritual experience. In a similar category were Veilchen Pastillen (violet pastilles). They actually tasted like flowers. In addition to being addictive, they were pleasantly aromatic and chewy.
14. Igel–those cute little hedgehogs that look like prickly chestnuts.
15. Red squirrels. Look at his cute, fringed ears! XO
16. Giant orange slugs. Fabulous! Especially to a nerd like me.
17. Mainzelmännchen (tiny little mischievous cartoon guys). We thought the Germans were brilliant. Instead of annoying viewers with a commercial every few minutes, they’d save them up and show them all at one time, interspersed with these clever cartoons. We loved commercials! Hope you enjoy this selection from the 70’s.
18. Schlümpfe (Smurfs). We had them waaaaay back when. Pretty much every kid watched them on TV and collected the little plastic figures.
19. Kickers. These were actually Italian shoes. Germans are very serious about their footwear since they do so much walking. They were a fad at my school, and I begged and begged for Kickers until I finally got some. They always looked so cute on my friends. I quickly realized the effect was not so brilliant on a tall skinny girl with ginormous feet. Couldn’t find a photo. Sorry!
20. Sleds. Made all of wood with fixed runners covered in a thin strip of metal. We kids used put them on our shoulders like backpacks before squeezing ourselves into the streetcar to head out to the best sledding grounds. IMHO, the lighter weight and wider runners made my German sled superior to my Flexible Flyer. Steering was no problem—you just had to gently drag one foot or arm on the side to which you wished to turn.
21. Schaumküsse–known as Mohrenköpfe or Negerküsse in my youth. You probably don’t have to be a German speaker to intuit why those names had to go.
A Schaumkuss is hard to describe because we have nothing like it. It is a very large, moist and creamy white marshmallow sitting on a baked wafer (not unlike a large corrugated communion wafer) and dipped in dark chocolate. We used to eat them as dessert, obviously, but there was another method for the starved hordes exiting the XXXXXXX School after class. We’d stampede into Modero (a Mom and Pop store across from school) and order one served on a Brötchen (crispy roll) so we’d have something to eat on the way home. Open roll, insert Schaumkuss, squash, eat. Mmmmm.
22. Beer. Not being a delinquent (much), I took my parents’ word for it. (Note the cardboard coaster. Every single brand had its own, and there were zillions. We kids collected them and played with them like trading cards or used them to build card houses.)
23. Wine. Here are the typical glasses. I have what is left of my parents’ set and use them every weekend.
24. Johannesbeersaft. Current juice. Ahhhhh, dark, sweet-sour, strong. I could not get enough of the stuff.
The subway hums me tiredly into the city
At first it refuses
I know to bribe the turnstile for the magic words
The doors grudge open
A fresh bird splat
A drying froth of tubercular sputum
The foamy casing of the spittle bug
All this and more performed in the thick Plexiglas window
By the unknowing artist and his stealthy Zippo
Green as sick and left for dead after a long drunk
Broken glass on a trash-strewn hill
Cries out as rocks must
Murmurating brilliance at the strike of a glancing beam
Spring is too young to cover this nakedness
Clamors for love and validation
Crowd the breath out of every surface
Spray-painted, etched, burned, gouged
Whatever it takes
To starve at our eyes
Tell me I Am
We present with words
Are we so different?
This Family Rule must be understand in a very flexible way. In my family, “German” meant everything related to our years in 1970s Germany. If you lived in my house, you absorbed the fact that living like a German was the best way a person could live. If you were a visitor in our home, you knew you were in the presence of some pretty darn special people!
Here are some things–or ways of doing things–whose Germanness clearly kicked the butt of Americanness. Boy, there were so many things which were better. Germany would have beaten the U.S. in Rock, Paper, Scissors each and every time. And since we understood these things, maybe we were superior beings?
In no particular order, I present the first twelve testaments to German awesomeness. Drumroll, please…
1. Nutella. O.M.G. We were eating it by the pound before you American dumb-dumbs even knew it existed.
2. Drinks in bags. Ditto, American slackers. I was drinking bagged Capri Suns before you were even born.
3. Haribo Gummi Bears. Same story, third verse. Also, gummi colas, gummi worms…you name it!
5. Steiff stuffed animals. Yup.
6. German bread. From fluffy to crispy to scour-your-anus-good. Just add BUTTER.
7. Sausage. So. Many. Kinds. Of. Heaven. (I swore never to try Blutwurst but I ate it once by accident. Part of me wanted to stick my finger down my throat. Part of me wanted more.)
8. Cheese. We only had, what…American, Swiss, and Cheddar back in those dark ages?
9. Ikea. Who cares if it isn’t actually German? We used to go to shop at Ikea in Germany, before it came to the US. I would live in Ikea if I could.
10. Wooden toys. No plastic crap for us. No siree!
12. Chocolate. No surprises there, especially in the 70’s. I think Ritter Sport with rum, raisins and hazelnuts was my childhood fave. Also epic: Kinderschokolade eggs with build-it-yourself toys inside. Some of the toys were quite involved. The surprise and the engineering behind them was magic.
Stay tuned for more worship–uh, I mean, sharing. In the meantime, you might want to check out fellow blogger Aaron Schilling, who is writing fun and very authentic bits about the unfolding of his intensive German experience.