Friday, October 1, 2010

old world, new world, no world

it's always so interesting to return to a place one used to live.

the feeling of belonging, yet not belonging. the feeling of both intimacy and strangeness. the same face of the same cashier who looks at you just a little bit extra, trying to figure out why you look familiar.

all these feelings were present many-fold on my recent trip back to germany, after over two years back in the states.

part of it is that i never really did feel that sense of belonging there. because i didn't really speak the language, and still didn't always get the small niceties and customs correct, i was always a little bit of a stranger in a strange land there.

i don't pretend to really know either germany or france. i don't even pretend to 'sort of' know, or 'make a stab at knowing' any place in the old world. it was while living there, after all, that i realized how completely and utterly american i am, through and through - even if i didn't want to be. but last week, while i was there, a friend idly asked me, "do you think the cultural difference between france and germany is larger or smaller than the cultural difference between the US and germany, or the US and france?"

my first instinct was to respond: oh, absolutely, france and germany are much more similar to each other than the US is to either of them. after all, one is new world, while the other two are old. the US is completely unique, sharing a common historical experience with almost no one, while the other two have been sharing a border and even swapping parcels of land for centuries. there must have been so much cross over between the two that they are like siblings, interrelated and interwoven by both history and shared present experience. we've fought along side one and against the other a couple of times, but we had a lot less at stake in these wars than either of them. we had no damage or atrocities on our soil, no civilians terrified or killed. surely even that negative shared experience would leave them with more in common with each other.

and yet, the more i thought about it, the more i'm not sure that's right. traditional - or even merely frequent - enmity is not always a bonding point.

there's definitely a difference when you cross the border between france and germany. the half-timbered fachwerkhaus gives way to stone or at least plaster over the timbers, sometimes plain, sometimes more ornate, with iron balconies and lamps. the merely occasional piles of dog crap on the sidewalk give way to frequent, almost constant piles of dog crap. favored beer and white wine give way to red wine, while bread you could use to defend yourself gives way to fluffy crumbly croissants. (my german friends are tearing their hair right now, admonishing me that there's many, many types of bread popular in germany, not just dark, heavy ones. i know, i know, but i'm generalizing to make a point. after all, they do drink beer in france, too. just not real beer, right?)

on the trip back from paris to frankfurt, aboard the high speed train line that is cooperatively shared by the french and german national rail companies, i watched an exchange between a french couple and a german guy. the french couple had seats that weren't together - one of them was next to the seat already occupied by the german, while the other was across the aisle. they spoke to him in french. he answered in german. neither spoke the others' language. i was pretty sure they were just wanting to swap seats so they could sit together, but he kept pointing to his seat reservation card. "do you speak english?" the german guy asked the couple. they shook their heads. still, he forged on in english, perhaps guessing that that was his best shot at being understood.

back over here, there's a lot we have in common with the german culture. you could say we inherited a lot of it. and yet thanks to the normans, french culture is not unfamiliar and french words are scattered through our language; in particular, a lot of common food names and terms come from france. the united states is peppered with both german and french last names. you can get a croissant in the morning and a bratwurst for lunch. people are as likely to trace their heritage to one as to the other, or even both. our lack of deep connection - a connection forged either from mutual aid and understand or from mutual distrust or enmity - leaves us free, in a sense, to love and appreciate both countries in any way we chose.

so i don't know. maybe our mixing-pot experiment of a country means maybe we're not so much the far point of a triangle as a bridge. without the baggage of history, without the centuries of grudges and memory, we don't really belong anywhere but here, but we're a little bit familiar with a lot of places.