“Americans travel like they go to Disneyland,” I overheard K say in the kitchen. K taught a class on Grimm’s fairy tales at a nearby college in Berlin and was preparing to give a lecture on the American phenomenon of Disney, aka “How Disney destroys everything.”
“Cinderella,” said K, “was much better before you guys got a hold of it.”
K spoke at length about the striking details omitted in the celluloid retelling of Cinderella, about how, in the Grimm version, the rabidly wicked stepsisters’ severed toes and heels to fit into that shimmering glass slipper, blood spilling over the sides of the shoe to evidence their deception. At the story’s end, according to the German brothers Grimm, as Cinderella and Prince Charming exchanged marriage vows, two voracious pigeons above the altar pecked out the eyes of those same stepsisters, leaving the evildoers not only beyond pedicures but blind to boot.
Disney snipped out the gore, slapped on a Hollywood ending and made Cinderella a little less grim, so to speak. K did not approve. “Americans want things easy,” she said, “If they see blood in the slipper, they lose interest.”
Two nights later, I came home to find K in a state of upheaval, having failed a French test, craving something to take her mind far away from French verbs and prepositions.
“Let’s go see 8 Mile,” she said.
“8 Mile?” I asked, laughing at the notion of seeing an Eminem movie in Germany, when I had successfully avoided seeing it in the States. Eminem and I were practically neighbors, after all; I grew up on 11 mile, outside of Detroit, a mere three miles from where the white rapper made his way. As a child, success, to me, meant successfully escaping the mile grids of Michigan. Eminem and I at least had that in common.
“Eminem?” I asked.
“I’m in an angry mood,” she said. “Let’s go.”
How I ended up sleeping on K’s floor in Berlin is another story, one that requires footnotes and bar graphs and at least three bottles of red wine to tell. The abridged version involves me leaving my life in New York to accompany a young Austrian couple and their 2-year-old son to Frankfurt.
“I’m moving to Germany,” I told my boss in New York. “I’m moving to Frankfurt and I’m going to be a part-time nanny, three hours a day, and draw portraits and interview people. I have no money and I think I need a root canal, hurts to bite down, yes, but it doesn’t matter because my room and board is paid and I’ll have all this time to observe and sketch and write and whatever. I’ve gotten rid of my apartment, sold most of my things, bought a pair of long underwear and renewed my prescription for Paxil. I’ll find my wings on the way down.”
This was December and within weeks of what most of us feared would be the start of George Bush’s war with Iraq. On New Year’s Eve I boarded a plane to Vienna, where I would stay with my host couple and their extended Austrian family for three weeks, until leaving indefinitely for Frankfurt. No, of course it didn’t matter that “Danke” was the extent of my German vocabulary or that I had never successfully changed a diaper. I mean, there was that one time, when I was 16, watching a 6-month-old baby called Caroline, when I for the life of me could not find the diapers and constructed a makeshift wee-wee pad from dish rags and duck tape. But that was then, and this was Vienna, Wien, home of Klimt and Schiele, Freud and Wittgenstein, where I buckled “The Fred” into his stroller and pushed him into the mix of snow and sleet, dirty diapers and plastic moo cows.
By the time we boarded the plane to Frankfurt, I had The Fred grabbing under my shirt to cop a feel, a surefire signal that I had been accepted as a suitable maternal stand-in. The “No, Michelle” I had grown accustomed to hearing was soon replaced with a “Where’s Michelle?” I had arrived. Unfortunately, after spending a few weeks with The Fred’s mother, my employer, in Vienna, I realized that our differences were irreconcilable and far too detailed to recount right here (stay tuned for the next chapter, “Misadventures in Babysitting, German Subtitles”). I lasted about three days in Frankfurt before I called K, a friend of a friend, in Berlin, to ask if she knew of places to stay.
“You can stay with me,” she said. “Get out of there, and write the book here. I say.” The next morning I took a ten-hour beeline bus across the country, zig-zagging through compact German villages, thatched roofs, and green waffle gridded facades. I fell asleep with my lips pressed against the window and a Berlitz teacher in my ear. “Ich bin Amerikanisher,” said the voice. “A-mer-eee-kan-I-sher.”
I had been sleeping on K’s floor for a week now and we had forged an immediate intimacy. We had an ongoing sardonic debate about the differences between America and Germany, as we listened to the BBC countdown to war with Iraq—news flashes between specials segments that began “French fries and hip hop—Today we’ll be discussing American culture,” and statements from outraged German oppositionists to the West’s Showdown with Saddam.
K, like most young progressives in Germany, was positively outraged by Bush’s push for war. She was born in Berlin, in the eastern enclave called Kreutzberg, known for its gritty counterculture and graffiti, which is now an eclectic mix of artist lofts, cheap flats, and Turkish bakeries. K turned 13 years old in 1989 when Berliners chiseled away the wall and reunified Germany. She says it’s taken a long time for Germany to be proud of what it has become after the horror of WWII, for it to gain momentum and grow out of its guilt.
On that first Sunday K took me through her neighborhood, to where the wall once stood, through a park of brittle grass lined with graffiti brick. We wandered past Kaiser’s grocery on Wrangle-strasse, where someone had spray-painted the words: “THIS IS NOT AMERIKA. HERE IS NOT EVERYWHERE.” While we walked, K told me all about her fascinations with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag and Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister.
(Weeks later, after I had returned from Germany, I found an entry from Wittgenstein’s journal that read: “In a conversation: one person throws a ball; the other does not know whether he is supposed to throw it back, or throw it to a third person, or leave it on the ground, or pick it up and put it in his pocket, etc.” The year was 1948. I thought of K and the conversations I continually found myself in, often unable to find a foothold, unsure of whether to answer or answer with a question, or keep silent and simply listen.)
On our way home we passed T in the street. K introduced me as the American friend, the journalist. T says he speaks little English. I attempt German. It fails. We stand for a few uncomfortable moments, then “Tschuss, Bis Dan.” As we walk away K says that was T— T, the one arrested and beaten in Genoa at the World Trade Organization protest. He wrote an article about it. Soon I would learn that all of K’s friends were impassioned people, up on everything political, forever recycling, funneling their interests into art or school or travel, broke but it didn’t matter much, as long as they had enough money for books and beer. A group that came of age as the Wall came down, that watched people effect change in an entirely unprecedented way, but also a group that could easily find American compatriots in places like Williamsburg, San Francisco, even Ann Arbor.
But this time in Berlin is different, a time of extreme splits between Europe and America’s foreign policy, a time when everyone around you has read Kagan’s article on “Power and Weakness” and wants an American take on it. Serving as a spokesperson for an inexplicably diverse country, you must decide early on whether to be apologetic or defensive about our government. Being anti-Bush myself, I took the apologetic route, only to discover that apologizing for cookie-cutter stereotypes of American culture is as absurd as shouting “over here” in an echo chamber.
The Germans I met mostly saw America as Texas writ large, where Death Row coils round and round our collective conscience until every last liberal is strangled silly. A Gordon Gecko “Greed is Good” haven where the president, reporting from the ranch, multi-tasks and asks its people for war and tax cuts in the same via satellite speech. Where officials mandate no recycling of bottles and cans and dismiss the Kyoto Protocol as a pile of bureaucratic baloney. Where the rich get richer and the kids get even with guns and gold chains. Where up until recently a racist ran the Senate floor, and the C.I.A. trained the guy who gave the go ahead to detonate downtown New York. They see little dissent in public opinion and high percentages in favor of a president who can’t locate Pakistan on a map.
“How can your people blindly follow this guy into war? All these people, how can you let it happen?” a Berliner asked me at dinner in Treptow.
What about the anti-war protests nationwide, the marches on Washington dismissed by Bush as subversive unpatriotic propaganda? We’re not the first people rendered mute by a whimsical leader and if a future lies ahead, we certainly won’t be the last.
“In America there are no books that criticize the government,” said another. “When I was there, I couldn’t find any books that went against the policy.”
“Did you go to a library?” I asked. You actually don’t have to dig very deep to find dissent in this country. Skim through the Nation, scour Noam Chomsky, call Susan Sontag and see if she’s free for coffee.
“I couldn’t find any,” he said, outright, refusing to budge. “And everyone lied to their parents.”
“About what?” I asked, confounded at the apparent non sequitur.
“Kids lied to their parents about sex,” he said. “And nobody talked about sex. People were having sex but it wasn’t talked about.”
“I’ll put you in touch with a friend here, from Indiana,” I said. “He’ll talk your ear off.”
“He speaks German, your friend?” he asked.
“Yes, and writes a weekly column in German, too,” I answered. “For Die Tageszeitung.”
“Most Americans don’t speak German,” he said.
“Most Germans don’t really know Americans,” I thought to myself, in the same way that most Americans know little more about Germany than the rise and fall of the Third Reich. “You say hi to all the Nazis for us?” my Michigan uncle asked when I returned from my trip. “Anyone who goes against our country is a Nazi. They forgot who won the war.”
He chuckled, but if I know my uncle, he wasn’t kidding.
MICHELLE MEMRAN is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.