It’s not fair to generalize, even about myself. Were a team of grad students to spend years preparing a detailed sociological analysis of my life, complete with statistical tables, I would appreciate it. All I can offer in its place are snippets of experience that rubbed off on my brain as it was being dragged through a long wormhole from 1964 to the present; as evidence, they could hardly be more anecdotal or less disinterested. Furthermore, to quote Fyodor Tyutchev (1803–73), ‘A thought, once spoken, is a lie.’ An essay, which as a rule consists of two or more thoughts, is at best doubly mendacious; at worst, a big steaming heap of self-serving fantasy.
One bright day about twenty-five years ago, I caught a ride from Haifa to Tel Aviv with a famous Israeli journalist. He was fresh off his divorce and not quite upbeat on the subject of women. After a few abortive attempts at communication, he suggested I be quiet. Power lies in male hands and is exchanged in male-only spaces, he said. Women can neither travel nor socialize freely, especially in Mediterranean countries. Their experience of public life is mediated by art and culture, most of it created by males. As a result, they’re boring.
Being me – always eager to accept imputations of inadequacy – I sensed the justice of what he was saying. I felt those limits every day. Femininity is a drawstring, pulling the horizon close. Its ancient symbol is a mirror. Men I didn’t know, when I took an open interest in the things they were saying to other men, would finish their sentences and go mum. Dreaming of Yemen, Morocco and Kashmir, I had toured Belgium and Wales.
However, my first impulse was to defend myself, so I attacked his sexism. I lectured him from on high, claiming that we each generate our own social milieu in an evolutionary process. By looking down on ignorant homebodies, he inadvertently repelled the courageous adventuresses he’d like to know.
Instead of driving me home, he let me out by the side of the highway. Soon thereafter, he hooked up with a self-confident feminist, and I fled Asia for Europe. I refused to return to the US. I’d had enough of falling in love.
It would be hard (i.e. embarrassing) to do justice to the ease with which I used to get crushes on men, particularly in America, a nation of – among other things – high-minded, egalitarian Eagle Scouts earnestly struggling to make sense of life, rigorous and forthright in their pursuit of total integrity. Also, my beauty standards were more than lax. It could charitably be argued that I demanded good skin. In consequence, I was always obsessively infatuated with some dude.
But never, ever a German. I had spent nearly two years of my life in Tübingen, a lovely university town on the Neckar, south of Stuttgart, visiting friends I met hitchhiking in the summer of 1983. At home, I led a checkered existence of fateful randiness; in Germany, I never once got a crush. I can’t even claim that it’s because I generated a self-selecting sample of horrible Germans via some unconscious evolutionary process. I met uncouth, bossy motormouths through their girlfriends. I met them at events of every conceivable stripe. I met them everywhere but the women-only discotheque.
It sounds like a stand-up comedy routine, but it’s true: I moved to Germany to get away from attractive men. Maybe there are women who can get deeply involved with a loving and lovable sexual partner without it taking up most of their time and money in one way or another, but I’m not one of them. Left to myself, I don’t need a comfortable home or a varied diet, and my fixed costs go way down. I wanted to write and have shallow affairs.
A few years before my bad car ride with the reporter in Israel, when I was still married, I had joined a subset of West Philadelphia’s anarchist scene that practiced polyamory. All relationships were public, though showing off was considered poor form. Prior to sex with someone new, one would run the name past current partners, to be sure no one objected. In short order I had up to three hot dates per day. I still loved my abandoned husband desperately, but I was having way too much fun to move home. It was an emotional education akin to psychoanalysis, unraveling the fabric of my personality to see the individual threads. I became acquainted with my needs – for attention, flattery, respect, beauty, pleasure, ideas – and saw that in concert they had composed my desire for ‘love’. I swore off one-stop shopping (marriage) forever.
When I moved to Germany, I had no intention of embarking on a career in illicit sex. I thought I would continue to engage in ethical non-monogamy. But within weeks of my arrival I had a proposition from a desirable German who was not remotely single. When I suggested he run my name and those of my other partners past his partner, he graciously scoffed. Knowing about us, he said, would only cause her undue annoyance. His life might be her business, but mine was definitely not.
To fans of personal integrity, a move from polyamory to infidelity might seem like a step down. Through years of private suffering, I had cemented a conviction that sex in the absence of sexual freedom is as sexy as worms. In Philly I bought a T-shirt that read, i am out, therefore i am from some lesbians, and wore it all the damn time.
But freedom isn’t only the capacity to do what you want and get away with it. It’s also the belief that no one knows you’re doing it. In 1983, to the chagrin of data-mongers such as the companies formerly known as Facebook and Google, the German high court enshrined a right to ‘informational self-determination’. The knowledge that others might be cognizant of one’s actions, its decision said, has an inhibiting effect. So true! There’s a difference in quality – not just degree – between picking cherries from a collective tree by the roadside (Germany has a lot of public fruit) and buying an RFID-chipped box of them with your phone. Electronic surveillance turns the castle doctrine (‘a man’s home is his castle’) inside out. At home, you’re a sitting duck. The castle is riding your bike with a picnic basket. It’s Europe, where the police don’t put a mugshot online after they book you for a misdemeanor.
‘Out’ lifestyles replace freedom with publicity. Personal integrity – the individual’s reconciliation of warring impulses – becomes congruence between the public and private self. Failure to attain it is no longer private self-deception but public hypocrisy.
German sexuality isn’t closeted – you can sometimes guess who’s in the market for what – but it’s castled. Not marriage, of course. That’s out in the open. People get married in public and dance together at the reception. Assigning children to specific fathers is crucial for the regulation of inheritance under patriarchy! I’m talking about the sexual facts, wer mit wem (‘who with whom’) – a question which, many Germans have assured me, stumps inquiring minds even after years of exposure to the couples in question. The principle behind the secret ballot can extend to so much more. For example, my boyfriend’s son, whom I’ve never met, recently alerted him that there’s a rumor going around the village that he has a Geliebte (‘beloved’). We’ve been an exclusive couple for ten years. That doesn’t mean I know where he is.
Americans like to claim that German has words for things English doesn’t – for instance, that ‘schadenfreude’ expresses a Continental emotion for which we lack a concept. (Not so; the concept would be ‘spite’, if the connotations of ‘spite’ hadn’t been spoiled by widespread awareness of what it means.) On the contrary, by combining German with Latin and welcoming new additions rather than policing them, English has developed the largest vocabulary of any language.
Two of our terms that German borrows, not having its own equivalents, are ‘nerd’ and ‘one-night stand’.
Socially awkward overachievers run the country. To possess specialized knowledge and have a habit of expressing it in long, solo disquisitions is not regarded as Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), but as the key to social and professional success. For instance, several years ago, my little town rebelled by electing a relaxed, friendly liberal – a regionally famous rock musician who makes a living by not acting nerdy – as mayor. His mismanagement bankrupted the town. The citizens recalled him and installed a professional firefighter whose entire campaign consisted of indicating that he is in possession of the degree Diplom-Ingenieur. Is he on the left or the right? No one professes to know. Like his predecessor and 44 percent of German mayors, he lacks a party affiliation. He said that under his leadership the town would accept precisely as many refugees as the state requires, no more, no less; he was supported by everyone from the neo-Nazis to the polyamorist hippies at the free love commune. Germans regularly come down from Berlin on the weekends to attend expensive love-themed seminars here, paying serious money for instructors to tell them when to touch each other. One of the leading polyamorists informed me, in awed tones, that the new mayor could calculate the cost of a bike path in his head.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the rather capacious American definition of autism were eventually expanded to include people of German ancestry. Recall that something like 40 percent of Americans are living with Germanness. Far fewer self-identify, but don’t forget the world wars; two of my American friends had ‘Irish’ grandmothers who proved, when death gave access to their paperwork, to have been German. It could be helpful, next time you’re confronted with a tightly wound geek who hits the ceiling because you touched his car, to consider that he might be on the German-American spectrum. Recently, a German couple sicced their dogs on me for trespassing, and the tetchy, excited way they released the hounds was like a balm to my homesickness. The only thing missing to make the effect complete was a gun.
German lacks a term for one-night stands because einmal ist keinmal (‘once means never’). How can there be stigma and shame about a non-event? I was slut-shamed here exactly once, forty years ago, by a woman probably born circa 1905. When a German friend (misguidedly, in my view) fucked her next-door neighbor on the living-room couch, her husband’s remark was that it weakened his bargaining position in their property line dispute. When I (stupidly, at a big party full of journalism students) outed myself to a lover’s wife, she took me aside to caution me against flattering myself that he would leave her. I was one, she reminded me, of many.
Programmatically monogamous Americans tear themselves into little pieces trying to remain consistent in thought, word and deed, their steadfast loyalty torturing all involved into agonies of fetishism and farcical attempts to rekindle the ashes. Meanwhile, who cares? One can so easily learn not to care. One can regard fidelity as a neurosis. I’ve heard it called sexuelle Abhängigkeit (‘sexual dependence’). One can accept personal integrity as a dubiously Neoplatonic impossibility.
Germany’s baby boom peaked the year I was born, just as the US version was ending. Its children were a breed apart, with parents who had fought, like it or not, for Hitler, and lost. These eerily wooden, wounded parents saddled them with problems their own children don’t have. Germans are bounding onto the world stage, whining nonstop about how their industrial technocracy reduces them to the role of EU cash cow and dreaming of a more charismatic regime based on emotion – German soft power, a contradiction in terms – while neighboring countries stand aloof, dispensing dirty looks as the Germans burn lignite coal, export wind power, import nuclear, ban internal combustion engines, buy lithium mines, save green space, pave green space, take in millions of refugees, elect nationalists, etc., dithering endlessly all the way to the bank.
Keats praised something he called negative capability (‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’), citing Shakespeare as a rare example. Meanwhile, Goethe had his character Faust bitch at length about the conscious inability to reconcile conflicting drives (Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust / ‘Two souls dwell, alas, in my chest’), literally calling them ‘drives’ in 1808. I remember the bitterness with which I recalled Keats when negotiating with a German friend to found a band. He longed to do it, he absolutely did, he wanted to play and sing in a duo. But he couldn’t, he absolutely couldn’t, he had to be on his own.
In short, if you want to experience Shakespearean richness, mystery and ambiguity on a daily basis, just learn some German and move here. Berlin is getting crowded, though, and like the UK, it’s punishingly far north. I’d recommend the discreetly prosperous, centrally located Hessian city of Fulda.
Photograph © Max Siedentopf, Service with a Smile, 2021