As time passes and I find my answer to ‘seit wann sind Sie in Deutschland?’ changing to a number of years that seems heavy to me, a strange, uncomfortable thing is happening; I feel, sometimes, as if an erosion of my Australianess is taking place. It is slow and for the most part so incremental as to be almost unnoticeable, like the smallest leak in a very large bucket. But it is there, this sense of being washed away, this sense of, on difficult days, loss.
Loss, of course, occurs naturally with age. I have, rather unfortunately, lost the body I had as a 25 year old and lost the very blonde hair I had when I lived in a country with plenty of sun to help the sporadic dye jobs. I have lost the thirst, the uncertainty, the unending desire to prove oneself, that accompanies one throughout their twenties. I have lost patience for many things, interest in others. I have lost sleep, or rather, it has been stolen by the two little people I have gained in its place. None of that is bad. All of those things most probably would have occurred whether I had stayed in Australia or not (except the hair). But, alongside the things I am shedding as I grow older and further into my skin, are these intangible pieces of self, and they are disappearing not because I am growing older, but because of where I am growing older.
Recently, I went to the first English playgroup I have come across since having my first baby here two and a half years ago. I don’t seek out English-centred activities for my children, although I will as they get older and most of their days are spent speaking German with teachers and classmates. And I will always feel the need to defend doing English-centred activities with them because I heard these words so often when I first moved here, they hang around my neck like a chain; ‘you live in Germany now, you must speak German.’ And as immigrants, we are naturally defensive of passing on our culture and our language. Defensive and yet proud. Obstinate, irritatingly so, but only because we fear being lost in our children.
So there we were, a disparate bunch, a Kiwi who had married a Dutch woman who herself had grown up in Kiel. An American who had married a German, a German who had married an Englishman, a British-American born in Germany, raised in London, who had married a German and returned to the country of his birth, if not his citizenship and so on, so forth. Our kids had accents and mixed their vocabs and it was a warm and easy meeting of like minds. I was asked where I was from, and when I said, ‘Australia’, the response was one I hear often, but this time, this time it stuck with me; ‘oh, you can barely hear it.’
I know that accents often come and go, exist in a constant state of flux. They come back with a vengeance when you are with family and friends, they pop out when you are angry or excited. And they drift off when they haven’t heard themselves for a while, and you find yourself mirroring another person’s vowels, or over-annunciating some words to be better understood, or inserting quirks of the language you are learning, into your mother tongue. But your accent reveals your heritage, warns others of where you come from, singles you out in a roomful of people. And mine, albeit never particularly strong in the first place, is fading. So I try and hang onto the way we speak. I hated shortening words when I lived at home, words like ‘arvo’ for afternoon, but I say it all the time now. Almost deliberately. Definitely deliberately. For the same reason we have hung the paintings of Australian birds, bright and colourful and heart-warmingly distinct, around our apartment, my husband and I throw flat Aussie vowels at each other, use expressions I grew up hearing from my parents, and it helps.
My formative years, of course, indeed my first 25 years, were spent in the country of my birth and my citizenship. I grew up there, was educated there, voted there, worked there; I come from, I am. And yet, I have never rented an apartment in Australia. I have never had a baby there. I have never bought a house there. All three of those things, those so very adult, life-defining things, I have done here. There have been three Prime Ministers – I think – since I left the only country in which I am legally allowed to vote. I see what angers my people, and it angers me too. I celebrate our victories. I will always support the green and gold. But I do it all from afar, without the immediacy of being there, without the context of having been there as things take place. And of course, I lot of it passes me by. A lot of names, I don’t recognise, a lot of things happen and I come to them late; a lot of problem are not my own, or rather, they are my own but they are occurring in a different system, in another language.
Strangely, I do not feel like the slow erosion of my Australianness correlates with a deepening of my Germanness. I do not feel any more German than I did six years ago, freshly arrived and floundering. I understand the Germans and German far, far more. I love them and this country in a manner achievable only through being a part of it. But I do not feel a part of my cultural identity is German. I feel a part of my cultural identity is being foreign within Germany, but not German. And from where I stand, in a position of terrific privilege, I – even I – can see, how immigrants isolate. Isolate and insulate. Because as an immigrant, you are never not what you came from, but you are also never what where you are. This tension can be a wonderful thing. Fascinating and eternally educational. But it can also be disengaging, a slippery slope to disenchantment, an easy reason to cling to what you left behind in defiance of a culture you do not feel a part of.
And yet, and yet. There is another way of looking at this, for I also know that a part of me was always seeking something different, a tension, a suspension, otherwise I would never have left Australia. Otherwise I would not be sitting here, looking out on a cold, grey north German winter’s day, while my half German son gums a rattle on the floor. And that same part of me knows that there is another way of looking at this sense of erosion, this fear I am being painted over as life barrels on and further away from both what I knew and what I thought it would look like; rather than being taken away from, I am being added to. I have lost nothing, but instead gained abundantly.