Erosion

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.

15 Replies to “Erosion”

  1. Ich muss leider auf Deutsch schreiben, weil mein Englisch nicht gut genug ist, für das was ich sagen will. Alles, was ich hier gelesen habe, erinnert mich ganz stark an meine Tochter. Sie ist in den USA verheiratet mit einem Amerikaner und hat Zwillinge im Alter von vier Jahren. Als sie Deutschland verlassen hat, zum Studium, vor 20 Jahren, hatte sie kein besonderes Interesse an ihrem Heimatland. Heute ist es umgekehrt: sie kämpft dagegen, in der amerikanischen Kutur unterzugehen, und dabei hat sie sogar wieder einen leichten fränkischen Akzent in ihrem Deutsch angenommen, denn sie früher um alles in der Welt verlernen wollte. Aber die andere Seite der Geschichte ist: es ist ein grosses Privileg, wenn man seinen Kindern das Erbe von zwei Kulturen vermitteln kann, und dazu zwei Sprachen. Sie und ihr Mann sprechen konsequent die jeweilige Muttersprache, und es ist erstaunlich, wie leicht die Kinder von einer Sprache in die andere wechseln. Ich erhalte sogar schon “Sprachunterreicht”: ich sage, »schau, Iago, strawberries« und erhalte zur Antwort: »Erdbeeren heißt das auf Deutsch, Opa!« So, denke ich, es ist richtig, dass man etwas von seiner eigenen Kultur verliert, aber man gewinnt auf der anderen Seite etwas dazu. Und bevor man sich umschaut, ist man ein richtiger Weltbürger geworden. 😉

    Alles Gute für die »Lüdde« (ich musste anfangs erstmal nachschauen, was das ist), das Geschwisterchen und den Rest der Familie!

    Friedrich

  2. Many familiar aspects. I left Germany “for a year” and came back after 13 yrs, reluctantly, with my Irish partner and our 8 year old daughter. I actually never spoke German with her while away because I couldn’t imagine myself ever returning (my German family is somewhat dysfunctional) and also because nobody in my large Irish in-law family, which has been beneficially involved in raising my daughter, could speak it. To top it, we lived and worked in several non-European countries before eventually coming here. Our daughter is very much a third culture kid (TKD). To our great surprise, she learned to speak German within months – and accent free, not like her father, who to this day mixes up his du and Sie etc. – and progressed through the German school and university system without a hitch.
    If you ask her today whether she is German or Irish, she will grin and tell you that the world is her homeland. And I think that is a gift.

  3. This is resonating with me so much right now! I’m about to have my first baby – in Texas, not Germany, where I was born and raised. I wasn’t prepared for the way this affects me. I was happy and content, living under the blistering TX sun, the crisp British English I learned in school in Germany slowly getting washed out by a southern drawl. I even own an honest-to-God pair of cowboy boots.

    Now I find myself hunting for children’s books in German, and ways to incorporate my German-ness into our home and life a little more. And I feel like I am floundering, more so than when I first moved to the US, almost 10 years ago. But you are right, I’ve also gained so much. Plus, have you seen infants’ boots?? Adorable.

  4. stimme Friedrich voll bei. Bin seit 47 jahren in Kapstadt und jeder, der mich trifft und deutsch sprechen hoert, sagt: “Du bist doch aus Hamburg? oder Schleswig Holstein? Unsere Kinder sind ganz locker 3-sprachig (ja!) aufgewachsen, hier in Sued Afrika: deutsch, englisch, afrikaans/hollaendisch und waehlten franzoesisch in der Schule als VIERTsprache …. sie haben enorme Vorteile im Beruf – good luck, Liv ….

  5. You are living a truly extraordinary life, and we are grateful for you sharing it with us. You are a “citizen of the world” — which includes Germany and Australia — and that’s a very good thing. Enjoy! Not much that we can do about that grim North German weather, though …

  6. glad to see you are writing again. i loved this piece. it resonates so much. i am German, lived in the US for 28 years, and am back in Germany. you gain a lot and you don’t fit here or there anymore. You have to be OK with that feeling. then it can be very enriching.

  7. Interesting thoughts Liv. I have lived in Germany for 40 years now. I never thought of myself as an immigrant, I still feel I am an American living abroad in this case Germany, I have also lived in France and as a child in the US. I have raised my son bilingual right from the start. My German is fluent so most people don’t know I am a foreigner. And truly until a few years ago it didn’t matter.
    But several years ago things changed, not just in Germany but worldwide sadly. Nationality, religion all those defining and characterizing labels became important.
    I don’t want these labels. I want to be a human being who works and travels and lives where my family is secure and can get proper education, health care is an important issue, living among my moral and ethical peers is essential and guarantees that as you I can enrich my life with diversity and offer diversity of my own.
    I can only appeal to people to speak to their children in their language of origin and stick to it. It will not hurt your children, make them dumber or learn to speak later and such other myths. Children grow at an amazing speed in the first few years absorbing like sponges and they will sort it all out when they have the cognitive capabilities to do so. And if they mix it up sometimes, so what, we all make mistakes.
    They should speak the language of the country they are living in and go to school either in that language or in a bi-lingual environment. The will profit greatly from the duality in the long run. In my opinion it is important that spouses/partners agree on the rules for the beginning – who speaks what etc.
    When I grew up in the US – my Dad spoke French to my sister and I and English to my brother, while my Mom spoke English to us girls and German to my brother. And guess what, we all speak three languages, have passed it on to our children and benefits from the many cultures and languages that influenced our children.
    Yes Liv we gain and we never lose – I like your picture of us growing into our foreign and older skins. Good luck and it sounds like you’re doing a great job together with your Northern German. Weiter so!!

  8. Beautifully said Liv. I like how you highlighted both sides of the story.
    I get it…I´ve been in Munich for 3 years, from Melbourne, in my mid twenties. The ´homesickness´ (which in the first year I could hardly imagine having!) creeps up fast. After initially always focussing on immersing and integrating myself among Germans, finally I now have to admit that I could do with a regular Aussie catch up, just to chat and feel normal. Just shows how the feelings are slowly shifiting…it´s not all easy and rosy anymore when you start to feel like a stranger to your own country. But you bulid a life and keep going. I get asked where I´m from by many people when I visit Australia now, same story with my aussie friend who lives here. We can´t help having very flexible, adaptable accents 😉

  9. Interesting thoughts Liv. I found myself comparing my own experiences – 24 years living in Birmingham, coming up to 40 in Jersey, Channel Islands. Big differences of course, especially with the language being the same. I still follow Birmingham City (the football team) and keep up with the news from ‘home’. In most ways though I now consider myself a Jerseyman.

  10. Really beautifully written. “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.” This is exactly the tension that I feel after nearly 9 years in Germany, but have never been able to to really explain. Thank you for putting it into words!

  11. Beautifully written as always. Living anywhere other than where you are born and raised is always a challenge in a myriad of ways you have so well examined here. Being able to accomplish this demands respect and gets my complete admiration. Something I have tried to accomplish, but ultimately withdrew back to my comfort zone of living in the crazy city of Las Vegas, in the United States of America. I moved from the East Coast New York, to California, and then here. I Loved the East Coast, but now prefer LA and Las Vegas in the West.

  12. Thank you for your words.
    You may enjoy reading Luisa Weiss ‘My Berlin Kitchen’. She also speaks eloquently to the feelings we emotionally struggle with as citizens of the world.
    I have now lived in the US for 38 yrs. I think of myself as an avocado, I have a big, solid German pit with an American outside. Since I have ‘lost’ (and it was a loss!) my German accent strangers don’t know about my German insights. They are alive and well in there and will always be a huge part of who I am.
    We are rich, and always a little out of place, here AND there!

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