In Deutschland

It’s time to make one thing very clear: I have the coolest German home stay experience ever.

Picture this: a small, nondescript but nevertheless comfortable dining room softly lit by lamplight. An older woman is watching television in the adjoining living room. Three people sit around the dining room table with, depending on the evening, glasses of champagne, mugs of German beer, or regional cognac or rum. One of the guys is a wiry, trendy-looking nurse from New York City who wears square Prada glasses and looks like he should be sitting in a hipster café reading Kafka. That would be Matt, a tenor soloist in the choir, who’s staying in the room next-door to mine, and whom I have affectionately dubbed “Roomz” (sorry Kylie). The other guy is tall, classy, and slightly graying, with a full beard, and usually wears plaid blazers and shined shoes and other fashionable clothing items. That’s Marcus, a self-proclaimed “radical left-wing feminist,” a baritone, and my host. Originally from Wilhelsmhaven, he now works in Berlin as a journalist. The woman in the living room is Angelika, his mother, who is responsible for the amazing breakfasts that I have the pleasure of eating every morning, and Ludwig, his father, is wandering around the house somewhere. Oh, and then there’s me.

Staying with Marcus, Ludwig, Angelika, and Matt has been absolutely amazing. Every morning, I walk upstairs to an enormous spread. While in Paris, I had to survive on a small pastry for breakfast, in Germany, they do it up. The table is full of assorted breads, meats, cheeses, jams, juices, and coffee. It’s as much as I might normally eat for lunch or dinner. It is excellent, and quite a long affair. What a way to start the day.

Every day here is different, but there’s always a long rehearsal for the concerts, which start tomorrow. But we’ve biked a lot, enjoyed exploring the city of Wilhelmshaven, and today we took a day-trip to nearby Bremen, of Brothers Grimm fame, where we sang for the noonday service in the Bremen Cathedral. If you don’t know the fairy-tale about the town musicians on their way to Bremen, look it up – it’s delightful.

Every night here is the same, and that’s probably the best part of this home stay. We return around eight-thirty in the evening from rehearsal, Marcus, the beverage connoisseur, offers something to drink, and the three of us talk and talk until past midnight. Last night, we had a folk tea ceremony originally concocted by German farmers – crystallized sugar in a mug, then pour black tea on top of it so that it cracks, pour the cream in just so to make white flowers billow up, don’t stir the cream. Drink and repeat. If you’re the three of us, repeat six times.

Tonight we sit around the table for hours over glasses of red wine, talking about nationalism and geography and how Germans remember World War II. Marcus talks of the guilt that he carries for what happened in the Holocaust, and the reluctance of many Germans to talk about all that transpired seventy years ago. He mentions how strange it is for the German army to engage in any sort of “peace-keeping” activity in Europe, in the same places where the selfsame army was responsible for such atrocities so relatively recently. We muse over the strange nature of shared national guilt. I think about the book I finished today about totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and historian Marci Shore’s thought-provoking words in The Taste of Ashes (this is slightly paraphrased):

“Germans, Daniel Goldhagen [author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners] argued, had been for generations infected with virulent anti-Semitism. They were bad people who enjoyed killing Jews. It was a straightforward explanation, a simple explanation…It was understandable, too, that the public had found Daniel Goldhagen so much more appealing than Hannah Arendt, whose ideas were more complex and more disquieting, who pointed to the eradication of subjectivity on the part of both the persecutors and the persecuted, and who wrote of how, in a state of radical evil, all people become superfluous: there was no more death, no memory, no grief. The line between public and private, between truth and falsehood, even between victim and perpetrator blurred…Hannah Arendt rejected all theories pointing to the inherently murderous ‘German national character.’ Her explanation was a universalist one: the Holocaust was an exploitation of a potential latent in modern society –and in the human condition.

‘For many years now,’ Hannah Arendt wrote late in the war, ‘we have met German who declare that they are ashamed of being German. I have often felt tempted to answer that I am ashamed of being human’…Goldhagen’s argument implied that insofar as all the bad Germans were dead –or far away –there was nothing to fear. And what was the alternative? That we will never be able to sleep soundly, because now we know what is possible, what humans are capable of…The problem with the universalist Arendtian interpretation was that was psychologically unbearable” (Shore 293-294).

How does history move, and how does it live in our memory? These are the questions that I am asking, the questions that the three of us discuss evening after evening. These are the questions that don’t have clear answers, but I’m coming to realize that history is infinitely more complex and difficult to understand than I’ve ever realized before. It’s like a story, but there isn’t one narrative; instead, it’s a web of interwoven narratives with endless variables, many of which we can never uncover. But at least I’m trying.

Anyway, I have the coolest German home stay experience ever.

Shore, Marci. The Taste of Ashes. New York: Broadway Books, 2013. Print.


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