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That Complicated German Language

#ObamaBerlin President Obama speaking at the Brandenburg Gate reminds me of my deep love of Germany and the German language. I’m excited to go back to Berlin–where I lived 1988-90– in about a week. Recently I had the great delight to read again at Malvern Books, the terrific local bookstore in Austin, TX, in a German-themed evening.

Here’s a video of me reading from various books.

Malvern Books really curates their offerings so that every book feels handcrafted — chosen for a discerning crowd. The store asked me out of the blue to help Rebecca Schuman launch her new memoir, Schadenfreude, about her experiences in Germany and with the German language. I immediately said yes. I have been laying the groundwork for writing my own memoir about my experiences teaching in East Germany in the 1980s, so this seemed serendipitous.

At Malvern Books, April 14, 2017. Some of my books alongside Rebecca’s.

As the warm-up act to Rebecca’s funny and engaging reading, I decided to set the stage on women and Germany. Starting with legendary Germanic women, I read two passages from my novel about Grendel’s Mother.  Then I turned to historic German women and read from my book, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages, recently translated into German. I shared highlights from the lives of the first known woman dramatist, Hrotsvit von Gandersheim, and that of the medieval superstar, Hildegard von Bingen.

At Malvern Books, April 14, 2017

Rapidly moving through history, I shared two more books. The last, to prepare for Rebecca’s material set in the mid 1990s, came from a piece in my book on The Literature of Waste. Here I reflect on how my experiences in the former GDR make it impossible for me to choose in superstores with too much choice. I still cannot go into Costco.

I also shared scenes from Home Front Girl, focusing on just a few of the many moments where my mother Joan ponders Germany and the German language. These feature some of my favorite bits in her diary. Here are a couple of them, ranging from the lyrical to the sarcastic.

Monday, September 19, 1938
. . . Well, world news goeth on too . . . see this—“Allies (Britain and France) give in to Germany—leave Czechoslovakia flat!” Czechoslovakia says she’ll fight and Germany says it will be a “real” War. I wonder what Hitler said to Chamberlain that made Britain side step so neatly. [Joan pasted into her diary this newspaper clipping depicting Chamberlain and Hitler at the famous appeasement talks about Czechoslovakia.

Age 17 at the University of Chicago German class Christmas Party; [Written between Wednesday, December 11, and Friday, December 14, 1940]

. . . Went to German Christmas party last night—Santa Claus, a pretty tree, . . . marzipan that I like, etc. Betty came too. . . . They sang German Christmas carols, “O Tannenbaum.” . . . We joked about it sounding like a Bund[1] meeting and Betty wanted to get up and shout, “We’re all Americans!” But we mustn’t even pretend to have that kind of patriotism. God, keep us wise and cool. . . .

Then they sang—a male quartet—old songs in the faintly meaningful language (I can understand about one quarter) . . . and I leaned back dreamily. . . . I like to hear their strong male voices—deep and proud—singing the good songs. Schubert—“Silent Night” . . . the tree brings out the Nordic, the Scandinavian, in me and I think of my ancestors. Betty whispers, “What an ugly language it is!” The world’s spinning outside, the moon is gleaming on the white snow. . . .  In here we are separate . . . warm—out of the world. Someone opens a window and a chilly blast sweeps in. . . .

Herr Jolles sees me and nods, smiling. . . . He makes an announcement and it is only afterwards I learn he has said the punch is spilled. My German is none too good. But the almond paste cookies are. I eat a great many.

[1] An American Nazi organization.

Christmas Day, 1939. Chicago downtown, a year before Joan’s entry cited here.

On Christmas Day, 1940, two weeks later, she writes,

I passed suddenly the Cunard[1] window. . . . An exhibit for the BWR[2]—pictures of little children in Britain—homes bombed—helmets that could be knitted for the RAF—a noble purpose—but it’s making war in our hearts. . . . The little German children are bombed and hungry too. . . . And all the sudden, in an emotional intensity, I thought, “This may be the last Christmas we shall have” . . . I should be wise and know the world will never end. . . . An unofficial truce played over Christmas in Europe today—Hitler said, “German fliers will not fly on Christmas if British flyers will not.” And they did not. . . . And so a white, bloodless Christmas there and the sky is weeping here. . . .

[1] A British shipping company.

[2] British War Relief.

Though her humor remains undaunted, Joan’s relationship to the German was vexed. At age 18, February 12, 1941, she writes,

Flunked my German test—F. . . . That’s bad, you know. Hitler would be disappointed. He’d better put off the invasion for a while. . . .

And here is Rebecca Schuman reading at Malvern Books. What a fun evening!

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