#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.
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.
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.
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 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.
 An American Nazi organization.
On Christmas Day, 1940, two weeks later, she writes,
I passed suddenly the Cunard window. . . . An exhibit for the BWR—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. . . .
 A British shipping company.
 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!