Stranger in a strange land
How an American rabbi teaching in Berlin gets along in Germany
By Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard
An American Jew of my age, going to Berlin for the first time, arrives with a bit of baggage, like knowing that my father and my mother would be turning over in their graves with the idea of my going to Germany. I knew about Germany, as much as most Americans knew, mostly about what happened before 1945. Everything I saw in American movies were the Germans as Nazis or comical figures …
When I was invited to teach at the renowned Humboldt University of Berlin, I asked myself, “Geez, should I even go?” I asked a man I know who is a Mengele twin, a subject of the Nazis’ disturbing experiments. He said, “Give me a week to think about it,” after which, he said, “I can’t go, but you should go.” So I called in and said, “I’m coming.”
But, I arrived with all that baggage. However, mine was not as heavy as my wife’s. When she left the plane, she pointed at the German border guards and said, “What are those Nazis doing there?” I answered, “They are not Nazis; they’re just German policemen. She replied, “They look like Nazis.”
I realized that if you come with a certain set of eyes, that’s what you see. It takes a while to see that you don’t see what’s clearly in front of your face, so you have to take a deep breath, relax, just listen, watch and pay attention.
Then over the course of time, that process begins. You have to start looking into the baggage that you brought along. Fear is determining what you see and what you think the people around you are thinking.
Also, there is the advice you get. A friend said to me several times, “Germans are very punctual. So if you want to be an academic in Germany, make sure you get to the meetings on time.” Now it’s been 12 years that I have been going to Germany, and I think it happened twice that everybody was on time. Germans are not more punctual than any other people!
It’s a different culture
So the first step to being a stranger in a strange land is to recognize your perceptions; but still, there are lots of differences. I lived in Berlin, a very international city. With lots of Americans there, we spent endless months and hours figuring out what Germans are like. Oh, there are so many things that you can get wrong!
During my first lecture, the three professors that brought me there were sitting in class. When I finished, all the students started to rap on the table, and for an American that’s not a vote of confidence.
I felt humiliated and I ran over to apologize, but the professors said, “What do you mean? German students in an academic setting don’t clap; they rap on the table to express their appreciation. It means, ‘You did a really good job!’ They distinguish between performances like that of a guitar player or singer, where they clap, and an academic talk, where they rap on the table.”
I treasure these misunderstandings. They include some of the best experiences I had when I was there. You would think that they would produce enormous frustration, because you get it wrong, but then you figure out what’s going on.
Here’s another example. I met a colleague who seemed really interesting. I wanted to have coffee with her to start making friends in that university. So I sent her an email, telling her how much I enjoyed her paper and asking her if we could get together for coffee on a certain date. She wrote back that she was not available at that time. Of course I felt disappointed, and as an American, I wrote her back that I was really disappointed.
I got back a two-and-a-half-page lawyer’s letter — because we’re all lawyers there — saying, “You have no right to feel disappointed. I didn’t do anything. You have no right to have coffee …” What have I done? How did this happen?
So I went to my dictionary and saw that the word that I knew had two different kinds of expressions. Then I went to my assistant and asked, “What did I get wrong?” He said, “Well, if you say that you’re disappointed in someone with that word, you could lose a friend of 20 years saying that expression to them.” I asked, “Well, what do you say then?” And he answered schade — too bad. You indicate that it is a shame that she is not available.
So I wrote her back, thanking her for her letter, schade that we can’t get together, and all of a sudden things were fine again. I thought this must happen on a regular basis!
A list of misunderstandings
One time I arrived and it was a holiday, something I had never heard of, like Pfingsten — Pentecost. It’s a national holiday in Germany. I got to my hotel (my room is on the 4th floor), and there was a sign on the elevator that said, “Out of order.”
I went to the receptionist and asked if it was really out of order. I got a long speech about how impossible it is to get anything fixed on a holiday. “This is Pfingsten! Who do you think you are …”
I said, “Okay, okay.” I picked up the bags and schlepped them four flights up. It took me an hour to get settled in. I came down and the elevator was working just fine!
I asked, “What’s going on?” Then I understood. She didn’t want to be blamed if she needed to get something done. So she will first tell you all the reasons why it cannot be done.
So if you give your secretary a letter and expect her to do it immediately, she will tell you why it is impossible to get it done by this afternoon, but it will be on your desk in an hour. It’s a different culture.
America is a “can-do” culture: “Yes, we’ll fix the thing today. In 10 minutes we’ll fix the elevator …” Then you have to explain why three days later the elevator still isn’t working! In Germany, you have the pleasant experience of, “Oh, you fixed it so much earlier than I thought!”
One misunderstanding after another — and over time, we would share them among friends. They’d say, “You should see our list of misunderstandings.”
Nothing to be afraid of
Learning that there’s nothing horrible that happens when you haven’t understood each other was a really important lesson for me. We are different, and we misunderstand each other all the time, but that doesn’t make you strange, and that doesn’t make me strange.
I just have to ask, “How does it work?” Once you explain it to me, I’m okay with it.
Part of the big experience that I learned over time was that there’s nothing to be afraid of, even misunderstandings and getting it wrong, if you have a conversation about it afterwards.
Realizing that you don’t have to hit a home run every time was a liberating experience. The fact that somebody misunderstood you is not a major problem in life; you just need to talk about it and see what went wrong.
I found out that connecting deeply with the people with whom you live sneaks up on you. You don’t recognize that it happens to you. At a certain point, after speaking to the German parliamentary committee, I recognized that I was becoming “Germanized” to a certain extent.
Then it got worse, because it was time for the Soccer World Cup. I found myself watching the World Cup, and, of course, I was watching all the games with Germany playing. When it came to the finals in 2014, I was glued to the set. Of course, everybody was watching; there were big screens in the middle of the street to watch it! When the last game was played and Germany won, I was jumping up and down the alley, “We won!” Somebody said, “We? What do you mean, ‘We won’?”
It sneaks up on you! All of a sudden, you find out that you have a bigger self than you thought you had. Part of it is because you forgot to bring those destructive judgments that you had before, and all of a sudden you find yourself completely identified with those people, sharing their joy. It’s “we” all of a sudden.
What about that baggage?
Does that mean that at night there’s still that little voice that says the same thing as your baggage always said? Of course, it does! You live 30 years married to somebody, and you realize that some crazy remark that person made in the third year of marriage is still sitting in the back of your head, and you’re controlling yourself from saying, “I can’t believe you said that to me.” It sneaks up on you.
Dialogue is a way of life and a motion toward reaching out, saying, “Don’t get stuck where you are; reach out as far as you can.” It’s okay to have that leftover stuff from your baggage. The success is that you are able to identify with these people, and eventually you find yourself becoming a part of them. You are not a stranger anymore; you feel at home.
There’s a great poem from Rumi that says, “I want to meet you out some place, where there are no more judgments anymore,” and I thought that’s really a great place to be in, and it is a lifetime commitment.
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