Growing up I always wanted to be in more of a bustling town or city instead of the sleepy little place that I called home. Most teenagers probably long for that, more action, more excitement, more entertainment.
At 21 I moved from that sleepy little town in rural Germany to the United States, Washington D.C, which was more than bustling and a complete cultural shock for me. The first thing I associated with living in America was sirens. Every day, all day long I heard sirens. It didn’t particularly frighten or concern me because I had other things on my mind at the time but I always thought of how I’d heard those type of sirens only in movies before then.
But my move to another country was abrupt and although I knew that I was going to move there eventually it was sooner than I expected and really out of the blue. One day I was enjoying a pretty and languid German summer in the country side, the next day I was on my way to the capital of the United States. It was completely unexpected, I didn’t have time to say good bye to anyone in person besides my mother, father and sister and I’ll never forget my mothers face looking after the blue bird bus I was taking off in to the airfield where I would board a big transport airplane bound for Andrews Airforce Base.
Moving away not only from my home town but also my home country deepened my sense of identity in such ways that I believe were more profound than I would have experienced having always lived in the same place or the same country. When you move overseas and still have an accent, as slight as it might be, stigma follows soon after. I guess at that point a subliminal decision is made. Do you stand by your identity and embrace it or do you deny it and try to bury it to take on another? For me there was little to think about, I was who I was and not going to change just because culture around me had changed suddenly. It was difficult connecting with new people and finding friends because Germans are not exactly known for being warmhearted and cheerful, quite the opposite in fact. Passive aggressive, blunt would be the more accurate description but also sincere and loyal. I’ve struggled a lot and still do finding and connecting with people. The few that I’ve found that are accepting of the fact that I am straightforward and mean no harm, that know the value of truth rather than shallow niceties have become true friends.
When I first came here Smartphones were not an item everyone yet had, talk and text were still the main features on a cellphone and of course there was no WhatsApp, Facetime or Facebook messenger. Skype was only available on a desktop computer and the video quality was usually so bad that it was easier just to do a voice call instead of continuously waiting for the video to unfreeze and the connection to reestablish. Phone calls were affordable but I still burned through $25 phone cards quickly talking to my family back home. The way technology has improved since still amazes me. Emails take a few seconds to arrive across the ocean and most contacts can be dialed up with a live video chat in a jiffy. The connectivity of this world has certainly lessened the causes for homesickness, the feeling of being a million miles away from everything you know and love.
Some move abroad and give up their cultural background to embrace a new one, some acquire a new one and still keep their identity that they were born and raised with, for me it was more the latter. German pride of nationality is a tricky thing, it all has to do with WWII and for good reason so when I was growing up in rural Bavaria there were few German flags hoisted in people’s gardens or by their front door. Things that are looked at here with much of a sense of pride were frowned upon for the most part. I think the people of my country struggled with that for many generations. Then, in 2006, when the FIFA world cup was taking place in Germany it seemingly brought a bit of a change. All the sudden there were cakes, drinks, any sort of decor, shoes, shirts and all kinds of accessories in the national colors. It stuck around for a little bit but disappeared again for the most part.
For me it was never so much of being proud of being German. Germany’s history has some of the darkest stains in modern history and I grew up in a liberal family that was outspoken against xenophobia. My pride was instilled in me because I was a ‘true Franconian’, the real (albeit unpublished) capital of beer and breweries, historical towns such as Nueremberg that go back to the very early middle ages, Charlemagne, the Franconian emperor and the just hilarious characteristic attributes of sincerity/cynicism/sarcasm such as ‘not having been scolded is enough praise’.
I’ve kept my Franconian traditions up with cooking lots of Kloesse (potato dumplings) on Sundays, learning how to make other traditional food because that’s the only way I get to eat my mom’s cooking, keeping alive the very pronounced Franconian dialect while I speak German and a couple of other things, such as collecting Kloeppelarbeit, bobbing work, which is very delicate lacework that has long historical roots in the Franconian forest where my family originates. I also blame my love for trees and the forest in general on my roots. Years ago my father did some extensive genealogical research and the records show that almost all of my male ancestors had some sort of employment in the forest. Either as loggers, forest rangers or owners of a timber mill so it just makes sense that it’s in my blood. I’ve also taken on new ones such as cooking a full Thanksgiving meal and decorating the day after for Christmas.
I eventually moved to a small town in the coastal foothills of California and I think I have to admit I’m lucky that I grew up in one of the most beautiful places in Germany and ended up in one of the most beautiful places on the West Coast.
Sense of identity is usually strengthened or diminished when we move away from home. It can be pronounced when we find ourselves in situations where all the sudden everything is different from what we’ve known so far because we want to hold on to what makes us truly ourselves and even though sometimes it is a subliminal action we simply want to hold on to our ways. There is nothing bad in taking on new traditions or even giving up old ones. The most important thing is that we stay true to ourselves wherever we are and whatever path we chose in life.