Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Friday, January 05, 2007

European Interlude -- Retrospective

Author's note: Faithful readers, my apologies for the long gap between entries. I've been away and haven't had much time or opportunity to update. I promise more frequent posts from here on out!

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Izmir is a lot of things -- sunny, warm, laid-back -- but around Christmas time, one thing it isn't is....well, Christmasy (sp?). And so, longing for a little winter chill and yuletide flair, I hopped on a plane and hightailed it back to Bremen, Germany, which was my flat green-and-gray home for four and a half years. As for what the two weeks I spent there looked like, I composed this little variation on the 12 Days of Christmas, which pretty much sums it up (I'll just give the quick run-down, rather than write out the whole repetitive song, which would be rather boring. Just start singing from "On my 12th day in Bremen, my true love gave to me..."):

My 12 Days of Bremen (actually it was 14, but who's counting?)
12 days of gray skies
11 rounds of Köpi
10 cold-eyed stares
9 Mozart Kugeln
8 bars of Milka
7 good luck oranges
6 Gouda cheeses
5 Glühwein mit Schuss
4 Nackensteaks
3 Hangovers
2 German jokes
...and a giant bank account withdrawal.

Thank you. Ahem. Thank you very much.

Coming back to a place that used to be called home is a curious feeling. Distance and time can work wonders. Much-loved places that persist in the memory as incomparable paradises often seem sadder, more tired, less lustrous than we imagined them...and the places we longed to escape from, whose one or two negative aspects managed to blind us to so much else that was positive -- those places can seem wonderful once we no longer forced to endure them.

Experiencing Bremen again, as a tourist this time, was a positive kind of closure for me. As a resident I was oppressed by winters with weeks of slate-gray skies. I was depressed by the humorlessness of the locals, who eyed me with suspicion whenever I smiled or said good morning. Most of all, I loathed the inflexible, always-needing-to-be-right mentality that exists in great abundance among the northern Germans. There is a love of what is 'correct', and a bizarre kind of negative satisfaction in pointing out to someone else that they are doing something incorrectly. There must be a reason that the word 'schadenfreude' (taking pleasure in others' misfortunes) slipped into English from German, rather than French or Italian or any other language. Knowing what I know now about Germans, I suspect that the real meaning of the word goes a bit deeper. Take the dictionary definition "Taking pleasure in others' misfortunes," and tack on "...when those misfortunes come about because the 'victims' failed to do something correctly." The pedestrian who is run down while crossing against the light; the man whose house fills up with water because he didn't seal his windows properly...these incidents are guaranteed to cause some small smirks of self-righteous satisfaction amongst the locals. They (of course) knew better; anyone who was imprudent enough not to follow correct procedure probably deserved what they got.

For any of you who are sitting here reading this, protesting that there are lots of nice things about Germans, let me say for the record that I am not unaware of these qualities. But my point is that the one has nothing to do with the other--regardless of all the good stuff, these few particularly unpleasant traits were the deal-breakers for me. But I digress. My object here was to talk about Bremen, a city revisited...

During the time I lived there, and fore a while after that, Bremen had come to inhabit my soul as a little dark spot of pain and angst. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was the people, perhaps it was the raft of difficult and painful events that occurred in my personal life during those years. Hard to say. Because of this, although I tried my best to see and appreciate the good things, my efforts were at best only half-hearted. There was a part of me that became so melancholy in association with the place that I simply needed to be gone. Just as some ex-pats I know in Bremen can't bear to hear Germany or Germans criticized, because of the enormity of the commitment that they have made in giving up everything, moving thousands of miles away and then raising families which permanently tether them to the place, I couldn't really bear to listen to people who sang the city's praises and tried to convince me to stay. I had made up my mind; I wanted out.

Coming back for the first time, I was suddenly free to admire what I couldn't allow myself to before. Over two gray and drizzly weeks, I wandered the streets and gazed up into the windows of the great, magnificent houses, with their softly lit rooms and high, gracious molded ceilings. I was struck with the dignity and elegance of these houses and the lives I imagined within them. The somber quietness of the city, the smooth rushing of the ever-punctual streetcar and quiet elegance of black Dutch bicycles on the tidy red brick paths -- all of these I saw with a detached sense of wonder and appreciation. Dusk fell. Bicycle lights bobbed in the darkness. Children in cheerful tassled caps cavorted in the lowering gloom of the great city parks. Solitary figures in black strolled with their dogs on a carpet of damp leaves. Gleaming Mercedeses glided past, tires hissing on the damp streets. Bare windows offered glimpses into beautiful lives, full of color and light and elegance. Groups of dignified elderly people, impeccably dressed, out for a quiet walk, hands clasped contemplatively behind them, their conversation a low murmur. The gloriousness of the eerily blue-lit cathedral and city hall in the old center of town. Long gone from my sight, beholding them once again made me catch my breath. The cacophony of churchbells in the evening, probably my favorite thing about Europe. The scent of butter from the bakeries and mulled wine from the Christmas market; thousands of merry twinkling lights all around. The clean and orderly perfection of everything.

Did I feel regret for having given this up? Over those two weeks, I searched myself long and hard for the answer to this. From time to time I felt a pang of missing, a tiny tug of envy of those who still had this and could call it theirs. But in the end, remembering why I left and holding firmly to that remembrance, I believe I made the right choice after all, despite the fact that where I live there are no church bells, a lot fewer Mercedeses and large elegant houses, and the scent of glühwein is unlikely to delight one's nose on an evening stroll.

Flying back to Izmir, I realized that in fourteen days in Bremen, I had glimpsed the sun for a staggering total of five minutes. As the plane neared the city that was my new home, the rolling green-brown hills came into view, the sea sparkled in the sun, and the pine forests seemed to be waving hello to me. It was raining then, but, as it miraculously always seems to do here, the sun was shining at the same time. The light glancing through the clouds was spectacular, creating a fantastic shadow play on the waters of the bay and the mountains beyond. I went to bed tired and content, sleeping long and dreamlessly. This morning I awoke to brilliant sunlight streaming in my window. I threw on my clothes and practically galloped out of the house to be out in the incredible light. The air had a perfect mild crispness and a heady, intoxicating quality that I am at a loss to describe. It is like a hundred helium balloons grabbing hold of my soul and taking flight...I feel so very light, there in the brightness and the sea air. I can live without order and punctuality. It is good to be home.


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