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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Das Hund: Princess comes to Germany

Now, I will tell you about the dog. Das Hund, as they say in Germany. Her name is Princess, which is both appropriate and just plain wrong. Yes, she demands the pampering of royalty. But just try screaming "PRINCESS! STOP! NO! DON'T KILL IT!" when she's trying to rip the throat out of a rottweiler that is six times her weight. It just doesn't sound right.

It's not our fault, though. Princess, who is reputedly some mix of lahpso apso, pit bull and boxer, already had her name when we got her four years ago. Changing it to something appropriate (Rex? Butch? The Jackal?), might just confuse her even more. So I prefer to call her Das Hund.

When we decided to come to Germany, we might have also decided to do something reasonable to offset that decision, like leave all of our animals with good homes in the United States. That's what we did with Cleo, one of our cats, who is sweet and cute and fat and clumsy. That's what we did with Lucee, the elder cat, whom Wendy and I got back when we first got together. Lucee is a long-haired beauty who lures people in to stroke her. Then, in a stinging blur, she slices into the unsuspecting person's hand with surgical precision, leaving a series of parallel lines of scarlet along aforesaid person's flesh, which would be beautiful if it didn't hurt so much. We also gave Plato to a new home. Plato is a cockatiel with a rabid hunger for human affection. He flies around the house freely most of the time -- leave him in his cage for more than an hour and he utters a horrific squawking and violently attacks his wooden toy -- and seeks out the tops of heads or shoulders on which to perch. He is drawn to those who are not so comfortable with having birds crawl on them, or having same bird walk around the dinner table, eating off of everyone's plates. Once he finds a desirable human perch, he actually snuggles with the victim. No, "bird" and "snuggle" should not appear in the same sentence. And yet. The lovefest lasts until the victim decides to stand up, or take a bite of dinner, and then Plato attacks. He usually aims for the earlobe, or the back of the neck, using his needlelike claws to get a purchase on that part of the back that is impossible to reach, causing victim to jump up from chair, spill his pasta all over the table, and futilely try to stop his attacker. I'm Plato's favorite victim.

Even the cats could not intimidate Plato. Lucee was actually terrified of the thing. Cleo eyed him hungrily sometimes, but nothing ever came of it. Das Hund, er, Princess just wanted to play with the bird: It was her life's mission to just lick him just once or twice. In many a failed attempt to accomplish that goal, she chased after Plato as he flew around at human eye level, jumping several feet into the air to try to catch him, and then landing roughly, her unclipped claws gouging the soft wood floor. Our otherwise pristine and beautiful house is on the market, and we still haven't figured out exactly how to explain the floors to a potential buyer. Easier just to offer a few thousand off the price so they can get them redone, no questions, please.

So, yes, the animals were all a part of our family. And, yes, it was heartwrenching to leave them behind. But then, when you tear up the roots, move across oceans and time zones, without jobs or knowing the language, you have to forsake some things: Like the last shreds of your sanity, good jobs, loving friends and family, a paycheck, any sense of security or stability and possibly even your identity. So saying goodbye to the animals was just part of the package.

Except when it came to Princess, of course.

Wendy would simply not leave her behind. I suppose I could have stood up to her and asserted my masculine right to make family decisions. But Wendy, you have to understand, is German -- think Panzer tank and Blitzkrieg -- and also Jewish (I won't bore you with a list of those inherent character traits). It so happens that I'm also German (and it turns out I'm also Jewish, which I discovered when a cousin did a DNA test and found out that he had the Ashkenazi gene strongly up our shared matrilinial line). Yet something else in my confused genetic mix offset the Panzer/blitzkrieg gene and replaced it with something a bit more, well, Volkswagen beetle-like. Which is why Wendy, who can't speak even one word in German, gets along better in this country than I do, despite my four years of high school Deutsch, which have turned out to be utterly useless. When I heard the Panzer rev its engines, I wisely stepped out of the way.

And so it was, that when we flew off to Germany, Princess was left behind. For a day. You see, she's just a few pounds too heavy to fly in the plane's cabin as a carry-on (and besides, she'd be less likely than Osama bin, himself, to make it past security), and British Airways doesn't carry dogs as luggage during the summer so as not to end up with a cargo hold full of roast canine. So we had to fly her on a separate airline, which, in case you're wondering, cost more than it did to fly each of us human beings here. Add to that the hundreds of dollars we had to spend to get all the veterinary checks and certificates and microchip implanted and to treat post-flight trauma, not to mention the thousands of dollars we'll have to discount our house to make up for the mangled floor, and Princess is turning out to cost as much as your average, well, princess.

Which is probably part of the reason Wendy couldn't sleep for the forty-eight hour stretch between when we boarded the plane in Denver and when Princess landed the morning after we arrived. While the girls still slept, Wendy took the bus to the airport. She returned nearly four hours later with a bloody, shell-shocked dog, wearing a stench that can't really be described here, and looking a bit harried, to say the least. Princess had survived the flight, but only barely; her condition involved relentless defecation and blood. Enough said.

The vet was mercifully just a few blocks away, and he actually spoke English, and was quite friendly as he probed and poked Princess. That didn't ease the feeling that I get when I go to doctor's offices, though. One of the nice things about having kids is that you can pretend to be comforting them when, in fact, you're the one about to either pass out or puke or both on the veterinarian's exam room floor. I gripped my daughter, Elena, and rubbed her head; I don't think anyone, least of all the squirming-to-escape-my-grasp-Elena, was fooled. The vet's assistant eyed me worriedly, but didn't say anything thanks to the language barrier.

Ultimately, we all made it through. Princess just had a bad case of nerves, which is exactly the same thing that happens to me when I fly, only I can stanch some of the nasty symptoms by self-medicating (British Airways is pretty liberal with the free booze, even in coach!). We left the Vet -- Tierarzt in German -- and headed out into the soft light of late afternoon. People were out and ambling on the streets, drinking beer in sidewalk cafes. Many a German Hund loitered unleashed on the streets. Princess's tail perked up, though she was clearly still miffed at us for not putting her in First Class where she belongs. As we passed one big dog, a retriever of some sort, I felt that familiar tug of the leash, there was the old snarl, and my arm was nearly pulled from the socket. That's when I knew Princess would be just fine.

That's a good thing, because I've got other things to worry about: Wendy has been researching ways to bring birds to Germany.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Last impressions, first impressions.

My family and I moved yesterday. After spending my entire life in the American West, living the whole time in an area with a radius of about 200 miles in Colorado and New Mexico, I now live in Berlin, Germany.

We don't have jobs. We don't speak the language. We don't have a trust fund. We are here, in large part, because Wendy, my wife, and Elena and Lydia, our daughters, are German citizens, though this is the first time they've ever been to Germany. Long story (I'll fill you in later).

Two days ago now, in the space/time warp that occurs when one travels by jet over oceans and through time zones, we left our friends' house in Boulder and drove our overloaded car down the freeway to the Denver airport. My final impression of America was not necessarily of the airport, because an airport is not really of a country, but of the predominant view from the toll road which skirts Denver's suburban edge. There was the odd view of hundreds of houses, each almost identical to the one next to it, sprouting from the rolling, grassy hills as if they were geometrically-correct weeds. It was an appropriate last impression, I think.

Just a day earlier, we went to the Boulder Apple store, which is located in one of those newfangled outdoor mall sorts of things meant to resemble a downtown, I guess. My daughter, Elena, looked around and insisted we had been to this mall before: She vividly remembered the same Apple Store, the Anthropologie, the Jamba Juice, the AT&T store. We hadn't been there before, though we had visited an identical mall in Tucson a year-and-a-half earlier. I tried to explain to Elena that there were probably many other malls just like that one all over the country. But for her, the whole idea was maddening. She couldn't get over the notion that she had been to THAT mall once before. America.

Americans are masters at obliteration of place -- I don't mean the literal destruction of a place, although there's also that, but the voiding of any sense of difference between one place and another. We find comfort in the fact that we can feel like we're in Boulder even when we're in Tucson; we like to know that McDonalds in Paris is just the same as the one in Grand Junction. The houses with which we cover the grasslands of Colorado are no different than those we assemble on the edges of Reno, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Phoenix.

This happens all over, of course: I won't be surprised if I find the same mall here in Berlin. Yet the Americans certainly have perfected this art of erasure of place. After all, home delivery of the New York Times at our house in tiny Paonia, Colorado, was a piece of the same phenomenon, as is the tasty Nepalese restaurant in downtown Grand Junction. These are means of transcending the local. Also, efforts to preserve "place" can get all tied up with efforts to preserve culture, which in certain contexts can look a lot like xenophobia, chauvinism, racism, ultra-nationalism. Thank goodness the Germans didn't try to preserve their place by instituting a German-only law or something.

Flying into Germany, I noticed this: A huge flat green plain. It's carved up into fields, and villages. Interspersed here and there are thick, dark forests. The villages are all tidily contained, and don't sprawl out into surrounding fields. Giant wind turbines sit at many a town's edge. Unlike the Wyoming wind farms, these are more frequent, though they appear to each be of a smaller scale.

On the outskirts of Berlin, a huge forest. Lakes, rivers, canals. A barge hauling coal. A nuclear power plant.

Our apartment for the next five weeks has three rooms. High ceilings. White walls. A view onto a tree-lined street and an old building across the way with flower-filled balconies. It's not unlike neighborhoods in Paris. Except everyone is speaking German, which sounds nothing like French except that it, too, is quite foreign to my ears. But it's that very foreignness that ensures me I am in a place. A different place. Out of place. Now I must try to make this place mine. It is terrifying and exciting all at once.